Jacques Maritain Center : Aristotle and the Christian Church



IN the department of Ethics Aristotle brings to bear the same happy method and the same keen intellectual vision that run through all his writings. He who knew how to define so well God and the human soul is only a little less happy in his analysis of the human heart; and he is so because, as we have seen, he failed to catch the intimate union between the Creator and His creatures. Still he is admirable in his treatment of virtue and vice, and of the disciplining of human character into the practice of the one and the avoidance of the other. "And," says an authority already quoted, "no greater praise can be given to a work of heathen morality than to say, as may with truth be said of the Ethical writings of Aristotle, that they contain nothing which a Christian may dispense with, no precept of life which is not an element of the Christian character;{1} and that they only fail in elevating the heart and the mind to objects which it needed Divine Wisdom to reveal, and a Divine Example to realize to the life."{2} That Aristotle did fall short of the Christian ideal is to be looked for. His premises could not carry him further. Holding as he did, that the soul dies with the body, he could see no other supreme aim in life, no other standard of happiness, than the highest and most perfect activity of the soul during the span of its years. And so, the outcome of his reasoning he thus expresses: "But if happiness be the exercise of virtue, it is reasonable to suppose that it is the exercise of the highest virtue; and that will be the virtue or excellence of the best part of us. Now, that part or faculty -- call it reason, or what you will -- which seems naturally to rule and take the lead, and to apprehend things noble and Divine -- whether it be itself Divine or only the Divinest part of us -- is the faculty the exercise of which, in its proper excellence, will be perfect happiness. . . Our conclusion, then, is that happiness is a kind of speculation or contemplation. . . . The man who exercises his reason and cultivates it, and holds it in the best condition, seems also to be the most beloved of heaven."{3} Herein is embodied the weak point of his system; therefrom flow others no less weak.

Again, argues the Stagyrite, since the object of virtue is the attainment of the highest happiness and the chief good of this life, whatever includes these things is highest and chiefest. But, as the whole is by necessity prior to the part, the State is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual.{4} In the State, then, must reside the chief good for man. It is better and more complete both to attain and secure.{5} That man is good who fulfils the end and aim of the State. But the State exists, not for the sake of life only, but for the sake of a perfect and self-sufficing life.{6} The good citizen is therefore the superior of the good man. The State should mould him to its end.{7} "This," he tells us, "can only be effected if men live subject to some kind of reason and proper regimen backed by force."{8} At the last analysis, the sole sanction for the practice of virtue is that which comes from the State. The great object of living virtuously is that the State may profit thereof. The very virtues upon which the philosopher lays stress, are those most contributing to the well-being of the State. This is the meaning of individual perfection. It is not a sense of virtue that rules the community -- however isolated cases may have been so influenced -- so much as a sense of self-sufficiency. And this grows out of the relations of society to the State. Men lived for the State. The virtue of patriotism was the primary, all-absorbing virtue of society. For this men were disposed to be frugal and industrious, prudent and just and temperate, and willing to make many sacrifices, even the sacrifice of life itself. Hence it is that Aristotle makes justice the primary virtue. "Justice," says he, "is the bond of men in States, and the administration of justice, which is the determination of what is just, is the principle of order in political society."{9} "That which is for the common interest of all is said to be just."{10} The exclusive practice of such virtues tended to make men sturdy, proud, and self-sufficient. "For," says Aristotle, "what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family. Moreover, the final cause and end of a thing is the best, and to be self-sufficing is the end and the best."{11} And this sense of self-sufficiency is the characteristic trait that runs through the story of the great heroes of antiquity. It taught revenge, but it could not teach meekness; it inculcated pride, but it could not inculcate charity.

