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Jun 13, 2018

Virtue, Human and Divine

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Sophia Vasalou

Sophia Vasalou

University of Birmingham

Sophia Vasalou’s research focuses on the development of virtue ethics in the Islamic intellectual tradition, with a specialization in Imam al-Ghazālī's work.

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Virtue, Human and Divine

Landscape with the Flight into Egypt

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, 1563

“Of all inquiry most beautiful,” Socrates affirmed in the Gorgias, is inquiry “about what sort of man one should be.” Both in the classical world and in the later intellectual traditions that absorbed its influence, successive generations of thinkers have shared Socrates’s sense of significance and made it a central part of their ethical task to articulate a vision of the highest human character. For some, especially in religious traditions, ideals of character have taken their place in a more complex understanding of the mode of life to which the revealed word summons—a mode of life in which, at its most rigorous, every action, thought, and feeling has its measure and norm. The modern novel brought to us the imagined possibility of an all-knowing introspection into the privileged space of another’s mind. But that possibility had been imagined far earlier by thinkers working out the consequences of their religious convictions. God is closer to people than the jugular vein, the Qur’an says (50:16). He “perceives your inmost notions and the deepest thoughts that streak through you,” as Abū Ĥāmid al-Ghazālī put it in his spiritual masterpiece, The Revival of the Religious Sciences. Or again, in an arresting image that appears throughout the same book: God sees the black ant that creeps over a dark stone in the dead of night—and the things that creep in the soul are no less pernicious for being exquisitely hard to detect. The human mind is always permeable by the mind of God and answerable to its measures.

“Measure” is a good word with which to ease into some of the most interesting questions this vision of the moral life raises. If what we should care about is to become a certain “sort of man,” in Socrates’s words, just how exactly is the right sort decided? What sets its measure? Philosophers approaching these topics have sometimes parsed this point laconically as the question “What makes a character trait a virtue?” To some, the question may seem idle: many of the qualities we value are so obviously important that doubt can only look contrived. Who would doubt, for example, that temperance, compassion, or justice are qualities that it is good for human beings to have? It is a question that takes its edge, to be sure, from disagreement—the kind of disagreement that Hume ignited when he denied that humility is a virtue, or Nietzsche when he denounced compassion. Yet it is rare for the question “why?” to be asked without profit. Even without such polemical starting points, asking about the measure of human virtue can tell us volumes about the larger moral universe that gives meaning to its pursuit. Even where there is broad convergence about which traits are virtues—and the existence of such convergence is one of the more remarkable facts about character-based ethics, grounding precious possibilities of cross-cultural and inter-religious moral conversation—different schemes may incorporate such varying conceptions of the nature of reality, and of human nature, that what divides them may seem almost as important as what unites them.

For many philosophers, ancient and modern, this question “why?” has opened out to a very particular response, and conception of measure. The measure of the virtues, on this view, is nothing less than human nature. This is a view that has sometimes been read out of Aristotle, whose celebrated argument about the human “function” in the Nicomachean Ethics shadows his account of the specific virtues. The function of human beings, in Aristotle’s account, lies in the actualization of their rational capacities. On one plausible interpretation of the progress of Aristotle’s discussion, qualities like temperance, courage, or justice are thus virtues taken as actualizations of reason across certain domains of universal experience that human beings must inescapably negotiate. No human being could go through life without learning to handle bodily appetites and pleasures (cue temperance). No human being could go through life without learning to handle fear (cue courage).

It has been debated whether human nature can be appropriately described here as serving in the role of an external measure or independent ground. Many philosophers, particularly in the ancient world, didn’t think one can find out about the nature of human beings the way one finds out about the nature of wolves or foxes—by studying what (most) people actually happen to do. Most people may not lead lives guided by reason, yet it is still in a life guided by reason that their nature finds its fulfillment. Human nature is not a descriptive concept but a normative one. Yet particularly among modern philosophers, this understanding of human nature as already embedded in an evaluative universe has often been coupled with a non-trivial view of the hard facts that constrain this universe. As the British philosopher Peter Geach pithily put it, human beings need the virtues the way the bees need stings. For many philosophers, this means they need them as members of a biological species trying their best to flourish within the material parameters of the natural world. To find the measure of human virtue, one needn’t look beyond these.

