Monday, 17 April 2017

Christianity and the Cardinal Virtues

On Virtue

Part of the problem of living in today’s world is that in the West there is a cultural legacy which is supposed to be Christian, but which actually pre-dates Christianity, and was part of Greek culture, absorbed into Christianity, pre-dating the advent of Jesus.

In particular, some of those Greek values became so much part of the fabric of the Christian society, that it has left us with a notion that to be a Christian means to be a good person, to follow the ethical guidelines that Christ espoused, to follow his example.

In fact, these values have very little to do with Jesus Christ. As an example of Christ’s teaching, I think you can probably take the Sermon on the Mount as one instance. Here are a few of the sayings from that:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. "

These are bound not only into a theistic framework – “they will see God”, “they will be called children of God”, but also into a Christ-centric one “because of me”. This is also born out in his teaching later, especially in the sentence:

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If any of you want to come with me, you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow me.’”

While that may have an anachronistic interpolation “carry your cross”, it certainly is at the core of the teaching of Jesus, and variants of it occur elsewhere, in the call to the 12 disciples, the rich man, and the exchanges with Pharisees. 

And the notion that following Jesus can mean "following his example" when looked at in depth, does not really have a lot of coherence except for theists. Even liberal theology at its most succinct, promoted the fatherhood of God and brotherhood of all men; the former underpins the latter, as we see in the Sermon on the Mount.

So let us leave Jesus to one side and look back to what are called the “cardinal virtues”. These are values espoused in Plato and Aristotle, amongst other ancient writers.

The term "cardinal" comes from the Latin cardo (hinge);the cardinal virtues are so called because they are regarded as the basic virtues required for a virtuous life.

They consist of the following qualities:

  • Prudence : also described as wisdom, the ability to judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time
  • Justice: also considered as fairness, the most extensive and most important virtue; the Greek word also having the meaning righteousness
  • Temperance: also known as restraint, the practice of self-control, abstention, discretion, and moderation, so tempering the appetite. Only later did it get a meaning of not drinking at all!
  • Courage: also termed fortitude, forbearance, strength, endurance, and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation

These virtues derive initially from Plato's scheme, discussed in Republic Book IV, 426-435. They are taken up by Aristotle in his Ethics, and also by Protogoras and Cicero among notable later writers.

Much later, Christian writers such as Ambrose and Augustine and Aquinas adapted them and merged them into a Christian framework, and these are the values, I believe, that people now consider to be Christian values or part of a “Christian philosophy” or guide to life.

As Christianity decays as a mainstream culture in the West, it is perhaps not surprising, giving the a widespread general ignorance of history, that these should be seen as somehow Christian, but they can be quite easily detached from Christianity, because their origins lie in the Greek philosophers, and have nothing to do with Christianity.

They are, however, I believe, important values which we should espouse and aim to live by in our lives. They are part of what the Greeks thought of as living a good or virtuous life.

That is not to say that we have not built on these values over time and improved their application. 

The idea of fairness, that all peoples should be treated equally, regardless of whom they are, was a value that directly contradicted the society of ancient Greece, where women and slaves had not rights.

It was therefore easy to have a modern slave owning or slave trading society, as existed in the West, in the USA and in Britian. The abolition of slavery and the slave trade, and universal suffrage with women being able to vote is implicit in the cardinal value of justice, but it needed to be thought through, teased out, and argued for before change could come.

Changes still occur and in my lifetime we have seen more improvements on fairness with regards to gender and sexuality, but fairness with regard to economics, to sharing the world’s resources with the poorer countries, or of ordering of a fairer economics within our own society is a matter of neglect, and in many respects we have moved backwards and become more selfish.

Economic exploitation also flies against fairness and a just and equitable society, but the concentration on matters of sexuality and gender has tended to downgrade and even obscure that it is just as important.

And a consumer oriented society needs to hear more of restraint of the appetites before we consume the planet. More temperance is certainly needed.

In a world increasingly riven by tensions, of acts of terror, and the threats of war, as countries rattle their modern nuclear sables, prudence also known as wisdom is much needed.

So the ancient virtues still have challenges for us today, and are still something we can and should aim to live by, whether we are Christians or Humanists.

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