I have written elsewhere that Christians in the West should view our civilization at present as pre-Christian rather than as post-Christian. Our Christian hope and a reasonable confidence in the truth and attractive power of the gospel should incline us to see the present as a prelude to an era of conversion and evangelization. Whether God in fact intends our age to bring conversion and evangelization, or if instead the age is to be an anti-Christian era of persecution and institutional decline for the Church, is for God to know and determine: our duty is to work to Christianize our neighbors and our age.
For the purposes of this post, however, it is sufficient to put aside that matter and to begin by asserting that we in certainly live in a sub–Christian era. Whichever direction our civilization will move in relation to the Christian faith, the present moment is actually and substantially derived from its Christian past and yet also is no longer inclined to view that past and its faith as fundamentally and decisively authoritative. Our present moment is inconceivable except in the light of its Christian past but also is no longer self-consciously or explicitly Christian.
The first fact means that often things about our present society have strong affinities with Christianity. The second fact means that often those points of seeming affinity or convergence or dependence in fact obscure real, strong, and substantial differences. Many things about our present order seem Christian or somewhat Christian or at least compatible with Christianity, yet are in truth quite different.
The virtues pursued by Christians and by our secular contemporaries illustrate this dual character of the present. Many Christian virtues have apparent analogues in our secular societies. The similarities between the two can be deceptive. It may be helpful to clarify the current state of Christianity by looking closely at this ‘like and yet unlike’ character of Christian and secular virtues.
But before considering the Christian versus secular divide regarding virtues, it also will be useful to recall that Christians have been here before. There was at the dawn of the Church an existing Greco-Roman civilization with a powerful theory of virtue with which Christians sometimes agreed and sometimes disagreed but usually interacted with in complex ways. Today’s Christians are often more closely aligned with the thought of Aristotle and Plato than with that of modern nihilists, materialists, and consequentialists. Considering all these parties to a conversation about virtue may help illuminate the whole subject.
Regarding the older bifurcation, between Greek and Christian ideas of virtue, consider moderation. The English languages uses ‘moderation’ to translate at least two different classical Greek terms with rather different meanings. One use we find often in Plato and Aristotle, while the other is present in a well-known New Testament text.
‘Moderation’ in Aristotle’s catalogue of virtues is sōphrosunē (σωφροσύνη). Sōphrosunē means ‘soundness of mind’, and its usual sense involves ‘self-control’, ‘moderation’ in desire, and ‘temperance’. From these senses comes an additional sense of ‘discretion’. This virtue has the sense of maintaining a balance between excessive opposites and desires, of observing a golden mean, and of avoiding extremes. The ‘moderate’ gentleman is reasonably generous and avoids both the disagreeable excess of the skinflint and also that of the spendthrift. Likewise, the moderate gentleman is sensibly courageous, being neither a coward nor inclined to take foolhardy and unnecessary risks. Moderation in this sense has a kind of negative quality that avoids extreme opposites. Moderation as sōphrosunē seeks a golden mean that lies between opposing excesses and vices.
In the King James Version’s translation of Philippians 4, the word ‘moderation’ also appears, but as a translation not of the noun sōphrosunē, but rather of an adjective, epieikēs (ἐπιεικής/-ές). Saint Paul writes, ‘Rejoice: Let your moderation be known unto all men.’ Epieikēs in reference to statements, arguments, or ideas has the sense of ‘fitting’, ‘reasonable’, ‘suitable’, or ‘fair’. When applied to people epieikēs has a more moral tone, still meaning ‘reasonable’, but also ‘kind’, ‘gentle’, and ‘good’. If sōphrosunē is a matter of balance, of avoiding and triangulating between opposed tendencies, then epieikēs seems more a positive, intrinsically desirable quality.
In the sense of Philippians 4 it is not obvious that epieikēs should be translated as ‘moderation’. It might better be translated in that setting with a word that suggests active, positive virtues or an inclination toward the positive qualities we have just noted: kindness, mildness, gentleness, or perhaps fairness. Matthew Arnold suggested that it be rendered ‘sweet reasonableness’. Saint Paul calls the Philippians to epieikēs after telling them twice to rejoice and before warning them, or promising them, that ‘the Lord is at hand’. What Paul means is, ‘Let your kindness be known unto all men,’ or, ‘Let your gentleness be known unto all men.’ Paul does not propose or insist that this kindness be measured out with a rational and careful calculation, though he surely also does not propose reckless folly. Christian epieikēs seems a more lavishly enacted virtue than the ‘moderation’ that may go by the same English name and that translates sōphrosunē. There is no excess possible in the case of kindness, though the practical nature and results of kindness to others will vary with their individual circumstances and capacities. One cannot be too kind, though sometimes real kindness requires ‘tough love’.
These two possible meanings for ‘moderation’ rest firmly in the classical, premodern moral tradition shared by, for example, Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas. What Christians did to the pagan understanding of virtue was make an addition or reorientation. Christians asserted that the proper, ultimate, and essential orientation of virtue is more than natural. For the pagan, man has as his goal a finite perfection to which he is naturally inclined, if his nature is not distorted, and which fulfils his natural capacities. For the Christian that goal includes a supernatural component because the ultimate orientation of human being is towards God. In Saint Augustine’s words, the human heart is restless until it rests in God. Since human desire is infinite, its only satisfaction lies in an infinite object, God.
