Category Archives: Morality

Nicomachean Ethics – Books VI & VII

Book VI: Intellectual Virtues (most especially prudence)

 

In book VI, Aristotle takes up the question of the intellectual virtues, having already treated the virtues that pertain to the sensitive part of the soul directly (but as informed by reason). We now proposes to treat the intellectual virtues in a way similar to that of the previously discussed virtues: ‘consequently, we should divide right reason, an intellectual virtue that is rectitude of the reason, into its species, as in a similar fashion we have already divided the moral virtues.’ (Aquinas Commentary, 1109)

The intellectual virtues seem to be five: art, science, understanding, wisdom, and prudence. This enumeration is given, and Aristotle goes on to show that, although similar to other intellectual virtues, prudence cannot be reduced to one of the other four. The key distinction I take to be the difference between art, where the ‘product’ is external (the operation passes into external matter, such as the resulting sculpture or music) and action, where the act is intrinsic (the act may effect another. Where art is productive through reason, prudence is active through reason.

Aristotle makes it clear that prudence is not to be equated to science, which demonstrates from necessary things. Prudence, rather, takes its principles from necessary things, but applies them to contingent things, and in this way it might rightly be related to dialectics. There can be, then, a syllogism reasoning from principles to what must be done in the here and now, but the syllogism will include contingent matter, and therefore not be demonstrative. In simpler terms, prudence cannot be reduced to simply applying principles and deducing the right action in the same way principles can be used in geometry, for example.

‘Prudence then will be neither a science nor an art. It is not a science because the thing to be done is contingent; it is not an art because the genus of action and making differ.’ (EN 1165)

An important point is the simultaneous necessity of the moral virtues and the virtue of prudence. ‘A virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.’ (CCC 1803) As St. Thomas comments, ‘But moral virtue, for instance, justice, causes a craftsman rightly to use his art. On the other hand, in the use of prudence an additional moral virtue is not required, for it was said (1170, where the example of the mutual influence of temperance and prudence were discussed) that the principles of prudence are ends in regard to which rectitude of judgment is preserved by the moral virtues. Hence prudence, which is concerned with things good for man, necessarily has joined with it the moral virtues preserving its principles.’ (Commentary, 1172)

Book VII: Continence and Incontinence

There is not only vice and virtue, but there are two other ‘degrees’ of moral dispositions that must be understood. The rarest, and yet worst and best degrees possible, are what may be deemed the beast-like and the god-like. Men may be brutish (beast-like) when they are either through extreme corruption by culture or physical/mental handicap more like irrational animals than like human. Likewise, an extreme sort of virtue could be deemed god-like or divine, as perhaps some of the great saints may have seemed at times, or the martyrs (with the help of grace) acted at their final tribulation.

But much more common are those who are not virtuous, but yet are not vicious, but (metaphorically, at least) somewhere in between. The virtuous, remember, do the good with joy and are not even tempted to the evil, for the good is habitual to them. The vicious, on the contrary, conclude that, for example, every pleasure is right for them to partake (the intemperate).

But between these two are those who, with right reason, would avoid the excess in pleasure but, at times and because of the passion arising in them, fail to adhere to right reason. A key indication of this is their sorrow and repentance when the passion has cooled and they regret their actions (something the vicious do not do, i.e., feel remorse). Likewise, the continent person succeeds in not giving into the temptation to enjoy and excess pleasure, but does so with sorrow, for although he obeys right reason, he is not so habitually exposed as to take his joy in doing the right, but often feels pained to do so. Nevertheless, he is on the right path and may in time build the habit and do later with joy and ease what he only does now through battling with his passions.

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Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book V – Justice

After Aristotle has discussed the virtues that pertain to the passions as they relate to reason, he discusses the virtue of justice, which will be about relation between the agent and another. The question of justice to oneself is discussed at points throughout the Book, and is definitively answered in the last section.

 

I use here the division according to the lectures in the commentary by St. Thomas Aquinas:

 

Properly (885-1090)

 

Justice (885-1077)

 

Aquinas points out first that “concerning justice [Aristotle] proposes for consideration three differences existing between justice an the previously mentioned virtues”…the previous “are concerned with the passions…we took the mean and not the thing…Each of the afore-mentioned virtues is a mean between two vices, but justice is not a mean between two vices.”

 

Will, and not the senses more directly, is the proper subject of justice; justice is defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.” So justice is a mean in one way, in that it gives what is do, and not more or less (when we are speaking of strict justice). But true justice is found first in the will, and only then in the object, to which the will is conforming and striving. Therefore, an event can occur that is objectively unjust, but it may not be an unjust act on the part of the agent, who wills to be just, but mistakenly, and thus commits an objective unjustice.

 

Legal justice (885-926)

 

He says first that justice itself is a certain perfect virtue not in terms of itself but in relation to another. Legal justice is justice as relates to the community at large, that is, primarily, the polis or state.

 

Partic. Justice

Absolutely (927-999)

 

Aristotle then discusses distributive justice and commutative justice. The first of these deals with what the state or community owes the individual, and this in a proportionate manner, meaning it is based on what the individual contributes to society and perhaps to his rank or position. So a general may deserve more honor and a bigger house from the state. However, when it comes to communitive justice, this is not necessarily so. The general and the peasant will generally pay the same price for a new set of Reeboks.  Because of this more strict equality of communitive justice, economic issues get discussed by Aristotle, to include the coming into being and use of money as a standard of trade.

 

Relatively (1000-1077)

 

We are reminded, frequently throughout Aristotle’s account of the virtues, but seemingly more often during his treatment of justice, that it is reason and not man that should truly govern man. In legal justice especially, but in all three aspects of justice, man is the reasoner, but it is reason that is law, and not man arbitrarily.

 

 

Epikeia (1078-1090)

 

Its object (1078-1088)

 

St. Thomas clearly states the overall topic of this part of the treatise: ‘In Greek epiiches is understood as what is reasonable or becoming; it is derived from epi meaning “above” and ikos meaning “obedient,” because by equity a person is obedient in a higher way when he follows the intention of the legislator where the words of the law differ from it.’

