How odd the values espoused by Jesus must have appeared to a cultivated Greco-Roman sensibility.
Recently I was reading an author who wrote very appreciatively of Aristotle’s ethics. I had no clue what he was praising. So I pulled down a copy of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics* from my bookshelf. I had read a portion in a college philosophy class, but had not opened it since. I have no idea why I have not contributed it to a used book sale a long time ago.
Reading it has been a fascinating experience. Aristotle locates virtues at the mean between two extremes, extremes of excess and extremes of deficiency.
Courage, for example, is the virtue, he says, that stands in the mean between excessive rashness and extreme fearfulness. The coward has too much fear and too little courage, the rash man too much courage and too little fear. It is the brave man who has the right attitude, for he has the right disposition, enabling him to observe the mean.**
He spends several chapters analyzing various virtues that many cultivated ancient Greeks presumably admired. Aristotle certainly did. It is not always easy to find the right equivalent in English for the Greek words, but these virtues include (in the translation I read) liberality, temperance, magnanimity, proper ambition, good temper, and sincerity of speech and demeanor.
Delineating the Character of a Gentleman
What struck me as I was reading these chapters was how Aristotle’s virtues so fit the qualities that Western civilization has come to associate with the concept of the refined gentleman. That sense of balance that comes by living in the mean seems to describe well the kind of character that we so admire in a cultivated person. Such a person seems to know how to live a disciplined life without becoming either a kill-joy or a debauchee.
Many of Aristotle’s virtues have seeped deeply into the Western consciousness. Maybe that is why I found myself reading these chapters with such pleasure.
But at one point Aristotle called me up short. He is describing the proper disposition of a good man when he has a reason to be angry. On the side of excess Aristotle places irascibility, a tendency to fly off the handle with every provocation. On the side of deficiency, he places what he calls a ‘tameness of spirit,’ a ‘submissiveness,’ or a ‘meekness’ that is an improper response when one has a reason for getting angry and does not.
Such a disposition, Aristotle says, looks like insensibility or want of proper spirit. For if he never gets angry, how can he take his own part? So people think that to swallow an affront, or to let our relatives be insulted, is no conduct for a gentleman.
He then goes on to say in an aside: …people mostly regard a man of this type as going too far in the direction of meekness because of his tendency to forgive an injury rather than seek to redress it.***
The Contrast with Jesus
When I read this, I thought how different is Aristotle’s viewpoint from Jesus’. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:5). And when his disciples ask how often they should forgive their brother who sins against them, Jesus responds, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:22)
No one has exemplified that childlike meekness that Jesus lifts up quite like Francis of Assisi. But one has the sense that Aristotle would have found Francis an odd and strange character. He might well have found the life Francis lived incomprehensible, especially Francis’ renunciation of all wealth and his passionate attachment to the life of poverty.
What this does is show for us how strange and odd Christianity must have appeared to the ancient pagan Greeks and Romans that encountered it in the very first Christians. Though some of them certainly admired how Christians cared for one another, they also found the attachment that Christians had to values like meekness, humility, forgiveness, and self-denial inexplicable. These values were so out of step with the values good cultivated Greeks and Romans admired that many of them would have regarded these Christian values as unmanly and unnatural.
The mindset of Western civilization since those early centuries has come to blend the high virtues of pagan culture with the values espoused by Christianity into a synthesis that we tend to think as quite reasonable. We regard this synthesis as so matter-of-fact that we seldom question it as a Christian ethic. But then we read someone like Aristotle in his own words. When we do, I think we begin to sense how odd Christian values appear to someone who has not been infused with those values through long centuries of Christian-influenced education.
As Christianity recedes from the commanding position it has occupied in Western culture in the past, we may become much more conscious of how the two world views sharply contrast with each other. The synthesis may not endure.
* Aristotle, The Ethics of Aristotle, translated by J.A.K. Thomson, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1955.
** Ibid., page 97.
*** Ibid., page 128.