In Season 2 Episode 3 of the Eudo Podcast, Dr. Paul M. Gould will discuss what the good lifeis and how acquiring virtues can helps us obtain the good life.
What Are Some Of The Main Elements, Classically, That Help Us Understand The Good Life?
Classically, the moral scheme, as Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us, have three main elements:
- First, there is human-nature-as-it-happens-to-be.
- That is, human nature in its untutored state. Given Christian theology, we must incorporate into this first element the idea of the fall: man comes into the world corrupt, “in sin” and inevitably sinning.
- Our desires our disordered because our character is bent, or broken, or fallen because of Adam and Eve’s first sin. And so, the virtuous are those who know what evil is and elect to do good.
- Second, there is the precepts of rational ethics.
- That is, the moral rules and principles that help an individual transform from human-nature-as-it-happens-to-be into human-nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realized its-telos.
- Third, human-nature-as-it-happens-to-be into human-nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realized its-telos.
Notice, the second element—the precepts of rational ethics, given God’s existence, will include divine moral laws. The moral law is both ordained by God and comprehended by reason (and revelation—that is the moral law delivered to us by Scripture) and that which, as a matter of fact, will lead us to our true end, if faithfully followed.
How Does Virtue And Vice Fit Into This Scheme?
When we add teleology back into the picture, we begin to understand our lives as a kind of quest of journey. We are headed somewhere. We are headed toward our true end, or highest good—that which will make us happy.
The virtues help us reach our telos, our purpose—they help us live life well and the vices prohibit us from a life well lived.
“Each human life will then embody a story whose shape and form will depend upon what is counted as a harm and danger and upon how success and failure, progress and its opposite, are understood and evaluated.” (MacIntyre, After Virtue, 144)
Each of us narrates our lives according to a story, and according to that story we live in a universe full of real danger, vulnerability, and fragility. Man is vulnerable to malicious agents, the ravages of the world, and the evil perpetrated by others and found within the human heart.
Moreover, we are promised a guide—the Holy Spirit—as a helper and a moral law to help us grow. And we are given moral exemplars—Jesus and the saints—and a community of like-minded people—the church—to help us along the way.
The Christian story will help us answer the question what the virtues and vices are.
What Is A Virtue? What Is A Vice?
The Greek word used by Aristotle and most commonly translated as virtue is arête, which is better translated as “excellence” or “goodness.” A virtue is a disposition or excellence of character that helps the possessor fulfill its function.
When it comes to humans think about it this way:
- The virtues are those qualities which enable the evil of life to be overcome, the tasks of the good life to be accomplished, and the journey to our end to be completed, this suggests the following definition of a virtue:
- A virtue is [a stable character trait] that which helps us overcome evil, live well, and successfully complete our journey (to God).
There is this idea, underlying the concept of virtue, that there is a kind of strengthor power or potency to virtues. They unlock our potential to be truly free—to do what we ought to do and become who we ought to become.
What is the good life? Can we know our chief end and highest good? Can we attain it?
The philosopher Eleonore Stump, in her book Wandering in Darkness, distinguishes between the objective scale of value and the subjective scale of value.
First, she asks, objectively speaking, what is man’s highest good?
The answer is union with God. Man was created for communion with God through union with Christ. Thus, the worst thing for humans is to become permanently alienated from oneself and others, including God. So, on the objective scale of value, union with God is the upper limit to human flourishing and permanent alienation from God is the lower-bound, the worst thing that can happen to humans.
Regarding the subjective scale of value, Stump argues that a perfectly loving God cares about what we care about. It doesn’t always mean we will get the deep desires of our heart, but God cares about our cares, he cares about the things we care about. So, a subjective value is something that is valuable to me. And we suffer when we lose a desire of the heart. God cares about our flourishing here too.
So, how to be enfold our subjective desires of the heart into our objective good? According to Stump, who is unpacking Aquinas, the answer is that our subjective desires, if faithfully followed, will lead us to our innate and deepest desire of the heart—it will lead us to God. God shapes and molds us into his image so that we can achieve greater and greater degrees of closeness to him, and one day, when we die, we will achieve permanent and perfect intimacy and closeness with God.
If the virtuous are those who know evil and elect to do good, what are some of the chief virtues, or excellences, that constitute the virtuous life?
This season we’ll explore what are called the four cardinal or classic virtues and the three theological virtues. The Ancient world spoke of thecardinal or “hinge” virtues—which are courage, wisdom, justice, and temperance. The idea was that these four virtues are the ones on which all the other virtues depend or hinge.
The theological virtues come from the Bible and are emphasized by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:13 where he mentions the virtues of faith, hope, and love. These are called theological because, unlike the others, they are fully developed not through human nature, but by God’s power.
In the next episode of the Eudo Podcast, we will ask the question “How can we be good?” and discuss four helpful strategies to become virtuous.
- Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue
- Eleonore Stump, Wandering in Darkness