Jesus vs. Aristotle.

Okay, people. I am being brave, and posting some academic-y stuff. Up first is the Jesus paper. Enjoy?!

Jesus and the Virtue-less Life

            Jesus seems like a pretty good guy. He heals sick people. He restores vision to the blind and hearing to the deaf. He has picnics with people and tells them stories. He stops people from stoning a woman by telling them to quit being hypocritical and get over themselves. He raises people from the dead after four days of deadness. He washes the dirty feet of his followers. There is that moment where he loses his cool and kicks everyone out of the temple-turned-marketplace. All things considered, though, he seems relatively down-to-earth for being the alleged Son of God: concerned primarily with helping others and spending time with the people whose existence the current religious leaders try to ignore. If I had to compile a list of people who lived virtuously, Jesus’ name would probably find its way on there. However, I don’t know that Aristotle would agree with me. That’s right. A philosopher whose writings become closely tied with the Roman Catholic Church does not necessarily consider Jesus to be virtuous. In fact, while there are many similarities between Christian and Aristotelian virtue, Jesus violates Aristotle’s criteria for virtuousness in a number of ways. Through an examination of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount we can see that Jesus, in a variety of ways, encourages both excess and defect, does not allow for tenets of virtue to be relative to the individual, and disavows acting virtuously for the sake of virtue itself—thus rendering Jesus and, by extension, his followers not only virtuous-less but also ineligible for happiness as Aristotle conceives of it.

            In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines virtue as “a characteristic involving choice, and that it consists in observing the mean relative to us, a mean which is defined by a rational principle, such as a man of practical wisdom would use to determine it” (43). In other words, virtue is a characteristic that one chooses to exhibit. Such a characteristic is defined by a perfectly virtuous, rational person. The way to exhibit such a characteristic is to choose to observe the mean. Aristotle defines the mean “by reference to two vices: the one of excess and the other of deficiency” (43). That is, the mean is the halfway point between excess and deficiency, or too much and too little.

However, the manifestation of this halfway point is different from person to person, meaning that while you and I may both be virtuous, our virtuousness may appear differently. You may be a billionaire and I may be poverty-stricken. As such, my generosity and your generosity will appear to be different because we will be giving vastly different amounts of money. That does not mean that one of us is more virtuous than the other in this regard, insofar as we both observe the mean between “extravagance and stinginess” (83), relative to ourselves. Thus, virtue is choosing to observe the mean between excess and deficiency, as it applies to the respective chooser.

            In the second book of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle outlines fourteen virtues (with the last two being types of justice). These virtues are as follows: courage; self control; generosity; magnificence; high-mindedness; proper ambition; gentleness; friendliness; truthfulness; wittiness; modesty; righteous indignation; distributive justice; rectificatory justice (Aristotle 45-8). All of these virtues are active qualities one can choose to exhibit. Notions of virtuousness within the bounds of Christianity deal with godliness. A person who is virtuous exhibits godly characteristics. Jesus lays out virtuous behavior in “The Beatitudes,” as given in his Sermon on the Mount. People who are virtuous according to the Christian tradition exhibit the following characteristics: poor in spirit; mourning; meekness; hunger and thirst for righteousness; merciful; clean of heart; peacemaking; persecuted for the sake of righteousness (Matthew 5). Some of the Beatitudes contradict Aristotelian virtuousness by encouraging excess or deficiency. The mean between poor and rich is comfortableness. One who is poor in spirit is exhibiting a deficiency, and cannot be considered virtuous by Aristotelian standards. A constant state of mourning, too, is a deficiency. Likewise, meekness is a submissive quality. A mean between submissive and dominant would be more assertive than “meekness” connotes. Hunger and thirst imply a deficiency; a mean would be pleasantly-filled or contented. Mercy exists on one end of a scale, with justice on the other. Mercy would then, by default, be an excess of whatever we might call the midpoint between it and justice. Perpetual peacemaking looks like Aristotle’s conception of cowardice (71), because a peacemaker would never opt for fighting. The final Beatitude, being persecuted for the sake of righteousness, does not qualify as a virtue because it is not an action one chooses. It is, instead, the result of the choices of others. We can conclude, then, that the virtues Jesus outlines in “The Beatitudes” do not conform with the criteria Aristotle sets forth, making Jesus and his followers virtue-less by Aristotelian standards.

