“It seems to me a brief and true definition of virtue is ‘rightly ordered love.’” – St. Augustine
Two weeks ago we started a new series on the six characteristics our school has established as being the most essential qualities we hope to cultivate in our students, called the “Desired Outcomes of GFA Graduates.” Our Board of Trustees has identified these six qualities as the primary goals of a GFA education. Our first discussion was on the desired outcome of a sound reason and a sound faith; this week we move on to the second outcome: virtue and mature character.
Virtue and mature character can be tough concepts to nail down. Humanity has been struggling to define them for at least the last 3,500 years, going all the way back to King Solomon, who possessed great wisdom but in the end was not virtuous. It might be helpful to take a very brief overview of what has been said.
For King Solomon, the virtuous life was one in which obedience to God and the pursuit of wisdom were at the center; however, a tour through Ecclesiastes illustrates that even in those two noble ideals, something was missing: Solomon found himself empty and unable to obey God even though he possessed great wisdom; as such, he was eventually overcome by the pursuit of wealth and worldly pleasure. Plato followed Solomon in emphasizing the contemplation of eternal ideas (ie. “wisdom”) as a life of virtue, but his student Aristotle realized that there had to be an application of wisdom in a person’s actions; to him, it wasn’t enough to be a thinker, but a virtuous person should also be a doer. For Aristotle, a virtuous person would be a person who does the right thing at the right time in the right way as a matter of habit. His idea of virtue is not far from the basic philosophy of the Pharisees as seen in the New Testament.
The idea of virtue took a giant leap forward with Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount changed our understanding of the virtuous life. As seen in Matthew chapter 5, in the Sermon Jesus went to great lengths to shift the understanding of virtue from a works-based righteousness predicated on a cold adherence to the Law to an emphasis on the internal life of the individual believer, the attitude or state of each person’s heart. Jesus repeatedly took his listeners from simple obedience to the law – “You have heard it said that you should not do x…. – to the importance of the state of their heart. The virtuous life for Jesus was not only the simple obedience to a set of laws or rules, but an obedience based on a regenerated, humble and loving heart.
St. Augustine understood Jesus’s moral philosophy perhaps better than anyone since, and it was in his book The City of God where he expounded on it best. He took Jesus’s emphasis on love and gave the world the idea of ordo amoris, or “the order of loves.” Augustine understood what the Greco-Roman philosophers did not: that people at their core are essentially motivated not by reason but by what they love. This led Augustine to write perhaps the most profound passage on virtue written in the last 1,700 years: ““It seems to me a brief and true definition of virtue is ‘rightly ordered love.’” Augustine understood that God is the Creator of all things, and as such that those things are good, so long as people love them in the right order. It isn’t bad that I love spending time in the mountains. God created the mountains and they are good. My love of the mountains only becomes bad when I love spending time in the mountains more than I love God, my family, my neighbor, etc. The same can be said for power, professions, hobbies, love, etc. For Augustine, the virtuous life is one in which we love the right things in the right order, and naturally as a result of that we act rightly out of a love for being obedient to God and His Word. That is the virtuous life.
If all of this is true, then educating students of virtue and mature character becomes less about what students know and more about what they love. The obvious question that follows is: can you shape or change what someone loves, and if so, how? If you read our last newsletter and the example of my experience with broccoli, that gives you part of the answer. What we love can change one of two ways: sometimes God will miraculously intervene and change our hearts, and sometimes it is a long, hard process of consistently choosing good that then brings our hearts to love what is good. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis put it best:
“[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before…. All your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God….”
This is what classical Christian parents and teachers call the “cultivation of virtue”: the idea that we can cultivate a certain kind of person – a person of virtue and mature character who loves the right things in the right order – through the long, slow process of choosing to.