 

Today, we often discuss keeping the intention of the law versus the letter, and often find that there arise cases where keeping the letter of the law is in direct opposition to the intention of the creator of the law in its original and universal conception.

 

Its subject (1089) and habit (1090)

 

The virtuous man is not a zealous enforcer of the law for vengeance’ sake, but rather, to make the offender better and safeguard the community. The habit, then, of equity is not a virtue distinct from justice, but a species thereof.

 

Metaphorically (1091-1108)

 

Aristotle lastly revisits a topic he has touched upon several times throughout the treatise on justice, once again affirming that, despite the arguments that appear to the contrary, a man cannot really do injustice to himself, and this because to do injustice requires it be against one’s will, and one so to commit injustice against oneself implies a contradiction.

 

Personal Reflection

 

Justice and Equity

 

The difference in justice and equity is certainly a debated point in Christian theology, and no more is it a more pressing and divisive topic than when concerning election. The main point seems to be this: that God, in justice, could let us all remain unsaved (not justified) and yet, He, by mercy, wills to save some. This salvation of only some is, then, certainly just, but most certainly not equitable.

 

St. Thomas states in his commentary that “The reason why not everything can be determined according to the law is that the law cannot possibly be framed to meet some rare particular incidents, since all cases of this kind cannot be foreseen by man. On account of this, after the enactment of the law, a decision of the judges is required by which the universal statement of the law is applied to a particular matter. Because the material of human acts is indeterminate, it follows that their norm, which is the law, must be indeterminate in the sense that it is not absolutely rigid.”

 

While I certainly do not have the space here to propose how this may give insight into the justice/mercy question and the will of God “that all be saved” is also in conformity with the fact that “few enter” and are saved (combined with God as universal first mover but creatures as true causes), I think that the above comment can indeed be a point of reflection on the mystery of God’s justice and election.

Summary of Nicomachean Ethics Book II

In Book II, Aristotle discusses virtue in general, to include its essence, and that it is a mean between extremes, which will be vices of excess or defect. He will then examine the major virtues individually, although not thoroughly (that will come later) and completes Book II by asking how one attains these virtues.

 

He begins by discussing whether it is an action, a nature, or a habit. Looking at the first two options, it is shown that it cannot be the case that virtue is an action, nor is in our nature (although it is not contrary to nature). It must be, therefore, a habit. It is not contrary to nature, however, in that our natures have virtue in potency, but it is through [repeated] actions that these habits are actualized. Virtues are habits that dispose toward certain action. Virtues, then, are principles of action.

 

Now, man becomes virtuous by repeated acts, and these actions occur more easily by the possession of the virtues. It takes work, then, to form them, but when formed, they make similar work easier. This can be compared to the athlete, who must run to become a good runner, and yet, once a good runner, his running comes easier. It is reciprocal.

 

Operations producing the habit of virtue take place according to right reason, and so the virtues cannot be passions, which of themselves are morally neutral. In this way, Aristotle differs strongly from the Stoics, for example.  In commenting on Aristotle’s work, St. Thomas says that “He says first that to establish the definition of virtue we have to take for granted three principles in ‘the soul: passions, powers, and habits. Virtue must come under one of these, for he just said that virtue is a principle of certain operations of the soul.” The passions are not blameworthy or praiseworthy as such, but as we use them, in accord with right reason. Therefore, “A man is not praised or blamed because he is simply afraid or angry but only because he is afraid or angry in a particular way, that is, according to reason or contrary to reason. The same must be understood of the other passions of the soul. The passions of the soul, therefore, are neither virtues nor vices.”

 

Pleasure or sorrow is said to be a sign of virtue already produced. A man who does not steal, for example, but is saddened by the ‘loss’ of money or goods, does in fact do the right thing, according to reason, but he does not do it in the way a virtuous man would, for a virtuous man would not be saddened in the act, but rather joyous in having acted rightly.

 

We must consider not only that virtue is a habit but also what kind of habit, says Aristotle. The virtues will render good both the man and his work. Accordingly, Aquinas comments “The reason is that the virtue or power of a thing is judged by the best it can do… Now the utmost or best to which the power of anything extends is called its excellent performance. It belongs to the virtue of every thing, therefore, to render an excellent performance. Because a perfect operation proceeds only from a perfect agent, it follows that everything is both good and operates well according to its own virtue.”

 

The chief characteristic of virtue is the mean, and this mean is not simply the arithmetical average between the vices of excess and defect, but a mean according to the one possessing the virtue. In other words, there is no simple universal formula for determining the ‘exact’ measure of fortitude as opposed to cowardice or rashness, but rather, it must be in accord with reason, with the person so acting, and the circumstances of his action.

 

Now, virtue can be an extreme in the measure of goodness, and this is not contrary to virtue. This is easy to see in the intellectual virtues, for example, and in the theological virtues, where there is no ‘mean’ of faith, hope, or love. But the cardinal virtues are an extreme towards the recognition of the good and in being in accord with right reason. This is not contrary to their being a mean between excess and defect . Aquinas states it clearly: “precisely as it possesses the character of the best and as it acts or guides well in a determined genus it is an extreme. For an understanding of this, we must consider that the entire goodness of moral virtue depends on the rectitude of the reason. Hence good is in harmony with moral virtue according as it follows right reason, but evil has a reference to each vice, viz.: excess and defect inasmuch as both depart from right reason. Therefore, according to the nature of goodness and evil both vices are in one extreme that is, in evil which is thus shown to be a deviation from reason. Virtue however is in the other extreme, that is, in good which is characterized as a following of reason.”

 

As mentioned at the beginning of this summary, a discussion of individual virtues and vices follows. But as it is brief and will be expounded upon in detail in later books of the EN, we will forego any analysis here. Also, the mean and extreme in virtues relating to honors is discussed, and again, these will be discussed more thoroughly later.

