Aristotle’s reasoning about virtue, with its emphasis on man’s relationship to his own soul and man’s ability to perfect his own virtue, opened a path to relativism and radical individualism…
All philosophical inquiry is united by two foundational elements. First the philosopher acknowledges that man’s existence is defined by his relationships. While philosophers may differ as to which of man’s relationships—to deity, to the community, to his family, or to his soul—is most important, the fact of the primacy of man’s interaction with the world seems never to be in dispute. Second, the motive of the philosopher’s inquiry is the search for the ideal life. One may conclude, then, that the ideal life is that mode of living that allows man to enjoy right relationship with his world. Such a life may be said to be virtuous, or marked by moral excellence. In order to define virtue, then, the philosopher first defines the most important of man’s relationships and then describes the behavior that optimizes that relationship.
To the extent that modern man can be criticized for failing to live virtuously, one must root that criticism in a failure to optimize the appropriate set of relationships. Modern philosophy could arguably be said to define virtue as that behavior that optimizes man’s relationship to himself, behavior that emphasizes individual autonomy. The emergence of the modern way of thinking about virtue is rooted in an ongoing evolution in man’s understanding about his most important relationships. Deliberation about this evolution reveals that the arc of historical thinking is moving from an emphasis on man’s relationship with the abstract and difficult to fathom (i.e. God) to an emphasis on man’s relationship to the concrete and, seemingly, knowable self.
The book of Proverbs defines as man’s most important relationship his relationship to God. Thus, virtue is defined in Proverbs as that mode of living that optimizes man’s relationship to God. Specifically, Proverbs defines virtue as adherence to five attitudes that man should adopt with respect to God: fear, desire, trust, honor, and contemplation. Of these, fear is foundational. Man must have a healthy respect for God’s position and for God’s power if he is to enjoy a proper relationship with the creator. Proverbs makes this relational requirement clear from its outset, noting in 1:1-7 that the external markers of a virtuous life (righteousness, justice, equity, prudence, discretion) are predicated upon “The fear of the Lord.”[*]
Respect for the Lord’s sovereignty ought to lead one to desire, and to pursue zealously, a relationship with him (Proverbs 2:3-4). As the relationship deepens, one learns to trust the Lord’s guidance (Proverbs 3:5-7) and to grant to the relationship with God a place of honor among man’s other interests (Proverbs 3:9). Indeed, man is to dwell upon the profundity of his relationship with God by contemplating all of his actions in light of the relationship. The man who would be virtuous is told to “ponder the path of your feet” (Proverbs 4:26). By contrast, the adulteress, who epitomizes a life that lacks virtue, “does not ponder the path of life; her ways wander and she does not know it” (Proverbs 5:5-6).
It is noteworthy that the biblical perspective is that a virtuous life, a life lived in right relationship with God, leads to a life lived in right relationship with others. The virtuous person is faithful to his spouse (Proverbs 5), is honest to his neighbors (Proverbs 6), is a joy to his parents (Proverbs 10), is trustworthy in his business dealings (Proverbs 11), and is zealous in defending against the forces of oppression (Proverbs 31). Thus, a life of virtue as demonstrated by a right relationship with God may be demonstrated by a right relationship with community.
One’s relationship to community is the most important of man’s relationships for Socrates as depicted in Plato’s Republic. Socrates defines virtue as that set of dispositions that places man in right relationship to the social order. The greatest of these dispositions is justice, which Socrates defines quite pithily as “the minding of one’s own business and not being a busybody.” In Book IV, Socrates identifies three classes of citizenry who will populate his newly-formed city: craftsmen, soldiers, and guardians. In order for the city to function well and to ensure the happiness of “as far as possible… the city as a whole,” it is necessary that each of these groups practice virtue by relating to one another in the appropriate way. Socrates sets as the standard for these relationships “that each one must practice one of the functions in the city, that one for which his nature made him naturally most fit.”
Just as the writer of Proverbs suggests that right relationship with God leads to right relationship with community, Socrates believes that right relationship with community is indicative of right relationship with self. Socrates calls his city “perfectly good,” by which he means that it is “wise, courageous, moderate, and just.” The capacity to exercise wisdom, courage, and moderation rests, in Socrates’ view, with the different classes of the city, respectively. A city is virtuous when it unites these capacities justly in that each class may pursue its capacity free of interference from the other classes. Socrates asserts that the soul of the individual is structured like a city. He says, “the same classes that are in the city are in the soul of each one severally.” A virtuous man, then, is like a virtuous city in that he maintains right relationship between and among the different parts of his soul. This man will maintain right relationship in the community because “one within whom each of the parts minds its own business will be just and mind his own business.”
Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, gave precedence to man’s internal relationship to self over relationship to deity or to community. It is Aristotle’s thinking that grounds much of modern belief about virtue. He maintained that the relationships one cultivates between the “things that are present in the soul” are the markings of virtue. Stipulating that man is given to passions and actions, Aristotle defined virtue as that characteristic that aims for the “middle term.” In other words, when a man feels or acts, but not too strongly or too weakly, he is maintaining a proper relationship between the extremes of his passions and is, thus, acting virtuously. He explained his concept of virtue in this way,
But to feel them when one ought and at the things one ought, in relation to those people whom one ought, for the sake of what and as one ought—all these constitute the middle as well as what is best, which is in fact what belongs to virtue. Similarly, in the cast of actions, too, there is an excess, a deficiency, and the middle term…. Virtue, therefore is a certain mean, since it, at any rate, is skillful in aiming at the middle term.
Aristotle asserted that the maintenance of the proper relationship between excess and deficiency in passions and in actions is a matter of choice. If virtue is, in fact, a choice, two implications immediately arise. First, choices are governed by reason. A man, then, thinks and reasons his way to virtue. Second, because man thinks his way to virtue, he can be educated or trained to be virtuous. From this conclusion arises Aristotle’s contention that virtuous actions may be established by disciplined habituation to a set of prudent behaviors.
From a modern perspective, Aristotle’s reasoning about virtue, with its emphasis on man’s relationship to his own soul and man’s ability to perfect his own virtue, opened a path to relativism and radical individualism. If, as one may conclude from Aristotle, virtue is a matter of making right one’s relationship to self, one may ignore relationships with deity, with family, and with community. Unfortunately, this mindset serves to weaken virtue in general. Where a proper relationship to deity or a proper relationship to the community may be shown to, as the Bible and as Plato illustrate, engender proper relationship with oneself, the reverse does not hold. In fact, the evidence of history suggests that a focus on proper relationship to self over proper relationship to spirit or to the state leads inexorably to a diminution of virtue.
The Bible teaches that man was created to be in relationship. The focal relationships, as established in Genesis, are those between man and God and between man and man. It is the nature of man’s fallen state that he emphasize relationship to self, though, above all others. Aristotle, Plato, and the writers of Proverbs all recognized, whether through intuition, reasoned discussion, or inspiration, that relationship is the linchpin to achieving virtue. In emphasizing relationship to self, a concept that would trouble both biblical authors and Plato, Aristotle placed the locus of relationship in the wrong place and, as a result, developed a definition of virtue that is ultimately untenable.
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[*] Unless otherwise note, all biblical references are from the English Standard Version.