This past week my seniors in Christian Manhood began reading a book on the branch of philosophy commonly called Virtue Ethics. Virtue Ethics, as a particular systematic view of the ethical life, stretches all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, but with the onslaught of the Enlightenment it went dormant as a relevant way of answering ethical questions. In 1958, the English Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe forced Virtue Ethics back onto the stage when her brilliant essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” appeared in Philosophy
, the journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy.
Although Virtue Ethics did not take over the discussion that had been dominated by Utilitarianism (what matters is the end result) and Deontology (following rules is what matters) it at least was given a (somewhat) respected place at the table. In 1981 when I – thinking myself to be a “big boy” philosophy student – bought my first not-for-class philosophy book it was After Virtue
, written by former-Marxist-turned-Catholic Scotsman Alasdair MacIntyre, I was being drawn into what MacIntyre has since called “an Augustinian Thomist approach to moral theology.”
My seniors aren’t reading After Virtue
– too dense and too expensive – but they are reading the work of one of the seminal 20th Century Virtue Ethicists, the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper. The great thing about Pieper’s The Christian Idea of Man
, beyond its brilliance, is its brevity. Even when including the very helpful Preface by John Haldane (educated at the only Jesuit school in Scotland, St. Aloysius’ College, and the present chairman of the Royal Institute of Philosophy) the book clocks in at a mere fifty pages.
After spending three chapters (10 whole pages) laying the Thomistic groundwork for the ideas that follow, Pieper spends one chapter each on the four Cardinal Virtues: “Prudence,” “Justice,” “Courage and Fear of the Lord” (Fortitude), and “Discipline and Moderation” (Temperance). He follows these up with a chapter on the Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, and Love), before concluding the work with some thoughts on the difference between being naturally good (“a gentleman”) and supernaturally good (“a Christian”).
As stated by Haldane in the Preface, the focus in Virtue Ethics is on who a person is and not so much on what a person needs to do. The virtues, both Cardinal and Theological, are essential for a person who wants to swim in the stream of Virtue Ethics, but just as important is having role models as guides on the journey, and for a Catholic that means saints.
The fact that my seniors are reading this text in the month that begins with a day dedicated to all the saints is a fortuitous coincidence, but it does help bring to light the fact that we become good people not only by knowing what the virtues are, but also by watching how good people act. In a brief video that I show in class Bishop Robert Barron points out that Duke University’s Stanley Hauerwas, possibly the most influential Virtue Ethicist in this country, was the son of a bricklayer. For those who don’t understand the focus of Virtue Ethics this might seem like an amusing, yet eminently unimportant, fact. Yet for Bishop Barron it affords us great insight into the ethical task: if you want to be a good bricklayer, then you need to pay attention to how a good bricklayer lays bricks.
With a sense of wry irony that is not untypical of Mother Church, the patron saint of bricklayers is St. Stephen – the proto-martyr who was stoned to death by an angry Jewish mob that included the future St. Paul. St. Stephen was not only a man who was brought to the next world through his assailants’ laying bricks (stones) on top of him, but he was also one of the first deacons.
By definition, a deacon is one who serves others, and the Greek term diakonos
possibly finds its origins in the phrase “through the dust,” i.e. associated with a person who is kicking up the dust because he is so busy in serving his master.
So as we work our way through this last month of the liturgical year, and as we ponder all those saints who preceded us it seems fitting that we think about what makes someone a saint. Not all of us can be bricklayers, but all of us can be diakonoi
, kicking up some dust in our service to the one true Master.