Saturday, February 26, 2011

Jonathan Edwards' Ethic of Virtue and Love (Part 1)

I had a tremendously fun time revisiting Jonathan Edwards in our last series, and so I thought it would be fun to explore the earlier chapters of one of Edwards' other major works - this one being his book The Nature of True Virtue, through a brief three-part series. Originally, True Virtue was intended to be published in tandem with his other dissertation, The End for Which God Created the World. When viewed as a pair, this establishes a solid context for interpreting the work that Edwards is doing in these writings. As the introduction to the Yale volume of his ethical writings says: "interpretations of True Virtue made without regard to its connection with End of Creation have fostered inadequate and even quite mistaken understandings of his ethical writings."

Of all of Edwards' works, it is fair to say that this book is probably the least Biblical (strictly speaking) and the most philosophical. One ought to keep in mind that the ethical and philosophical climate within which Edwards was writing was during the enlightenment - and so many philosophers in Europe had set forth their own ethical views - Edwards never shied away from being Biblical, but he intended his arguments in The Nature of True Virtue to be engaged with on the same level as the secular philosophers of his own day.

What True Virtue Consists Of

It would be fair to characterize the Edwardsian ethic as an “ethic of beauty.” This concept of beauty is not only present in his theology, but in his philosophy, and it is worthwhile to attempt to know what he means by beauty. He gives beauty a definition in two parts: particular beauty, and general beauty. Particular beauty is “that by which a thing appears beautiful when considered only with regard to its connexion with, and tendency to, some particular things within a limited, and as it were a private sphere.” General beauty is “that by which a thing appears beautiful when viewed most perfectly, comprehensively, and universally, with regard to all its tendencies, and its connexion with everything to which it stands related” (122).

He begins by immediately stating the doctrine he is about to prove: “True virtue essentially consists in benevolence to being in general” (122). Edwards always begins his writing by defining his terms. These terms are important because they are the foundation of Edwards’ ethic. In the definition, he defines the two parts of true virtue: benevolence and being in general. Benevolence is a disposition of love, and being in general is “the great system of universal existence.” In Edwards’ thinking, a love for particular beings does not necessarily mean that one has true virtue, but if one has true virtue, then they will necessarily have love for particular beings.

Edwards then sets forth two types of ways in which love may manifest itself: Love of benevolence is “that affection or propensity of the heart to any being, which causes it to incline to its well being, or disposes it to desire and take pleasure in its happiness.” This is a love which is motivated only by a desire to dispense happiness to the chosen object of affection. Love of complacencies is a “delight in a being for its beauty.” Though the love of benevolence is not motivated, necessarily, by anything beautiful in the object of affection, the love of complacence specifically delights in a thing for its beauty. I can never love my wife entirely from benevolence, for there are things about here which I love and delight in. They motivate me to give her happiness, and thus, I exercise a love of benevolence, but that benevolence is motivated by my love of complacence.

Edwards ends this section of definitions by stating that God’s love is one of benevolence, because his delight in us has love is its first motive. Furthermore, there is nothing lovely in us for God to take delight in which He has not first placed there, and that action itself is even motivated, not by our beauty, but by His benevolence. Thus, God is benevolently loving and non-complacent.

Virtue Cannot Consist of Gratitude

Why does virtue not consist in gratitude? Because gratitude, by its definition, “supposes a benevolence prior to gratitude, which is the cause of gratitude. The first benevolence cannot be gratitude.” Now that these definitions have been thus reached, Edwards pauses, looks back on what he has shown so far, and offers a modification of his definition of true virtue. He now says that
true virtue consists, not in love to any particular beings, because of their virtue or beauty, nor in gratitude, because they love us; but in a propensity and union of heart to being simply considered; exciting absolute benevolence to being in general.
For Edwards, true virtue has two aspects: being and benevolence. From this, Edwards makes a crucial statement:
When anyone under the influence of general benevolence, sees another being possessed of the like general benevolence, this attaches his heart to him, and draws forth greater love to him.
If I am possessed of true benevolence and meet another who is also possessed of true benevolence, I will unavoidably be drawn to that purely loving individual who is truly virtuous. “He that has a simple and pure will…must love that temper in others” (124). This means that where I find maximum benevolence, and maximum being, there I will find true virtue.

The opposite of this is also true. A being who is destitute of virtue will also love and long for that which is the opposite of virtuous and, by definition, evil. Why is this? “For a being, destitute of benevolence, should love benevolence to being in general, it would prize and seek that for which it had no value.” Edwards reminds us before proceeding that “it is impossible that anyone should truly relish this beauty…if he has not this temper himself.”

[In Part 2, we will see that because of the things Edwards has laid down here in Part 1, the only truly virtuous action is one which arises from love for God.]

No comments:

Post a Comment

Before posting please read our Comment Policy here.

Think hard about this: the world is watching!