133 Real (Christian) Ethics


                Most folks readily give “opinions” on various moral topics ranging from capital punishment to terrorist attacks.  Like the ancient Sophist, Protagoras, they take man to be “the measure of all things,” and every man supplies his own measuring rod.  To make decisions, many adopt pragmatic or utilitarian positions–assenting to democratic decisions favoring the greatest good for the greatest number, or whatever enables one to live more “successfully.”  But few of them venture to defend their “opinions” as moral absolutes, timelessly true.  Under the guise of tolerance, only a few evils–such as racism–elicit condemnation.  There are no absolutes, no “objective” truths.  So Hermann Goering quipped:  “I thank my Maker that I do not know what objective is.  I am subjective” (quoted in J..C. Fest, The Face of the Third Reich {Penguin, 1983}, p. 121).  Goering became a NAZI, he said, not because he took seriously Hitler’s ideology.  Rather he found it a vehicle whereby to vent his revolutionary passion, his nihilistic feelings, his hunger for vandalism and destruction.  If it feels good, do it!

                Such popular positions closely mirror views advanced in academia, where relativism reigns.  Fashionable “postmodernists” glibly insist that there are no universal “truths,” only interesting perspectives.  To John Rist, “the surcease of ethics can be seen to be parallel to and inextricable from the replacement of truth by assertion” (p. 151).  Learned professors, refusing to discriminate between good and evil, propound a fashionable nihilism that denies “reality” exists–only one’s interpretation of it.  Such intellectuals, as Thomas Wolfe shrewdly observed two decades ago, personify a “radical chic,” hosting terrorists and murderers at Manhattan cocktail parties.  They easily become “downwardly mobile,” taking seriously the criminal underclass or “gangsta rap” music, pretending to identify with the world’s “poor and oppressed,” defending despots like Fidel Castro or Palestinian assassins.

                In the midst of such moral nihilism, an eminent classicist and philosopher, John M. Rist, now Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, argues that of all the ethical “theories” advanced across the centuries, the moral realism of Platonism provides the “only coherent account” yet designed, and he defends that stance in Real Ethics:  Rethinking the Foundations of Morality (Cambridge:  University Press, c. 2002).  Responding to the widely-held notion that there is no metaphysical foundation, no higher source, for moral beliefs, Rist shows how Plato –who perenially pondered “How should I live?”–dealt with the same issue.  “He came to believe that if morality, as more than ‘enlightened’ self-interest, is to be rationally justifiable, it must be established on metaphysical foundations, and in the Republic he attempted to put the nature of these foundations at the centre of ethical debate” (p. 2).   

                The struggle between Socrates and Thrasymachus, in Plato’s Republic, illustrates the enduring difference between foundationalism and perspectivism.  Widely espoused by modern academics, perspectivism holds that “truth” cannot be found, so we must construct theories to realize our desires.  Following Thrasymachus, perspectivists like Nietzsche declare that we’re free to devise our own morality and seek, whenever possible, to subject others to our machinations.  There is no higher law, no transcendent source, for ethics.  In Nietzsche’s phrase, we may go “beyond good and evil,” devising our own rules for life.  The debate between Socrates, who insisted that morality is given to us from a higher source, and Thrasymachus, writes Rist, “is a debate between a transcendental realist and an anti-realist who disagree about the possibility of morality” (p. 19).  To Socrates and Plato, morality has a metaphysical basis.  Working within this tradition, theistic Platonists (especially Augustine) discerned that “God can create trees and men, men can make tables, but goodness and justice are not created by God (nor, it follows, by man), but subsist in God’s being or nature” (p. 38). 