 

Aristotle tells us of the opposition among the virtues and vices, and that this opposition of vices among themselves is greater than of the vices to the virtues. He also states that, generally, one extreme is more opposed to virtue than the other. For example, men are more inclined to excess in temperance than to defect, and likewise, we recognize cowardice as further than rashness from courage.

 

While all the above is certainly important, Aristotle never ceases to remind the reader of the practical nature of ethics. Therefore, the manner of acquiring virtues must be learned, but moreso, followed. The three  primary ways of acquiring virtues, according to the philosopher, are to avoid extremes, consider one’s natural inclinations, and beware of pleasures.

 

Reflection:

 

A virtuous man, a magnanimous man, cannot necessarily be known by his actions alone, for may have little virtue and yet seem to accomplish something great, while a more noble man does not accomplish a comparable outward task. While we fully seek to do great things for the glory of God, we do not know that He has called us to do great outward things.

We may be judged by men on what we accomplish in their eyes, and we should do everything we can with the intention of objective success in this world, declaring our successes to the glory of God and accepting full culpability for our failures.  But if outward success always followed from a right interior disposition, we may be tempted to pride.

All the virtues are interior dispositions that are preparations for doing the good, whether these good things come to fruition or not.  Not understanding this can lead to two related dangers.  We may, despairing of ever accomplishing great things, not seek to do the things daily that would possibly lead to the “great deed.” Likewise, if we fail to accomplish a great task that seems to have been set before us, we may tend to despair, having worked so long for, what seems to us, nothing. Again, God asks us to be faithful, not necessarily successful.

A soldier will train day after day, year after year, and may or may not ever enter into battle.  If he trains and never fights, he should be glad for the peace that has allowed it.  But if he grows negligent in his training, the battle that is suddenly upon him may prove his end.  Years of arduous training are suddenly seen to be worth it in the mere minutes of close-quarters combat. Likewise, we must train ourselves in the virtues daily, not knowing in what ways we may or may not be tested.

To quote my earthly father, “Life is too long to do nothing and too short to do anything great.  But great things are done in a short time by those who have been long in preparing.” We therefore strive at each moment to create in ourselves the dispositions, the powers, to meet our calling.

Summary of Nicomachean Ethics Book III

Part I: Voluntary Action

Spontaneous and Involuntary

Compulsory action is said to be that that originates outside of the agent. A rock, for instance, never acts from an internal principle to move away from the center of gravity of the earth, but must be thrown, for example, to move upward. This principle of movement obviously comes from outside the agent. Such action is said to be involuntary. Action that begins from within the agent, however, is in the power of that agent (at least to some extent) and, in an intellectual subject, is said to be voluntary. It is voluntary action which is our subject in ethics.

Voluntary Action and Merit

Returning to the example of the rock, we do not blame a rock when it hits us in the head, but rather the person who threw the rock at us. This is in keeping with the principle of voluntary action, and it is voluntary action that deserves praise or condemnation. Even when, say, a snake bites us, we may attribute (in a way) voluntary action to the creature, and be upset at the snake for biting us, we still do not see the snake as having acted in an immoral manner, but rather recognize its action as in keeping with its [determined] nature. Not so, the human that bites us, for being an intellectual creature, the latter has true voluntarity to its action.

Involuntary and Ignorance

Of course, ignorance can change the voluntary character of an action. If the same human bit my finger, but thought he had grabbed his chicken fingers, then I may be upset (and my finger may throb), but I also recognize that his action was not morally evil in the way I would claim if he bit my finger on purpose. However, if the same person often bit peoples’ fingers, repeatedly making a similar mistake, we could certainly say that he has a moral duty to check what he is eating before biting into it. His ignorance may not be completely without personal fault. Not all ignorance cancels out moral responsibility, but only ignorance that cannot be (at east reasonably) helped.

Definition of Voluntary

So the definition of the voluntary seems to be ‘that which the agent himself originates in such a way that the agent knows the individual circumstances that concur with the action.’

Choice

Choice and voluntary are not identical, but choice seems to be a species of the voluntary. Choice means that the decision between alternative options (and simply ‘not to act’ is a viable option) are known and considered. Choice always has to do with the means toward and end, and we choose by pondering and then deciding to achieve our intended end in one way or another.

Counsel

We take council so as to make sure our choice aligns properly with it being voluntary, for as we said, we want to know the individual circumstances that concur with the action, and to know the truly best (that is, ‘good,’ in keeping with our true nature and true end) option to take. We take counsel especially in the practical arts, and in ethics most specifically, because there are no simple formulas, but as ethics is much like an art, many options in almost infinite different circumstances will exist in which we must apply the objective principles of moral science.

Object of Willing

The object of willing is the good. But, in each circumstance, and for the particular individual willing some action, the apparent good is the object of willing. It is necessary, for this reason, to seek counsel (whether from others or at least in personal reflection) so that the true good and the apparent good rightly align. This is what Aristotle says that ‘the virtuous person correctly passes judgment on each individual thing and in each case what appears to him is truly good.’

Aristotle wraps up the first half of this book by making clear that virtue and vice are within our power. He then goes on to refute other errors, such as the thought that no one is voluntarily evil (which overly emphasizes the intellect and disregards the will in moral education) and that we have no faculty of the cognoscitive good (but the true good and apparent good for each man does not mean that the true good is subjective).

Part II: Moral Virtues

Fortitude

‘A man is called brave principally because he is not afraid of death for a good cause nor of all emergencies that involve death.’

False Fortitude

True fortitude does not involve the actions of the daredevil or the uncontrolled actions that stem from wrath, because fortitude, like all virtues, must be in keeping the truly good and undertaken voluntarily and with right reason.

Temperance

Temperance is a mean dealing with pleasures, and this virtue pertains primarily to the sense of taste and touch, inasmuch as these same senses are those that least set us apart from all other animals (remember, our concern is ultimately that we are intellectual creatures, and our end as man is in keeping with this). ‘Temperance and intemperance then have to do with such pleasures as the other animals have in common with man. Hence gratifications of touch and taste seem to be servile and brutish.’

