When we try to be virtuous, what are we trying to do? People have different ideas about what the virtues are, and some virtues even seem to contradict each other. Some people consider justice to be a virtue, but, as St Isaac the Syrian points out in his Homily 51, isn’t mercy also a virtue, and how can you be merciful while trying to dispense justice? How do we decide which virtues we ought to live by and how they ought to be interpreted?
St Maximus the Confessor (580-662AD) answers a similar question put to him by a monk, in his Ascetic Life. The monk asks “And who, Father, can do all the commandments? There are so many.” Maximus responds:
This is the sign of our love for God, as the Lord Himself shows in the Gospels: He that loves me, He says, will keep my commandments. And what this commandment is, which if we keep we love Him, hear Him tell: This is my commandment, that you love one another. Do you see that this love for one another makes firm the love for God? (The Ascetic Life, 107; PG90 917A.)
This passage tells us something interesting. It tells us that all the ethical directives we’ve got, be they the commandments, the virtues, or any other parts of Scripture, all conform to love. They are all a kind of love. We are not being asked to do a hundred different things, we are being asked to do one thing, which is to love. Maximus elsewhere writes that love is the goal, source, and highest of all goods, and “All the forms of virtue are introduced, fulfilling the power of love, which gathers together what has been separated, once again fashioning the human being in accordance with a single meaning (λόγος) and mode (τρόπος)” (Letter 2 On Love, 88; PG91 400A). The commandments and the virtues are instances of what this love might look like in different moments that arise. Virtues are not a multitude of different commands, but a simultaneous description of what love looks like. They all resemble the love of Christ, the love that looks like the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. And if the kind of virtue you’re looking at doesn’t fit with that picture, then for Maximus, it isn’t a virtue.
The virtues and the commandments are also practical clarifications of what love looks like. Not only can we think of the many virtues as specific instances of love, but we can also gather from this a more nuanced understanding of what it means to love. If we are struggling to know what the loving thing to do might be, we can start thinking in terms of different virtues. Paul tells us that to be virtuous is to be compassionate, kind, humble, meek, patient, long-suffering, and forgiving, and above all, loving (Col. 3:12-15). Each of these virtues, like light split from a prism, tells us something important about what Christian love should look like.
Of course, even with this clarification on what virtues look like, we aren’t necessarily any closer to trying to understand how to be more virtuous. Given that God is love (1 John 4:8), clarifying that virtue is a kind of love tells us that virtue is divine. This is not necessarily very reassuring when we, as fallen humans, are trying to be more virtuous. Doesn’t it put the virtues outside our reach if they are something divine? As the monk in Maximus’ Ascetic Life worries: “Who can imitate the Lord? Though he became man, the Lord was God. But I am a man, a sinner, enslaved to a thousand passions. How can I imitate the Lord?” (The Ascetic Life, 104-5; PG91 913B).
Maximus has an answer for this too. Virtue, strictly speaking, is not something a human can do, but is rather God present within us. We don’t grasp hold of virtue as something foreign to us, but instead clear a space for the natural radiance and splendor of God’s virtue to shine forth from within us. As humans, we have allowed ourselves to become like rusted metal, but we were created good, and by working to clear away attachments that cloud us up, and allowing ourselves to receive the Spirit, that natural gleam of goodness can shine once more (Dispute with Pyrrhus, PG91 309C-312A). It is not that virtue is beyond our capacity as humans, but rather that we have allowed the natural goodness within us to become obscured by “passions”—selfish attachments to that which is not God.
The other important thing Maximus points out is that, despite being deeply personal and always about the choice of a particular person, virtue is also always about other people. Virtue doesn’t occur in a corner on our own: it is expressive of a relationship: we love God and we love one another. Even in a discussion of personal ascetic practice, we are still talking about a communal ethics, and for Maximus, a cosmic ethics, since it is in human love that all creation is gathered to completion and perfection (Amb. 41, PG91 1305D). The way humans act does not just have immediate personal ramifications, but also binds or breaks the cosmos. The things we do either allow love to flourish, or are part of the problem – allowing hatred, greed, alienation, and oppression to dictate our relationships. When we think of virtue and seek to follow the commandment of love, we become aware of the way in which our lives harm others and the way that our communities institutionalize and rationalize these hurtful relationships. Part of our attempt to make space for virtue then, must involve a critical awareness of the places in our lives where our own comfort comes at the expense of others, of the instances where turning a blind eye to suffering is easier than contemplating how we are caught up in its complicity, and of the structures and institutions that perpetuate the poverty and hardship of our neighbors, whether they be standing next to us or thousands of miles away.
When we think of virtue as an ethical system for helping us act, there is sometimes a tendency to focus exclusively on the personal habit-building aspect of this ethics. This personal aspect is of course is vitally important—change starts from within, and it is our own actions that we ultimately have control over. Maximus reminds us, however, that virtue is also communal in its outworking, and that we ought to have an awareness that our actions have global (and cosmic) repercussions.
For Further Reading:
Maximus, The Ascetic Life. English translation from Polycarp Sherwood, St Maximus the Confessor: The Ascetic Life and The Four Centuries on Charity. (New York: The Newman Press, 1955).
Maximus, Letter 2 On Love. English translation from Andrew Louth, Maximus the Confessor. (London: Routledge, 1996).
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