                Having established his benchmark in Plato and Platonic theism, Rist then compares a variety of ethicists in the history of philosophy who have sought to establish other bases for morality.  Epicurus and Macchiavelli, Hobbes and Kierkegaard and Kant are carefully scrutinized, and Rist shows that despite many differences they all share a potent anti-realism.  Interestingly enough, all their “alternatives to ‘Platonic‘ objectivity in ethics may be forms of the claim–becoming explicit only after Kierkegaard but much indebted to him–that what matters in the world is what we prefer, what we choose to be ‘natural’, what we choose as our own–and precisely because we autonomous beings choose it as our own” (pp. 59-60).  Everything reduces itself to what I desire, what I know, what I can be.  Whether in self-help seminars or self-esteem educational publications, it’s clear that a fixation upon the self reigns in modern culture.  In its Nietzschean version (given a “Christian” twist by Paul Tillich), we’re encouraged to accept “ourselves as we are now, not in any responsibility for our actions, but simply in the being what we are” (p. 220).  Consequently, there has emerged–as is evident in various lawsuits and political appeals, “a choice-based, rights-claiming, largely consequentiality individualism, usually dressed up in democratic clothes” (p. 241).                

                In contrast, “For Plato what matters most about human beings is less that they can reason (though to some degree they can and that is important) than that they are moral or ‘spiritual’ subjects, capable of loving the good . . . and hence determining for themselves what kind of life they should live:  that is, whether we should live in accordance with a transcendent (and in no way mind-dependent) Form of the Good . . . or whether we should opt for the alternative life of force, fraud and rationalization, with, as its theoretical counterpart, the denial of metaphysical truths and concentration on the maximization of our desires:  a life in which reason is and ought only be . . . the servant of the passions, tyrannical as those passions will be over both ourselves and others” (pp. 86-87).   So too Aristotle, though he differed with his teacher in important ways, is a Platonist insofar as he emphasized the metaphysical foundations for ethical principles.  However foreign it may seem to modern philosophers, Aristotle thought that “there is something godlike about man,” namely his contemplative potential.   So endowed, despite our imperfections we can behold a transcendently perfect realm, “perfectly existing outside of man and independent of man’s control.  Man is not for Aristotle ‘the measure of all things’, but a variable creature” who finds his greatness through his awareness of and submission to “a superior being” (p.  145).  And Thomas Aquinas, Rist argues, was doubtlessly “a Platonist in that he believes in an ‘eternal law’ which is roughly the Platonic Forms seen in an approximately Augustinian manner as God’s thoughts” (p. 151). 

Though Rist’s placing of Aristotle and Aquinas alongside Plato and Aristotle may initially jar those of us who stress their differences, he makes his point persuasively, and I think he rightly insists that they are all moral realists.   Similarly, it makes sense that he insists that the only answer to our need for ethical direction lies in a recovery of Platonic Realism.  What is good for us, as individuals, is what is good for mankind.  The common good, not the individual good, should concern us.  Ultimately, as Plato held, the “common good will itself depend on the fact of God as a transcendent Common Good, who has made man with his specific needs and limitations and thus gives intelligibility to a common good which is (or should be) the object of human striving in social and political life” (p. 241). 

                More importantly, following Plato leads us to God!  We cannot live rightly apart from God.  Knowing what we ought to do does not imply we can do it.  As the Roman poet Ovid lamented, we generally “know the better and follow the worse.”  Without the empowering presence of God, we routinely fail to attain goodness.  To put it “in traditional terms, for morality to function God must function both as final and (at least in great part) as efficient cause of our moral life” (p. 257).  Those philosophers who construct moral systems based upon prudence or self-interest merely dream utopian dreams.  Theists who hope to establish links with atheists, sharing ethical principles, fail to grasp the fact that purely natural norms ultimately collapse into those of Protagoras and Thrasymachus.

                What Plato shows us Christians is that real ethics must be rooted in Reality.  With him, we must realize “that to be moral is not only to be rational, but also, far more importantly, to be godlike insofar as we are able–as Plato also said, agreeing with the Old Testament’s ‘You shall be as gods'” (p. 276).

