A Philosophical And Theological History of Goodness I — John E. Hare

September 2, 2011

Dr. John E. Hare, Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology, Yale Divinity School

Dr. Hare takes up the topic of goodness as it relates to Christian philosophical theology and proceeds by examining the central figures chronologically. He finds this approach more effective than the commonly employed alternative that tries to schematize the field under a series of types. The usual type-names, often ending in “ism,” tend to be vague in an unsatisfactory way. An author who attributes views to Kant, for example, can be held accountable to the texts of Kant. But an author is at liberty to characterize “deontologists” any way she likes.

Because the history of Christian philosophical theology is largely a history of the contact between classical thought (as represented especially by Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics) and the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures (known within Christianity as “Old and New Testaments”), Dr. Hare starts with sections on the classical philosophers and the Bible. He then describes the different approaches that have been taken to the relation between goodness and God in the philosophical and theological tradition over the past two millennia within Christianity. When limited to approximately 6,000 words (as this writing is), there is, inevitably, something absurd in such an undertaking. The article will have to be highly selective and take up only a few key figures. This selectivity is the cost that corresponds to the benefit of accountability.

The Greeks
Plato was already the inheritor of views about goodness and the divine from Homer, the Presocratics (especially Pythagoras), and his own teacher, Socrates. He writes his philosophy in the form of dialogues in which “Socrates” is usually one of the characters, and this makes it difficult to describe a systematic Platonic philosophy, since the views defended by “Socrates” in the different dialogues are not consistent with each other. Four dialogues in particular are relevant to this article — the Euthyphro, the Republic, the Timaeus, and the Laws. The Euthyphro is typical of the dialogues in which Socrates discusses the typically human forms of goodness or virtue with people who are supposed to be experts in them.

Thus, in the Euthyphro, Socrates’ interlocutor is a religious professional, and Socrates wants to talk about piety (or holiness), because he is about to face the charge of impiety, on which he will eventually be found guilty and condemned to death. Socrates makes it clear that he does not believe in those traditional stories about the gods that attribute immorality to them, and this gives rise to what is sometimes called “the Euthyphro Dilemma.” Euthyphro says that holiness is what is loved by all the gods, and Socrates asks whether it is loved by the gods because it is holy, or whether it is holy because it is loved by the gods. His own answer is the former. His argument as stated (10a – 11b) begs the question at a key point, but it can he reconstructed using a premise previously granted (at 7e), that the gods like what each of them considers beautiful, good, and just, and hates the opposites of these.

In the Republic Socrates develops a theory of Forms, which are proposed as answers to the questions such as “What is piety?” in the Euthyphro. The Form of Piety is what piety is, in itself. In the Republic, the Forms are said to be given their being and their intelligibility by the form of the Good, which is, itself, “on the far side of being, exceeding it in seniority and power (509b).”

The Form of the Good thus has the central role not only in ethics, but in metaphysics and epistemology as well. Although Socrates does not call it a god, he does say that it is king (509d) of the intelligible world as the divine sun is king of the visible world, that it begets this sun-god (508b), and that the contemplation of it is the contemplation of a divine or godlike as opposed to a merely human thing (517d, see also Symposium 212a on divine Beauty, and Theaeteus 176b, where our task is to become as like God as possible, which is to become just and holy with understanding).

In the Timaeus (29e-30c) Socrates talks of a divine craftsman (a “demiurge”) who is good, and therefore not jealous of anything, and therefore “wanted everything to become as much like himself as was possible.” He formed the visible universe out of already existing stuff after the model of the intelligible universe, which is eternal and immutable. Finally, in the Laws, the main character, called simply “the Athenian,” sets out to prove that the gods do exist, that they are good, and that they respect justice more than humans do (887b).

Contrary to the views he attributes to “the sophists,” he claims that goodness according to nature and goodness according to the  law are not two different things, but that there is a natural standard of justice (889e), and that the whole domain of what moves and changes is under the control of soul (since this is the cause of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, justice and injustice, and so one and of the best kind of soul (and so under the control of divinity), since the motions we observe are so orderly and beautiful. This does not prevent ghastly acts of impiety by humans who do not have the best kind of soul.

Aristotle was Plato’s student for twenty years. His philosophical system is, to he sure, different in some key respects from his teacher’s. For one thing, he denies (in Nicomachean Ethics I, 6) Plato’s account of the Form of the Good (on the grounds that intrinsic goods are too various to allow helpful explanation by a single Form), and his metaphysical account of the Forms is that they are “in” material substances, rather than being in their own transcendent world. However, the two philosophers establish rather similar relations between goodness and the divine. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle affirms (XII, 7, 1072b29-31), “We say therefore that God is a living being, eternal, most good, so that life and duration continuous and eternal belong to God; for this is God,” and this goodness explains how this God “moves everything else by being loved” (1072b3).

