The Moral Tradition of Virtue (III): Teleological Anthropology

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 five-part essay see here; for Part I see here; for Part II see here; for the conclusion see here.

Having now considered two overlapping features of these three historical stages of the virtue tradition which are the predecessor cultures to modernity (Heroic society, classical Athens, medieval Christendom), we turn now to the third: the ways in which these cultures conceived of man or humanity. The core idea here which overlaps onto all three civilizations is that humanity is a functional concept, about which MacIntyre writes:

… Moral arguments within the classical … tradition – whether in its Greek or its medieval versions – involve at least one central functional concept, the concept of man understood as having an essential nature and an essential and an essential purpose or function…. That is to say, “man” stands to “good man” as “watch” stands to “good watch” of “farmer” to “good farmer” in the classical tradition.

Nowhere does one see Thomas’ reliance upon Aristotle more clearly than in this anthropological commitment to man as a functional concept. Here the Angelic Doctor appears to be taking his cues directly from Aristotle (e.g., chapter 13 of Book I of the latter’s Nicomachean Ethics, where he states and then builds upon the analogy, alluded to above, that a good man is analogous to a good harp player).  Ralph McInerny argues, that on Aquinas’ view,

Beginning with the classical tradition,  Aristotle says in Nicomachean Ethics, that the relationship of “man” to “living well” is analogous to that of “harpist” to “playing the harp well.” (Nicomachean Ethics 1095a 16). This “living well” for Aristotle is man’s essental telos, and the word he uses to denote it is eudaimonia, variously translated as “happiness,” “success,” and “blessedness” (among other options).

What is interesting about this elusive sense of eudaimonia for Aristotle is that it is neither simply a means to some other end (although at various points in his corpus the Philosopher does suggest that meditative contemplation of the divine – that is the Unmoved Mover – is the supreme telos of the human person ) nor is it simply an end in itself. Reducible to neither of these, it is instead a virtue (perhaps, for Aristotle, the ultimate virtue) whose end is intrinsic to itself. That is, its ultimate end (what both D.S. Hutchinson and Stanley Haurwas  / Charles Pinches consider to be “living a well-lived life”)  is intrinsic to the practice, and even the attainment of, eudaimonia. What is clear, however, is that for Aristotle man does have a purpose, which he can fulfill or accomplish well or poorly. Just as a hammer can be said to be a good hammer or a bad hammer based on how well it fulfills its purpose or performs its function, so also a human being can be said to be a good or a bad person.

Turning now to the medieval period, nowhere does one see Thomas’ reliance upon Aristotle more clearly than in this anthropological commitment to man or humanity as a functional concept. Here the Angelic Doctor appears to be taking his cues directly from Aristotle (e.g., chapter 13 of Book I of his Nicomachean Ethics, where he states and then builds upon the analogy, alluded to above, that a good man in analogous to a good harp player). Ralph McInerny argues that, on Aquinas’ view,

… the human agent is precisely one who performs human actions with a view to the good. If we want to know whether something or someone is good, we ask what its function is…. I can say that an eye is good if it performs its function of seeing well. The organ is called good from the fact that its operations are good, are performed well. The “well” of an action, its adverbial mode, is the ground of talk of virtue. The “virtue” of any thing is to perform its natural function or proper task well.

We have looked at three “chapters” in the story of the development of this tradition of virtue: heroic antiquity, classical Greek civilization (rooted in fifth century Athens), and the medieval synthesis which finds it main protagonist in Thomas Aquinas.

But where does this leave us in the early 21st century? Following on the heals of modernity’s rejection (a la Descartes and Kant, two name two foundational examples) of these three common strands we have traced (the social rootedness of morality, the pre-theoretical practice of philosophy, and the anthropological presupposition of human as a functional concept with a concrete telos) it leaves us in the morally chaotic state of what Alisdair MacIntyre describes as “emotivism.”   For MacIntryre, only traditioned inquiry is capable of sustaining a coherent, rational discourse about the good life for humans, but this – tradition in general, as well as this tradition of virtue in particular – is precisely what modernity rejects.

In our emotivistic society, moral consensus is necessarily blocked because there is no agreement among the plurality of voices on what constitutes the common good. And MacIntyre is pessimistic to say the least. Given his insistence (along with modernity’s predecessor cultures, with which he is in intellectual and moral solidarity) upon the priority of the social, the best he can envision is a “new St. Benedict” who will create new communities of formation in the midst of our fragmented and fragmenting culture.

It seems clear from the preceding account of the classical virtue tradition that the most fundamental way in which the virtue-centered, Christian moral tradition differs from modern ethical theory is that, according to the former, there is more to the moral – or even the decisional – life of persons than merely the consciously rational dimension. It is this “more than,” this dimension of the human psyche beyond reason (or perhaps behind and under reason) which must be formed or shaped according to an informed rationality. For the most part ignored by modern ethical theory, this dimension of the human psyche will inevitably be shaped and conditioned by something: left to its own devices it will be imprisoned by the drives and desires of human appetite.

See here for the conclusion to this series.

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