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                When Professor Rist was asked to deliver The Aquinas Lecture, at Marquette University, in 2000, he titled his presentation On Inoculating Moral Philosophy Against God  (Milwaukeee:  Marquette University Press, 2000), reducing to a few pages some of the more detailed views he set forth in Real Ethics.  As an Aquinas lecturer, he joins some of the most distinguished philosophers of the 20th century, including Mortimer J. Adler, Yves Simon, Jacques Maritain, and Werner Jaeger.  The event provides a pulpit for distinguished philosophers, an opportunity to amplify their convictions.  Rist’s desire, in this lecture, was “to expose and attempt to correct a rather mysterious phenomenon, that of a group of theistic, indeed Christian, philosophers who act as though it makes no great difference in ethics whether God exists at all, who seem inclined to assume that the question of whether there can be moral truths at all in his absence can be lightly put aside” (p. 96).  To use St. Paul’s terms, addressing Christian philosophers, “be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” 

                Eminent ethicists today, such as Harvard University’s highly influential John Rawls, openly sought to establish a public, political morality in purely secular, implicitly atheistic terms.  Thus J.L. Mackie titled his influential textbook:  Ethics:  Inventing Right and Wrong,  Such thinkers are working out the legacy of  Immanuel Kant’s “Copernican Revolution”–the declaration “that theoretical reason was essentially impotent, and certainly has nothing to contribute to ethics” (p. 84).  To Kant, and his multiplied heirs, “practical reason” constructs morality in accord with human autonomy.  Nothing metaphysical, nothing supernatural, is knowable.  So man designs his own rules.  Whoever persuades–or coerces–others to follow him writes the laws of the land.  The Kantian “revolution” in philosophy, Nietzsche recognized, forces one to acknowledge that “morality either depends on God or it depends on the will and rationality of man.  We either find it or invent it; it rests either on fact or on choice” (p. 94).  Without God, whom Nietzsche declared to be “dead,” all things are possible.

                Rist’s concern is the split that has severed philosophy from theology–a disastrous dichotomy underlying much that’s wrong with the modern world.  What he wants to recover is an Augustinian approach that envisions theology as “an advanced form of philosophy, a philosophy, that is, in which more data is available (even though by ‘belief’ and ‘in hope’ rather than by knowledge”) (p. 19).  Though he calls this position “Augustinian,” it is more broadly “the mind of the early Church at least from some time in the second century, in the days, let us say, of Justin Martyr” (p. 19).  Augustine incorporated Plato’s philosophy into his theology, but he pushed beyond Plato and relied upon divine Revelation for ultimate truths.  In Plato Augustine found reference to God and the Logos–but only in Christ did he behold the Logos revealed as the incarnate Christ.  “It was above all the Platonist picture of God,” says Rist, “as transcendent and as the source and nature of value, which appealed to the developing Christian thinkers, especially when coupled with a theory of the return of the soul through love to God” (p. 87). 

                The same needs to be done by Christian ethicists today, says Rist, for “believers in the Christian religion must propose an understanding of the virtues which is impossible for pagans:  which indeed is only possible for those who believe in a God” (p. 37) Who is the loving Creator of all that is.  To see God as revealed Love, Augustine thought, enables one to “claim that love itself is the basis of the other virtues, which thus become, in his language, ‘nothing other than forms of the love of God'” (p. 38). Augustine’s position, anchored in Plato’s metaphysics, provides modern Christians a way to respond to modern moralists.  Christians must clearly set forth and defend an alternative to the secular model.  Indeed:  “The theistic tradition of which some of us believe that Christianity is the developing fulfillment, started, as Augustine recognized, with Plato.  It is not just any metaphysics which can provide an adequate philosophical framework for the truths of Christianity, but a Platonizing framework” (p. 85). 

