Augustine, Virtue, and the Moral Field

Mark Ian McDowell
Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Dallas

Any account of ethics worth its salt considers three important aspects: the location of ethics, the goal of ethics and the agent of ethics. Christians are tempted to think of ethics in terms of following the right rules in a particular situation to produce the right action. While framed with a high degree of oversimplification the point is that we can tend to focus on our own actions in isolation from internal motives as well as overlooking the communities in which we live that exert a strong level of influence on us. The primary aim of our time together is to consider the three-fold cord of the setting, end and agency of ethics as they are expressed in two broadly construed viewpoints of ethics, namely, ancient and modern, and then turning to draw Augustine into the conversation to provide a more theologically satisfactory account.

When we think broadly about the character of the ethics of Aristotle, we can readily identify this set of core emphases. To oversimplify matters enormously (and here I take my lead from Julia Annas in The Morality of Happiness), we can say that for Aristotle the city is the location for pursuing the common good, that happiness or eudaimonia (temporal happiness or human flourishing) is the end of ethics, and the life of virtue addresses the agent’s morality. Our purpose is to think together about the contrast that exists between an ancient account of ethics and a modern one and to explore the themes that Augustine picks up from the ancient model while attending to the way he extends and alters them in biblical and theological directions. We look in particular at his City of God.

From the outset, I want to be clear that although the discussion spends a good deal of time looking at social, political and ethical elements, the primary themes we are addressing end up bearing theological weight. As it concerns our focus here, the burden will be to look in brief detail at the visible and tangible identity of ancient and modern contexts and the way we end up living because of our place in the world. Theologically speaking, we have to insist that the world is a definite place (opposed to the modern myth that it is an arbitrary area formed by our industry and will), that it is determined and governed by God and, as such, is theologically basic, and finally that it has theological ends written into the very core of its reality that affect our understanding and practice of ethical action. To summarize matters here, I hope to provide a theological interpretation of the moral field, the end of moral action, and agent of moral action for the goal of making sense of the pattern of moral activity and to offer a vision of human sociality that speaks to our ultimate purpose.

For Plato, the community was drawn by a form of the good that transcended the community, but whose form, when contemplated, supplied the content of politics and ethics to the philosopher- king who led the city. In similar fashion, Aristotle sees the ethical setting in the city, but he differs in his conception of the good, which for him is not a transcendental predicate that Plato has in mind, but his account of the good is both less speculative and is located in the concrete and material reality of everyday life. Both philosophers view this good as an end that draws individuals within public life to their ultimate goal, to the experience of eudaimonia (temporal happiness or human flourishing). One achieves eudaimonia through a moral life, which is characterized by the virtues, and yields an ethics that involves shaping of one’s natural desires away from deficiencies and excesses towards the complete picture of goodness and justice. To draw the threads together, this ancient account of ethics emphasizes the social setting of the city as the context of the moral field, in which a moral agent pursues the good through a life of virtue.

This account looks very different to what we see in the modern era. The social setting of the city shifts to that of the democratic nation state, at least for those of us who hail from the US or the UK. Moral agency shifts from an individual shaped and formed through the virtues to an account of right actions and proper consequences. There is also a shift away from an understanding of the good that draws individuals towards their created end through a life of cultivated virtue to a marketplace arena in which the good is that which is chosen by private individuals based on their own unobstructed preferences. If we look at these three transitions in a little more detail, we can begin to see just how far we have traveled from the picture we see in the Plato and Aristotle.

First, in terms of the social setting of the democratic nation state, the context that many Westerners inhabit is one that isolates individuals and then presents them with a surplus of options. Informed by an ideology that understands humans as independent centers of rational autonomy, we are presented with an inundation of material possibilities that appeal to every conceivable interest; and it is this wealth of choices that promises the most fulfilling existence.

Long before many contemporary sociological analysts lamented the dangers of cultural consumerism, an earlier sociologist, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), worried that a democratic culture built on the foundations of an equality of conditions inevitably leads to radical individualism, social atomism and political privatization. He observed that “… not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, [it] also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.”[1] While Tocqueville’s analysis was intended to convey a warning that an isolated and socially disconnected population is more susceptible to the onset of tyranny, we can appreciate how his observation both addresses a theological point inherent in modern accounts of liberalism, and how it anticipates a particular social landscape.

