In this series, we have surveyed the general trends in the history of ethics, beginning with the lex talionis (an eye for an eye), moving on to three versions of the Golden Rule, and noting subtle shifts in these principles throughout the Renaissance. This week, we continue this survey by tracing these shifts further through the Enlightenment.
Edward Gibbon is commonly regarded as the world’s first modern historian. Gibbon begins our Enlightenment survey for the simple reason that, more than any other herein discussed, he looks to the past in order to shed light on human nature and the lessons to be gained by the experiences of man down through the centuries. But while Gibbon’s work clearly has some traditional value as a window into our shared cultural memory, the author’s own opinion often shines through in ways that reflect a shift in historical thought.
Consider, for example, his treatment of the virtuous pagans, particularly Marcus Aurelius. While most Christian thinkers treated the Emperor with either ambivalence or disdain, Gibbon’s account is practically glowing. He sees in him a virtue that was the “well-earned harvest of many a learned conference, of many a patient lecture, and many a midnight lucubration,” one, “which taught him to submit his body to his mind, his passions to his reason; to consider virtue as the only good, vice as the only evil, all things external as things indifferent.” And while at times the Emperor was too candid concerning his views, his life serves as “the noblest commentary on the precepts of Zeno [the founder of the Stoics]. He was severe to himself, indulgent to the imperfections of others, just and beneficent to all mankind,” and for this, he was respected by his enemies and revered by his people (Gibbon 1.3.2).
Such an account serves two clear purposes. The first is to redeem Aurelius’ character and to place him amidst the great civic leaders of ancient Rome, while the second is to establish him as a working model for the statesmen and citizens of Gibbon’s own day for rational, virtuous living apart from the teachings and traditions of the Christian faith. Thus, in Gibbon we see objective historiography united to early post-Christian commentary, no longer (with Aquinas) baptizing the virtuous pagans or even (with Dante) placing them in Purgatory, but instead exulting in the fact that they remain unwashed.
In Thomas Paine we turn back to a few decades prior to Gibbon, but find one who understood what the waning influence of classical Christian thought meant for the primacy of reason in faith, ethics and politics. Gibbon later reflected the change, but it is in Paine that it is most clearly spelled out. Paine is mostly known today for his pamphlet Common Sense, but in his own generation he was better remembered as the out-spoken author of The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason. Paine was one of the few thoroughgoing Enlightenment Americans of his day, and therefore one of the few to openly avow the rejection of Christianity in favor of a deistic religion based on human rationality and natural virtue (which not even Jefferson dared to do).
Though never denying the possibility of divine revelation, he limited its authority and applicability to the one to whom it was given and instead founded his faith upon the natural world (Age 1.2, 9). The “gift of reason,” therefore, remained in his mind “the choicest gift of God to man,” and the tool by which nature and experience were to be understood and marshaled for the interest of humanity at large (Age 1.8; see too Rights 2.3, 4). Paine’s natural religion of human rationality therefore directly inspired his political views. Thus in the regeneration, “the present generation will appear to the future as the Adam of a new world” (Rights 2.5). While Gibbon therefore critiqued the inherited wisdom of many Christian practices and historical judgments, Paine broke with Christianity completely while still intending to do so for the common good.
Though chronologically later than our next thinker (Nietzsche), Freud is perhaps the next logical stepping-stone in our survey. While Paine lamented the irrationality of Christianity, Freud tied this perceived irrationally to the Christian view of love, which combined love with holiness and led to cultural prohibitions on the exercise of human sexuality. In his view, “The demand for a uniform sexual life for all . . . ignores all the disparities, innate and acquired, in the sexual constitution of human beings, thereby depriving fairly large numbers of sexual enjoyment and becoming a source of grave injustice” (52). True love, then, is only possible when we recognize that our communal conscience (including our views on love and sex) is not rooted in human nature, but is instead, “the result of the primordial emotional ambivalence” of some archetypal sons, who murdered their father only to manifest “their love . . . in the remorse they felt for the deed” (Freud 88; see 89). The true paradigm of human love, then, is Oedipus—not Jesus, Moses or even Confucius.
Freud’s chief criticism of the Golden Rule is that it is irrational, unnatural, and therefore unacceptable. He asks, both hypothetically and rhetorically: “But if [one] is a stranger to me and cannot attract me by any merit of his own or by any importance he has acquired in my emotional life, it would be hard for me to love him. . . . What is the point of such a portentous precept if its fulfillment cannot commend itself as reasonable” (Freud 58)? Love, then, is unable to serve as the foundation of human society, because “human beings are not gentle creatures in need of love” but instead “count a powerful share of aggression among their instinctual endowments” (Freud 60). So while he finds sex to be vitally important to human nature and happiness, there is simply no place for love. Even where love appears to reign (he points especially to nominal ‘Christian’ applications of the Rule), it does so only because “others are left out as targets for aggression” (Freud 64). So while he admits that, “‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ is the strongest defence against human aggression,” it is irrational and impractical, leading to the very aggression it seeks to suppress (Freud 103).