Part III: Personal Reflection

I spoke the least on fortitude above, but want to reflect on it briefly here. When we read Josef Pieper on fortitude, he emphasizes the fact that this virtue really does pertain primarily to a willingness to die in battle, and he also emphasizes the patient suffering of the martyr as the way we most clearly see (graced) fortitude.

I think of fortitude in its relation to the Christian life, and its special relation to the sacrament of Confirmation. Confirmation makes us soldiers of God.  It has been variously designated a making fast or sure, a perfecting or completing, as it expresses its relation to baptism. It is, after baptism, the next Sacrament of Initiation.  But what does it do?

“Now it has been said above (1; 65, 1) that, just as Baptism is a spiritual regeneration unto Christian life, so also is Confirmation a certain spiritual growth bringing man to perfect spiritual age. But it is evident, from a comparison with the life of the body, that the action which is proper to man immediately after birth, is different from the action which is proper to him when he has come to perfect age. And therefore by the sacrament of Confirmation man is given a spiritual power in respect of sacred actions other than those in respect of which he receives power in Baptism. For in Baptism he receives power to do those things which pertain to his own salvation, forasmuch as he lives to himself: whereas in Confirmation he receives power to do those things which pertain to the spiritual combat with the enemies of the Faith.” (Aquinas, ST III, Q.72)

Nicomachean Ethics I: A Reflection

The first order of business for Aristotle is to mark out the subject matter, how the subject is treated (the science) and the method of argument. Herein lie the content of the first three chapters. Aristotle is always one to start from principles, and here, if we are to determine what a person should do, that is, what actions would make a man a good man, we must determine what the ‘function’ of a man is; what is it that man ‘is for?’

After all, we could hardly give an answer as to whether or not a clock was a good clock unless we knew what it is a clock is for; what is it suppose to do. Once we do know this, however, we have something to measure it against, and to decide if it is good or faulty.

To take this analogy further, we may ask what the spring in a watch is for, and may determine that it is there to turn a cog. Well, what is the cog for? To turn a hand, perhaps. So the spring is a means, but not a final end. The spring is there, however, so that ultimately, the watch keeps and displays time, and displays it correctly. This is the final end of the watch, and what the means are there to help accomplish.

So Aristotle shows us that a man may do several things for the sake of other things, but that ultimately, there is some end at which all other things aim. This final end will be unique to man, or at least will be set apart inasmuch as man differs from other things.

Likewise, a computer may keep time (mine certainly has a clock on display) but the computer does more than this, and has higher functions. So while it may keep time as does a watch, its end will not be the same as a watch, for it goes beyond the watch in its ultimate function.

Likewise, man shares many traits with other beings; a man is like a rock, in that he has matter and form, and he is like a tree, in that he has nutritive and regenerative capabilities, and he is likewise like a beast, in that he has self movement and sensation (sight, hearing, and the like). But Aristotle will ask, ‘what sets man apart?’ and the answer is ‘reason.’ Man is capable of rational thought, and seeks to know things as they are.

Man’s good then will be something to do with his reasoning, but will not ignore his material nature, his nature he shares with other beings.

In Chapter II, Aristotle points out that the goal of both the individual and the political community is the same, that is, the perfection of the human being.  Just as Aristotle seems to differ with modern philosophers by assigning an objective nature to man, he differ here with modern political thought, for certainly we don’t often hear that the political community exists primarily for the good of the citizens’ virtuous activity.

In short, for Aristotle, the subject matter of political science is the doing of noble and just actions.

Now, this is a goal which allows of a great deal of fluctuation and variability. The philosopher therefore lays down the truth, for example, that the virtues are absolutely necessary for man to attain his highest good. They hold for all people and everywhere and at all times. However, we will also see that ethics is primarily a practical rather than speculative science. Because of this, the principles are objective and true, but their application will vary not only by situation, but even by person. For example, what would be brave in one situation may be cowardly in another, and what would be brave for a specific person (say, a well trained soldier) may be rash for another person (someone with no experience in combat trying to take on the same challenger).

Returning to what it is that man strives for, we take into account that he is rational. But we can ask the simple question, ‘why does man do the things he does?’ Ultimately, the end that seems to be only an end and not a means toward anything else is this: happiness. Man seeks to be happy, and it simply makes no sense to ask to what purpose he wishes to be happy. He may think he desires money, or honor, or sex, or food, or drugs, or somehow, even pain, but in the end, he does what he does and desires the things he desires so that he may be happy. The shocking thing to so many that have never read Aristotle or any of the ancient and medieval thinkers on ethics is this: it was not primarily duty or law that was the principle of their moral thought, but attaining true happiness.

Aristotle, in Book I of his Ethics, concludes that happiness is what we seek, and virtuous activity is how we attain this end.

Our contemporary culture would tell us that the key to happiness is freedom, but the modern understanding of freedom is extremely flawed. True freedom is not the “right” to simply follow the impulses of the will, but a true freedom is what is known as a “freedom for excellence.”

Servias Pinckaers uses the wonderful example of a piano player as a means to show what virtue can do for someone who seeks true freedom towards a specific end:

In the beginning the child, despite the desire to learn will often feel that the lessons and exercises are a constraint imposed on freedom and the attractions of the moment. There are times when practice has to be insisted upon…Of course, anyone is free to bang out notes haphazardly on the piano, as the fancy strikes him. But this is a rudimentary, savage sort of freedom… On the other hand, the person who really possesses the art of playing the piano has acquired a new freedom. (The Sources of Christian Ethics, p.355)

We see, then, that to truly be free to attain the very ends we were both made for and should aspire to attain to, that our freedom involves both a responsibility and a joy in becoming what we are meant to be. It should come as no surprise that, at the same time a new teaching on freedom overtook society (a freedom which emphasizes indifference rather than excellence) the virtues fell out of common knowledge and pursuit.

