If you are in the cultural mainstream, you may have heard of David Brooks, thinker, writer and lifestyle guru; or, like me, you might just have discovered him yesterday. Mr Brooks has recently developed the idea of “resumé virtues”, as opposed to “eulogy virtues”. The first are the sort of virtues you boast about when trying to get a job; the second are the sort of virtues that other people will mention at your funeral. Needless to say, while we act often as if the first were the most important, it is the second that really count.
I don’t really want to examine the Brooksian idea in detail, but I think it is a likeable concept. One thing I particularly like about it is that it gets people to think about the virtues (always to be discussed in plural, please note). In other words it gets people to go back to Aristotle. This is praiseworthy, for Aristotle still has much to teach us, and Luther was wrong to say “Away with Aristotle!” and “What has Aristotle to do with Christ?” You can never have too much Aristotle – after all, the alternative to reason is the bare unadorned will. As Alasdair MacIntyre so rightly pointed out, the choice is simple: Aristotle or Nietzsche?
But if we are to make sense of the virtues we need to grasp two very important things as well, without which the virtues cannot make sense.
The first is that the virtues can only be practised in a community of some sort. For Aristotle, this community was the city state, a rather small community, where most of the citizens would have known each other. Only in such a setting could the citizen be virtuous, for the virtues – things like courage and justice, fortitude and temperance – are things that cannot be practised in isolation. They involve reasoned reflection in a group. And the greatest of these virtues, the one that underpinned all the rest, was phronesis, which is the name that Aristotle gives to the reasoned discussion and reflection, the practical wisdom that should inform decision making. Phronesis, incidentally, is the one thing our own society is very bad at.
Aristotle was writing in the reign of his former pupil, Alexander the Great, whose empire-building had effectively destroyed the city state, so it could be argued that Aristotle’s vision was out of date by the time it was developed. Moreover, Aristotle’s idea of the city is distinctly illiberal from a modern perspective. Phronesis and the life of the virtues was only possible for the leisured citizen class who were responsible for the welfare of the city. Women, slaves, foreigners and children were excluded from any decision-making process. Perhaps as little as 15 per cent of the population actually participated in Greek democracy and had the opportunity to live the virtuous life as Aristotle saw it.
This leads us to the second major point. The virtues can only be lived in a community; and that community is one from which certain people must be excluded.
The virtues for Christians also must be practised in a community, the community of the Church. Prayer, for example, is a virtuous activity, which is to be practised as a member of the community of the Body of Christ. Above all, theological reflection needs to happen within the community of the Church, namely, as Alasdair MacIntyre puts it, a community from which radical dissent has been excluded.
Upholding the principle of social exclusion does seem pretty counter-cultural these days, but it is something that we need to rediscover. It is simply not possible to have a chess club that admits people who hate chess. You cannot allow people who think golf is a load of rubbish to join the golf club. And as for the community of the Church, it will cease to be a community, and indeed a Church, if it does not exclude from its ranks those who do not hold the doctrines of the Church.
So, Mr Brooks’s talk of the virtues must inevitably lead us to ask where we can learn the virtues he praises, and where we can practise them. One place is the Church. There are other places as well, including the congregation of the children of Israel. The community of the Church is one very convenient place for all of us to learn to be better people. Incidentally, the Church is also the place where we see not just the greatness of Aristotle, but his shortcomings as well. He excluded the slaves, women, children and foreigners from his community, simply because either they did not have the leisure for philosophical reflection and wisdom, or the maturity for it, or the necessary allegiance to the city state. But the Church does not exclude any of these groups of people. Very early in Church history it was clear that the Church was a place where slaves, women, children and foreigners could live a fully communitarian life (the ancient Romans strongly disapproved of this, by the way); that is why so many of the early saints are women, children or slaves or freedmen. The Church was the place where all could be fully human. Let us hope that this is still the case today. Whoever you are, you can take part: you just have to believe.
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