So what happens when one does? Surveying some of the ways in which the virtues were approached in the Islamic world, one might at first be struck by how much remains unchanged. Like Socrates and other ancient philosophers, many of the key contributors to this discourse—not only more “secular” philosophers like Abū Bakr al-Rāzī or Abū ¢Alī Miskawayh, but also more theologically minded thinkers like al-Ghazālī—talk about matters of ethics using the naturalistic concept of health. Achieving the right interior order is about attaining a state of health. Ethics is a form of medicine for the soul, the prophets in turn physicians of the spirit. Here, too, ethical reflection pivots on a consideration of what is distinctive to human beings qua human beings, with rationality given pride of place.

Yet this understanding of health is tied to a conception of human nature that couldn’t be farther removed from the mere biological order that modern philosophers have in mind. The linchpin Arabic term here is fiţrah, which appears in the Qur’an (30:30) and in a number of prophetic traditions. The most celebrated reads: “Every child is born according to the natural constitution (fiţrah), and it is its parents that then turn it into a Jew, a Christian, or a Magean.” Studying such scriptural data, many thinkers in the Islamic tradition were led to conclude that human nature incorporates a signature religious dimension. Ibn Taymiyyah put it with special clarity and insistence, though the general point had already been voiced by other thinkers, including al-Ghazālī: human beings have a natural disposition to know, love, and serve their divine Creator. To do so constitutes our end. “I have not created jinn and mankind except to serve Me,” God says in the Qur’an (51:56). In a state of health, we take pleasure in realizing this end and relating ourselves to God on all these planes—of cognition, emotion, and action. What this also means is that our nature finds its fulfillment not merely in the actualization of our rational capacities in some formal or undetermined sense, but in the realization of the more substantive intellectual end of knowing God.

The importance of the virtues can be seen in this light. And here, I have especially in mind the account offered by al-Ghazālī in the Revival. At the most basic level, the virtues represent different forms of self-mastery. They involve the mastery of passion and desire and the uprooting of worldly attachments. Such mastery “polishes the mirror of the heart” (in a hallmark Sufi phrase) and enables it to fulfill its true intellectual vocation. It is on this fulfillment that our otherworldly bliss in turn depends. Hence, the virtues are “the doors of the heart that open out to the bliss of heaven” while the vices are “the doors that open out to the blaze of God’s fire.” What sets the “measure of virtue,” then, is our nature as defined by its distinctive supernatural orientation. There are interesting parallels to be drawn with patterns of reflection found in other theistic traditions, such as Christianity. Peel away some of the details, for example, and you will find more than a passing echo of Aquinas’s account of the virtues, particularly the so-called infused and theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity), whose importance lies in the way they equip human beings to realize their supernatural end of friendship with God.

Yet in many respects, perhaps even more interesting and suggestive, in the Islamic context, is another kind of “measure” which offers itself as a distinct though not unrelated answer to the question: “What determines the ‘right sort of man’—the sort one should strive to become?” One way of hearing the first answer is as the counsel: Become this sort, and you will become truly human. (You will also become truly happy.) Yet the human, as the above already signals, is open at the seams, and points beyond itself. It points to some higher possibility that can only be wholly realized in the next life, to a mode of being that makes possible, if not friendship with God, proximity of a kind that the angels enjoy. To scale the highest level of humanity is thus to gain a foothold on the next rung of being in this skyward chain. To become fully virtuous is to become like the angels. Yet many Muslim writers on the virtues would couple this way of understanding the “likeness” at stake to another. To become fully virtuous is to become like God.

The idea that acquiring virtue involves emulating an outstanding exemplar is a familiar one in philosophical circles. And while, these days, most philosophers would balk at the idea that exemplars could be anything but human—balking, indeed, even at human exemplars who are excessively great or heroic, as morally dangerous because they are demoralizingly out of reach—the idea that human goodness is an imitation of divine greatness has had a long history. It is an idea associated most strongly with Plato. “To become like god is to become just and pious with wisdom,” in the Theaetetus’s words. Several ancient philosophers after him would take up this notion of godlikeness and develop it more fully. This intellectual tradition is one textual route that released the idea into the bloodstream of the Islamic world, but there were also a number of other routes leading out from the heart of the Islamic textual tradition itself. One of the main reference points in this regard is an oft-cited prophetic tradition that commands the faithful to “acquire the character traits of God” (al-takhalluq bi akhlāq Allāh).

