On outrage: some ancient visions of virtue

People are arguing about whether one can be outraged about a dead lion, when they could, alternatively, be outraged about dead babies. I think they’re arguing about the wrong thing, and outraged about the wrong thing, and we should be thankful that people aren’t just outraged about dead squirrels. Ultimately the questions that matter are the questions of what you are paying attention to, and how you’re doing that…

This is a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue. First, we considered that outrage might be a disordered form of loving attention, next, we considered that social media works to show us things calculated to appeal to our selfishness, then whether we have a moral obligation to notice or pay attention to disorder, and where we might or might not be culpable for failing to be outraged, then the link between a dead lion and Planned Parenthood — our disordered hearts, we considered the purpose of outrage.

So how do we put outrage in its place? How do we prevent ourselves from becoming defined by our outrage, and whatever it is we’re outraged about at any given moment? How do we respond rightly —love rightly — when we are confronted by or experience disorder? What stops us getting outraged and allows us to offer love as a corrective and comfort?

I think the answer to all these questions is tied up in being people, or communities, of character — or virtue — which means figuring out what it means to be good, or loving in a disordered but increasingly outraged world. If we talk of outrage having a purpose, or telos, in helping us live in and understand things about the world, we’re already sounding like little Aristotles.

Aristotle, arete, divine contemplation, and internet outrage

Aristotle might seem pretty irrelevant to figuring out why we react with outrage, whether its constructive, and what a more virtuous response might look like, but while he’s an old dead Greek guy, his understanding of ethics, telos, and virtue were influential for influential Christian thinkers like Augustine, and even influential secular moral philosophers. So it’s worth getting our moral bearings by looking at some of his thinking first.

The ancient Greek’s had this word arete which carried the sense of excellence, in a sort of moral sense. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics its most often translated as virtue. In Aristotle’s exploration of what exactly virtue is, he ultimately settled on contemplation or the pursuit of knowledge as the highest virtue, the telos of human intelligence. According to Aristotle, virtues in other aspects of life involved identifying the ‘mean’ between two extremes” — you could only do this with a mind capable of choosing what the right course of action involved.

“Virtue then is a settled disposition of the mind determining the choice of actions and emotions, consisting essentially in the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by principle, that is, as the prudent man would determine it.

For example, the effect of excellence in the eye is that the eye is good and functions well; since having good eyes means having good sight. Similarly excellence in a horse makes it a good horse, and also good at galloping, at carrying its rider, and at facing the enemy.  If therefore this is true of all things, excellence or virtue in a man will be the disposition which renders him a good man and also which will cause him to perform his function well.” — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Chapter 6

This is why it is a hard task to be good, for it is hard to find the middle point in anything: for instance, not everybody can find the center of a circle, but only someone who knows geometry. So also anybody can become angry—that is easy, and so it is to give and spend money; but to be angry with or give money to the right person, and to the right amount, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way—this is not within everybody’s power and is not easy; so that to do these things properly is rare, praiseworthy, and noble. — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Chapter 9

Modern moral philosophers can’t really speak of virtue without speaking of love, and earlier I put forward the conclusion I’m working towards earlier — back in post one of this mini-series (talk about giving the game away) — that virtue looks like loving attention. Aristotle isn’t so interested in love as the supreme virtue, certainly not when it comes to charting a virtuous response to the disordered world, when that disorder is beyond our ability to influence (he was writing before clicktivism), but he does lay a platform for the idea that virtue and attention, or contemplation, overlap, and this sense that moral excellence (arete) is tied up with us living out our purpose/function, our telos.

Aristotle has his own version of the dead squirrel, he limits the span of our virtuous giving of attention, or deliberation, to that which we can effectively change through our own actions.

As for Deliberation, do people deliberate about everything—are all things possible objects of deliberation—or are there some things about which deliberation is impossible? The term ‘object of deliberation’ presumably must not be taken to include things about which a fool or a madman might deliberate, but to mean what a sensible person would deliberate about…

Well then, nobody deliberates about things eternal, such as the order of the universe, or the incommensurability of the diagonal and the side, of a square. Nor yet about things that change but follow a regular process, whether from necessity or by nature or through some other cause: such phenomena for instance as the solstices and the sunrise. Nor about irregular occurrences, such as droughts and rains. Nor about the results of chance, such as finding a hidden treasure. The reason why we do not deliberate about these things is that none of them can be effected by our agency. We deliberate about things that are in our control and are attainable by action…

But we do not deliberate about all human affairs without exception either: for example, no Lacedaemonian deliberates about the best form of government for Scythia; but any particular set of men deliberates about the things attainable by their own actions. — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 4

Our ability to love, a bit like our ability to contemplate, deliberate, or give our attention to something is limited by proximity and our capacity, beyond a certain number of relationships that involve real love, Aristotle reckoned we just loved what we got from people, be it something in return, or just the pleasure of their company.