If we are to once again become a culture that seeks excellence, we must be a culture that strives after virtue. We are meant to be something, and we are meant to have a part in becoming that something. We are truly both what we are (as created) and what we make of ourselves: a sort of theistic existentialism. Made in the image of God, we are meant to be free, but free to be what He made us to be.

Noble Character and Virtuous Habits

“Noble and great characters are all made so by the constant repetition of virtuous actions…Those who really succeed in life can find no other way but the way of self-discipline and self-control, which is also the way to the greatest happiness possible on earth.” (Garesche, Ch. 3)

 

“Human virtues acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts are purified and elevated by divine grace. With God’s help, they forge character and give facility in the practice of the good. The virtuous man is happy to practice them. (CCC 1810)

 

To build a character that is truly noble and Catholic, we must pray, seeking God’s grace, and faithfully receive the Sacraments, by which God gives us these graces.

 

Jesus says: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” The fruit referred to in this saying is the holiness of a life made fruitful by union with Christ. When we believe in Jesus Christ, partake of his mysteries, and keep his commandments, the Savior himself comes to love, in us, his Father and his brethren, our Father and our brethren. His person becomes, through the Spirit, the living and interior rule of our activity.”(CCC 2074)

 

In these brief essays, however, we will focus on “our part,” inasmuch as we are cooperators in God’s plan for us. “God is the sovereign master of his plan. But to carry it out he also makes use of his creatures’ cooperation. This use is not a sign of weakness, but rather a token of almighty God’s greatness and goodness. For God grants his creatures not only their existence, but also the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other, and thus of cooperating in the accomplishment of his plan.” (CCC 306)

 

“It requires plenty of courage and honesty to be sincere with oneself. There are many men and women who, their whole lives long, are afraid to stand face to face with their own mistakes and with the defects of their own character…It is only by seeing ourselves as we are that we can remake and perfect our own character.” (Garesche, Ch. 6)

 

 

We ought, then, to practice regularly the examination of conscience. There are many ways of doing this, to include going through the Ten Commandments or looking at the Beatitudes or even all the major points in the Sermon on the Mount. We might also, however, do so by examining the cardinal virtues, seeing where we have failed to be prudent, just, temperate, and where we have lacked fortitude. We should likewise examine ourselves in the light of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

 

“…by learning from our mistakes, we cooperate with God in building up a noble character.” (Garesche, Ch. 6)

 

“…you can choose what to imitate. On that choice depends, to a great degree, your character and your destiny…by taking all the good characteristics of those around you, you can build up the ideal of a perfect character…you need not confine yourself to the people you actually know. Through the magnificent works of literature, you can associate with marvelous familiarity with the great minds, the noble hearts, and the shining characters of all history.” (Garesche, Ch. 7)

 

We, therefore, have no excuse if we say that we are not amongst other noble and virtuous people.  Even if this be true, we have at our disposal the greatness of those hero’s of virtue, whether factual persons of the past, or even fictional characters. As Christians, we certainly have the witness of the great saints of the past.

 

Of course, in building what we call a “Catholic character,” there is no greater example than that of Christ Jesus Himself.  Building a Catholic character, then, will be to imitate the virtues of first of Christ, but also of those who most imitated Him (“I urge you, then, be imitators of me,” says St. Paul in 1Cor4:16).

 

We are creatures of habit. But we are also responsible, to a great degree, for the habits we have. “Now, a habit is nothing more or less than an inward tendency to a certain line of action, which springs from the fact that we have often acted that way in the past, and that we are by nature inclined to do what we have often done before and in the way in which we have done it before.” (Garesche, Ch. 8)

 

We must, then, in building a noble character, focus on the four cardinal virtues, which are prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. We must rightly understand them, but also strive constantly to build them. Indeed, in many ways, forming our character through the virtues is analogous to training our minds through study and our bodies through exercise. We will grow weaker or stronger in a large degree by whether we exercise or neglect to exercise these faculties.

 

“By studying these four good habits, or virtues, and by cultivating them diligently, we are able to lay the foundation of a strong, good character in a secure and permanent way.” (Garesche, Ch. 8)

 

Briefly, the four cardinal virtues are as follows (as described in the “In Brief” section of the Catechism):

 

1833    Virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do good.

1834    The human virtues are stable dispositions of the intellect and the will that govern our acts, order our passions, and guide our conduct in accordance with reason and faith. They can be grouped around the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

1835    Prudence disposes the practical reason to discern, in every circumstance, our true good and to choose the right means for achieving it.

1836    Justice consists in the firm and constant will to give God and neighbor their due.

1837    Fortitude ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.

1838    Temperance moderates the attraction of the pleasures of the senses and provides balance in the use of created goods.

 

 

“The greatest of all historical examples of fortitude is, of course, the example of Christ, whose whole life was an exercise of this virtue, as it was of prudence, justice, and temperance…all these virtues, with a faithful balance, depend on one another, and if you succeed in cultivating any one of them to a notable degree, you will possess them all…” (Garesche, Ch. 12)

 

 

Human Dignity in Part 3 of the Catechism

In reading the Third Part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (especially Section I) the importance of the dignity of the human person in understanding moral instruction is made clear. We are focused in this course on individual morals for the most part, but of course, man is a social animal by nature. We are called to communion. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves (the second part of the two great commandments). So we should reflect for a moment on the social aspect of human dignity.

 

Catholic social teaching believes that human beings, created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27), have by their very existence an inherent value, worth, and distinction. This means that God is present in every person, regardless of his or her race, nation, sex, origin, orientation, culture, or economic standing. Catholic social teaching asserts that all human beings must see within every person both a reflection of God and a mirror of themselves, and must honor and respect this dignity as a divine gift. – Daniel Groody (Globalization, Spirituality and Justice).

