Why Should Christians Read the Pagan Classics? – Reason 2: Virtue

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Reason #2: Virtue

In the last article, we learned that the Greeks established the first principles of architecture by studying nature. The proportions that are most pleasing to the human eye are those of nature’s greatest work of art—the human body.  We learned that God gave man reason and the desire to know, but he did not leave us without guides.  He gave us the Greeks, the world’s first systematic, abstract thinkers.  And so we study and honor the Greeks because they teach us how to use reason to explore and understand our world, a world that is material and immaterial.  The Greeks, you see, are most famous for their study of things immaterial, the world of metaphysics, the human soul, ethics, and virtue.

We hear a lot about values today but not much about virtue. The word seems quaint, even archaic. We hardly know how to define it. Aristotle tells us that virtue is excellence at being human. The virtues are the powers or moral habits that enable us to be what we ought to be, to achieve our telos (our end or purpose in life).

Today we have reduced all virtues to one—tolerance; being nice, being kind; Jesus loves me just like I am; unconditional love; I’m okay, you’re okay; cheap grace. Our standards are unbelievably low. We have absorbed the philosophy of materialism, and we care more about comfort and happiness than about excellence. We are not only soft, we are wimps. But we can learn something from the Greeks and Romans that our Christian forebears knew and practiced—virtue, what the Greeks called arête.

Socrates was the first to talk about virtue. While the pre-Socratics, like Thales and Heraclitus, were interested in the material world, and the Sophists were interested in winning arguments, Socrates was interested in virtue. And so we honor Socrates because he teaches us to think about first things first. Nearly all of Socrates’ dialogues are about virtue, what it is and how we get it. Socrates asks everyone he meets, “What is virtue? What is justice? What is piety?” He didn’t know, and he came to realize that nobody else knew either. Socrates was after definitions, after essences, after first principles.

In the Republic, Plato was the first to formulate the four cardinal virtues and to map the human soul. Why are there four cardinal virtues? The word “cardinal” comes from cardes, meaning “hinge.” The other virtues such as patience, humility, honesty, chastity, and loyalty hinge on the cardinal virtues.  If you don’t have these four, you can’t have the others. The four cardinal virtues are:

1. Temperance (moderation)
2. Prudence (wisdom)
3. Fortitude (courage)
4. Justice 

How did Plato come up with these four virtues? They follow logically from his analysis of the tripartite soul, a soul which has three parts: the appetite, the will, and the intellect. Temperance is the virtue of the appetites; fortitude is the virtue that strengthens the will (the heart); and prudence or wisdom is the virtue of the intellect. And the fourth virtue, justice, is the right ordering of the other three. Justice is the harmony of the soul, where the intellect guides the will, and the will guides the appetites. Justice begins with the individual soul. There is no justice in society unless individual men have justice. To have harmony in society, we must have harmony in individual souls.

Aristotle addresses the virtues in his Nichomachean Ethics, one of the most influential works of all time. He shows us how the virtues are means between two extremes. For instance, courage is the mean between being rash and foolhardy on the one hand and timid and fearful on the other. The name Nichomachean, by the way, comes from Aristotle’s son Nichomachus. Aristotle was teaching his son (and us) the principles of virtue in the individual and in the state, for Aristotle based his politics on his ethics. Politics based on ethics? Another quaint idea.

Aristotle based his ethics on the telos of man, his final cause. Aristotle described man as he is, but also man as he is meant to be. Man’s end is to fulfill his own nature, which leads to a true, lasting state of happiness.  But the Greeks had no solution for the Gordian knot of human virtue and our failure to achieve it. For man alone, of all God’s creatures, fails to achieve his telos, his purpose, the fourth of Aristotle’s Four Causes. Every other creature does what it is supposed to do, except man. What is wrong with us?

Plato said the cause of man’s failure is ignorance, for man would not knowingly do what is not good for him. And so Plato constructed his ideal Republic, where philosopher kings would receive the ideal education that would lead to true wisdom and virtue and thus guide the rest of us into doing what we ought to do.  In the abstract, Plato may have been right, for human reason is limited and we do not understand the full consequences of our actions. Evil is often choosing a lesser good over a greater one. But in reality, Plato’s answer, while it preserves the logic, seems very wrong. It fails the test of experience. For we all know that we fail every day to do what we know is best. It’s not a lack of knowledge, but a lack of virtue, the moral habits that enable us to do what we ought.

And here we see another value of Greek wisdom: It leads us to Christ. It is just where human reason has reached its limit that revelation gives us an answer that satisfies the mind and the heart. We fail to achieve virtue because we are fallen. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, as Scripture says. Greek reason failed to see the nature of sin and man’s need of salvation. The whole salvation story of Scripture explains how and why we are not what we are supposed to be, and what we can do about it.

Read the Apology of Socrates and you will be impressed with his incredibly high ideals. I admire Socrates for expressing so eloquently the true purpose of life and his unrelenting search for truth. But the Apology is also defeating because I could never live up to Socrates’ ideal of a soul that is truly worthy of immortality. No one ever lived up to this ideal but him. I think his Apology must have haunted the Greeks and all subsequent generations in the ancient world. Who could live up to such an ideal? The Stoics tried, and Marcus Aurelius comes to mind. But the Stoics seem so, well, stoic … and sad.

Rereading the Apology of Socrates has made me realize why the Gospel is called the Good News, and how good it was to the Greeks, as well as the Jews. The Jews couldn’t live up to the Law, and the Greeks couldn’t live up to Socrates. Scripture shows us our true human condition in a way the Greeks did not and could not—our relationship to God, that we are sinners, a fallen race in need of redemption, that sin separates us from God, that God loves us and offers us grace and salvation, a free gift! This is the good news that has been revealed in Scripture and the person of Jesus Christ, and nowhere else. Right where the Greeks went wrong, Scripture sets us right. The answer in Scripture accords with experience—it makes sense, and our hearts assent to its truth.

And this is why the Christians had joy even when facing the lions in the Coliseum, and the pagans—even the best of them—did not.


Reading Assignment:

  • Cicero: On Obligations (De Officiis) – Aristotle and Plato are not easy to read for us beginners so I suggest you begin your study of ancient philosophy with Cicero. Cicero made a study of Greek philosophy and wrote his works as introductions for his Roman colleagues so they could have the benefit of Greek wisdom. His work De Officiis (On Obligations, or On Duties), like Aristotle’s Ethics, was written for his son.
  • Peter Kreeft: Back to Virtue – written from a Christian perspective and will inspire you to value virtue!

Originally published in The Classical Teacher Late Summer 2012 edition.

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