It is not possible to have many friends in the full meaning of the word friendship, any more than it is to be in love with many people at once(love indeed seems to be an excessive state of emotion, such as is naturally felt towards one person only); and it is not easy for the same person to like a number of people at once, nor indeed perhaps can good men be found in large numbers. Also for perfect friendship you must get to know a man thoroughly, and become intimate with him, which is a very difficult thing to do. But it is possible to like a number of persons for their utility and pleasantness, for useful and pleasant people are plentiful, and the benefits they confer can be enjoyed at once. — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 8

There was a sort of love Aristotle thought you might offer to people outside this sphere, more an analogy to this love, a virtuous ‘mean’ that involved a “habit of approving or reprehending properly” — the person who does this will be “similarly affable to those whom he does not, and to those whom he does know, this is a sort of loving attention, the appropriate application of one’s attention and efforts based on your assessment of your ability to both relate to a person, and control an outcome in the situation.

Aristotle believed that the exercise of our intellect through contemplation is both what separates us from the animal kingdom, and takes us closest to the divine (or is the activity of the “divinest part of us.” Contemplation is the path to real happiness, and to imitating God and thus, to being favoured by the gods.

And it seems likely that the man who pursues intellectual activity, and who cultivates his intellect and keeps that in the best condition, is also the man most beloved of the gods. For if, as is generally believed, the gods exercise some superintendence over human affairs, then it will be reasonable to suppose that they take pleasure in that part of man which is best and most akin to themselves, namely the intellect, and that they recompense with their favours those men who esteem and honour this most, because these care for the things dear to themselves, and act rightly and nobly. Now it is clear that all these attributes belong most of all to the wise man. He therefore is most beloved by the gods; and if so, he is naturally most happy. Here is another proof that the wise man is the happiest. Aristot. Nic. Eth. 10.8

Arete and the Christian

Arete features prominently in Aristotle, so you’d expect other ethical texts from the ancient world to play with it a bit. It’s worth noting, briefly, that Aristotle would not have treated Jesus like a virtuous person. Jesus might have the ability to contemplate the divine mind, but his life — especially his humility (including his failure to pursue personal honour), and his giving up of power and status for the sake of the weak, means Jesus is everything Aristotle’s vision of arete is not. This sharp distinction between Aristotle and Jesus is important, because it might help us understand the way the New Testament — Paul and Peter specifically — use arete. For Paul, arete is not the act of contemplation, but the focus of our contemplation… the bolded words in the following passages are, in the Greek, arete (or αρετη).

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. — Philippians 4:8-9

For Peter, arete is the character of God, and God’s people exist to proclaim these ‘excellencies’… contemplation is a means to this end, first we think about God’s excellencies, then we proclaim them…

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  — 1 Peter 2:9

Peter brings these together in his second letter. Our knowledge of God, through his glory and arete is what we need in order to add arete to our faith. This sort of knowledge based arete is the basis for our virtuous living and our productivity (remember, Aristotle linked arete to efficiency and our ability to achieve our telos.

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. – 2 Peter 1:5-9

It’s interesting that in terms of a progression from arete, Peter moves from arete to knowledge, to self-control, all the way to love, which Peter, unlike Aristotle, seems to see as the ultimate virtue (amongst other virtues). It’s interesting that like Aristotle he sees arete as very closely linked to the divine nature. For Aristotle, the contemplative life is virtuous because it enables the contemplator to figure out the virtuous mean in any situation, for Paul and Peter, the contemplative life is about reflecting on the character of the God who reveals himself in Jesus, and this reflection on God’s nature (and our ability to participate in it) pushes us towards being effective and productive “in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Peter seems to place love as both fundamental to God’s nature, and the telos of the virtuous, arete displaying, human.

But what is love? And how does our understanding of love start with God’s nature (and how do we then apply this understanding of love to the question of outrage (especially if the purpose of outrage is also potentially, to point us from human shortcomings and disorder to God and his nature)?

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.