The Moral Tradition of Virtue (Part I): Priority of the Social

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.

First, we recognize in each of these civilizations, a certain priority of the social. That is, the particular traits of personality or character which come to be prized in a given culture are rooted in the social arrangement of the time, along with the specific roles which accompany that arrangement. So, for example, in the heroic civilization described and narrated in the epic poems of Homer,  we find those qualities which make for an effective warrior are valued: loyalty (to kin), courage, and strength (principally physical strength). The warrior is the glue, you might say, which binds the society together, and so the virtues of the role of soldier  come to be seen (by Homer as well as his later ancient interpreters) as the highest virtues – at least in that particular society and culture – of the human moral life.

In fifth-century Athens, however, nothing could be more formative on the moral vision of Plato, Aristotle and the various schools (Stoicism, Skepticism) than the establishment of the democratic city state of Athens. Here a different politics, a different “prior social arrangement,” is going on other than that of Homer’s kinship-based, warrior society. Writes MacIntyre:

For Homeric man there could be no standard external to those embodied in the structures of his own community to which appeal could be made; for Athenian man, the matter is more complex. His understanding of the virtues does provide him with standards by which he can question the life of his own community and enquire whether this or that practice or policy is just. Nonetheless he also recognizes that he possesses his understanding of the virtues only because his membership in the community provides him with such understanding. The city is a guardian, a parent, a teacher, even though what is learnt from the city may lead to a questioning of this or that feature of its life.

No longer does the common good of the society depend primarily upon the warrior’s effective performance of his role. Here, in fifth century Athens, a different role is required with different standards, or excellencies, of performance. What matters now more than a society full of good warriors is a society full of good citizens, together with the different social role which accompanies the citizen.

This social situation gives rise the particular values of fifth century Athens. Hence young men were enrolled in various schools and academic formation societies in order to cultivate the virtues of   rhetoric (on the more pragmatic side) and justice (on the more theoretical side). Again, the four “cardinal virtues” of justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude (among others) were seen as foundational to the well being of the city state.
With the rise of medieval Christendom, however, we find a radically different social situation. Gone are the days of classical Athens and its counterpart, that cultural echo which is the city of Rome. In this new political reality, several factors come into play to create a different kind of, and a different conception of, social space. First, no longer is the polis, as classically conceived, becomes the primary locus of one’s committed loyalty. Rather, there is a new city in town, that city set on a hill, the politeuma  of the church, together with her sister city, the Christian kingdom. In these overlapping communities a different set of excellencies, a different set of aretai, is valued, encouraged, and cultivated.

Second, in medieval Christendom, for example the span of Thomas Aquinas’ life in thirteenth century France, the church and the civilization of which it is the center is being challenged and confronted by Islam. This new cultural situation gives rise to the need for mission, and in response St. Thomas writes his Summa Contra Gentiles. Here we see an example of how the values of the community are not just for the purposes of the community itself, but also for its expansion, its social mission to the world.

Third, the Europe just before St. Thomas’ time is a Europe now getting the first tastes of the literature of classical antiquity mediated through a kind of proto-Renaissance. As MacIntyre points out, this widespread confrontation served as a social crisis of a different kind, one which forced the society how to deal with challenges from a pagan (ie, not just Muslim) world view . Such a social challenge was utterly new, nothing of its kind having occurred either in classical Greece or in its predecessor culture.

This new social situation gives rise to the particular values of medieval Christendom, values needed for the survival and bene esse of the Christian church community. Faith, hope, charity are at the top of the list of virtues required for the collective eudaimonia of the Christian church, which is why Thomas borrowed them from I Corinthians 13 and with them adorned the more secular virtues of Aristotle and the classical tradition.

We see, then, that each of these three predecessor cultures to modernity share a common feature: their social setting conditions the human character traits which it values. But the point is actually deeper than this: far from exhibiting a denial or even a nervousness of the social or political rootedness of moral discourse, these three predecessor cultures are willing openly to admit and celebrate this. And we are now in a position to show why that is: for all three of these civilizations, morality and the practice of morality was intended to serve the common good, the good of the whole community, in each of its different conceptions / configurations, respectively. And because the common telos of man / humanity is public, it is unitary in its public nature: we see no bifurcation – not in the narrative world of Homer, not in the city state of Athens, not in medieval Christendom – of the public and the private. If the private exists at all (a doubtful protasis), then it exists only for the sake of the public, for the sake of the commonweal, for the sake of the common good of all its members.

For Part II of this series go here.

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[…] Tags: Uncategorized 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. […]

[…] 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 […]

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