It does this, first, by identifying the idea that history can be discarded, which is not only an offence to pneumatology and providence, but it undermines the formative power of community and tradition. Stanley Hauerwas speaks directly to this when he writes, “Our assumption [as Americans] has been that, unlike other societies, we are not creatures of history, but that we have the possibility of a new beginning. We are thus able to form our government on the basis of principle rather than the arbitrary elements of a tradition.”[2] Shorn of a shared history that speaks into, and helps shape, our present context, society now finds itself in the fragile situation of being held together by self-interest and self-expression.

The second transition anticipates a social landscape in which the common good has disappeared and been replaced by a good determined and pursued by a collection of individuals who are recognized as autonomous, self-legislative, rational, and free agents. The moral foundations of this context are now built on individual preferences and privacy. In the modern Western context where liberalism shapes the social order, people must be free to pursue their own preferences unhindered, and it is the job of the government to distribute rights to enable people to fulfil their selected destiny without limit or intrusion.[3] The outcome is the loss of any shared sense of what the common good is which inevitably leads to the erosion of any account of public morality. By collapsing ultimate ends into the satisfaction of personal desires, the moral field is now occupied by people detached from an ethical horizon intended to draw them beyond themselves to something other, or rather, to someone other who can truly and finally give contentment.

This shift in social context also produces a shift in the character of moral agency. The historical portrayal, broadly considered in the ancient Greek setting, recognizes the priority of the city to the person – of the whole to the part – to the degree that a life lived without a deep participation in, and dependence upon, the local community is an impossibility. In fact, as Alasdair MacIntyre maintains, “the classical view begins with the community of the polis and with the individual viewed as having no moral identity apart from the communities of kinship and citizenship….”[4] In fact, in another place, MacIntyre will say that “the polis is the Aristotelian counterpart to extra ecclesiam nulla salus [outside of the church there is no salvation]”.[5] Aristotle explains at the beginning of Politics the reason why the city is so important for the cultivation of morality: “We see that every city is some sort of community, and that every community is constituted for the sake of some good, since everyone does everything for the sake of what seems good.”[6] For Aristotle, the community has a shared understanding of the good, and this good is an object that generates desires within its citizens and draws them towards the good. The good for Aristotle is happiness (or eudaimonia [the idea of living well and doing well]), which he explains is our final end.[7] With happiness as our final end, all of our moral actions are directed towards the attainment of happiness, and are given a rationality by happiness. In other words, our moral actions do not make sense if we do not have a clear, comprehensive and singular end in view.[8]

It is also important to recognize that while eudaimonia is something for which we strive it also something that we experience in our present moral activity. Aristotle has closed the loop on the final end and the activity of the moral agent. If happiness is one’s end, then one’s life must actively embody the end that is being pursued. It’s not enough to have wealth as a potential final end without also using wealth in a particular way. It becomes a question of whether wealth is used well or poorly by the moral agent. This is where virtues come into the discussion. Aristotle defines virtue as “a state that decides… by reference to reason… [that it] is a mean between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency.”[9] It is important to note that Aristotle does not think that the virtuous life is merely a negotiation between two vices, but rather the moral life consists in virtue steering our given nature from what is to what it should be, to our telos.

It is a common modern assumption – one held even by theologically-minded evangelicals – that ethics is about the business of helping us to rationally deliberate over doing the right actions, and that it should “help us to resolve moral dilemmas and difficult moral cases.”[10] Without rejecting the necessity and role of rules and outcomes, Aristotle urges us to focus our attention on the kinds of people we are. Instead of merely addressing the external situation, and looking at the kinds of actions and results of these actions, Aristotle is deeply concerned with the internal character of the moral agent.

Before we turn our attention to Augustine, it is important to see how Aristotle’s conception of the moral life is one that sits closer to the Christian account than it does to the modern, not only in terms of historical reference but also in terms of character. In our democratic liberal context, the true ends of human life are obscured which results in widespread confusion about ethical agency. Ethics in this frame rests upon obedience to “a system of rules that will constitute procedures for resolving disputes as [people] pursue their various interests.”[11] On this reading, questions about character, internal motives, and formation are neither asked, investigated or expected. The message is: follow the rules, uphold the social consensus that we are content to be ruled this way, don’t hurt anyone and pursue your dreams unfettered. By separating individuals from a common social history, blinding them from a shared common good, and reducing them to consumers who pursue their own interests in a maximal manner, liberalism has given us a social reality (or moral field) that sees personhood, morality and citizenship very much at odds with the ancient vision.