God’s life has, as it were, attractive force. The metaphor of a magnet comes from Plato’s Ion, (536a, in the context of a discussion of poetic inspiration) where Socrates compares the drawing power of “the deity” to a magnet transmitting its force through a chain of iron rings. This attractive force is felt in human life more directly than elsewhere in the cosmos because humans have what Aristotle calls, in Greek, noes. This term is traditionally translated “intellect,” but covers intuitive apprehension more broadly. Aristotle also calls God’s activity nous, and since he thinks a thing becomes like what it contemplates, and God would therefore become less than God by thinking about anything other than God, the divine activity consists only in self-contemplation.

Human nous thinks about God, but also about other things that do not change, such as the essences of material substances. This kind of contemplation is, Aristotle says at the conclusion of the Nicomachean Ethics, the focus of the best kind of human life (the best kind of happiness), even though there is another kind of good human life focused on activities in accordance with the ethical virtues (X, 7, 1178a9).

At the end of the Eudemian Ethics (VII, 15, 1249b12f), in a passage useful for comparison with Christian theology, he says that “whatever choice or possession of natural goods — bodily goods, wealth, friends, and the like — will most conduce to the contemplation of God is best: this is the noblest criterion. But any standard of living which either through excess or defect hinders the service and contemplation of God is bad.” However, he says, this service of God should not be understood as being like the service of slave to master, because “God is not a superior who issues commands, but is that for the sake of which wisdom issues commands.”

Aristotle uses the term “ethical” to designate those virtues or excellences that we acquire by the forming of habit (ethos). In Latin, this term is translated “mos” from which we get the term “moral.” This chapter does not distinguish “ethical” and “moral” goodness, though some philosophers make such a distinction (for example, Kant, and, differently, Hegel). The ethical virtues are those, such as courage, temperance (or moderation), generosity, and magnanimity, into which we are inducted by habituation of our passions under the control of reason. Ethical virtues are distinguished from intellectual virtues, such as practical and theoretical wisdom.

Finally, even though Aristotle rejects Plato’s account of the Form of the Good, he accepts a theory of natural teleology, according to which every substance that exists is the actualization of the specifying potentiality of that kind of thing, and is, to that extent, good.

The Stoics disagreed with Aristotle in one way that is especially relevant to this chapter. They held that the only thing that is good is virtue. Other things that Aristotle held good – for example, the “natural goods” listed earlier – are indeed to be preferred, but only as material for virtue. Virtue itself, together with the knowledge that one is virtuous, is sufficient for happiness or the best life. Aristotle considers this view, and rejects it as unreasonable.

For Cleanthes the Stoic, the connection with God is that, “our aim becomes living consistently with nature, that is, in accordance with one’s own nature and that of the universe, being active in no way usually forbidden by the law common to all, which is right reason, which pervades everything and is the same as Zeus, lord of the ordering of all that exists. And this is the same as the virtue of the happy person” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers VII, 88). For the Epicureans, by contrast, the good is pleasure, and we see this from animals and children, who pursue pleasure by nature, before their inclinations are overlaid by misguided conventional beliefs about good and evil (Diogenes Laertius, op. cit., X, 129, see also Irwin, Chapter 11 ).

The Bible
The Hebrew Scriptures contain a set of terms that distinguishes this tradition sharply from the tradition we have so far considered. The God who appears in these books, unlike Aristotle’s God, is a God who commands. In the first chapter of Genesis, God created by command, and by the dominant interpretation) thus created the world from nothing. After the creation of animals, God commanded them, “Be fruitful and multiply,” and repeated the command to the humans created in the humans very good. God commanded Adam not to cat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, though he was free to eat from any other tree.

When Eve and Adam disobeyed and ate of that fruit, they were expelled from the garden. God’s commands set up a fundamental choice for humans, whether to obey or to disobey. God established a covenant, within which those who obey are blessed and those who disobey are not. Human disobedience is not explained in the Genesis text, except that the serpent says to Eve that they will not die if they eat the fruit, but will be like God, knowing good and evil, and Eve sees the fruit is good for food and pleasing to the eye and desirable for gaining wisdom.