The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. This belief is the foundation of all the principles of our social teaching. You will see this if you open the Church’s Compendium on Social Doctrine. In fact, it is significant, therefore, that in the Church’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, more than half of the document addresses man as made in the image and likeness of God, and the fact that all temporal goods and actions are means towards the one end of all men, that “this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”

 

The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God (article 1); it is fulfilled in his vocation to divine beatitude (article 2). It is essential to a human being freely to direct himself to this fulfillment (article 3). By his deliberate actions (article 4), the human person does, or does not, conform to the good promised by God and attested by moral conscience (article 5). Human beings make their own contribution to their interior growth; they make their whole sentient and spiritual lives into means of this growth (article 6). With the help of grace they grow in virtue (article 7), avoid sin, and if they sin they entrust themselves as did the prodigal son1 to the mercy of our Father in heaven (article 8). In this way they attain to the perfection of charity. (CCC 1700)

 

Please see my earlier blog post here for a short reflection on right social teaching, which focuses on the dignity of the human person as made in the image and likeness of God.

The Importance of Character and the Virtues

“The true aim of education is not merely the cultivation of the intellect but also the formation of moral character. Increased intelligence or physical skill may as easily be employed to the detriment as to the benefit of the community, if not accompanied by improved will. Both do not necessarily go together. As it is the function of ethics to determine the ideal of human character, so it is the business of the theory or science of education to study the processes by which that end may be attained and to estimate the relative efficiency of different educational systems and methods in the prosecution of that end. Finally it is the duty of the art of education to apply the conclusions thus reached to practice and to adapt the available machinery to the realization of the true purpose of education in the formation of the highest type of ideal human character.” (Catholic Encyclopedia)

We must keep this all in mind as we begin this course. For this course will examine the cardinal virtues and their integration into character development; explore possible remedies advanced by “character education” and approach the relationship of the virtues with an authentic Catholic character formation from both speculative and practical perspectives. In any class, of course, the speculative aspect is emphasized, but in a course dealing with ethics, it is the application that is the final goal.

Aristotle tells us that ethics is primarily a practical science, as opposed to a speculative science or an art. A few of his reflections will be good to consider at the outset:

“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth… If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good.” (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book I)

Aristotle will go on to tell us that man’s ultimate aim, that “which we desire for its own sake,” is happiness. We may build a ship so that we can sail, and sail so that we can cross the ocean, and cross the ocean so that we can see our lost love ones, etc. But we don’t wish to be happy “so that…” We simply wish to be happy. It is an end and not a means to something further. The surprising thing, here, especially given our contemporary culture, is that the classic understanding of ethics was one of happiness.

Our contemporary culture would tell us that the key to happiness is freedom, but the modern understanding of freedom is extremely flawed. True freedom is not the “right” to simply follow the impulses of the will, but a true freedom is what is known as a “freedom for excellence.”

Servias Pinckaers uses the wonderful example of a piano player as a means to show what virtue can do for someone who seeks true freedom towards a specific end:

In the beginning the child, despite the desire to learn will often feel that the lessons and exercises as a constraint imposed on freedom and the attractions of the moment. There are times when practice has to be insisted upon…Of course, anyone is free to bang out notes haphazardly on the piano, as the fancy strikes him. But this is a rudimentary, savage sort of freedom… On the other hand, the person who really possesses the art of playing the piano has acquired a new freedom. (The Sources of Christian Ethics, p.355)

We see, then, that to truly be free to attain the very ends we were both made for and should aspire to attain to, that our freedom involves both a responsibility and a joy in becoming what we are meant to be. It should come as no surprise that, at the same time a new teaching on freedom overtook society (a freedom which emphasizes indifference rather than excellence) the virtues fell out of common knowledge and pursuit.

If we are to once again become a culture that seeks excellence, we must be a culture that strives after virtue. We are meant to be something, and we are meant to have a part in becoming that something. We are truly both what we are (as created) and what we make of ourselves: a sort of theistic existentialism. Made in the image of God, we are meant to be free, but free to be what He made us to be.

A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions. (CCC 1803)

The good is what the will seeks. God is goodness Himself. Therefore, the cultivation of the virtues help us to, here on earth, to follow the will of God. They give us the power (virtus, power) to overcome the passions if and when they lead us away from the path we want to choose.

Of course, we recognize the necessity of grace in all of this, and with St. Paul, although we must admit that “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am!” we also have cause to rejoice:

“Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:23-25)

Morals, Family, and Subsidiarity

The Loss of Culture

 

I would like to comment on two important and interrelated themes; tradition and education. The purpose of this series is to confront a few of the major issues facing our culture today, especially as regards the faith and the family. The method I will use will simply be that of commenting on some excellent quotes from a book on natural law.

 

Most of the quotes expounded upon will be from the book What We Can’t Not Know, by Budziszewski. His excellent comments provide the necessary base from which to expand.

 

In doing this, I am not being lazy, although I hope that I am indeed being, for the most part, unoriginal. This method alone should be a lesson in itself. For there may be new methods, for instance, in mathematics, but 2+2 will always be 4, and there is no need to try and be “original” in our findings here. Just so, the natural law is unchanging, and even if we come upon new details of its practical use, we must never try and teach a new ethic for the sake of originality. With that in mind, we turn to our first of three topics; that of tradition.

 

On Tradition:

 

The first quote, however, comes from G.K. Chesterton’s book, Orthodoxy.

 

“Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” Chesterton goes on to say: “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”

 

It is often said that one of the keys that sets humans apart from all other animals is language. I certainly do not deny this. But language does this in several ways. Two of them I would like to address here. The first is that language gives us a way to communicate our ideas with one another, especially the kinds of ideas that only humans can have; those of abstracted universals. But only temporally posterior to this is the second use of language, and that is to hand on knowledge from one generation to the next. This can be done orally through memorization, or in written form.

 

This means that each generation does not have to reinvent everything or rediscover everything.  We have, instead, a collected body of knowledge that we pass down, and this enables us to further and further develop our culture and the human race. We could not possibly have the understanding of nature, and yes, the power over much of it, that we have today, were it not for all the collected knowledge and wisdom of those of the past.