Nietzsche’s criticism of the Rule is even stronger. In Beyond Good and Evil, he launches a sustained rhetorical attack on the commonly held notions of virtue and nobility. In Nietzsche’s mind, greatness is defined not by the truthfulness of one’s ideas or the strength of his character, but in the awareness of his own ego and his willingness to exploit others in order to assert it (see paragraphs 265, 259). Though most recognize that only a few people will ever be truly ‘great’, Nietzsche gives this fact ethical weight and therefore finds two separate laws for human behavior, which he dubs “master-morality and slave-morality” (260). He therefore sees “gradations of rank” as an essential prerequisite for true philosophy, and the goal of his own work as the development of “a new ruling caste for Europe” (219, 251). True greatness, however, will only be attained when these elites “gain courage to rebaptize our badness as the best in us” (Nietzsche 116). So five decades before Freud, Nietzsche not only sees in every man an aggression that is both antisocial and anti-moral—a tyrant in waiting—he encourages these Titans to take up arms and storm Olympus.
As others before him, Nietzsche also condemns the same culprit for such a dearth of true greatness: the union of classic philosophy with orthodox Christianity. While Nietzsche discusses many thinkers, artists and movements that many would regard as great, he sees in them only despair, “finally shattering and sinking down at the Christian cross,” because none “would have been sufficiently profound and sufficiently original for an anti-Christian philosophy” (Nietzsche 256). Nietzsche therefore laments the Christian union of faith, hope and love, which to him, “resembles in a terrible manner a continuous suicide of reason—a tough, long-lived, worm-like reason, which is not to be slain at once and with a single blow” (46). And not even sex escaped unscathed: “Christianity gave Eros poison to drink; he did not die of it, certainly, but degenerated to Vice” because, “It is inhuman to bless when one is being cursed” (168, 181; see also ch. 3; 67, 123, 216). To Nietzsche, then, sex and violence are completely human, and should be embraced, not mitigated by something so foolish as love.
Fyodor Dostoevsky is the only of our Enlightenment writers herein surveyed to challenge this assertion and to point out the inevitable consequences of this mode of thought. Even more important is the fact that Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment preceded Beyond Good and Evil by twenty years. The relationship between these two works is more than coincidental. Dostoevsky’s translator points out that “Nietzsche referred to Dostoevsky as ‘the only psychologist from whom I have something to learn: he belongs to the happiest windfalls of my life, happier even than the discovery of Stendhal’” (Dostoevsky, “Biography”). We only wish that Nietzsche had learned much more from Dostoevsky than he did. The psychological struggle within Crime and Punishment’s protagonist (Raskolnikov) is clear enough, but while Nietzsche appears to have seen Raskolnikov as a sort of nihilist hero, Dostoevsky’s epilogue to the work appears to point in another direction entirely. As the young man ponders the fate common to most criminals, he discusses it in terms of practicality, not acceptability. “Almost every criminal is subject to a failure of will and reasoning power by a childish and phenomenal heedlessness, at the very instant when prudence and caution are most essential” (Dostoevsky Part 1, Ch 6).
Thus this disease (a lack of Nietzsche’s “will to power”) consumes the criminal, both motivating the crime and destroying one’s rationality. His solution, then, is perfectly simple: “One has but to keep all one’s will-power and reason to deal with them, and they will all be overcome at the time when one has familiarised oneself with the minutest details of the business” (Dostoevsky 1.6). What Raskolnikov fails to see, however, is that the disease has already set in and his true motives already concealed; a fact that reveals itself only after the murder. “No, life is only given to me once and I shall never have it again; I don’t want to wait for ‘the happiness of all.’ I want to live myself, or else better not live at all. . . . I am putting my little brick into the happiness of all and so my heart is at peace. Ha-ha” (3.6)! And yet it is the selfless, sacrificial, Christian love of Sonia that brings Rodion back to life.
