In volume two of his trilogy, Ethics as Theology, Oliver O’Donovan attempts to “follow moral thought from self-awareness to decision through the sequence of virtues from faith to hope.”1 Here, O’Donovan begins with a sort of reorientation related to the ‘Spirit and Self.’ This reorientation is attempting to respond rightly to the divine summons in Psalm 95:7 to not harden one’s heart.
However, following Augustine, O’Donovan notes the disordered nature of our love(s). In relation to ourselves, love is disordered because it “clings to a self that is self-conceived.”2 This self-enclosure, as Luther described it, is a vicious circularity.3 Not only does this disordered love long to be the object of admiration, but in this self-enclosure there is a failed agency where shame and doubt block any further view of God’s wisdom rescuing us from indifference, folly, excuse, and despair.
As O’Donovan’s second volume addresses, I want to briefly reflect on a few vices of self-enclosure and a few virtues of our renewed agency as united to Christ Jesus.
On Vices of Folly & Anger
From the book of Proverbs, folly is a basic vice. Its contrast to wisdom is a major theme in the book. “The proud person” says Basil, “lacks the capacity to recognize God’s gifts in his or her life.”4 Folly blinds a man from the sight of beauty and good. Folly cripples a man from walking the path of godliness and wisdom. Folly hardens the heart of a man as he looks too long in the mirror.
The vice of anger has many faces because we are self-enclosed either in terms of deficiency or excess. Anger might rend the face of irritability as a deficiency of patience. Anger might rend the face of quarrelsomeness as the excess of courage. Anger might rend the face of resentment or grudge-holding as the deficiency of forgiveness. Anger might rend the face of self-righteousness as the excess of truthfulness. In other words, those who are easily provoked are “led by their rage and do not know what they do on account of their anger, nor do they know what they suffer in themselves. What’s even worse, they sometimes think that the stimulus of their anger is the zeal of righteousness. As we know, when vice is believed to be virtue, sin accumulates without fear.”5
On Virtues of Humility & Forbearance
However, the Psalmist is clear: “The humble will hear and be glad.” Likewise, Solomon says, “God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble.” Humility is the substance of our imitation of Him, for in doing so, we become who we were made to be. Indeed, this is what virtue is; imitating Christ Jesus “so that out of our humility there may arise for us everlasting glory, the perfect and true gift of Christ…the soul grows like what it pursues, and is molded and shaped according to what it does.”6 Thus, as arrogance is a deficiency of humility and self-deprecation is an excess of humility, humility is boasting in the Lord of glory alone for we “have not embraced Christ through virtue, but Christ has embraced you through his advent.”7
The virtue of forbearance (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:13), closely linked with the virtue of fortitude, lays out the moral responsibility of those predestined and loved in Christ to “bear with” or exhibit “long-suffering” with those brothers and sisters who may irritate, frustrate, annoy, hurt our feelings, or make this world more difficult than it already is. Whereas forbearance is a command by Christ, it is also a virtue that we cultivate and practice as we endure and live with those around us under the rule of Christ’s peace. Thus, the virtue of forbearance is the long-suffering practice of bearing with those who we may want to quarrel with in anger or disregard in strife.
On Vices of Strife & Discord
Augustine notes: “whoever follows after what is inferior to himself, becomes himself inferior…For if happiness consists in the enjoyment of a good than which there is nothing better, which we call the chief good, how can a man be properly called happy who has not yet attained to his chief good?”8 Strife, then, can be conceived as a deficiency of the loving Peace, or it may be conceived of as an excess of justice. Those caught in the vicious circularity of strife have disregarded the chief good, God himself, and are trapped in their own self-enclosure.
The vice of discord is the deficiency of peace wherein charity is destroyed, and self-regard is perpetrated. Gregory says: “let those who sow strife consider the extent to which they sin. For when they perpetrate this particular sin, they also eradicate every virtue that they may have in their heart…whoever destroys the charity of his neighbor by sowing strife acts as though he were in the service of God’s enemy.”9
On Virtues of Forgiveness & Peace-making
Forgiveness is the flip side of forbearance or “bearing with one another.” (Col. 3:13; Prov. 10:12) Keller notes in his recent book: “Forgiveness…is a promise to not exact the price of sin from the person who hurt you…It is possible to inwardly forgive without being able to reconcile with the offending party. Yet anyone who truly forgives from the heart will be open to and willing to reconcile.”10 In those times of personal conflict or hurt or pain, we are faced with a critical dilemma: remain self-enclosed or live in the participation of the life of God. Of course, there are nuanced times when forgiveness may occur and the relationship will take time to be reconciled. Nevertheless, the principle remains: the life of the Christian who shares in the life of God is one of forgiveness in the little & big things.
The virtue of peace-making is first grounded in the heavenly peace of Christ’s reign such that an earthly peace lends no path for sin. Further, as Thomas explains, the virtue of peace is more than an absence of conflict; rather, true peace requires charity between two persons who share the same desire for the chief good in each other.11
On Virtue of Love
In summary, Augustine describes the four cardinal virtues as four forms of love: “Temperance is love giving itself entirely to that which is loved; fortitude is love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object; justice is love serving only the loved object, and therefore rightly ruling; prudence is love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it. The object of this love is not anything, but only God, the chief good, the highest wisdom, the perfect harmony.”12
Living well is a way of being with God as our highest and chief good. Therefore, in seeking that chief good (Col. 3:1-4), we live a happy life (Ps. 34:8-10). As the apostle Paul says, without love we are nothing, but with love we experience the fullness of our participation in the life of God. Furthermore, we experience this happy life through friendship. As one dear friend recently reminded me, the discord, estrangement, and relational strife we experience in this pilgrim land will heighten our beatific vision in our homeland. And we’ll do this together as we look back and see all the great things He has done, even through our vices.
1. Oliver O’Donovan, Ethics as Theology, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), ix.
2. Ibid., 21.
4. Basil the Great, On Christian Doctrine and Practice (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Press, 2012), 103.
5. Gregory the Great, Book of Pastoral Rule, (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Press, 2007), 127-128.
6. Basil, On Christian Doctrine and Practice, 117.
7. Ibid., 113.
8. Augustine, On the Morals of the Catholic Church, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 1, volume 4. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2012), 47-48.
9. Gregory the Great, Book of Pastoral Rule, 155.
10. Tim Keller, Forgive, (Viking, 2022), 185.
11. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II.IIQ29
12. Augustine, On the Morals of the Catholic Church, 58.