Not but that with time, and thought, and the advance of civilization, with its increase of humanizing influences, the moral sense grew more delicate and the finer virtues came to be appreciated. Stoicism restored the link of union and intimacy with the Divinity, which Aristotle had missed, and in consequence established a high and unbending code of morality; but the code of Stoicism, as well indeed as all other Pagan codes of morality, was confined to a favoured few who had the leisure for meditation and aspirations and sentiments above their fellow-men. There is not a moral law of our nature that human reason is not competent to evolve. There is not a moral precept inculcated in the Gospel that had not been practised among the disciples of Pythagoras or Gautama, by Jew or Brahmin. This is the great merit of the New Law that it only elevated and sanctified and brought home to the lowliest the best and noblest aspirations of the choice souls of humanity. The evolution of the moral sense from the days of Aristotle to those of Cicero is marked. Already do we begin to hear words of sympathy for the slave, and the feeling of a universal brotherhood is dawning.{12} There are certain privileged spots near the statues of the gods in which the slave fleeing the wrath of a harsh master may find sanctuary.{13} To the moral views of Seneca and Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius the evolution is still more wonderful. Seneca is profoundly impressed with the sense of human sinfulness. He enters into himself, and makes that daily examination of his conscience which has so edified Roger Bacon.{14} "We have all sinned," he tells us; "some more gravely, others more lightly; some from purpose, others by chance impulse, or else carried away by wickedness external to them; others of us have wanted fortitude to stand by our resolutions, and have lost our innocence unwillingly and not without a struggle."{15} But withal Seneca wavered as regards belief in a future existence. He regarded the sage as superior to God in all else but immortality. His philosophy was the philosophy of a strong nerve. Epictetus, the crippled slave who sought to make of his whole life a hymn of praise to God, is one of the noblest and most beautiful characters of antiquity.{16} He had great delicacy of conscience. He guarded his thoughts as carefully as his deeds. He also felt oppressed by the sense of sin. He asks: "Is it possible for a man to be sinless? It cannot be; but it is possible to strive unceasingly after sinlessness."{17} But Epictetus looked to no life beyond the present. Marcus Aurelius has left on record thoughts beautiful as they are consoling on nearly every aspect of morality. He was translated as a book for spiritual reading, by Cardinal Barberini, who dedicated it to his own soul in order to make it --> 118 Aristotle and the Christian Church. --> redder than the purple he wore at the sight of this Gentile's virtues.{18} But Marcus Aurelius never rose to a true conception of the sacredness and dignity of human life. He could not overcome Stoic indifference to suicide.

These men represent what was best in Pagan morality. But we of to-day, in the light of Christian truth and in the presence of the Sermon on the Mount, feel the shortcomings of their greatest and best codes. Stoic calm is not Christian resignation. The suppression of the affections is not their sanctification. And thus is there a profound abyss between what is highest and best in Pagan morals and the simplest practices of Christian teachings. Moreover, the sublime maxims of those choice spirits were within the reach of the cultured and leisurely few, and had little or no influence upon the many. Not that among the people of the Roman world a more humane disposition was not becoming felt. "When," says Aubé, "Alexander Severus reduced the rights of fathers over children to simple corrections; when Hadrian decreed that in future should a master be killed by his slaves the penalty of death would extend only to those surrounding his person and who might have foreseen and prevented the danger; when, going still further, he completely deprived masters of the right of life and death over their slaves -- these emperors only incorporated into the laws what was already a thing of custom."{19} All this while Christian truths and Christian maxims were dawning upon the world, and were proclaimed from forum and amphitheatre, and conviction of their truth was sealed with the blood of martyrs; and though Pagan philosophy may not have recognized the source, it could not have ignored the light that was increasing from dusk to noonday brilliancy.

We would here call attention to what we consider a confusion of language in a clever writer of the day. He says: "There are certain ages in which the sense of virtue has been the mainspring of religion; there are other ages in which this position is occupied by the sense of sin. Now, of all systems the world has ever seen, the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome appealed most strongly to the sense of virtue, and Christianity to the sense of sin."{20} In this passage are the recognition and the misapprehension of an important truth. There never was a religion without a sense of sin. This is the meaning of an altar and a sacrifice. But in the philosophies, and in the public life of ancient Greece and Rome, this sense of sin became buried out of sight among the passions and aspirations of the hour, and so naught is heard of it. The pages of Plutarch, it is true, reveal virtuous act and virtuous word, but rather as the result of a certain active energy, imparting a healthy tone to the whole man, than as deliberate deeds performed with the deliberate purpose of attaining the ends of virtue. This is not the sense of virtue. The Apollo of Belvidere is the Grecian ideal of manly grace and beauty. But what is the predominant expression? Is it not that of a proud, self-sufficient, self-reliant, well-developed, sensuous manhood, trained to the full top of its capacity? In no trait may we read the sense of virtue. We have found the later Stoic moralists fully realizing the sense of sin. But they were exceptions. To the Church is it due to have revived that almost forgotten sense, and sanctified it and made it productive of repentance, by bringing it into intimate relation with the sorrows and sufferings of the Divine Redeemer. Now, repentance means not only a rising out of sin, but also a striving after the opposite virtue.

And here is where the Divine mission of the Church becomes so apparent. She brings home to man his origin and his destiny. She instils into him that whatever there is of good in his nature, is given him for the purpose of attaining that end. Virtue is the habitual action -- or rather the sum of habitual actions -- tending to the end for which man was created. That end, she does not hold with Aristotle to be self-development, or self-sufficiency, or the good of the State. That end is none other than God. His Will defines the rectitude of action in which the soul should dwell. Anything that turns man away from his final destiny -- anything that absorbs his attention and his energies to the total exclusion of that destiny -- becomes sinful.{21} Sin, then, is the state of a soul voluntarily and freely and with open eyes, knowing what it does, diverging from its final end, which is God, putting in the stead the lesser goods of life, and making unto itself a law of its own.{22} The Church brings home to her children the great unreasonableness, injustice, and enormity of this mode of acting and living, by impressing upon them the truths that thereto is to be ascribed the whole degradation of humanity; that therefor did Jesus Christ suffer and die, in order to raise man up from the low state in which he lay prone and helpless. Therefore is it that the sense of sin is deep in the Christian heart; but there is none the less the sense of virtue, or rather the consciousness of striving after perfection by the way of virtue.

