Sean A. Riley provides an antidote to modern relativism by surveying the development of the understanding of the good life and its implications from classical to modern times.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

I f we are to guide 21st century students towards truth, beauty, and goodness, we have to understand the default assumptions they bring with them to every conversation. Knowing what they believe and where those beliefs originate is especially important in the realm of moral and political education, where the distance between where they are and where they should be is so extensive.

Our students inhabit a disorienting world. The salient feature of contemporary moral and political discourse is that we have what seem to be unresolvable disagreements about the nature of the good life. Disagreements about which actions are right and wrong, about which policies the government should adopt, and about which goods we should privilege over others boil down to fundamental disagreements about the nature of the good life. Moral pluralism and an accompanying relativism are assumed realities by nearly everyone who enters the public square in the 21st century, and our students are no exception.

Moral and political discourse has not always been so disordered, and it became so through a series of subtle shifts over the course of the past half century. Introducing students to the Classical and Medieval authors who lived prior to the disintegration of moral and political discourse, showing them where in history the conversation shifted, and helping them think through the consequences of those shifts can help them understand themselves better and help them critically examine the assumptions they have inherited from their culture. In what follows, I recount some of the history. The story is much more complicated than the one I shall tell here, but my hope is that this brief introduction will provide some context for further study.

We start with the ancients. Both the Greeks and the Hebrews believed that the Good was something objective, universal, and eternal and that purpose was woven deeply into the fabric of the universe. Plato, writing against the relativists of his day, the sophists, argued that the Good was an eternal form in which all other good things participated. By taming the wild parts of one’s nature, the appetites and the strong emotions, with reason, one could steer one’s life towards the Good. Disagreements about the nature of the good life were for him the fault of human ignorance, not indicators of the lack of objective standards.

Aristotle agreed with Plato that moral goodness was objective and universally applicable to all human beings. To be a good human being meant to be good as the type of thing humans are, namely rational animals. A flourishing human being on his view was one that optimized both his rational faculties and was able to contribute to the common good. To do that, one needed to acquire the virtues, dispositions to think, feel, and do what is right and good. One gained the virtues through education, particularly through education that habituated students into good communal practices. The key virtues he and Plato exalted were justice, wisdom, fortitude, and temperance. Aristotle added other qualities that made one good in social settings, like being witty and generous, to the list as well. Most virtues, for him, were the mean between excess and deficiency, so being witty was good, but being either a boor or being a buffoon was vicious. Cowardice was irrationally deficient, while rashness was irrationally excessive, and courage, the mean between the two, was the ability to do the good in the face of danger.

The good life for both Plato and Aristotle was only possible in a community oriented towards the common good. Members of the community were to be educated to share a conception of the good life for human beings and to acquire the virtues needed to pursue that common good. In stark contrast to contemporary individualism, the ancient Greeks believed that the individual good and the common good were deeply connected.

The Hebrews, though markedly different than the ancient Greeks in many respects, were like them in that they believed in an objective moral order. They offered deeper insights into the nature of the good life through the doctrines of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. The Doctrine of Creation asserts that human beings are given a nature within the context of an ordered universe. Because of the fall, however, human beings became broken and therefore unable to enjoy the friendship with God they were intended to have. As a result of sin, the law was given to restrain sin and incline people’s hearts towards God. Through the covenants, God reached down to broken humanity to offer restoration, which came decisively in the sacrificial and transformative death and resurrection of Christ. Followers of Christ are promised justification and sanctification and an eventual end to all the chaos and suffering caused by the fall. Because God has reconciled humanity to himself, the good life becomes possible again, though only in an imperfect way this side of Heaven. In the promised consummation Christians are given a sure hope that frees them to pursue limited, imperfect goods in this life, knowing that perfection awaits them in Heaven.

In the Medieval era, Augustine, a kind of neo- Platonist Christian, shared Plato’s conception of the good as being transcendent, over and above all particular examples of good things and true independently of human knowledge or choice. As a Christian, he equated that Good with God. His conception of the good life was Platonic in many ways but complicated by his deep understanding of the will. For Augustine, it is not the case that to know the good is to do the good. Rather, humans can know the good and still willfully rebel against it. He considered sin the orientation of the heart away from the Good towards nothingness. Drawing from the teachings of Jesus, he was more concerned about the orientation of the heart than he was about external actions or even the good life in this world. Augustine made an important distinction between the good life in the worldly city of man and the good life in the city is God. Writing while the Roman Empire was beginning to crumble, Augustine gave Christians a way to live the good life and establish good communities in the absence of worldly order. He complicated the Greek worldview by suggesting that the virtues needed for citizenship in the city of God sometimes make one less successful in the city of man. When the world is out of joint, he argued, one might need to take the path of martyrdom.

Thomas Aquinas, like Augustine, was a Christian, but unlike Augustine, he traced his intellectual heritage back to Aristotle.

He argued that Aristotle was basically right that if one wanted to flourish in this world, one needed the virtues. However, like Augustine, Aquinas argued that humans were not just created to flourish in this world. We were created for loving union with God, and union with God requires the acquisition of the theological virtues – faith, hope, and love. The life of the virtuous man may not always lead to success in this life. It will, however, lead to beatitude in the afterlife.