Alexandre Dumas sees much of the same problem as Dostoevsky but without the latter’s clarity and conviction. Dumas struggles with the logical conclusions of pragmatic and utilitarian thinking, but is unable to completely renounce its ability to effect change for the better (at least for the short-term). In The Count of Monte Cristo, we therefore encounter Edmond Dantes, an innocent sailor whose life turns bitter and vengeful when he is falsely accused out of envy for his social and professional prospects. When Dantes becomes the self-made Count, however, he uses all of his newly discovered means (rational and financial) to right the wrongs committed against him and his closest friends (a Nietzschean “free spirit” asserting his “master-morality”). Yet he is not only willing to murder, but also to induce others to do so, inflicting even greater harm than he himself had intended. So while he candidly discusses the subtle art of poisoning with Madame de Villefort (Ch 52), the reader cannot but help agree with her assessment: “‘Do you know, my dear count,’ she said, ‘that you are a very terrible reasoner, and that you look at the world through a somewhat distempered medium?’” As with Raskolnikov the discussion is all a “how to” rather than a “why not,” and as with Nietzsche, not even the conscience is enough to stop what is rationally concluded. “After every action requiring exertion, it is conscience that saves us, for it supplies us with a thousand good excuses, of which we alone are judges; and these reasons, howsoever excellent in producing sleep, would avail us but very little before a tribunal, when we were tried for our lives” (Dumas 52). And yet in the end, even the Count finds opportunity to repent.
During the Enlightenment a profound shift took place in the relationship of reason to morality. While the Western fountainheads of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian thought were either consistent with or based on revealed religion, these views became increasingly unlikely and then impossible to find among Enlightenment thinkers. Our brief survey of these writers has demonstrated this shift and its consequences. It began with the increasing importance of the virtuous pagans in the historical work of Gibbon. Paine took this one step further by denying all beliefs not verifiable through nature and reason. And Nietzsche rejected both religion and morality to establish a rational “master-morality.” Dostoevsky and Dumas, however, both saw potential problems in this scheme; the former pointing us back to orthodox Christianity and the latter struggling with the implications of utilitarian thought while accepting its effectiveness when placed within a certain moral framework. In the end, we come to see reason as an integral part of faith, morality and politics, but unable on its own to motivate humanity to virtue.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Constance Garnett. MobileReference. iBooks.
Dumas, Alexander. The Count of Monte Cristo. Project Gutenberg. iBooks.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. 1930. Trans. David McLintock. New York: Penguin, 2004. Kindle.
Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Ed. H.H. Milman. iBooks.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Beyond Good and Evil. 1886. Trans. Helen Zimmern. iBooks.
Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. The Writings of Thomas Paine, Complete. iBooks.
---. The Age of Reason. The Writings of Thomas Paine, Complete. iBooks.
---. The Rights of Man. The Writings of Thomas Paine, Complete. iBooks.
In our first two parts, we have surveyed the ancient ideals of the lex talionis (an eye for an eye) and the Golden Rule. The tension between these two principles form the core of the threefold medieval ideal of virtue mentioned previously – martial valor, civic virtue and moral excellence – and imply the unaffected meaning of the word as simply strength or ability (as is seen especially in Boethius). We turn now, then, to our Renaissance thinkers to determine the extent of their shift in usage. We begin with the French essayist Montaigne. Like many men of his age, Montaigne rarely uses the word virtue but often addresses issues of morality using other, equally ethical words. The seventh essay of his first book discusses the extent to which “our actions should be judged by our intentions,” as the title in our current edition reads. As the circumstances for his discussion, he chooses the common belief that “Death . . . releases us from all our obligations” (Montaigne I.7). Certainly we cannot be blamed for everything that happens after our death, but contemporary practice went much further than this by seeking to reverse promises made in life through the terms provided in wills and the circumstances of one’s death.
Montaigne condemns this breach of faith as a violation of our freedom to voluntarily enter into such compacts. “We cannot be held responsible beyond our strength and means, since the resulting events are quite outside of our control and, in fact, we have power over nothing except our will; which is the basis upon which all rules concerning man’s duty must of necessity be founded” (Montaigne I.7). By breaking faith with others, we violate the most fundamental principle of human relationships, trust, and try to pass responsibility for the breach onto others. In other words, it is wrong to make and break a promise that you never intended to keep. Good intentions (“the right motive,” “whatever is honorable”) must be followed up with right action and at the right time (at the very least, while one is living).
Yet, intention alone does not make an action right. Montaigne again cites as his example those who abuse the terms of wills, but in this case it is those who seek to redress grievances in life by passing responsibility for justice onto one’s heirs:
But it will not help them to fix a term in so urgent a matter; no attempt to redeem an injury at so small a cost and sacrifice to themselves will be of any avail. They owe something of what is really their own. And the more distressing and inconvenient the payment, the more just and meritorious is the restitution. Penitence must be felt as a weight. (Montaigne I.7)
Restitution after death is no restitution at all; it entails no sacrifice, no burden. Payment is certainly made, but at no cost to oneself and with possessions that now belong to another. The departed one has simply robbed Peter to pay Paul.
