Passion, moderation, and virtue

Rereading G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy recently, I was struck by the essential distinction he draws between the balanced, moderate Aristotelian idea of virtue and that of Christianity. Discussing “the paradoxes of Christianity,” Chesterton writes,

Nevertheless it could not, I felt, be quite true that Christianity was merely sensible and stood in the middle. There was really an element in it of emphasis and even frenzy which had justified the secularists in their superficial criticism. It might be wise, I began more and more to think that it was wise, but it was not merely worldly wise; it was not merely temperate and respectable. Its fierce crusaders and meek saints might balance each other; still, the crusaders were very fierce and the saints were very meek, meek beyond all decency…

All sane men can see that sanity is some kind of equilibrium; that one may be mad and eat too much, or mad and eat too little… But granted that we have all to keep a balance, the real interest comes in with the question of how that balance can be kept. That was the problem with Paganism tried to solve; that was the problem which I think Christianity solved and solved in a very strange way…

Paganism declared that virtue was in balance; Christianity declared it was in conflict: the collision of two passions apparently opposite. Of course they were not really inconsistent; but they were such that it was hard to hold simultaneously.

The tempered, moderate virtue of the Greeks ends up respectable but lifeless.  Seeking, for example, the virtuous balance between pride and abasement, the Greek “would merely say that he was content with himself, but not insolently self-satisfied, that there were many better and many worse, that his deserts were limited, but he would see that he got them. In short, he would walk with his head in the air; but not necessarily with his nose in the air.” “This is a manly and rational position,” Chesterton agrees, but, “Being a mixture of two things, it is a dilution of two things; neither is present in its full strength or contributes its full color.”

This proper pride does not lift the heart like the tongue of trumpets; you cannot go clad in crimson and gold for this. On the other hand, this mild rationalist modesty does not cleanse the soul with fire and make it clear like crystal; it does not (like a strict and searching humility) make a man as a little child, who can sit at the feet of the grass… Thus it loses both the poetry of being proud and the poetry of being humble.

In contrast, Christianity manages to save both. “In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners… Christianity thus held a thought of the dignity of man that could only be expressed in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage. Yet at the same time it could hold a thought about the abject smallness of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission, in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard.”

Chesterton argues that this paradoxical wedding of extremes goes to the heart of Christianity; a religion which promises, after all, that “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it,” and founded upon the Christ, who “was not a being apart from God and man, like an elf, nor yet a being half human and half not, like a centaur, but both things at once and both things thoroughly, very man and very God.”

In fact, this principle characterizes Christian ethics. Take, for example, man’s relationship with the natural world. On the one hand, a wondering joy, alternately exuberant and hushed, at the beauty of creation; on the other, a gritty hatred for the evil and wrong intermingled with the good. Or Augustine’s Just War theory, which holds that violence can be right and good… so long as it is motivated by love of our neighbor.

And what of romantic love? Commenting on Christ’s command to “hate” one’s own wife (Luke 14:26), C.S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves, “He says something that cracks like a whip about trampling them all under foot the moment they hold us back from following Him… To hate is to reject, to set one’s face against, to make no concession to, the Beloved when the Beloved utters, however sweetly and however pitiably, the suggestions of the Devil.” And yet, this submission to a higher love in no way diminishes the love that Scripture anticipates between man and wife. After all, they are told to love one another “as Christ loved the church;” an overwhelming idea even when considered only in light of his sacrifice on her behalf, which is itself a mere expression of the inexplicable delight which led prophets from Isaiah to John of Patmos to speak of Christ “rejoicing” in his bride. And of course, the vast majority of scriptural discussion of marriage takes the form, not of commands or propositions, but of a book of love poetry considered so inflammatory by colonial Americans that their youth were not allowed to read it until they reached adulthood!

Why does all of this matter? Two reasons. First, there is the obvious fact that a better understanding of our God and our faith is always valuable. Secondly, a renewed attention to that element within Christianity “of emphasis and even frenzy… the collision of passions” which Chesterton notes might serve as a corrective to the tendency within comfortable American Christianity to be exceptional largely for our dullness. This is not to suggest an artificial fanning of passion, but rather a simple recognition that, contra the intuitive, classical view, virtue is not necessarily found in moderation, in a Goldilocksian “not too hot and not too cold;” that the faith which Dorothy Sayers called “the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man” has not lost the spirit of the Creator who decided to stage a play, and spun a universe from nothing to serve as the set.