Grecian Gifts, Plus

Since the mid-twentieth century, “virtue ethics” has staged a comeback among both theologians and philosophers. Reacting against the formalism of moral theory since Kant, scholars have drawn attention to the ways in which our actions are determined by habits, qualities of character, and shared conceptions about what constitutes the good life. This seems to make better sense of how we are shaped by our fulfillment of social roles and how we nurture children in patterns of conduct. Advocates of virtue ethics stress that we are trained to develop habits and moral beliefs, as opposed to a simple application of the categorical imperative or mere recourse to notions of autonomy, sincerity, and self-expression. Such considerations have led to a retrieval of Aristotle and Aquinas as key resources for contemporary philosophical ethics in the work of Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, and Alasdair MacIntyre. At the same time, the example of Jesus and the ways we are shaped by the practices of the church have been afforded a more central role in accounts of Christian action in the theological ethics of Stanley Hauerwas and others.

In this landmark study, Jennifer Herdt, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame, offers a detailed investigation of the handling of the virtues in a succession of key Christian thinkers. Traversing the work of Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus, Luther, and Bunyan, she also shows how more “secular” writers such as Hume and Kant were reacting to earlier theological traditions. What emerges is not only a series of significant historical studies but a sustained reflection on why Christian writers were uneasy with classical accounts of the virtuous life, especially that of Aristotle, and how they subsequently handled this unease.

Two related anxieties can already be detected in the writings of Augustine. These were to be accentuated at different periods in Christian thought, and especially at the Reformation. The first concerns the end or telos of the pagan life. Since it could not be properly directed toward the glory of God and the service of Christ, the pagan life had to be censured for its misdirection—and therefore its flawed characterization—of some or all of the virtues. So, for example, Aristotelian pride and magnanimity had to be replaced by a proper Christian humility. Related to this problem of trajectory is a further difficulty about the role of the virtues in the Christian life. If we are to live dependent on the grace of God and constantly aware of the forgiveness of our sins, then the project of inculcating virtue in ourselves and others may be profoundly mistaken—it leads to Pelagianism. For this reason, Protestant theology, in particular, has been wary of the use of the language of the virtues, whether pagan or Christian. When describing the essential elements of the sanctified life, Calvin never strays far from stressing the continual importance of repentance.

All of this led to a characterization of pagan virtue as superficial; it offered the appearance of virtue, sometimes spectacularly, but the substantial reality could only be expressed by those who had been granted the gift of faith and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Throughout her study, Herdt shows why all this happened, explores some of the problems that it generated, and attempts to remedy these. The pagan virtues were paradoxically dubbed “splendid vices.” While this tactical ploy may solve a theoretically generated problem, it hardly succeeds when one is confronted in democratic societies and a shrinking world with genuine and inspiring instances of virtuous conduct among one’s neighbors. It simply will not do to describe the heroic actions of Gandhi or Aung San Suu Kyi as arising from their splendid vices. Although Herdt does not press this last matter as one might have wished, it surely belongs to the hinterland of her inquiry.

This book is never going to be an easy read for a wide audience. It contains careful and painstaking analysis of different thinkers, engaging an extensive body of primary and secondary sources in each case. It will, however, repay scholarly attention and it is likely to remain an indispensable point of reference for subsequent work in the field. Herdt’s own preferred solution to the problems she so helpfully articulates is found in the work of Aquinas and, more surprisingly perhaps, Erasmus. It requires a characterization of human agency outside the church as grace-enabled—a characterization that avoids a sharp dichotomy between nature and grace. As Herdt notes:

"We can affirm the radical dependence of all human agency on divine sustenance while also insisting that the quality of that dependence is transformed when acknowledged and embraced. We can affirm the redemptive activity of the Word at work throughout created-but-fallen nature while also insisting that the quality of that redemptive activity is transformed when the Word is known as Jesus Christ and His Spirit is known in the church."

The challenge is how to maintain the particular and strong claims of the faith while offering this more positive construction of the “splendid vices” and their relationship to Christian virtue. But it is a challenge for Catholic and Reformed thinkers alike, and one for which we are better equipped on account of Herdt’s sparkling treatment of the subject.

Published in the 2009-11-20 issue: 

David Fergusson is professor of divinity and principal of New College, University of Edinburgh.

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