Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J., in his Great Courses CD’s on the Nichomachean Ethics of Aristotle comments that new readers of Aristotle’s ethics are frequently surprised that he spends almost no time discussing rules of behavior. What is right behavior, then, if not obedience to rules? Don’t we have the Ten Commandments? And a host of other rules? Aren’t Jesuits supposed to be jesuitical and concerned about minimal applications of rules and maximal excpetions? What’s with Fr. Koterski and Aristotle?
St. John Cassian demonstrated that he is in the Aristotelian tradition when, in his first Conference, he asks “What is the goal of a monk?” And he answers this by saying that monks choose their actions based on a calculation of what is most likely to bring about the Kingdom of God in their lives. The word ‘calculation’ might sound odd here. All I mean by this is a reference to the cardinal virtue of prudence. And by mentioning prudence as a virtue, I’ve indicated what is different about Aristotle and Cassian versus modern ideas about ‘morality’ or ethics. Aristotle and Cassian are interested in achievement of a goal: happiness for Aristotle*, the Kingdom of God for Cassian. Good actions move us closer to our goal and evil actions move us away. Rules can help us in important ways: they tend to condense the hard-earned wisdom of those who have been in the quest before us. But they can almost never be adopted naively. The second Conference makes this clear. There are many stories of monks who failed to achieve the Kingdom because of an over-reliance on a limited number of hard and fast rules.
But what about the Rule of Saint Benedict? The translation of the Latin Regula as ‘Rule’ is another example of what I all ‘linguistic drift’. We no longer easily sense what is meant by regula, and our word ‘rule’ only gets at a small part of it. A regula is a guide to behavior, a framework, a template. It doesn’t do your thinking for you; it provides the contours of the arena in which the spiritual battle is to be fought by monks. Saint Benedict is very clear that he does not wish to legislate a series of rules, and throughout the Regula, he gives the local abbot the discretion to dispense with virtually any particular rule. This is why the abbot should be a man learned in divine things; he must know how to assess the particular situation and adapt himself to many different characters and temperaments.
When Saint Paul writes that the letter of the law kills and the spirit gives life, he is teaching in this vein. The danger with rules, as the monks of old discovered, is that they tend to deceive those who put too much trust in them. The legalistic monk is tempted by vainglory and pride, and is tempted to judge his fellow monks who seem to fail at keeping the rules strictly enough. Self-justification through the keeping of rules is far from the justification that we receive unmerited from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Preoccupation with rules leaves uninspected the deeper questions of the heart.
None of this is to say that no laws are necessary, or that sin is no big deal. Rather, it is to alert us to a particular modern problem we have, living as we do in liberal democracies where laws are paramount. Laws in our political system are there to allow individuals to pursue their own personal goals, rather than teaching us how to pursue common goals, like eternal life with God. The teachings of Christ are meant to bring us into communion with God and with neighbor.
God’s blessings to you!
Fr. Peter, OSB
* It is important to specify that for Aristotle happiness is not mere pleasure, but knowing how to take pleasure in truly noble, good things, even Goodness itself. In this case, he is quite close to Cassian, for whom Goodness would simply be God. And to delight in God, to seek the face of God, is to seek His Kingdom.