Thursday, March 09, 2006

is natural virtue false virtue?

Disclaimer: Don't get me wrong with this one, I would never advocate dissention from St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine :) I think they would agree with my conclusion. And believe me, my Philosophy teacher is top-notch, he'd tell me if I was going astray. That said...

Sokolowski and the Question of Falsity in the Natural Virtues

Aristotle, in Book II of Nicomachean Ethics, defines moral or natural virtue (or “excellence”) as a “characteristic”[1] that “renders good the thing itself of which it is the excellence” and “causes it to perform its function well.” To be more precise, he adds that “the virtue or excellence of man… will be a characteristic which makes him a good man, and which causes him to perform his own function well.” Furthermore, “to experience [emotions and actions, and pleasure and pain] at the right time, toward the right objects, toward the right people, for the right reason, and in the right manner – that is the median and the best course, the course that is a mark of virtue.”[2] St. Thomas Aquinas also has a definition. It is one that he says “will apply to all virtues in general… [i.e.] Virtue is a good quality of the mind, by which we live righteously, of which no one can make bad use.”[3] It is also “a habit perfecting man in view of his doing good actions.”[4] This phrase, “doing good actions,” helps us see that these natural virtues are acquired through action. Regardless, these two definitions sound to us to be very similar.

But, St. Thomas also makes a stark contrast between natural virtue and other moral virtues that are infused in us by God. He says, “those infused moral virtues, whereby men behave well in respect of their being ‘fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God’ (Eph. 2:19), differ from the acquired virtues, whereby man behaves well in respect of human affairs.”
[5] But the contrast goes even further. He says that “only the infused virtues are perfect, and are to be called virtues [simply] simpliciter… The other virtues, the acquired ones, are virtues [in a restricted sense or “in a way”] secundum quid, but not [simply] simpliciter.” Hence, “[A] gloss of Augustine on the words, ‘For all that is not from faith is sin’ (Rom. 14:23), says: ‘Where there is no recognition of the truth, virtue is false, even in good habits.’”[6] But what becomes of the man who does not know God yet is still a good person, exhibiting well the acquired natural virtues? Are these not virtues after all? Is his seemingly moral life a life of “false virtue”? Indeed, Aquinas’ and Augustine’s treatment here rings sharply in our ear toward inter-religious ecumenism. If their case is true, it has many ramifications in our theological reflection and dialogue, as Christians, with people of non-Christian religions.[7]

To address this matter further, we will turn to Monsignor Robert Sokolowski’s book, The God of Faith and Reason. He provides much material that can aid us in our pursuit of an answer to the question: Is natural virtue false virtue? And he acknowledges our instinct to declare “that it is not fair to natural virtue to call it false” and what this has done to theological reflection. Frankly, he says, theological reflection must face these problems, “the aporiae,” when it “examines ‘actions’ within the Christian setting."

First, the proper distinction must be made, before we can begin to understand what natural virtue even is. Sokolowski is a master of distinctions, shedding light on ideas and realities by looking at their counterparts or by looking at what they are not. He notes, by observing the action of mankind, that we all naturally do this, we all utilize distinctions as we seek to understand the world and everything of and not of it. We understand the living more when we contrast it to what we can know of the nonliving. We understand health more when we contrast it to disease. “Making distinctions is the first step of the exercise of reason” and looking at an object without taking into account its “proper other” only gives us half of our object’s story, half of its “disclosure.”

Sokolowski gives us a proper beginning-distinction in Chapter Seven, “Theological Virtue.” He says that “in order to discuss the integrity of what is and remains good by nature, we must first bring out more fully the differences between the natural and the Christian.” In the “natural” setting, there is a “steady anonymity of the world, in and against which action occurs.” But when this natural setting, the world, is viewed in light of the Christian understanding of the world as created and of God as its creator, “human action, correspondingly, is now obliged in a new way; it must not only bring itself forward in virtue in order to become itself; it must also respond to the generosity of creation and to the still greater generosity of the incarnation and redemption.” Sokolowski informs us that “our involvement in this new setting is cultivated in what have been called the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.” So, to both clarify our Aristotle and Aquinas distinction at the beginning and to refine the distinction we’ve made here, we could say that it is now safe to move forward with a distinction between natural virtue and theological virtue.

Sokolowski then, quite helpfully, reinforces what we said in the beginning with clear definitions of each: “natural virtue is acquired by doing good actions, first under the guidance of others and then on our own.” And in the exercise of faith, hope, and charity,
what is being done is, not merely an action within a setting of the world and its necessities, but an involvement with God who is not a part of this world… The differences within which such identifications take place are articulated when the world is taken no longer as the final setting for action, but as the place in which God the creator has intervened to make available his own divine life.
In this new Christian setting, we must keep in mind though that natural virtue isn’t assumed or transformed into theological virtue; it retains its dignity and its own distinctive character. A person, for example, who is weak in the natural virtues of self-control, can, in that struggle still be an example of faith, hope, and charity. He is still weak but at the same time can still receive the grace of the theological virtues. And, the “bonum honestum,” that which is noble and good in the natural setting, remains that which should be done by the Christian agent. “What is good by nature is not set over against what is good by grace but is integrated into it. And what is good by grace is not simply a matter of convention and arbitrary decision; rather it builds on nature and shares in the reasonableness associated with nature.” But, “the truth in this paradox is the theological truth that God’s work is not achieved through human virtue and that God can choose even the weak to make his grace manifest.” The Christian may here ask: “If God’s work is not achieved through human virtue,” what good is it? Can we now answer our question, “Is natural virtue false virtue?” with a “No”?