 

However, many today, in the name of progress, individuality, and other such ideologies, seem to have forgotten this. What we need, rather, is to get the young generation out of the “outmoded” ways of their unenlightened parents, and teach them to “think for themselves. Budziszewski tells us,

 

To some people in our day the word “tradition” suggests merely a repeated action that is hallowed by sentimental associations, like wearing a certain tartan or eating turkey on a certain day. I mean a good deal more than that—a shared way of life that molds the mind, character, and imagination of those who practice it, for better or for worse. It is a sort of apprenticeship in living, with all of the previous generations as masters, and includes not only ways of doing things, but ways of raising questions about things that matter…Traditionlessness, then, is not the absence of traditions so much as a particular, unsound sort of tradition that does not recognize itself as tradition, disbelieves whatever it does recognize as tradition, and is traditionally smug about its disbelief. It is the absence, not of traditions as such, but of sound ones…

 

Those that teach against tradition, whatever they may mean by that, do so to instill a “new tradition” of there own. The goal, simply, is to create a void, which will then be filled with their “better way.” Tradition, in this case, seems to be “wrong” no matter the content, and this for the sake of telling one to “think for oneself.” Of course, once the student/child/citizen is told to “think for himself,” the new teaching is immediately preached as being enlightened and correct.

 

But if this new teaching is indeed enlightened and correct, it ought to stand on its own merits. Usually it does not, and it is for this reason, first, that “tradition” as a whole must be broken down. The individual arguments, if they were worthy, ought to be able to replace or improve old errors. This, indeed, is a good and necessary thing.

 

In general, a person who has been raised in a sound tradition is far better prepared to change his mind, should his beliefs prove faulty in some particular respect, than a person who has been raised “to make up his own mind” about them. While the former has at least acquired some equipment—the habit of taking important things seriously, and a body of inherited reflections about what some of these things are—the latter is weighed down with different baggage: the habit of not taking important things seriously, and the habit of considering the way things really are as less important than what he thinks of them at the moment…

 

Those, for instance, who have a great knowledge of Newtonian physics will be more prepared to understand newer ways of looking at the world, such as the theory of relativity. Indeed, Einstein did not discover such principles in spite of being learned in the old traditions of Newtonian science, but because of that very education.

 

The vigor of sound traditions requires a way of life in which the generations live in close proximity and have discourse with each other. It requires that people in general live in communities in which they know each other and can hold each other accountable. It requires that in relations among the various cultural institutions— parents, churches, schools, government, and so forth—the agents higher on the totem pole regard themselves merely as servants of the lower, and not as their masters or competitors. Unfortunately, the lines along which our own society is organized are diametrically  opposed to these. The generations say little to each other, and may be hundreds of miles apart.

 

Certainly, the principle of subsidiarity has been subverted and all but destroyed in most modern governments. The fact that people move around often due to ease of travel and the location of universities and employment hasn’t helped families and thus small communities form the same sort of cultures and traditions as in days of old. Certainly there are benefits to a “smaller world” as we seem to have today, but with the demise of the family community seems to have come the family of the big government. With people moving around and families distant from one another, the state has become, often, the closest common factor. When this happens, “the higher agents on the totem pole” no longer regard themselves as “servants of the lower“ but “as their masters or competitors.”

 

On modern education:

 

Modern education is really more focused on expertise in certain fields than it is on forming persons who can seek truth. After all, in our competitive markets, we need computer experts and doctors and scientists, and not well formed human beings.

 

With the destruction of tradition and of close knit families, this liberal arts education would hopefully be found in the schools…it is not. Instead, and especially in the public school systems, the students are trained (yes trained) mostly in a pragmatic and utilitarian way: they are built to be useful to society. The will become these experts in their particular fields, and those fields that they are not trained in are best left for the other experts to decide.

Strategic sophism is the outcome. We learn to listen to “the experts,” and often the “experts” are chosen because of their agreement with a certain ideology. They are the expert, it seems, because they already agree and can sound convincing, in teaching what the ideologues wish to be heard.

 

In our own polity this strategy is well advanced, especially in the courts. When the U.S. Supreme Court declared that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”, it was expressing the Sophist charter… If Sophists are to run the courts and the civil service, they need plenty of help. From somewhere there must come a steady stream of people who think as they do, to fill vacancies as they open up. Universities fill this need. Ordinary people who have not spent time on college campuses find it difficult to believe just how thoroughly they subvert the mind and how little they train it…

 

The mind is not trained, at least not so much to think and understand as to do and execute. The collectivism of society requires a certain number of technicians (in the broad sense of the word) to do the various jobs, of which parts make the whole function correctly. The human, who is a seeker of truth and a willer of good, is secondary in such a society. Wisdom is secondary (if desired at all) to production. The university is no longer designed to advance the wisdom of man and culture, but the output. This is not limited to the classes alone, but the entire project of modern education, often right from the elementary level.

 

The curriculum of the university is but a tithe of what it teaches. It is a total-immersion counterculture whose methods of indoctrination include classroom style, freshman orientation, speech codes, mandatory diversity training, dormitory policies, guidelines for registered student organizations, mental health counseling, and peer pressure… if the modern university is not theoretically Sophist, it is operationally Sophist, and the extremists hold the high ground…

 

There is, of course, an oft used circular argument to what is required to be a tenured university professor these days. One should be an “intellectual elite,” and to be so means to follow a certain ideology. How do we know one is actually qualified to teach at the university? They are smart enough to understand why the university teaches the way it does.

 

We see the same circularity in supposed arguments against those who would say there is a God. “Only fools believe in God” But what about Tom? He believes in God. Well, Tom is a fool. How do you know? Because he believes in God; obviously he isn’t very bright.”