As the story goes on to describe Adam and Eve’s descendants, Genesis says that wickedness spread to the whole human race, and calls this a corruption of the heart, a basic orientation away from obedience to God and toward evil. God wiped them out, except for Noah and his family, in a flood, and then made a covenant, which included the command not to shed human blood “for in the image of God has God made the human being” (9: 6). The sign of this covenant was the rainbow, and God made this covenant with “all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

Genesis continues with God’s command to Abraham to leave his ancestral land and go to a land that God covenants to give him and his offspring. The sign of this covenant was circumcision of the males of the community at eight days old. Abraham’s great-grandchildren ended up in Egypt because of famine, and became, through the generations, the people of Israel, who suffered under the Pharaoh’s yoke. Under Moses, the people were finally liberated (an event they subsequently commemorated every year at the Passover), and during their wanderings in the desert, Moses received from God the Ten Commandments, on two tablets or tables. The first table concerned the obligations to God directly, to worship God alone, keep God’s name holy, and keep the Sabbath day holy. The second table concerned the obligations to other human beings, and all the commands were negative (do not kill, commit adultery, lie, steal, or covet) except for the first, which required the honoring of fathers and mothers. God told Moses to tell the people, “If you obey me fully, and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19: 5-6).

Much of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible is concerned with laws that God gives to the people, and the idea of a holy kingdom or a kingdom of God is the idea of a realm in which these laws obtain. This raises a question about the extent of this realm. The Ten Commandments are given in the context of a covenant with the people of Israel, though there are references to God’s intention to bless the whole world through this people. The surrounding laws include prescriptions and proscriptions about ritual purity and sacrifice and the use of the land that seem to apply to this particular people in this particular place.

But the covenant with Noah after the flood is applicable to the whole human race – indeed, to all living things – and universal scope is emphasized in the Wisdom books, which make a continual connection between how we should live and how we were created as human beings (for example, Proverbs 8). One more pair of terms is important to the contrast with the tradition of Greek philosophy – namely, the terms “sin” and “forgiveness.” The heart is sinful when it turns away from God and God’s law, but the law also contains prescriptions for how the relationship with God, damaged by sin, is to be restored by God’s mercy and forgiveness.

The terms contained in this set (“commandment,” “covenant,” “heart,” “law,” “kingdom,” “sin,” and “forgiveness”) are understood in connection with each other, so that it is tempting to say that any one of them implies all the others, but they are also understood in connection with goodness. God’s commandments and laws, themselves, are good Nehemiah 9:13, Psalms 119:3, 68, Proverbs. 2:9). The covenant is one by which God promises to do good for God’s people (Jeremiah 32:40, and to prosper them (Genesis 32:12, Deuteronomy 6:24-2, 30:1 5 ). God’s goodness is shown in God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness of our sin (Psalms. 86:5). God’s kingdom is a kingdom of goodness and righteousness, in which God’s love dwells with those who keep God’s covenant (Psalms. 103:17-19, Jeremiah 18:9).

The New Testament continues all these themes, but transmutes them through the figure of Jesus Christ. Jesus called his followers to obey God’s law, but he accentuated the difficulty of doing so (Matthew 5:20-48), “You have heard it said that. . . , but I tell you that….” For example, not only must we not murder, but anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment, and not only must we not commit adultery, but anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

We have the two great commandments, to love (God and to love our neighbor (see Deuteronomy 6:5, and Leviticus 19:18), but Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (see Luke 10: 25-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan). He summed up his commands, “Be ye perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” He announced that the kingdom of God had come with his own coming and his work (Matthew 12:28, Luke 11: 20), and he claimed the power to forgive sins, to the scandal of the Scribes and Pharisees (Luke 5: 21-26). At the commemoration of the Passover in Jerusalem, he applied to himself the language of the breading of the bread and the shedding of the blood of the lamb, “This is my blood, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). After his crucifixion, he rose from the dead, and he now gives life to those who love and obey him (John 14:19-21).

In the letters attributed to Paul (Philemon 2:5-11 and Colossians. 1:15-23), we find two hymns that, perhaps, use older Greek material (though the extent of the borrowing is controversial among scholars. The hymn in Philippians says that Christ was in very nature God, but did not consider ,equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness. We are to be like­minded in humility considering others as better than ourselves. But after this humiliation, even to death, God exalted Christ to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name. The hymn in Colossians says that Christ is the image of the invisible God; all things were created by him and for him, and hold together in him; and that through Christ’s blood shed on the cross, God reconciles all things to himself, Here, the goodness of the whole creation is seen in relation to Christ, both in origin and in destination. In our case, we were alienated from God but he has reconciled us by Christ’s physical body through death to present us holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. In these two passages we are given a pattern by which Christ first descends to his death and then, through this, is exalted and given the central role in the restoration of the goodness of cosmos.


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