Aquinas on the political side made some distinctions between various types of law. He asserted the existence of a divine law, which he split into the eternal law, the overarching principles by which God governs the universe, and the divine commands He gives us in Scripture. The natural law, according to Aquinas, flows out of the divine law. God created us with a certain nature and that nature determines what we must do and not do to flourish. So the natural law is grounded in creation, which is grounded in the eternal law, and the divine laws simply clarify for us what should be clear to us by means of the natural law. Aquinas thought that we should be able to know most of what God wants us to do simply by utilizing reason properly to study human nature. The natural law consists of objective truths about morality. When we create civil laws, they are either in harmony with the natural law or they are not. With a conception of the objective natural law standing above all civil laws, those who subscribed to Aquinas’s natural law theory had grounds for criticizing bad laws. If civil law were the highest law, then those in power would determine the laws, and the laws would only be overturned by force. According to Aquinas, might does not make right. The natural law stands in judgment over the civil law, making it possible to criticize unjust laws.

Later William of Ockham and John Duns Scotus developed the concept of natural law further, but they ultimately embraced and refined divine command theory. They argued that God’s commanding or willing X is what makes X right, and God’s forbidding Y is what makes Y wrong. God’s reasons for willing X and prohibiting Y they considered ultimately inscrutable. We cannot always know the reasons for God’s commands. We have to obey because of our position under God’s authority. Whether natural lawyers or divine command theorists, the late medievals believed that there was a standard above worldly standards and that it may be morally required that someone rebel against a civil authority. Objective standards, external and superior to human will, provided a constant check on power.

Some major changes occurred in the transition to the early modern era. One of the major catalysts of change was Machiavelli, who moved away from the concept of virtue, the good-making qualities that are supposed to help one flourish as a human being, to the concept of virtú, which are the qualities that will make one successful. We can hear the echoes of the sophists here. How can I win friends and influence people in Renaissance polite society? By having virtú. Machiavelli makes a clear fact/value distinction. Politics is about facts. Morality is about values. Through careful study, one can discover the objective truth about how to maintain one’s power. Machiavelli argued that one must sometimes use immorality to your advantage, or else come to ruin. Morality is more flexible than that. Sometimes a prince must lie, cheat, steal, threaten, and kill to achieve his ends.

Another major change took place when Thomas Hobbes replaced the divine right of kings with secular absolutism. Prior to Hobbes, within the feudal system, kings began to centralize their power, asserting that they functioned as God’s representatives on Earth. Prior to the Reformation, the only possible legitimate check on their power within that system would have been the Catholic Church under the leadership of the popes. In the Leviathan, Hobbes removed God from the equation. Like many Christian political theorists before him, he examined humans in the state of nature, which he described not as Edenic, but rather as a savage world in which everyone had a right to everything, a right to steal, kill, and harm whomever they wished. Life in the state of nature for him was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” As he tells the story, living in such a savage state of nature, everyone feared everyone else because even the strongest, most intelligent person could be killed by the weakest person if given the right opportunity. Nobody was safe. Out of fear all decided to bind themselves together in a social contract, a kind of secular covenant with each other. In the contract everyone relinquished their rights to everything in exchange for the safety only a very powerful sovereign could provide. Hobbes argued that the sovereign, because he was made sovereign by contract, embodied the will of the many. Law thus became the expression of the will of the sovereign. Later, Locke and Rousseau, who neither shared Hobbes’s pessimism about human nature nor his love for monarchs, worked to limit the power of individual sovereigns and give the power back to those represented by the government. In the process, however, they largely kept God out of the equation, leaving humans to determine the nature of the good life on their own.

Modern moral theorists such as Kant and John Stuart Mill attempted to rescue the Christian moral system in the face of increasing opposition during the Enlightenment. They tried to generate universal principles that would help ground the inherited Christian moral system in some aspect of human nature. Kant tried to ground morality in pure reason. His principle, the Categorical Imperative, read much like the Golden Rule, requiring individuals to try to imagine what it would be like if their plan of action were to become the general rule that all people would follow. So, for example, if one was not able to rationally and consistently will that all people should lie, then one ought not to lie ever. In another formulation of the Categorical Imperative, Kant required that one always treat humans as ends in themselves and never merely as means. In other words, if one was planning to do X to someone else, one must first have that person’s consent before proceeding. No one can morally simply use another human being for his or her own ends.

Mill argued that when deciding between possible courses of action, we should always try to bring about the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. By happiness he meant not the rich conception of human flourishing Aristotle and Aquinas described but rather pleasure and the absence of pain. Though he made allowances for intellectual and aesthetic pleasures to count as higher than base physical pleasures, his conception of happiness depended entirely upon what humans, in their fallen state, actually desired rather than what they were created to desire.

As the deontologists (as the followers of Kant came to be called) and the Utilitarians (as the followers of Mill came to be called) duked it out for moral theory supremacy, with both sides generating strong arguments against the other, philosophers like Nietzsche and later the British logical positivists called their whole enterprise into question. Nietzsche argued that humans should evolve past the herd morality they have inherited and create their own “table of values,” while the positivist contended that all moral language is literally meaningless except insofar as it expresses the speaker’s personal preferences.

So, today, in the absence of a shared conception of the common good, we are left with a weak libertarian no- harm principle. Because no one can agree on the nature of the good life, the only actions that should be outlawed are those actions that harm other people in their individual pursuit of whatever goods they choose. We are given no direction beyond that from most contemporary moral and political theorists. The focus has turned to rights over responsibilities, personal opinions instead of eternal truths, and respect and tolerance in place of wisdom, justice, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, and love. If our students are to find moral direction and provide leadership in a fragmented and confused world, they must become conversant with the rich Classical and Medieval tradition and enter the public sphere with ideas that are so old that they will appear radical and innovative.