 

Speaking of arguments, we live in a culture that uses the phrase “I feel that” way more often than it uses the phrase “reason shows that.” In a culture of subjective “truth” (whatever that oxy moron means), we talk a lot about how we feel and little about what we can actually reason about.

 

When I ask my graduating college students to “formulate an argument”, I have to tell them what I mean. Many of them have never heard the expression; the idea of persuading someone by reasoning is new to them. They conceive an opinion as a kind of taste, like a partiality for one brand of soft drink over another. Many of my colleagues will tell them that they are right…

 

Morals and the Family:

 

 The bottom line is this. Our culture has achieved the perfect conditions for bringing about the ideologies of a “new morality.” The family is hardly as close as it once was, and traditions are seen as meaningless sentimental actions. The sophistical operating standards of the public education system, aided by these former conditions in the family’s own influence (or lack thereof) on the young mind, is conditioning the youth to easily accept whatever the talking heads are preaching. The only way to prevent this is for parents and communities to reverse this trend at their own level, by taking responsibility as the primary educators, once again, of their own children, first, and then of the communities in which they live. Simply put, the principle of subsidiarity must be reestablished, and it will only be reestablished by the “smaller agents on the totem pole” enforcing it themselves. It will not be willfully handed back by “their masters or competitors” at the top of the totem pole.

On Tradition, Education, Adolescence, and Marriage

The following are not my thoughts (although I tend to not only agree with them but feel compelled to share them). They are from Budziszewski’s What We Cant Not Know, Chapter 8, and deserve reflection.

On Tradition:

 

To some people in our day the word “tradition” suggests merely a repeated action that is hallowed by sentimental associations, like wearing a certain tartan or eating turkey on a certain day. I mean a good deal more than that—a shared way of life that molds the mind, character, and imagination of those who practice it, for better or for worse. It is a sort of apprenticeship in living, with all of the previous generations as masters, and includes not only ways of doing things, but ways of raising questions about things that matter…Traditionlessness, then, is not the absence of traditions so much as a particular, unsound sort of tradition that does not recognize itself as tradition, disbelieves whatever it does recognize as tradition, and is traditionally smug about its disbelief. It is the absence, not of traditions as such, but of sound ones…

 

In general, a person who has been raised in a sound tradition is far better prepared to change his mind, should his beliefs prove faulty in some particular respect, than a person who has been raised “to make up his own mind” about them. While the former has at least acquired some equipment—the habit of taking important things seriously, and a body of inherited reflections about what some of these things are—the latter is weighed down with different baggage: the habit of not taking important things seriously, and the habit of considering the way things really are as less important than what he thinks of them at the moment…

 

The vigor of sound traditions requires a way of life in which the generations live in close proximity and have discourse with each other. It requires that people in general live in communities in which they know each other and can hold each other accountable. It requires that in relations among the various cultural institutions— parents, churches, schools, government, and so forth—the agents higher on the totem pole regard themselves merely as servants of the lower, and not as their masters or competitors. Unfortunately, the lines along which our own society is organized are diametrically

opposed to these. The generations say little to each other, and may be hundreds of miles apart.

 

On Modern Education:

 

Sophism has always been a corrupter of democracies, and the difference between ancient and modern Sophism corresponds to the difference between ancient and modern democracy. Ancient democracy was radical democracy, so in order to win power through the sophistical arts, one had to win over the Assemblies of the People. Modern democracy is constitutional democracy, full of checks and balances, so there are other possibilities. The Sophists might seize power, not in the assemblies, but in the courts and the civil service; in this case the assemblies might not have to be wholly corrupted, but only confused enough to go along…

 

In our own polity this strategy is well advanced, especially in the courts. When the U.S. Supreme Court declared that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”, it was expressing the Sophist charter… If Sophists are to run the courts and the civil service, they need plenty of help. From somewhere there must come a steady stream of people who think as they do, to fill vacancies as they open up. Universities fill this need. Ordinary people who have not spent time on college campuses find it difficult to believe just how thoroughly they subvert the mind and how little they train it…

 

The curriculum of the university is but a tithe of what it teaches. It is a total-immersion counterculture whose methods of indoctrination include classroom style, freshman orientation, speech codes, mandatory diversity training, dormitory policies, guidelines for registered student organizations, mental health counseling, and peer pressure… if the modern university is not theoretically Sophist, it is operationally Sophist, and the extremists hold the high ground…

 

When I ask my graduating college students to “formulate an argument”, I have to tell them what I mean. Many of them have never heard the expression; the idea of persuading someone by reasoning is new to them. They conceive an opinion as a kind of taste, like a partiality for one brand of soft drink over another. Many of my colleagues will tell them that they are right…

 

Many lines of work require more training than of old; that is plain enough… Schools, in the meantime, have become incompetent, so that the time necessary to learn anything is much longer. What once was taught in secondary school now waits for college; what once was taught in college now waits for postgraduate school. The result is a long period of economic dependence.

 

Prolongation of Adolescence and Later Marriage:

 

Apologists for late marriage consider it good because human beings do not reach maturity until their mid-twenties… Certainly people should not marry until they are mature. But the age at which people are mature enough to
take on the responsibilities of marriage is not a human constant; it depends in part on when we marry. For centuries, most people married and began families in their teens. If today they are not ready until twenty-five—or thirty or thirty-five—then our first question ought to be “Why aren’t they?” We should also pause to remember how maturity is attained. Men and women do not first become mature and then accept responsibilities; it is through accepting responsibilities that they become mature. Responsibility itself is what transforms them, the marital responsibility above most others…

 

The unnatural prolongation of adolescence poses a variety of moral problems. Normal erotic desire is transmuted from a spur to marriage to an incentive for promiscuity. Promiscuity thwarts the attainment of moral wisdom and makes conjugal love itself seem unattractive. Furthermore, prolonged irresponsibility is itself a sort of training, and a bad one. Before long the entire culture is caught up in a Peter Pan syndrome, terrified of leaving childhood.

 

 

 
Budziszewski, J, What We Cant Not Know