One final example from Montaigne will complete our survey of his work here. In his essay “On the Education of Children” he condemns those students who refrain from evil not out of a desire to do what is good, but out of a lack of ability to do wrong in the first place. He quotes Seneca’s Letters on the subject: “There is a great difference between a man who does not want to sin and one who does not know how to” (Montaigne I.26). The man who does not want to sin (that is, the virtuous man) does not sin because it is truly contrary to his character, trained as he is to take pleasure in what is good and to feel pain at the mere mention of evil. A man may be wicked, however, not because he does wicked things but because he is intent on doing so, he merely lacks the means to achieve his dire purpose. The former is truly virtuous, the latter merely a tyrant-in-waiting. Montaigne therefore upholds the traditional ideal of virtue, but emphasizes the voluntary nature of such a character without necessarily excluding its other connotations.
A similar view of virtue can be seen in Rabelais’ work Gargantua. The novel relates the upbringing of a young giant, first at the unskilled hands of the Scholastics, then under the more enlightened leadership of the humanists, and then recounts Gargantua’s noble behavior in service of king (who is his father) and country when his land is attacked by a neighboring power. At the end of this war, the prince seeks to reward a particularly courageous monk by allotting him the land and resources to build a new monastery. While humanists of the day viewed monasteries as out of touch (literally and figuratively) with the world around them and well-intentioned but seriously flawed examples of education, this new monastery was to be different, and consciously so. As opposed to the plethora of rules typical to most such enclaves, “There was but one clause in their Rule: Do what thou wilt, because people who are free, well bred, well taught and conversant with honourable company have by nature an instinct – a goad – which always pricks them towards virtuous acts and withdraws them from vice. They call it Honour” (Rabelais LVII).
Here we have all the trappings of classical virtue. Virtue is not simply a character trait; it is an instinct or “noble disposition” (compare Aristotle’s “fixed and permanent disposition”) that leads them to seek what is honorable. Through their education and companionship, these brothers would know both themselves and what they should be doing. It is because of this, and because virtue must be chosen, that no other rules are thought necessary for their governance. To such men, freedom is not license to do what one wants, but the liberty to do what one ought to do. Like Montaigne, then, Rabelais accepts the general definition of virtue while emphasizing its requisite freedom of choice.
We move now to Machiavelli, whose views on virtue in The Prince are at once notorious yet also rather misunderstood. Of the writers mentioned here, he uses virtue more than any other (save perhaps Aristotle) but his use of the word is also the most foreign to our usage. This may, however, have more to do with the relationship of Italian to Latin than to any real break in the continuity of Western thought on the subject. As mentioned previously, the form of our English word virtue comes primarily from the Latin virtus, but our English definition comes more from the Greek arête. When we read virtue, then, we tend to read it as moral excellence, rather than the unaffected Latin meaning of strength or ability implied above by Lady Philosophy. Yet for Machiavelli, both the form and function of the Italian virtú are descended from the Latin with little to no influence from the Greek (which he could not read). In translations of his work, then, we see virtú translated not only as virtue, but energy, strength, ability, talent, character, effort, skill, courage, custom, prowess, valor and manhood. Machiavelli therefore tends to use the unaffected meaning of the word as a “certain power of bringing something about” (Whitfield 197) without necessarily downplaying the moral connotation the word has in classical and medieval texts.
So what might be made of Machiavelli’s definition of virtue? Given our discussion of his Italian above, as well as his general content elsewhere, it would seem that he places the emphasis concerning virtue on the importance of one’s own actions in achieving the desired ends, regardless of fortune or social mores. Though both fortune and (at least the appearance of) morality remain important parts of a prince’s (and a state’s) overall success, the greatest factor is his own strength and valor. Fortune,
exerts all her power where there is no strength [virtú] prepared to oppose her, and turns to smashing things up wherever there are no dikes and restraining dams. And if you look at Italy, which is the seat of all these tremendous changes, where they all began, you will see that she is an open country without any dikes or ditches. If she were protected by forces of proper valor [virtú], as are Germany, Spain, and France, either this flood would never have wrought such destruction as it has, or it might not have occurred at all. (Machiavelli XXV)
Just as Montaigne quotes Seneca to elucidate one sense of virtue as moral action, Machiavelli views a reliance on fortune or providence as a weak substitute for bold action, whether it is strictly moral or otherwise. We can therefore conclude with Whitfield that, “Machiavelli is in reasonable company”:
firstly, that it never occurred to him that there was a theory of virtú, so that he is innocent of any systematic use of the word itself, as of any systematic exclusion of the idea of virtue; and secondly, that in following Dante and the rest who prefer energy to the lack of it, he still, with them, prefers a good use of it to a bad one. (Whitfield 205)
Our final Renaissance thinker is Cervantes, particularly in his most famous novel, Don Quixote. Though Cervantes wrote in the same era as our foregoing writers, his thoughts concerning virtue were somewhat different. His novel begins as a satire of medieval chivalric romances, entertaining for both the title character and the reader, but ends in sorrow, as our disenchanted hero retires while his squire picks up his dreams and sallies forth on his own adventures. By book’s end, the reader begins to see the work as much more than a satire. Yes, Quixote is deluded and perhaps even insane, but when he comes to and sees reality for what it is, we despair with him, hopeless in the onslaught of change he confronts. We are reminded of the nobility and purity of his motives.