While the contrast between ancient and modern ethics is intended to cast a light that shows the distance that exists between both accounts, I also want to show how the ancient account, Aristotle’s in particular, is far more companionable to Augustine’s vision, with the hope of suggesting that it is Augustine who, while building off an ancient account, offers us a more potent corrective to our present situation and faithful guide forward. Before we turn to Augustine, it is important that I don’t give a romanticized picture of Aristotle’s position, or one that does not require a theological correction.

One obstacle that confronts the believer concerning any possibility of embracing Aristotle’s ethics relates to what he sees as the paragon of the virtuous life, namely, the magnanimous man (megalopsychos). The magnanimous man is one who pursues a life of “godlike self-sufficiency.”[12] This individual knows his own worth, understands that he deserves the public recognition that comes with his own value, and refuses to receive help from others.[13] To become a person of magnanimity requires privilege, wealth, power, prestige, and a vast array of resources. It is a life of the elite and upper-class. Aristotle says, “The highborn and those who are powerful or wealthy are esteemed worthy of honour, because they are superior to their fellows, and what is superior in something good is always held in higher honour.”[14] Significantly, the magnanimous man inhabits a context in which natural slaves, women and children are excluded from citizenship in the city and subsequently cut off from ever obtaining and experiencing eudaimonia. In Aristotle’s view, to be excluded from ever reaching the end of morality meant that one is also excluded from ever participating in the virtuous life.[15]

As we turn to Augustine, we see how he shares the three elements of classical morality: he focuses on the social setting of moral action, he treats the end of moral action, and he outlines the character of the moral agent. How he articulates these three elements, however, shows the distance he is prepared to venture from an ancient model for the sake of bringing to bear the richness of his theological vision as it is informed by Scripture.

Augustine shares Aristotle’s belief that all ethical action presupposes a sociology, and while the image of the city figures centrally in both, one would be mistaken to think that the two accounts are identical. A closer analysis demonstrates that substantial differences between the two are apparent. To start with, the social setting for Augustine is less straightforward than Aristotle, who views the city as a singular literal geographical entity comprised of real people. Augustine finds much purchase in appealing to the idea of city, primarily because it is a sociological entity filled with citizens. But in his hands, Augustine fashions a conception of the city in which boundary lines are redrawn and the identity is reimagined in a rich theological way. Instead of one city, Augustine gives us two cities, and imbues them with a spiritual and transcendent character that is tethered to, and determined by, our loves. Famously stated, “Two cities, then, have been created by two loves: that is, the earthly by love of self extending even to contempt of God, and the heavenly by love of God extending to contempt of self. The one, therefore, glories in itself, the other in the Lord; the one seeks glory from men, the other finds its highest glory in God.”[16] The distinction Augustine draws between the city of God and the earthly city (Augustine never uses the phrase, “city of man”) takes its rise from a theological anthropological affirmation, namely, that at our core, we are made to worship God. Augustine doesn’t think about both cities are geographical territories or regions, but as two distinct societies identified by two distinct loves: they either love and worship God or they love and worship self.

From this insistence arises the claim that two moral communities form two kinds of moralities. The heavenly city forms its citizens in charity and humility and the earthly deforms its citizens by pride, that leads to a lust for power and self-indulgence. For Augustine, the social reality of the heavenly city shapes the moral lives of its citizens. The moral field of the heavenly city includes those inhabitants who love God and is, therefore, structured primarily by worship of God. Three things emerge from this account: first, the social setting contains a common end that is inextricably bound to Jesus Christ, and it is this end that addresses our deepest needs. Worship of God brings about enjoyment of God, and there is no higher end than this. It is here that Augustine shares with Aristotle a teleological approach to life in the city, and is understandably classified as a eudaimonist. Yet, eudaimonia is retranslated by Augustine as blessedness that only God can give, the kind that lovers of God experience in God’s presence. While Aristotle has an immanent and temporal teleology that views the good as human happiness and flourishing, Augustine’s account of the good is directed towards God. It is for this reason that while Augustine can be described as a eudaimonist, he nevertheless evades the charge that his ethics is egoistic, that personal fulfilment is an ultimate end. The end for Augustine is blessedness in God and the way to God is paved with humility and charity.

