Tag Archives: Aristotle

Seven habits for highly affective Christians: Introduction

I’ve been thinking about formation lately — how I might become more like the person, specifically the Christian person, I believe I should be, but more importantly, how I might pass that on in an exemplary fashion to my kids (especially if the world wants to form them into something quite different), and to those I teach and pastor.

One of the challenges I face simultaneously as a parent and a pastor — and for myself in terms of my own life in the world — is, I think, not just convincing my kids (or people at church) to believe the story of Jesus is true but to feel like it is true. Not simply to have Christian beliefs but Christian affections. I haven’t found a huge library of resources in my own church tradition for this distinction, and I’m still stumbling my way around; it seems to me that we assume feelings have to be generated from belief, and if it comes the other way around we are suspicious that it’s manipulative.

At the same time, one of the challenges we face in the west — both in the church, and the world we live in — is that belief and feeling are almost subsumed into second place behind ‘working’ — being effective. Again, this is a challenge I personally face too — the benefits of having archives for my blog is you can dig back into past me and find a little pragmatist/utilitarian and watch the wheels fall off as my values shifted. It’s not that I’m anti-effectiveness, or excellence, or results. I’ve largely just changed metrics so that what I’m interested in is the cultivation of both belief and feeling alongside the cultivation of character. Character is the result — not success or productivity. Back when I was a ‘utilitarian’; I was calling myself a ‘Gospel utilitarian’; suggesting that the right thing to do was the thing that produced the most converts to true belief… the more I thought about ethics (and how hollow it was to make results the ‘end’ or purpose of action rather than goodness) the more I became interested in virtue ethics and the place of character; and the role of a ‘story’ in shaping character, but also of habitual action.

One of the things that shifted me from utilitarianism to a more character focused ethic was reading Augustine, and because of Augustine, reading Aristotle, who split intellectual virtue (reason) and moral virtue (ethics):

Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit). — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II

I’ve largely been shaped by a culture (both in and outside the church) that emphasises teaching rather than practices as the way we are formed as people. I say this because I’m not claiming to speak beyond my own experience here, yours might be different. It’s not that I haven’t also learned through practices; learning via practice is inevitable. It’s simply that I haven’t thought about my habits as the pathway to moral formation or the pursuit of what is good; I’ve thought of that as something to be pursued on the basis of what we believe to be right (and of helping other people believe right things). Interestingly, Aristotle doesn’t say that the habitual formation of virtue is in competition with being effective; he saw goodness in terms of being connected with the ‘end’ or ‘telos’ — a purpose fundamentally connected to the nature of an object.

We may remark, then, that every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well; e.g. the excellence of the eye makes both the eye and its work good; for it is by the excellence of the eye that we see well. Similarly the excellence of the horse makes a horse both good in itself and good at running and at carrying its rider and at awaiting the attack of the enemy. Therefore, if this is true in every case, the virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well. — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II

The question is who, or what, sets the parameters or definition of ‘what makes a (hu)man good’ and what work we should be doing. There’s a fundamental view of these questions at play in our education system; but when it comes to Christians we have a clear sense of what makes us good, and what defines our work. Our ‘end’; in terms of our ‘purpose’ is to image God — to glorify him in relationship with him, by reflecting the character of God as we live — we have a specific picture of what that looks like in the person of Jesus, and so Paul talks about us being ‘transformed into the image’ of Jesus. That’s what our fundamental purpose is (or our ‘chief end’); we do this by being ‘united with Christ’ or ‘in Christ’ as ‘the body of Christ’ and our work, then, becomes to be like Jesus, in partnership with other Christians. Or, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 12:

There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work… Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. — 1 Corinthians 12:6, 12-13

We’re to do ‘God’s work’ in co-operation with the body God has put us in (the church) — that’s ‘our own work’ — or as Paul says a little later in the letter (having discussed the ‘way of love’ as a habitual practice (1 Cor 12:31-14:1), imitating Paul as he imitates Jesus (1 Cor 11:1), “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

If we’re going to cultivate virtue our habits have to be aligned with becoming like Jesus and doing God’s work in the world. I suspect a pretty nice ‘proof text’ for this, if you wanted one, is Matthew 28:18-20, the ‘great commission’ — I’m struck by how much I’d read this in my utilitarian days as basically being about converting as many people as possible to an intellectual idea, rather than being about the harder work of re-forming re-created people so they don’t bear the image, or imprint, of whatever character their habits have formed as they’ve worshipped something other than Jesus, but instead are ‘disciples’ of Jesus; those disciplined towards practicing his teaching.

It’d be easy to turn this discipline thing into following a bunch of rules — and then being judgmental of ourselves and others when we inevitably fall short of the standard of perfection; but the Romans  8 picture of the Christian life is one where our transformation is an ongoing process that doesn’t seem to finish until the story finishes and we are ‘glorified’ (Romans 8:28-30). But in the meantime, rather than rules shaping our lives, I’m interested in the idea that we are more shaped by story.

Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue was really helpful for me both in how it framed the alternative worldly ethical system to virtue, particularly a sense that we’re all part of some big system which has to be managed via bureaucratic processes (or economic ones — so that, for example, we don’t form children as people but as economic cogs), and more than that, in making this connection between virtue and story:

“Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” — MacIntyre, After Virtue

I’m also convinced (in part due to James K.A Smith) that we are affectionate creatures before we are intellectual creatures, and that we cultivate our affections by habitual actions directed towards an ‘end’ by a story that we participate in; and by philosopher Iris Murdoch who suggested that a fundamental ‘virtuous’ habit is to give ‘loving attention’ to others and the world as a habitual orientation.

“The love which brings the right answer is an exercise of justice and realism and really looking. The difficulty is to keep the attention fixed on the real situation and to prevent it from returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy, and despair…  Of course virtue is good habit and dutiful action. But the background condition of such habit and such action, in human beings, is a just mode of vision and a good quality of consciousness. It is a task to come to see the world as it is.” — Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

There are a few convictions underpinning the following habits… I’m convinced that my formation as a person, the formation of my children and my pastoring of a church, should involve helping people habitually live in the story of Jesus, so that we are shaped by our telos to do the work God has called us to do (and that by habitually living in this story we are doing the Great Commission work, which involves our purpose; namely, to ‘glorify God’). I’m convinced this is about forming people who love God and believe we are loved by God; that it isn’t just about intellectual virtue but about our affections (and that the contest in this world is a contest about who or what we worship and the end we are living for). I want my kids to love God more than they love sex, money, or the pleasures of this world — I want to love God more than I love sex and money and the pleasures of this world. I’m convinced that one of the things that has happened as our view of world has become ‘disenchanted’ is that our imaginations have been stunted; that when Paul says ‘do not be conformed to the patterns of this world’ but ‘transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (Romans 12:2) part of this is about idolatry, but part of it too, is about what idolatry does to our thinking and imagining (Romans 1), and that Colossians 3 (where many of these habits are derived from) encourages us to re-imagine the world by changing how we see it, and our place in it, and this is part of what Paul is saying when he says “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2).

I’ve been reading a bunch of books around practices and habits (largely because though I love Smith’s You Are What You Love, I found the practices, which I’d describe as ‘medieval’, left me wanting something else, see my series on ‘the Worship Wars’ for more on this). I particularly enjoyed Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, Mike Cosper’s Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World, and David Fitch’s Faithful Presence: Seven Practices That Shape The Church For Mission. These books are chock full of habits and practices and ideas for cultivating a new way of seeing and being in the world. I’d like to do lots of them, but I felt like some of them required some sort of ‘ground clearing’ exercise first — that I couldn’t jump from zero to 100… and some of them seem, frankly, beyond my modernist-influenced-propositional-logic shaped rational brain; I feel like I have to become a more affective person before I could effectively adopt them.

The next seven posts will explore some of how I’m thinking about these in the categories of myself, parenting, and pastoring. It might take me a while to unpack them, so here’s the list.

1. The habit of story (telling, listening, and playing)
2. The habit of singing, reading and listening to poetry (starting with the Bible)
3. The habit of silence and space (including digital silence, and working less)
4. The habit of giving
5. The habit of ‘gathering’ with the body (including feasting together)
6. The habit of presence and encouragement
7. The habit of prayer

If you’ve thought about practices/habits, and especially about cultivating your affections — I’d love ideas for what could bump any of these off the list.

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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)?

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Aristotle on the Areopagus

I’m finding all sorts of fun quotes playing around with primary sources. Here’s a quote from Aristotle’s Rhetoric about use of emotion in court proceedings – with a mention of the Areopagus, the council Paul appeared before in Athens in Acts 17:

“The arousing of prejudice, pity, anger, and similar emotions has nothing to do with the essential facts, but is merely a personal appeal to the man who is judging the case. Consequently if the rules for trials which are now laid down some states — especially in well-governed states — were applied everywhere, such people would have nothing to say. All men, no doubt, think that the laws should prescribe such rules, but some, as in the court of Areopagus, give practical effect to their thoughts and forbid talk about non-essentials. This is sound law and custom. It is not right to pervert the judge by moving him to anger or envy or pity — one might as well warp a carpenter’s rule before using it.”

Here’s a picture of Mars Hill.

Image Credit: Me, from our trip to Greece

Now the ever reputable Professor B. Winter tells us (that is, his students) that the Areopagus:

a) did not actually meet on top of Mars Hill (speculative – based largely on its current shape and size (who knows how big it was 2,000 years ago), and the number of people in the Areopagus.
and b) had a function to perform as the gatekeepers for the gods of Greece, the Areopagus basically had a set of rules to govern what gods could and couldn’t be accepted into Greece, and Paul’s presentation in Acts 17 is said to meet those parameters…

It’s interesting that they had a reputation for only talking about essentials, from hundreds of years before Paul, and yet the members of the Areopagus invited him to speak.

“19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this(AH) new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.”

It’s also funny how Luke’s view of the Athenians, and possibly, by context and extension, the Areopagus, differs from Aristotle’s:

21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”