Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Self-formation, Aristotle, Augustine, and Kierkegaard

In a previous post, I've listed some thoughts on true freedom as self-formation. It's interesting to note some of the connections or insights that flow between this sort of view and the views of philosophers such as Aristotle, Augustine and Kierkegaard. In particular, my view owes a lot to Aristotle. On Aristotle's view, one becomes virtuous or acquires virtue by habituation. That is, one becomes courageous by doing courageous sorts of things and abstaining from non-courageous sorts of things and one becomes generous by doing generous sorts of things and staying away from miserly sorts of things, etc. Of course, at first one will not be doing such virtuous actions virtuously. For that, one must have a steady character - that is, a virtuous one - from which the virtuous action is flowing, one must have knowledge of the action, and must choose the virtuous action for its own sake.

Being virtuous means not merely doing the appropriate actions but having the appropriate feelings in the correct proportions and with regard to the correct things, having appropriate motives, and taking pleasure and pain from the appropriate things in the appropriate amount. If one is not vicious, one's feelings will not always be appropriate, nor will one's actions or the apportionment of pleasure or pain. Pleasure (and pain) are not our sole goals we strive for (or against), for we can shape our character to take pleasure or pain in all sorts of things. Pleasure is the natural response to getting what we most want or from doing what is most natural to us and pain the opposite. The bad person will take great pleasure in bad things and will be pained by good things (or at least find them boring or unexciting compared to bad things) precisely because they are bad and their character is off. This is part of the reason why, the more firmly a vice is entrenched, the harder it is to get rid of it - one's character, actions, feelings, etc. get formed around and by performing these vicious deeds. And the more one's character, etc. gets formed as a vicious one, the more one will be vicious and the more vicious one is the more one will form a vicious character, and so on. Both virtue and vice in this sense are self-perpetuating cycles. The further along you are on a certain path, the harder it is to jump from one cycle to another. This is why it is so important to seek virtue early and to never, even once go down the path to vice - each vicious action forms one's character and actions for the future and begins or renews or firms up a cycle of viciousness that will destroy a person morally.

This has interesting connections with Augustine, according to whom there are certain things of which it always must be true that "I believe in order to understand" - that is, belief or initial knowledge must come before true understanding or the knowledge of why this is true can come. Certain things can only be understood from the inside. Morality is one subject like this - the person who doesn't already believe in right and wrong won't understand morality or see how or why certain moral judgments are true. They won't see what the big deal is or why one should be moral. The truths of Christianity are another subject like this - one must assent to believe before one can really understand them or see how they are true. The person who has not internalized such things simply will not have a mind appropriately formed to handle such things in the appropriate manner.

And this takes us to Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard held that there are three stages of life. In the initial one, one is not an ethical person and one does not grasp ethical truths or seek to be ethical. To get to the ethical stage of life requires a leap of faith. In that next stage, one seeks the ethical and can now have some understanding. Another leap of faith is required to get to the last stage of human fulfillment - the pinnacle of human life - the religious life, how our lives were meant to be. Here we now seek the religious and have some understanding of it - our life is now organized under a single guiding light, it is focused, free, and unified and not divided or enslaved by all the various goals or external goods which vie for attention. In this stage you "become who you are" - that is, your most important identities line up in a single true identity (see this previous post for more on the different kinds of identity). To tie all of these threads together, to become who you really are requires making yourself a virtuous, religious person, slowly progressing in understanding and knowledge but driven along initially in the faith that things will work out. (Further exercise: compare all these ideas with Bonhoeffer's advice that if one is short on faith, one ought to obey more, and if one is short on obedience, one ought to have more faith)

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