The Moral Tradition of Virtue (II): the Practice of Philosophy

Last semester I had the opportunity to do an independent study with Nathan Jennings at the Seminary of the Southwest in the moral tradition of virtue in Christianity. I felt that this tradition was something almost completely eclipsed in my Reformed theological training at Westminster Theological Seminary. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage in this study, which follows. For the introduction to this essay see here, and for Part I see here.

We turn now to a consideration of the priority of practice – the practice of philosophy – in each of the three predecessor cultures. Once again, we see a unity among the differences: in all three cultures there is what Pierre Hadot calls a “philosophy before the [moral] philosophy.” Before an agent can know what is good or right (let alone succeed in doing it) she must do something other than – she must do something before – knowing. Knowledge of the good is conditioned by something prior.

The pre-classical society of the heroic is perhaps the most difficult case to establish, but things get clearer when we do two things. First, we must realize that, for a Homeric warrior to be morally successful, he must arrive back to his home victorious after battle. This is the primary standard for virtue in this society. Second, we must ask, “What moral presuppositions must obtain for such a victorious return? There are two moral prerequisites for success  which come into play here, and both are human practices: loyalty and accountability to his kin (otherwise he would not be motivated to return home), and appeasement of the Gods in prayer and sacrifice. The two practices – loyalty or accountability and obiessence before the divine – are for this society its “philosophy before philosophy.” They are the practices which precede and undergird the achievement of virtuous eudaimonia.

In fifth-century Athens the successful moral life also presupposes a disciplined praxis, well documented and described by Pierre Hadot. Hadot points out that, once, when Socrates was challenged
to quit his annoying irony and offer is own definition of justice, he replied: ”I never stop showing what I think is just. If not in words, I show it by my actions.” At the heart of what Socrates meant by knowledge, Hadot says, is a way of life, ”a love of the good.” That love comes from within the individual, and after it is awakened it must be renewed through self-questioning, self-examination, a personal commitment to a life of philosophy.

As Socrates and his contemporaries of fifth-century Athens would say, however, this love for the good must be nurtured and fostered. Hence the practice of paideia, what Hadot describes as “the desire to form or educate:”
This education was imparted by adults…. In the fifth century, as democracy began to flourish, the city-states showed … the concern for forming their future citizens by physical exercises, gymnastics, music, and mental exercises.

Turning now to medieval Christendom, we can see a similar commitment to a disciplined praxis which precedes the attainment of virtue. The supreme articulation and defense of this stance comes the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, where he mounts a defense of habituation or the formation of habits by human acts, as a cause of virtue. In the second article (“Whether any Virtue is Caused in us by Habituation from our Acts?”) to Question LXIII (“The Cause of the Virtues”) Thomas writes

… Dionysius says that good is more efficacious than evil. But vicious habits are caused by evil acts. Much more, therefore, can virtuous habits be caused by good acts.… We have spoken already in a general way about the generation of habits from acts. Speaking now in a special way of this matter in relation to virtue … it follows that human nature, directed to the good which is defined according to the rule of human reason, can be caused by human acts; for such acts proceed from reason, by whose power and rule the good in question in established.… Accordingly, human acts, in so far as they proceed from higher principles, can cause acquired human virtues.

For Part III of this series go here.


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