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                Rist’s roots in the thought of St. Augustine stand clear in his Augustine:  Ancient thought baptized (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, c. 1994), written to describe “the Christianization of ancient philosophy in the version which was to be the most powerful and the most comprehensive” (pp. 1-2).  In Augustine one finds a unique thinker, fully open to the truth of philosophy and devoutly committed to the authority of Scripture and Church.  Many “truths about the Truth had been discovered by the Platonists” (p. 62).  But the “Truth” can be nothing less than God!  The “forms” Plato discerned by reason are “illuminated” by God for Augustine, lifted to a level of clarity and certainty through Revelation.  “When we learn something, he observes . . . our sources are intelligence (ratio) and ‘authority’; he himself has determined never to depart from the authority of Christ” (p. 57).  Only He “is the way, the truth, and the life.”

                To Plato, first-hand knowledge (episteme), excels second-hand knowledge (doxa), beliefs which may or may not be true.  To move from beliefs about, to knowledge of, what is, is the calling of truth-seekers.  To Augustine, so long as “we long for truth or wisdom we remain ‘philosophers,'” but the happiness we more deeply desire results from a rightly ordered love (p. 51).  To see truths about God may satisfy our minds, but to love God, with heart, mind, and soul, satisfies the soul.  And the reality and nature of the “soul” certainly concerned St. Augustine.  To know God and the soul, he thought, were the two great goals of man.  As Rist devotes a chapter to “soul, body and personal identity,” he makes clear that Augustine refused to reduce the soul to the body, ever insisting that there is a non-material essence to a human being, denouncing the “mad materialism” of Tertullian.  By nature we are, he said, both body and soul, mysteriously, indeed miraculously, “blended” together.  The body is the temple of the soul, worthy of reverence, and the body will be resurrected in the end, fulfilling God’s design for us. 

                Failing to fulfill that design–the imago dei–results, Augustine held, from a weakness of our will, the result of Adam’s fall.  As he expressed it in his Confessions, “it is I who willed it, and I who did not–the same I” (8.10.22).  Impaired by sin, the lack of love, “man is unable to choose the good (non posse non peccare), either in the sense that his good actions are never ‘wholly good’, because not motivated by pure love . . . or in the sense that at some point the will certainly choose evil” (p. 132).  Thanks be to God, however, His grace rescues us, restoring the freedom of the will, granting us sufficient strength to rightly respond to His love. 

                And it’s for love we are designed, to love we are called.  “the whole life of a good Christian is a holy desire,” he said (On John’s Epistle, 4.6).  A good man is impelled by “blazing love” (The Happy Life, 4.35).  Love, of course, may be perverted–loving self or things rather than God.  But rightly ordered, informing the virtues, love for God and neighbor constitutes the good life.  “When Augustine wishes to express the goal of the good life, he often speaks of the need to be ‘glued’ to God or ‘to cleave to God in love'” (p. 162).  Rightly loving God enables one to love others.  “For we are justified in calling a man good,” Augustine wrote in The City of God (11:28), not because he knows what is good, but because he loves the good.”  And he is able to love because God’s grace enables him to.  Consequently, Augustine’s famous injunction, Dilige et quod vis fac (“Love and do what you will”), has little in common with ancient antinomianism or contemporary “situation ethics.”  Rather, real love impels  one “wish to want what God wishes, loves and commands, and God wishes, loves and commands only what is constitutive of his own nature.  God’s nature is by definition unchanging; hence God’s love will be ‘eternal’, and hence we have an ‘eternal law'” (p. 191). 

                After dealing, in detail, with other aspects of Augustine’s thought, Rist concludes his book with a chapter entitled “Augustinus redivus.”  Granting that Augustine has been misread and misinterpreted–note Calvin’s take on his view of predestination, for instance–we should seriously study and courageously proclaim “the power and persuasiveness of many of Augustine’s ideas, and the perspicacity of many of his observations” (p. 292).  Reading Rist enables one to understand how this should be done.   He writes for scholars, and his works require disciplined attention.  But the rewards are worth the effort.  Few philosophers offer meatier material for Christians seriously committed to the truth and its proclamation.