On this Christian theory, man’s greatest possible fulfilment in the natural world is achieved by aiming beyond the natural world to a supernatural end. This supernatural end does not simply add something to the natural, as a kind of second story built on top of the natural level. Rather there is, in Karl Rahner’s term, a ‘supernatural existential’: a fundamental feature in human being that orients us beyond finite being. To be human is to be inclined towards the more than human. There is no such thing as the ‘merely natural’ human being. There is no ultimate human satisfaction in the merely natural world. Nature is naturally oriented to the more than natural.
The virtue which enables the natural being to aim beyond nature in his natural activity is charity or the love of God. For Aquinas charity is the ‘form’ of all virtue. That is, charity informs and transforms and elevates courage, temperance, justice, and prudence, and all natural virtues, and makes them more perfectly what they are in themselves most precisely by directing them beyond themselves. There can be no real virtue, no real, for example, sōphrosunē, moderation, that is not infused also with the kindness and gentleness of the epieikēs, the kind man who loves God. Since all virtue has God as its ultimate orientation and goal, there can be no ‘moderation’, in the sense of a qualification or limitation, to that love.
In short, the Christian understanding of virtue does not contradict Aristotle or the pagan ideas of virtue in most respects, but rather it redirects their ideas by fundamentally reorienting all human activity towards God. This addition of charity to the pre-Christian understanding of virtue marks the main division between, on the one hand, pre-Christian, classical thought concerning virtue and, on the other hand, Christian thought on the subject. The difference between classical sōphrosunē and Paul’s epieikēs partly illustrates the distinction.
The distinctiveness of Christian understanding of virtues and vices will be shown here next with other examples in addition to the two senses noted for ‘moderation’. First, we will consider the difference between the meaning of ‘hypocrisy’ in the biblical tradition and in common secular discourse. Secondly, we will compare the central Christian, or theological, virtue of charity with its secularized substitutes of altruism and toleration.
The Greek word hypocrisy is ὑπόκρισις, hupokrisis. The substantive root, krisis, ‘crisis’, means ‘choice’ or ‘decision’. With the addition of the prefixed preposition, ὑπό-, hypo-, ‘hypocrisy’ means the assumption of a position or of a decision or of a part. In dramatic terms the ‘hypocrite’ is an actor, one who enacts a part or who assumes a role. In the New Testament use of the word, particularly in the denunciations of the scribes and Pharisees by Jesus in Saint Matthew’s gospel, ‘hypocrisy’ takes on its common modern meaning: an insincere, deceptive, critical condemnation of others that implies the assumption or affectation of a non-existent virtue in the person issuing the condemnation.
Alternatively, however, hypocrisy has been defined by Francois de La Rochefoucauld as ‘the tribute vice pays to virtue’.[i] The emphasis in La Rochefoucauld’s definition is not on a negative, on the failure of the hypocrite to possess and practice a virtue, but rather on a positive, on his at least tacit admission and acceptance of the virtuous character of a quality to which he may aspire but which he himself in fact does not fully possess. Since virtues are acquired by habituation, by habitual and repeated acts that gradually make virtuous behavior easier, hypocrisy may even be seen as a stage in the process of acquiring virtue. A timid boy who sees fortitude and courageous acts as admirable and desirable may nonetheless be inconsistent in his action in the face of dangerous and daunting situations. That inconsistency may be described as hypocritical, but it also indicates a sound judgement that aspires to align principles and behavior more strongly over time.
These alternative definitions may be reconciled to a substantial degree by considering the targets of Jesus’ denunciation. The ‘hypocrites’ in Saint Matthew’s gospel are not primarily people who are simply weak or who simply fail to live up to the high standards of virtues proposed by the gospel or by the Torah or by the great prophets in the Old Testament. No; the real target of Jesus’ ire are not people who fail to be morally or biblically perfect. On the contrary, Jesus is notably forgiving to real people when he encounters them in moral lapses and failures. The real target of Jesus’ ire are people who both fail to possess requisite biblical virtues but who nonetheless attack and condemn others for the very same failures. ‘Hypocrisy’, in the New Testament sense, does not consist of maintaining a standard which one fails himself fully to achieve. Such failure is a universal reality. Instead, the hypocrisy that Jesus condemns, and that seems to make him truly angry, is hatred and condemnation of others for failing to achieve virtues which the hypocrite also lacks. The deplorable element in hypocrisy is not so much moral failure or weakness as it is harshness and contempt towards others for the same kinds of failure and weakness. In the gospel sense of hypocrisy, hard-heartedness towards others plays as much or more a role than insincerity, weakness, or personal inconsistency.
With this clarification of the New Testament meaning of ‘hypocrisy’ in mind, one finds that the meaning of a Christian moral category is in fact quite different from the modern secularized sense of the term – though in this case we are considering a vice (hypocrisy), not a virtue. Upon reflection, La Rochefoucauld’s definition is correct. Hypocrisy in that sense is a universal, and very desirable, quality in an imperfect world. Hypocrisy only is completely absent when moral agents are either entirely perfect or entirely shameless and devoid of any moral sense.