The Pagan ideal was that of harmonious development of soul and body. The Christian ideal looks farther. It goes beyond the natural order. It tells us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.{23} Besides the natural virtues, it recognizes others which are of the supernatural order. There are the theological virtues of Faith in God and the truths of His Revealed Religion; of Hope for union with Him in eternity; of Charity, wherewith we love Him with all our heart and all our soul, and in Him and for Him, our neighbour as ourselves. It made predominant a criterion of excellence other than the approval of men. We catch glimpses of such a criterion in the advanced Stoics. Marcus Aurelius touched upon it when he said: "Never forget that it is possible to be at once a Divine man, yet a man unknown to all the world."{24} It is the criterion that seeks approval of God rather than of men, and cultivates the hidden virtues rather than those that shine. Christ gave the example of them in His life, and taught them in His preaching. Modesty of demeanour and humility in thought and act arising from a sense of one's unworthiness before God; chastity in thought as well as in speech and deed; obedience to all lawfully constituted authority, seeing its source and sanction in God; poverty in spirit; resignation to the Divine Will under all trials and troubles, accepting as from the Hand of God, whatever of sickness, or pain, or bodily infirmity, or annoyance from without that may befall one; the meekness that resents not injuries, that considers itself blessed amid revilings and persecutions, that returns good for evil; the spirit of prayer: these are a few out of the many virtues that Christianity in an especial degree made its own. These constitute the Christian ideal. It is the ideal that an Aquinas followed when, resisting the importunities of flesh and blood, he abandoned the comforts of a lordly home, that he might, in the retirement of the cloister, practice those virtues and live in intimate union with God. It is the ideal that the tens of thousands of delicate virgins, thronging the convents the world over, have in view, in entering with a light heart and a cheerful spirit upon their lives of prayer and self-devotion; it is the ideal that moulds the Sister of Charity ministering to want and disease and crime and misery. It is the ideal of Jesus and His Virgin-Mother. Here is a whole world of action and motive entirely unknown to Aristotle.

It need no longer surprise that St. Thomas surpasses himself in that portion of his masterpiece treating of morals. We stand at the sublime source whence he drew his best inspirations. Aristotle found in the State his chief reason for the practice of virtue. Indeed, he expressly tells us that "women and children must be educated with an eye to the State, if the virtues of either of them are supposed to make any difference -- in the virtues of the State."{25} St. Thomas regards things in the light in which the Church places them for his apprehension. That light goes beyond the convenience of State; it looks further than the gratification of human selfishness; and in doing so, it has benefited both the State and the individual. Dwell a moment upon the line of reasoning which the Church has held from the beginning. God is Creator. He is more; He is Preserver. Without His conservative act all things would fall back to their original nothingness. As air retains the light of the sun, without being itself the sun, so every creature of God participates in the being of God without sharing His Divine essence.{26} Therefore man is indebted to God not only for existence, but also for the prolonging of that existence. God created all things for Himself. He imposed upon them the law according to which they may reach their final destiny. To man has he given a rational soul by which to know the laws of his nature and to follow the path in which is traced his destiny. Hence that submission to God's law which man, in common with all other creatures, is clearly bound to pay. Hence man's responsibility toward God; hence that sense of duty; hence that voice of conscience. Again, man is endowed with a free will. God claims from him a willing homage or none at all. There is open to him the way of virtue or the way of vice. He has inbred in his nature passions which are not in themselves bad, and which, when controlled, may become the means of his sanctification and perfection. Love is the source whence they all arise.{27} Love is also the principle by which they are held in hand. It is the law of union binding man with man and man with God. "He that abideth in charity, abideth in God, and God in him."{28} It is the inspiration of zeal for all good.{29} It is the principle of activity in every intellectual being. It underlies all man's actions.{30} It is the fulfilment of the law.{31} It is of God's own essence, for God is Love.