In short, his wits being quite gone, he hit upon the strangest notion that every madman in the world hit upon, and that was that he fancied it was right and requisite, as well for the support of his own honor as for the service of his country, that he should make a knight-errant of himself, roaming the world over in full armor and on horseback in quest of adventures, and putting in practice himself all that he had read of as being the usual practices of knights-errant; righting every kind of wrong, and exposing himself to peril and danger from which, in the issue, he was to reap eternal renown and fame. (Cervantes 264)
Here again, we see many traits of the sort of traditional virtue discussed above. Though this is obviously Cervantes’ intent (hence his use of satire), the end of his tale makes us look back on the description with a more sympathetic eye. We no longer focus on Quixote’s lost wits, nor his strange notions, but his sense of honor, his desire to serve and gain renown, and his willingness to go into harm’s way to do so. Yet Quixote’s virtue is only as real as his perception of reality. He certainly knows what to do in a given situation and he chooses to do so because it is simply the right thing to do, but he also does not quite understand who he is, or what is actually transpiring around him. Cervantes therefore recognizes that virtue must now take on a different form in his age, but he also mourns the loss of certain qualities that will not only be more difficult to maintain, but perhaps even impossible.
From ancient philosophers and poets to inspired writers, the thinkers of the Middle Ages inherited a vibrant tradition on classical virtue and love and its importance for the individual and the community. Writers of the Renaissance inherited this same tradition, primarily through the influence of Thomism, and reflected this tradition in their own writings. Yet there is also a distinct shift in their treatment of the subject; it is implied by Montaigne but brought to the surface by Rabelais and taken to its logical conclusion by Machiavelli. Free will is central to each of the views of virtue discussed above, but for these Renaissance thinkers, this freedom is nearly absolute.
For Aristotle, ethics is a subset of politics, emphasizing individual responsibility to the community and making moral education of first importance to the city, supported by the force of law—themes stressed by the Bible as well. Montaigne, however, emphasizes the volitional aspect of virtue, which tends toward a more private form of morality. Rabelais takes this ethics of individualism and goes one step further, maintaining the outward trappings of virtue, while internalizing all of its rules. And Machiavelli consummates this view by replacing moral virtue with practical skill at the heart of the prince. Only Cervantes seems to realize that something good has been lost. Though he begins his tale mocking such medieval sensibilities, in the end he too has come to mourn the loss of nobility, honor and courage; in short, the loss of virtue. Writers of the Renaissance are certainly within linguistic limits in their shift in the usage of virtue, but in doing so have changed the emphasis from the medieval ideal to one of a more pragmatic and less moral meaning.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Ed. Robert M. Adams. New York: Norton, 1992. Print.
Montaigne, Michel de. Essays. Trans. J.M. Cohen. London: Penguin, 1993. Print.
Rabelais, Francois. Gargantua and Pantagruel. Trans. and ed. M.A. Screech. London: Penguin, 2006. 195-379. Print.
Saavedra, Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quixote. Trans. John Ormsby. The Bedford Anthology of World Literature, Book 3: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650. Ed. Paul Davis, et al. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. Print. 262-383.
Whitfield, J.H. “Big Words, Exact Meanings.” The Prince. Ed. Robert M. Adams. New York: Norton, 1992. Print. 193-206.