All people fail to attain, or at least to attain consistently, the high moral standard of the gospel. Insofar as they fall short of moral perfection without abandoning all moral standards and judgments people are hypocrites in the modern, worldly sense of the term. But such imperfection and failure are not the hypocrisy diagnosed and condemned by Jesus. On the contrary, just as the existence of sin suggests the correctness of the Christian doctrine of the fall, so the existence of moral imperfection in the face of correct moral teaching is itself a confirmation of the rectitude of the fundamental Christian moral system.
Anger, pride, lust, and envy are nearly universal and can only be denounced by people who themselves are subject to anger, pride, lust, and envy. Their denunciations are tributes – correct, necessary, salutary tributes – to the firm and permanent moral verities, though the denunciations are voiced by the fallible and sinful. Such teaching is, to repeat, not hypocrisy in the sense of Jesus in Saint Matthew’s gospel. The hypocrisy that seems to make Jesus angry would be something more like a bank-robber raging against bank-robbing and demanding that all bank-robbers be put to death.
The distinction between the two meanings of ‘moderation’ noted above involved two pre-modern theories. The distinct understandings of ‘hypocrisy’ noted here, the biblical sense and Rochefoucauld’s definition, involve a pre-modern, Christian meaning and a meaning that really is neither ancient nor modern. In both cases the distinctive element in the Christian moral understanding involves charity, the orientation of the will towards God. Charity, love of God, leads on the human level to kindness that seeks the good of others and that colors and gentles moral teaching and judgement.
Charity is the distinctive element in these previous distinctions. Our final example distinguishes ‘charity’ from two primary modern virtues, namely ‘altruism’ and ‘toleration’. These distinctions also seem to range the Christian virtue more with classical ideas of virtue than with the modern theories.
‘Altruism’ is a kind of secularized, modern version of sanctity. Altruism is the selfless pursuit of good for others. Altruism is bound within the confines of the human, finite, secular world. It seeks the good for others for reasons that are not stated. Perhaps the altruist feels better and enjoys some personal, psychic benefit from his or her good acts. But altruism is itself usually characterized by the lack of reward or benefit to the altruistic person, by a kind of disinterestedness and selflessness.
In traditional Christian understanding, altruism is a fantasy. The Christian always possesses, or should possess, an ordinate self-regard. Ultimately doing that which is good makes one better, which is good, at least ultimately, for oneself. To do evil is to hurt oneself, to render oneself less apt for heaven and less capable of enjoying the bliss of the beatific vision. The self-interest of the Christian and doing the right thing are always ultimately aligned. This fact need not disturb the Christian. God has so ordered the world by implanting in human nature a supernatural orientation, that the good-in-itself and the good-for-me are ultimately the same.
This coincidence of the good and of the good-for-me is, of course, not always apparent to the secular imagination. But the altruistic ideal of the secular person ultimately rests on a kind of afterglow of Christian anthropology. There is in fact no perfectly disinterested moral actor. That is not a proof of universal selfishness and evil, but rather is a fruit of divine Providence which implants in people an ultimate and ineradicable longing for Himself as our ultimate good.
This distinction between altruism and charity overlaps somewhat the distinction between toleration and charity. Toleration can mean different things, but generally it refers to acceptance of disagreement as necessary, inevitable, or even desirable. The difference among these cases (necessary, inevitable, and desirable) is important.
At its most limited, toleration may mean a kind of reluctant acceptance that the suppression of dissent or disagreement would impose costs worse than permitting that dissent or disagreement. This we might call practical, as opposed to principled, toleration. In this version of toleration, it is not seen as a virtue, but as an unfortunate or practical necessity under given circumstances. If the circumstances change, the usefulness of toleration would pass. If, for example, virtue were much more widely inculcated and embraced, and if vice were much more a rare deviation, then toleration might give way to remediation, correction, and punishment.
But there also is a version of toleration that rests on a kind of deep skepticism and positive disbelief in the possibility of discovering the true and the good. On this version of toleration, it is desirable, and its opposite is to be condemned, because the good and the true are effectively unknowable or unachievable. If all opinions and behaviors are equal, then there is no basis in reason for distinguishing between or among them. Making such distinctions, on this view, is an act of arbitrary will, not of reason and virtue.
Toleration in this stronger, more skeptical form, is certainly not the same as the Christian virtues of patience, benevolence, and charity. Patience sees good in letting others have time to discover their errors and to correct their mistakes. Benevolence wishes others well and passes over their errors for the sake of other goods such as amity and civil peace. Charity, which usually includes patience and benevolence, gives to others in error the same kind of mercy that we wish to receive from God and from each other. Toleration is essentially negative, flowing from skeptical disbelief in the knowability of the good and the true or from a resigned belief that imposition of the good and the true would be counterproductive. Patience, benevolence, and charity are positive, flowing from a love of God and neighbor.
[i] La Rochefoucauld, d. 1680. I do not assert that my interpretation here of this phrase was intended by La Rochefoucauld. I simply borrow his definition as very useful.