Furthermore, in looking at the lists of virtues themselves, Aristotelian virtues seem to be more active than Christian virtues. The behaviors called for in “The Beatitudes” are more submissive characteristics than Aristotelian virtues.

            Many of these Christian virtues are also stringent standards with narrow interpretation. While Aristotle outlines that virtue “consists in observing the mean relative to us” (43), some of Jesus’ virtues leave little room to maneuver in terms of relativity. For example, poverty is less relative than generosity. While generosity is relative to the amount of money one has available to give, poverty always refers to an extreme lack of wealth. There are, indeed, varying degrees of poverty. Some people are more or less poor than others. However, someone in today’s American middle-class would not be considered impoverished, even in comparison to Bill Gates. Similarly, peacemaking is not a relative endeavor. Any violence is not peace and, therefore, cannot be considered peacemaking. As such, these characteristics cannot be considered virtuous, according to Aristotle. This same line of thinking also extends to Jesus’ teachings on anger. In an Aristotelian sense, virtue in relation to anger would not be a perpetual absence of anger, nor an incessant abundance of it. In contrast, Jesus teaches that one should never be angry toward her/his fellow person (Matthew 5). This is not virtuous behavior, by Aristotle’s definition, but a continuous deficiency and a non-relative behavior.

            There is particular instance, however, in which Jesus does call for action relative to an individual. In Matthew 7, Jesus says, “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.” This tenet, known as The Golden Rule, puts forth the impression that the things which separate individuals would like to experience in their interactions with other people are relative. In whatever way one would like to be treated, s/he should treat others in the same fashion. Nevertheless, the assumption in Jesus’ statement is that all people wish to be treated the same way (kindly, perhaps), negating the notion of relativity and, in conjunction, virtuousness.

            In outlining how one is to act virtuously, Aristotle states that “[one] must choose to act the way [s/he] does, and [s/he] must choose it for its own sake” (39). In other words, virtuous action must always be a conscious choice, chosen purely for the sake of being virtuous. If I choose to exhibit virtuous characteristics in the hopes of obtaining some sort of reward, I am not being virtuous—despite acting in accordance with virtuous behavior.

            This may be the most visible instance in which Christianity departs from Aristotelian notions of virtue. The teachings of Jesus do lend credence to the idea that we should act a certain way because it is a good way to act. However, the main purpose of acting in accordance with Jesus’ teachings is to get in to heaven; to obtain an eternal reward. Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroy, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Matthew 6). The whole purpose of leading a virtuous life is to obtain happiness, which Aristotle defines as “an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue, and if there are several virtues, in conformity with the best and most complete” (17). Following the precepts of Jesus is also supposed to lead to happiness, but that happiness is not ephemeral and exists only if God is willing to give it. Practicing Aristotelian virtue is how one lives a life of happiness. Practicing Christian virtue leads to eternal salvation, wherein happiness is a component. The practice of virtue is happiness, in the former, while the practice of virtue leads to happiness, in the latter. As such, practicing Christian virtue is not done for the sake of practicing the virtue itself, but so that the practitioner can obtain an eternal reward. This motivation makes the whole practice not virtuous, according to Aristotle.

            It seems doubtful that many people would classify Jesus as being a person void of virtue. However, when we compare the teachings of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount to the outlines for virtuous living laid out in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, we see that Jesus does not qualify for the stamp of virtuosity. He advocates virtuous behavior for eternal reward, instead of for the sake of virtuous behavior itself. Many of his virtues cannot be relatively applied to separate individuals. Most of the virtues outlined in “The Beatitudes” exist as a deficiency or excess, in comparison to Aristotle’s virtues of mean. Thus, we can conclude that one cannot act in accordance with Jesus’ teachings and still be considered virtuous by Aristotelian standards.


And there you have it.


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