Last week we began our survey with the ancient and classical view of the lex talionis (an eye for an eye). It is this understanding of justice that haunts expressions of justice in the Ancient World. Simply put, the principle states that the form and severity of a punishment should approximate the form and severity of the crime itself. The Hebrew version of this precept has come down to us as follows: “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out . . . [and] . . . there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth . . . ” (Exodus 21:22-25 ESV, emphasis added). While the vast majority of legal cases could be handled on this basis with simple justice, the paradigm was often invoked in personal matters as well (especially in areas lacking lawfully-constituted authorities), and therefore lent itself to an ethic of vengeance that often proved fatal for the perpetrator, and at times the avenger (well demonstrated in The Oresteia). Various schools of thought, in various places therefore sought a more perfect guide to social behavior, often arriving at something akin to what we refer to as the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
One of the oldest forms of the Golden Rule comes down to us in the words of Moses: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:18). Though the emphasis in the lex talionis is on individual rights and complete reciprocity, the Golden Rule stresses the identification of another’s interest with one’s own, so that one’s sense of justice is qualified by the same right to justice as one’s neighbor. The Rule, however, is not merely sound thinking or prudent politics, it is rooted in the character of God himself: “I am the LORD.” Yahweh commands such behavior from Israel, because they have experienced such behavior at his hands. This connection between love and the identity, character and nature of God is later emphasized in the well-known Hebrew Shema (which in Hebrew means to hear). In his second of three final addresses to the children of Israel Moses exhorts them: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:4-6). Yahweh therefore connects the ideal of human character with the reality of divine perfection, and thus expresses the core of the covenant in terms of love, both for God (religion) and man (morality).
The Hebrew principle of love not only qualified and mitigated the effects of the lex talionis; it also engaged with other Eastern traditions, both Far and Near. The best-known statement of this principle in the Far East was elucidated and emphasized by Confucius. In his Analects we read, “Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no feelings of opposition to you, whether it is the affairs of a State . . . or . . . of a Family” (XII.2). Two things stand out immediately to Western readers, the first of which is the statement of the Rule in the negative (Do not do to others) rather than the better known affirmative. The second is the pragmatic rationale employed in the Rule’s favor: “there will be no feelings of opposition to you.” Taken together, the Confucian form of the Rule emphasizes non-action versus wrong action, for the sake of blamelessness and harmony. As in Judaism such is not peripheral to Confucian teachings, but instead forms their center, as we later read: “Is there any single saying that one can act upon all day and every day? The Master said, Perhaps the saying about consideration: ‘Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you’” (Analects XV.23). In fact, the Rule can even be said to stand for the entirety of Confucius’ thought: “Our Master’s Way is simply this: Loyalty, consideration” (IV.15). Self-interest is therefore subordinate to the common good, for the happiness of both the individual and the community.
Christianity combined the Aristotelian ideal of virtue with the Golden Rule, transforming both by the life of Christ himself. The New Testament essentially assumes the same meaning of arête (which occurs only four times) assigned by Aristotle. Twice the word is used in reference to God (1 Peter 2:9; 2 Peter 1:3), and twice in reference to the character of the individual believer. As with Aristotle, virtue begins with the mind, therefore one who is truly spiritual will fill his mind with thoughts consistent with the gospel. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any [virtue], if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). But there is also an active side of this virtue, a refining influence that seeks to excel through consistent application of current beliefs and the desire to know all the more. “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love” (2 Peter 1:5-7). Virtue is therefore an early and essential step on the Christian path to Christ-like love.
The Christian understanding of the Golden Rule combines the theological reflection of Judaism with the Confucius-like turn of the phrase, to establish the Rule in its most familiar form: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Christ incorporates the Hebrew ideal of love into Christianity by quoting the words of the Pentateuch above, and then adding, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). The real difference in Christian teaching on the subject is the power of Christ’s own example, especially his death on the cross. If the Son of God humbled himself, became flesh, was crucified as a wrongfully-condemned criminal, and is our example in all things, how else would the believer emulate Christ than as a living sacrifice (see Philippians 2:1-11; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 5:14; Romans 5:6-8)? So (as Aristotle knew well), Christians (at least, at their best) seek not only to do good things or to have a positive impact on the world, but also to be good—in fact, to live like Christ. They are commanded, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16), “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36), forgive “one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32), and love, “because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
These twin fountainheads of Western thought – Greek philosophy and Christian theology – merge into a single stream during the fourth and last century of the Roman period, as is seen especially in the writings of Boethius. Throughout the Middle Ages, this emphasis on charitable virtue maintained a strong hold on the minds of many European thinkers, due especially to the influence of Aristotle on the Scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas. In a discussion of the triumph of the righteous over the wicked, Lady Philosophy explains to Boethius that his role in life is one of endurance in faith.
Moreover, virtue (virtus) is so-called because it relies on its strength (vires) not to be overcome by adversity. Those of you who are in the course of attaining virtue have not travelled this road merely to wallow in luxury or to languish in pleasure. You join battle keenly in mind with every kind of fortune, to ensure that when it is harsh it does not overthrow you, or when it is pleasant it does not corrupt you. Maintain the middle ground with steadfast strength. Whatever falls short of it or goes beyond it holds happiness in contempt, and gains no reward for its toil. (Boethius IV.7.19-21)
Like Aristotle, then, Boethius takes a primarily etymological approach to defining virtue, but via its Latin form and in the overall context of God’s providential ordering of the universe. Rhetorically, however, the emphasis remains on the goodness of the action itself, rather than the eternal reward it brings. “Therefore just as goodness itself becomes the reward for good men, so wickedness itself is the punishment for bad men” (Boethius IV.3.12). This provides a sense of meaning to the suffering that we encounter on earth, and even sets suffering as a necessary forerunner to full virtue, reminding us once more of the martial origins of the word. Boethius also maintains Aristotle’s emphasis on the golden mean between two equally undesirable extremes, reminding us to neither fall short nor go beyond the dictates of the divine will.
Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1979. iBooks.
Boethius, Anicius Manlius Serverinus. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. P.G. Walsh. Oxford: Oxford, 2000. Print.
Confucius. The Analects. The Bedford Anthology of World Literature, Book 1: The Ancient World, Beginnings-100 C.E. Ed. Paul Davis, et al. Boston: Bedford, 2004. 1591-1601. Print.
The ESV Study Bible. Ed. Lane T. Dennis & Wayne Grudem. Wheaton: Crossway, 2008. Bible Study with Accordance.
Throughout history the relationship of reason to morality and its consequences has occupied more volumes than perhaps any other subject. This is in part because of the nature of the topics themselves; reason is at the heart of how we come to know things, and morality is the basis for how we view our rights and responsibilities toward one’s self and others. Prior to the Enlightenment, this discussion was largely conducted within two broad traditions (at least, within Western civilization): (1) Greco-Roman thought and (2) Judeo-Christian theology. In both traditions, the discussion of these subjects was expressed largely in terms of the logos (reason, Word), ethos (habit, custom, mores) and arête (excellence, virtue), emphasizing an ethics that balanced the roles of nature, habit and reason, while also tempering the demands of both the individual and the community. And yet the Enlightenment was not the first indication of change. The shift away from traditional ethics began during the Renaissance, as writers began emphasizing a more pragmatic approach to ethics, education and politics. In this series, we will briefly (and selectively!) survey the history of this shift from its classical roots, through the Renaissance and Enlightenment, before concluding with a brief look at their legacy today.
In the Ancient Greek mind, it was “a lawgiver’s prime duty to arrange for the education of the young,” so much, in fact, that any new constitution required a system of education as the basis for its very existence (Politics 1337a). The purpose, however, was not the development of a good worker or a good citizen, but rather a good person. For Aristotle, such a conclusion followed naturally from his view of human nature. In his Nicomachean Ethics, he refers to the ultimate good of humanity as happiness, and defines such as, “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue . . . in a complete lifetime” (NE 1098a). He formed, then, an integral connection between nature, activity and character, which he inferred from the very meaning of the word ethics: “Moral goodness [Gk. ethikos], on the other hand, is the result of habit [Gk. ethos], from which it has actually got its name, being a slight modification of the word ethos” (NE 1103a). Human nature therefore pointed to happiness as the end of human existence and to ethics as the true subject of education.
The etymology and uses of the words usually translated virtue (in Hebrew, Greek and Latin) suggest at least three meanings: martial valor, civic virtue and moral excellence. Aristotle tends to lean toward the last of these three meanings, without losing the sense of praiseworthy public service that is to be equally inferred from his works. “But virtuous acts are not done in a just or temperate way merely because they have a certain quality, but only if the agent also acts in a certain state, that is, (1) if he knows what he is doing, (2) if he chooses it, and chooses it for its own sake, and (3) if he does it from a fixed and permanent disposition” (NE 1105a, emphasis in original). Virtue therefore is character rooted in the knowledge of moral principles and expressed through conscious moral choice. Each of these parts is equally important, as is seen in his discussion on emotions. No emotion is inherently wrong or right, “But to have these feelings at the right times on the right grounds towards the right people for the right motive and in the right way is to feel them to an intermediate, that is to the best, degree; and this is the mark of virtue” (NE 1106b). No action should be judged, then, without a proper understanding of the context in which it was performed. Virtue without prudence is not virtue at all; “virtue ensures the correctness of the end at which we aim, and prudence that of the means towards it” (NE 1144a).
Though Aristotle could have pointed to historical examples of such virtue, he was more apt to recommend artistic representations, particularly in the form of drama. In his view, “A tragedy . . . is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself . . . with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions” (Poetics 1449b). For this reason, tragedians do not deal with unrealistic characters that are either wholly good or wholly bad, but instead prefer characters we meet daily in the street and in the mirror: an “intermediate kind of personage, a man not preeminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgement” (Poetics 1453a). So, through no seeming fault of his own, the tragic hero becomes entangled in a situation that can only lead to a messy end, made possible dramatically through reversal and recognition (see Poetics 1452a). Thus, as Aristotle points out in his definition, the audience is overcome with a sense of pity or fear (and at times, both) in order to refocus his moral compass.