The second theme that emerges sees citizens of both cities coexisting and sharing the same space in this present age. What distinguishes the citizens of both societies are their loves and their destinies. There is no sacred and secular split, no public and private precinct. This is a significant move because it forbids any thought that might suggest that one becomes morally refined by retreating from a public setting. There is no private space for the Christian because Christian citizenship is dual citizenship. The citizen doesn’t live in two physical cities but occupies a singular physical space while ensuring that love for God is prioritized over all other loves. This recognition of who we are as God’s people helps us to see and to oppose the state’s expectation that it has a monopoly on our loves and allegiances. Positively, this recognition challenges us to be a community that perceives the gift of God’s goodness to us, and urges us to worship the triune God faithfully. By doing so, the church can, secondarily, display a visible history of love and humility in the world as it makes its pilgrim way towards the heavenly city in its full and final expression, avoiding the entanglements of the limited and oftentimes wrongheaded projects of the world.

The third and final theme that emerges concerns the genuinely public character of the heavenly city. Those that sojourn in the church live in a context in which the virtues of charity and humility are cultivated, and it is this that not only enables us to fulfil our Master’s two chief precepts of loving of God and loving of neighbor,[17] but it also leads to the possibility of a truly just society. This last point requires a little bit more of our time and attention. Like Aristotle, Augustine underscores the social nature of the cultivation of virtue. Unlike Aristotle, however, Augustine judges Aristotle’s ideal city to be deficient in the same way that he judges Rome to be deficient, which serves as a joint claim made on the basis that both fall short of being just societies, and as such, both communities are inadequate contexts for the formation of virtue[18]. The only site that can provide true virtue formation is the just society in which proper worship is ascribed to Christ. “True justice,” Augustine declares, “does not exist other than in that commonwealth whose Founder and Ruler is Christ.”[19]

The sharpness of contrast between Augustine and Aristotle (and Rome) reveals a profoundly different approach to the subject of virtue, and we will conclude this study by looking at two key points that Augustine’s account advances. First, in terms of the embodiment of virtue, Augustine does resemble Aristotle in that the telos guides the virtuous life and that the content of the agent is important to moral formation. Where we see him depart from Aristotle is in the source that empowers, and the enactment of, the virtuous life. For Aristotle, the process of virtue formation in the city is that of habituation. The moral life begins by practicing virtue poorly, and as you get better at practicing virtue, you become more virtuous. Through a process of habituation, you eventually become a virtuous person. Anyone familiar with Augustine’s engagement with the Pelagians will know that this is not where he stands on the matter. The traditional interpretation of Augustine’s thought on this point should not surprise us: “Virtue is a good quality of the mind, by which one lives rightly, which no one uses badly, which God works in us without us.”[20] For Augustine, the source of virtue and the moral life is God. “For he himself is the source of our [blessedness], and He is the goal of all our desires.” [21] He tells us, that “we find our fulfilment in him” and as we cleave to him in “whose spiritual embrace” we are enfolded, our moral life is rendered “fertile with true virtues.”[22] The moral life is graciously given by God and is decisively oriented by God to God, and yet it doesn’t abandon genuine human agency, but the agency that we have is what it is only as it is evoked by God and sustained by God.

If the shape of the moral life is determined first of all as a work of God, and we receive it as a gift of grace that draws us into fellowship with the body of Christ, then, finally, we can only speak of the moral life with reference to Christ. The intimate bond that obtains between Christ and his people is expressed by Augustine by way of the biblical idea that Christ is the head of the church which is the body (totus-Christus).[23] In this way, talk of virtues cannot be invoked without at the same time invoking Christ who is not only the ground of our moral action as well as its end, but significantly, also its model.[24] While Aristotle’s magnanimous man models a life of self-sufficiency and pride, Augustine’s “Just Man” models humility for us to see and to follow. Furthermore, Christ isn’t only a model for our moral action but he also inscribes the virtue of humility into the very being of the heavenly city’s citizens. Virtue formation (or ethical mimesis), we have to say, is not episodic, that is, occurring in discrete moments. Without a constant reference to Christ, virtues can come to function as ends in themselves, which as Augustine warns, turns out to be vices and not virtues at all.[25] Christian existence flows out of a new identity. There must be a change in status before there can be a change in our conduct, or put another way: the theological must determine the ethical.

If the picture of the moral field that I’ve just sketched has any merit to it, then what we have in Augustine is a picture of the moral life that addresses the location of ethics, the goal of ethics and the agent of ethics. While his account resembles an ancient model, Augustine is far more preoccupied with distinctly theological convictions. When these are taken into consideration, they suggest helpful directives in thinking about our public witness, which is beyond the scope of this study. These directives encourage us to reflect on the burden of the church as she is charged and blessed to display the peace that is hers in communion with the risen Lord who orders her desires and directs her hope to a city that is enduring and is in her midst.