Hitherto other principles -- now of might, now of right, now of justice, now of expediency -- ruled men. The Gospel introduces the law of love, and before its brilliancy all other systems pale; gradually it takes possession of the public conscience, and the predominant principles of other days drop out to be imbedded in the records of history. It revolutionizes life and thought. It brings home to men, as no philosophy could ever bring home to them, the Divine lesson of an universal brotherhood based upon the mystery of redemption. It causes men to realize the sacredness of human personality. It breaks down the barriers of rank and class. It teaches the doctrine of true liberty, true equality, and true fraternity. It looks upon the soul of a slave as something as precious in the sight of God as that of a free-born citizen. It inculcates the dignity of labour. The Pagan world understood the value of labour, but the Pagan world never raised itself up to a proper conception of the dignity of labour. Labour had become so identified with slavery that it was considered degrading. The artisan was unfit to be a citizen. He was too busy to practise virtue. "No man," says Aristotle, "living the life of a mechanic or labourer, can practise virtue."{32} All this was changed by Jesus, the Son of the carpenter.{33} He blessed the poor. He raised up and dignified labour. He showed men how to sanctify it. And so, that which had been regarded as a curse and a hardship, has come to be the greatest blessing to man, to soothe his pains, to heal the wounds of a troubled heart, to develop energy, and to help him to save his soul. Pagan legislation taught men how to endure privations and sufferings for their country's sake; it taught them to see naught of good beyond the narrow limits of their own territory; it inspired them with no sympathy for weakness, no consolation for sorrow, no reverence for old age, no tenderness for decrepitude, no sense of the awful sanctity of human life. It exposed the helpless weakling as unfit to live;{34} it sanctioned and at times commanded the destruction of the babe yet unborn;{35} it placed in the hands of the head of the household, the power of life and death over slave, wife, and child.{36} All this, with more equally criminal and equally unjust, had been of ancient law and ancient custom. It has passed out of the public conscience. A new law, the Law of Divine Love and Divine Grace, shines upon the world and renews the face of the earth,

{1} The author's memory fails him. There are such precepts: Ethics, I. viii. 15, 16; also IV. iv. 5, 6.

{2} Hampden, The Fathers of Greek Philosophy, p. 123.

{3} Nichomachean Ethics, X. vii., viii. ; trans. F. H. Peters.

{4} Politics, I. ii. § 13.

{5} Ethic. Nich., I. ii. 8.

{6} Ibid., III. ix. § 6, § 12.

{7} Ibid., VIII. i. 1.

{8} Politics, I. ii. §l 16.

{9} Ethic. Nich., X. ix. § 9.

{10} Ibid., VIII. ix. § 4.

{11} Politics, I. ii. § 9.

{12} Cicero, De Officiis, III. 6.

{13} Seneca, De Clem., I. 18, vol. ii. p. 26.

{14} Opus Tertium, p. 306.

{15} De Clem., I. 6.

{16} As an instance of the Christian spirit of his philosophy, we cite the following : -- " If any one has spoken evil of you, do not attempt to defend yourself, but simply reply: 'He who said that of me, knew not my other defects'" (Dissert., iv. cap. 12).

{17} Dissert., iv. 22, § 9, vol. i. p. 667.

{18} Crossly, Marcus Aurelius, bk. iv., Preface, p. xix.

{19} St. Justin, Philosophe et Martyr, Etude Critique, Introd. p. lxx.

{20} W. H. Lecky, Rationalism in Europe, vol. i. pp. 388, 389. Elsewhere the author even goes farther and speaks of Pagans as holding for their ideal the beauty of holiness! "The eye of the pagan philosopher was ever fixed upon virtue, the eye of the Christian teacher upon sin. The first sought to amend men by extolling the beauty of holiness, the second by awaking the sentiment of remorse" (European Morals, vol. ii. p. 4). Surely, outside of a few stray expressions in Persius and other Stoics, there is nothing in Pagan literature to justify such a statement.

{21} Summa Theol., 1. i. quaest. lxiii. art. i. c.

{22} Ibid. quaest. civ. art. i. c. ; I. ii. lxxi. vi. ; I. ii. cix. iv. c.

{23} Matt. v. 48.

{24} Thoughts, vii. 67.

{25} Politics, I. iv. § 15.

{26} Summa, I. i. quaest. civ. art. 1.

{27} St. Augustine, De Civ. Dei, lib. xiv. cap. 7, 9.

{28} John iv. 16.

{29} Summa, I. ii. quaest. xxvi. art ii.

{30} "Manifestum est quod omne agens, quodcumque sit, agit quamcumque actionem ex aliquo amore" (ibid., I. ii. quaest. xxviii. art. vi.). {31} Romans xiii. 10.

{32} Politics, III. v. § 5.

{33} Luke iv. 22.

{34} Labourt, Récherches Historiques sur les Enfants Trouvés, pp. 11 seq. Paris, 1845.

{35} Aristotle, Politics, VII. xvi. § 10.

{36} Laws of Solon. See Labourt, ibid., p. 16; Troplong, De l'Influence du Christianisme sur le Droit civil des Romains, p. 314.

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