A strong example of this sort of tragedy and its affective and ethical power is found in Aeschylus’ trilogy, The Oresteia. Though modern readers are separated from the poet and his work by over two thousand years, the attraction of the plays and the tragedy of Atreus’ sons remains strong, as pointed out by Fagles and Stanford in their Introduction, “It is as if crime were contagious – and perhaps it is – the dead pursued the living for revenge, and revenge could only breed more guilt” (Fagles & Stanford 22). For both the poet and the reader, then, fate and justice become the unifying themes of the plays, drawing together horror after horror, and forming one tremendous train of tragedies. One of the earliest examples of this in The Oresteia is Agamemnon’s deliberation of whether to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia: “Obey, obey, or a heavy doom will crush me! – Oh but doom will crush me once I rend my child, the glory of my house – a father’s hands are stained, blood of a young girl streaks the altar. Pain both ways and what is worse” (Agamemnon 190)? The choice is clearly tragic (either road leads to disaster), but the reader tends to agree with Clytemnestra that the only just response to the king’s choice is his own death at her hands: the mother of the slain, and the wife of the adulterer.
In The Libation Bearers, this bond between fate and justice grows even stronger. Electra and Orestes are convinced that natural justice now demands the death of their mother. Electra cries to the gods: “Both fists at once come down, come down – Zeus, crush their skulls! Kill! Kill! Now give the land some faith, I beg you, from these ancient wrongs bring forth our rights” (Libation 256). But in the Chorus’ response there is both hope and caution: “It is the law: when the blood of slaughter wets the ground it wants more blood. Slaughter cries for the Fury of those long dead to bring destruction on destruction churning in its wake” (Libation 256-7; see too 253). Legal rights, then, while spurring on the siblings to avenge their father’s death, work both ways: perpetuating the tragic chain of killings and bringing Orestes himself under the penalty of the curse. He comes to recognize this doom before he commits the act – “I dread to kill my mother!” (Libation 285) – but spurred on by the reminder of his oaths, he fulfills Apollo’s command. The pain is felt immediately: “So [Zeus] may come, my witness when the day of judgement comes, that I pursued this bloody death with justice, mother’s death . [. . .] I must escape this blood . . . it is my own” (Libation 292, 295). Fate and justice thus unite to bring down first Agamemnon, then Clytemnestra and finally Orestes.
Though by this point the reader has long pitied the family, it is the Furies who demonstrate the cruel consistency of this natural form of justice, thereby ensuring that their ideas of justice will never win the day. In their exchange with Athena they point out the antiquity of their powers and, therefore, the superiority of their cause: “Young god, you have ridden down the powers proud with age. . . . No, you’ll give me blood for blood, you must” (Eumenides 307, 378)! For them, the lex talionis is justice, plain and simple. Athena, however, recognizes that while this complies with the letter of the law, this is not the same as complete or divine justice: “And you are set on the name of justice rather than the act” (Eumenides 388). Apollo agrees, exhorting the goddess: “You know the rules, now turn them into justice” (Eumenides 397). So just as fate demands fulfillment, true justice demands consideration of mercy (Gk. eleos): only eleos will end the cycle of death.
By uniting his plays by these themes, and then overturning them, Aeschylus demonstrates to his audience (both then and now) the ethical intent of his work. First, there is a sense of purpose in this world, whether we call it fate, predestination, or telos. Fate, however, controls only human action, thus one of the chief issues throughout the trilogy is how each individual – Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Orestes – will be held responsible for their crimes, or whether, in fact, a crime in each case was committed. So while Agamemnon’s choice was, “predetermined supernaturally by the gods and genetically by Agamemnon’s nature,” he is “more than a victim of his fate, he is its agent with a vengeance” (Fagles & Stanford 25-26). Clytemnestra, too, by acting primarily for herself and her lover is condemned to death by Apollo. And in the end, it is only Orestes who finds purging and relief from the curse, having acted only at the prompting of the gods rather than a mere desire for revenge. And yet, he is acquitted by only one vote, that of Athena herself. Killing is still killing, but is not always murder. So ethical decisions, though made within an environment that is largely not chosen by the character, still demands a decision on their part, a decision for which they are responsible. But in the end, they and we both still hope for mercy.
Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1979. iBooks.
Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Hugh Treddenick. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.
---. Poetics. Trans. Ingram Bywater. The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle. New York: Random House, 1984. Print.
---. The Politics. Trans. Trevor J. Saunders. London: Penguin, 1992. Print.
Fagles, Robert & W.B. Stanford. Introduction. The Oresteia. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1979. iBooks.