Clearly, further exploration into how Augustine construes the mediation of virtues is needed. From a Protestant perspective, concerns over the proximity of virtue to participation in God needs a greater deal of clarification so that we understand the relation and value of our ethical action to justification (to use Simeon Zahl’s terminology). More specifically, and from a distinctively Reformed viewpoint, we would want to describe the character of a sanctified moral existence in which the virtues are not habituated after an Aristotelian fashion, but are foregrounded in an account of divine agency. God redeems us, and his Spirit indwells us. This order produces within us a deep delight of, and obedience to, the moral law. The upshot of this would tie together the presence and order of the virtues with a distinctive picture of the moral life. To ponder these things is to reflect on the God who redeems us and who refuses to leave us as we are, but desires to renew and remake us in the image of his beautiful and glorious Son.

[1] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence, ed. J.P. Mayer (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1988), 507-8.

[2] Stanley Hauerwas, ‘The Church and Liberal Democracy: The Moral Limits of a Secular Polity’ in A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1981), 78.

[3] The consequences for political action and involvement are obvious, which are articulated incisively by Sheldon Wolin: ‘The citizen is shrunk to the voter: periodically courted, warned, and confused but otherwise kept at a distance from actual decision-making and allowed to emerge only ephemerally in a cameo appearance according to a script composed by the opinion takers/makers. See Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 565.

[4] Alasdair MacIntyre, “How to Identify Ethical Principles,” 22 in Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), 216. In a similar vein, MacIntyre says that a morality always presupposes a sociology. See After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 23.

[5] MacIntyre, Whole Justice, Whose Rationality Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 141.

[6] Aristotle, Politics, trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 1.1.1252a.

[7] Aristotle’s discussion on eudaimonia: ‘Most people are pretty much agreed about the name [of the final good]; bot both the many and the refined call it happiness [eudaimonia], and suppose that living well and doing well are the same as being happy. But as to what happiness is, they disagree, and the many do not characterize it as something evident and clear, like pleasure or wealth or honour, some saying one and others another – and often even the same person says something different, saying after falling ill that it is health, and when in poverty that it is wealth. And when they are aware of their own ignorance they admire people who say something lofty and beyond them.’

[8] On this description, see Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press 1995), 40-41.

[9] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics trans, J.A.K. Thompson (London: Penguin, 1953), 1107a 1-5.

[10] Annas, The Morality of Happiness, 6

[11] Hauerwas, ‘The Church and Liberal Democracy’, 78.

[12] Jennifer Herdt, Putting on Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 24.

[13] In fact, the magnanimous man ‘is ashamed to receive benefits, because it is a mark of a superior to confer benefits, of an inferior to receive them’ (Nicomachean Ethics, IV 1124b 9-10), and the magnanimous man wants to be superior (Nicomachean Ethics, IV 1124b 12).

[14] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, IV 1124a 22-26.

[15] Another obstacle to Aristotle’s account concerns the unique position the moral hero holds within the city. Not only is he a man of means but he is also not concerned with mundane moral matters – only the spectacular and morally heroic appeal to him. Aristotle’s magnanimous man presents a significant difficulty for an ethic of virtue, because even if we did want to emulate him, he “turns out,” Annas tells us, ‘to be a bad guide for us, since he turns out to lack just what is relevant for our condition’ See Annas, The Morality of Happiness, 119-20.

[16] Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans, ed. and trans. R.W. Dyson. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) (hereafter civ. Dei), 14.28.

[17] Augustine, civ. Dei. 19.14 [941].

[18] It is important to remember that women and slaves do not have the moral capacity to be included in the citizenship of the polis. Morality in the polis was more narrowly defined and just as equally exclusive. For Augustine, all are permitted into the just society on condition that their loves be ordered to God.

[19] Augustine, civ. Dei. 2.21.

[20] Augustine, ST 1.II 55. This is Peter Lombard’s interpretation of Augustine which is drawn from a collection of remarks in On Free Choice of the Will.

[21] Augustine, civ. Dei 10.3 [395].

[22] Augustine, civ. Dei 10.3 [395].

[23] This is seen in Augustine, civ. Dei. X.6: “… it surely follows that the whole of the redeemed city – that is, the congregation and fellowship of the saints – is offered to God as a universal sacrifice for us through the great High Priest Who, in His Passion, offered even Himself for us in the form of a servant, so that we might be the body of so great a Head” [400].

[24] On this, see the significant work of Robert Dodaro, Christ and the Just Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[25] Augustine, civ. Dei. XIX. 26 [961].