Sokolowski adds that Aquinas says that natural moral virtue conditions us “only” for civic life and human affairs and “from the point of view of the final end of man, good dispositions that fail to serve the final end [God] do somehow seem to be bleached of their goodness.” Here again we think Sokolowski is going to answer our question with a negative but he digresses to discuss “other shifts in the meaning of virtue between Aristotle and Aquinas.”

In Chapter Eight, “The Theology of Disclosure,” Sokolowski takes up our question again: “Augustine has said, and Aquinas has quoted him as saying, that natural virtue without faith is false virtue… It seems to deny what is obvious. According to every natural measure there were and there are good, prudent men among those who do not share the Christian faith.” So what is the conclusion? Here, a further distinction is needed:

Instead of comparing the theological good with the natural [as we’ve done up to this point], it is necessary to examine how the one comes to light against the other, to show how the theological good becomes differentiated from the natural good… If we wish to clarify what is meant theologically when natural virtue without faith is said to be false virtue, we must… turn to the theology of disclosure.
With this theology, we try to determine how the theological good becomes light; we try to show how the distinction between the natural and the Christian good occurs. “In the way things appear we also have presented to us the way things are in themselves.” Sokolowski makes another digression here so that he can flesh out his theology with examples and more distinctions. Toward the end of the chapter he provides a helpful summary and again we are back to our question. Will there be an answer?

The fact is there is one obstacle keeping us from the answer: our own expectation. Modern philosophy has so permeated our culture that we demand cut-and-dry “Yes” or “No” answers to the questions we have about life. We want “clear and distinct” ideas. There must be no more mystery; we are unsatisfied with conclusions that require further thought or reflection.

[E.g.,]Our way of thinking about moral issues is very much influenced by the way Kant formulated them. Kant was influenced by Christian moral teaching and by currents in modernity that tend toward the overly formal, detached sense of reason… we must get out from under Kant and away from his formulations of moral terms and alternatives; Aristotle can help us do so.
Thankfully, Sokolowski is an Aristotelian.

Remember when we said earlier that Sokolowski notes what “we all naturally do” by “observing the action of mankind”? He accepts wholes as they are presented to him and the being they disclose. He doesn’t see the world as simply full of parts, as modernity does, parts that need to be assembled by man in specific ways so that he can reach the conclusions he desires. Sokolowski sees the natural and the Christian setting as both being full of conclusions already, conclusions that disclose rich meaning and value. In our case, we must not neglect “what we might call the density of the simply natural, the fact that it has its own kind of wholeness on its own kind of terms.” Looking at what the whole of the natural setting (with its natural virtues) discloses grants us much more insight than what we could obtain from merely asking, “Yes or No?” or “True or false?” Placing the natural setting and the Christian setting into a distinction and looking at their disclosures doesn’t require that we necessarily pit the two against each other, as our modern tendencies would have us do. Our ecumenical discussions and theological reflections with non-Christians are much better served if we look honestly at each one and appreciate what each one is and what each one is not:

Natural virtue is what we begin with in human experience. Theological virtue is disclosed in contrast with it, so theological virtue cannot say that natural virtue does not exist or that it is simply false. However, the disclosure of the theological is so special, and the kind of activity it opens for human being is so different, that natural virtue does not render us capable in any way of behaving in the new context. Hence natural virtue comes to light as not able any longer to let us act: from this perspective it changes its color and is “not” virtue.
There is a big difference between appreciating what something is “not” and simply proclaiming it is false. And we’ve already seen above what natural virtue “is”: It renders good; puts us on the median and best course; is a habit perfecting man; by it we behave well in human affairs; and it is unopposed to theological virtue. If we can show non-Christians that we appreciate the contributions of natural virtue then they will be more open to hear our disclosure of the distinct contributions of theological virtue. We wouldn’t say they are equal here. After all, Sokolowski rightly states that “natural virtue does not provide salvation." But by appreciating natural virtue without unduly elevating it and by presenting the disclosure of theological virtue without watering it down, the distinction between the two can serve to strengthen the ecumenical dialogue between Christians and non-Christians rather than deter it.

[1] Bk. II, Art. 5: “Thus, if the virtues are neither emotions nor capacities, the only remaining alternative is that they are characteristics. So much for the genus of virtue.” You gotta love that last sentence.
[2] Bk. II, Art. 6
[3] Summa I II, Q.55, A.4: From Answer: “Lastly, God is the efficient cause of infused virtue, to which this definition applies; and this is expressed in the words ‘which God works in us without us.’ If we omit this phrase, the remainder of the definition will apply to all virtues in general, whether acquired or infused.” This definition, from Objection 1, in its entirety is: “‘Virtue is a good quality of the mind, by which we live righteously, of which no one can make bad use, which God works in us, without us.’”
[4] Summa I II, Q.58, A.2: From Answer. Also defined as “habits of the appetitive faculty”
[5] Summa I II, Q.63, A.4
[6] Here I use the translations Sokolowski provides on p. 78-79.
[7] As Sokolowski notes at the beginning of Ch. 3, p. 21, the distinction between Christians and Atheists doesn’t work as well as the distinction between Christians and Non-Christians. So we will stick to the latter here.

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