From Plato to Paul

This current series of messages centers on the book written by Karen Swallow Prior entitled On Reading Well. Published by Brazos Press in 2018, the book’s title is what initially attracted my attention. I am a reader. I came to it by an awkward path, emulating my older brother and finding myself bewildered by the topics he was engaged in; the bewilderment largely stemming from the six year difference in our ages. Fortunately the reading habit stuck despite my confusion.

Reading, though, is not the topic of these messages. Virtue is. Or shall I say a select few of the virtuous traits traditionally proclaimed by scholars are the subject at hand. Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and the format of her book, intended to encourage us all to be better readers (better being an attribute of understanding and not mechanics) matches historically recognized attributes of virtue and how they are portrayed in prominent literary works.

Virtue is a topic of importance to me. I approach it more from the concept of character building, which appears to no longer be a concern of our educational system as it once was. And if my own understanding of our current culture has any merit, then I would say that the prevalence of relativism as the standard of thinking has denied the importance of character and replaced it with the cult of personality. So Prior’s book has struck a major chord with me. Not that we agree on everything, but that her perspective is a stimulus to my own thinking about what I believe to be true about virtue.

The first section of her book examines the four Cardinal Virtues of antiquity; prudence, temperance, justice and courage. The Greek philosopher Plato gets the credit for identifying these four traits as essential for the viability of any society. The word cardinal is applied to them since its original meaning was hinge. The implication is that all other virtues hinge on these four foundational virtues and over the centuries philosophers and theologians have added a great number of virtuous traits onto Plato’s initial prescription.

The second section of Prior’s book is based solely on the Christian perspective that three virtues abide throughout all the conditions and situations we encounter in life. These three virtues are faith, hope and love. The origin of this thought can once again be attributed to a single person, the Apostle Paul, who informed a group of first generation Christians residing in the Greek city of Corinth that these three things continually reside in the heart of each believer. As such they prove to provide evidence of a person’s character by the behavior they subsequently inspire.

My next three messages will address these virtues in the sequence Paul gave them. However, there is an issue contained in Professor Prior’s writing that I wish to address in advance since I think that it reveals a significant difference in our perceptions of virtue. She writes that faith hope and love “occur in their true sense not through human nature but by God’s divine power.” That is a statement I cannot make, at least not in keeping with my current concept of we as humans and what we can attain no matter our choice of religious or philosophical beliefs.

I take literally the claim made in Genesis 1:27 that we are created in God’s image. For me this profound statement implies that we are all endowed with the ability to exhibit all the attributes of God’s character, which means all of these virtues that we as mere mortals have discovered and aspired to live by. They are fully attainable for each person. What differentiates the Christian from everyone else can be found in the apostle’s further teaching about our lives no longer being our own. We live the life of Jesus, who spiritually resides in us, shaping our thoughts and deeds so that we become imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children. (Ephesians 5:1)

It is not the what that truly matters in our speculations about the nature of virtue, but the why. If we therefore embrace the thought that we are striving to imitate the nature of the one we love as our Creator-Father, then our maturity in these things will grow in proportion to our concept of his presence in our lives. For me this means every virtuous trait will find its fullest expression through God’s divine instruction.

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (II Corinthians 4:6)

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