The core idea received a variety of expressions across different genres of writing—philosophical compendia, mirrors for princes, Sufi (or Sufi-inspired) treatises. One of the most important ways in which it was developed involved a delicate shift of emphasis, away from God’s “character traits” and toward God’s “names.” To imitate God is to strive to acquire a share of His beautiful names. This is a topic to which al-Ghazālī devotes an entire book, The Exalted Aim in Expounding God’s Beautiful Names. In the Revival, it exerts its influence from the wings, rarely taking center stage. Yet it is in the Revival that al-Ghazālī states the implications of this ethical ideal most openly and with the greatest relevance. “What is praiseworthy in itself,” he writes at one place, is “everything that God can be qualified by; whatever God cannot be qualified by is not a perfection in itself.” The implication is clear. The measure of virtue—the criterion for what counts as a virtue in humans—is set by the character of God.

Modern philosophers have sometimes expressed puzzlement at the idea of bringing the gods into talk of virtue. The American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, for example, has suggested that it courts incoherence, for reasons to do with a fundamental feature of the virtues. In human life, the virtues take their point—derive their significance and their necessity—from the fact of limitation. The fact that courage is a virtue is non-contingently related to the fact that we can feel pain and fear and can be tempted to abandon things we value as a consequence. The fact that justice is a virtue is non-contingently related (as Hume once insightfully remarked) to the fact that our resources are scarce and our benevolence toward others limited. How then can the gods—or God, in a monotheistic context—serve as models for human virtue, assuming limitation has no purchase in them? How could what makes sense as a virtue in the human context also make sense in the divine?

Muslim thinkers were acutely sensitive to the problems that arise when one attempts to trace too direct a line between the human realm and the divine in matters of ethics. This was the source of the famous logomachy between Mu¢tazilite and Ash¢arite theologians. Al-Ghazālī himself, who had defended the Ash¢arite view in several works, is clearly aware of these challenges. In the Exalted Aim, his response is simple: even if it is our goal to earn a share of God’s names for ourselves, the sense in which they apply to us (the meaning of the name we strive to embody) will not be the same as it is in the case of God. How could it be? God’s names, after all, include qualifiers like “haughty,” “great,” “majestic,” or “self-sufficient.” Yet taken in their absolute divine sense, what is a virtue in God would be a vice in a human being. Far from basking in a sense of self-sufficiency, our virtue is to acknowledge our sense of poverty and dependence. Far from relishing a sense of our greatness, our virtue is to be humble. When we embody a divine name like “haughty” or “imbued with a sense of greatness” (mutakabbir), it will have a different meaning. The human being described as “haughty” will be the one who despises all created things, all bodily appetites and worldly interests, in his zealous pursuit of God.

The thread of language may appear to twist itself thin here (can we still recognize “hauteur” once the reflexive element of self-evaluation has been drained out?), and one may wonder whether it is still strong enough to keep the human realm and God’s joined together. Whatever we make of this point, al-Ghazālī can certainly not be faulted for being oblivious to the intimate link between virtue and limitation in the human domain. The open statement I’ve quoted—the only real perfections are the perfections possessed by God—appears in a context where al-Ghazālī is precisely acknowledging that link. Discussing religious fear in the Book of Fear and Hope of the Revival, he makes clear to his reader that its virtuousness has its basis in very human limitations, specifically ignorance and impotence. It arises insofar as we are uncertain about a future outcome, and we cannot ensure through our own forces that an undesirable state of affairs does not come to pass. In absolute terms, fear is a deficiency. But it is nevertheless praiseworthy for its effects, since it supplies the motivation for right behavior; and it is also praiseworthy compared with greater deficiencies, such as despair. One could make the same point about many of the other virtues al-Ghazālī discusses in the Revival. The only reason poverty is a virtue, for example, is because we have a natural craving for worldly possessions. The only reason trust in God is a virtue is because we naturally find it difficult to see God’s agency in every single thing that happens.

Yet what may stand out now is that this piece of reflection rests on an implicit contrast—one that drives a sharp and unabashed wedge between the perspective of modern philosophers such as Nussbaum and Muslim intellectuals of al-Ghazālī’s stripe. It’s not just the contrast between relative and absolute virtue, taken as the distinction between “virtue in humans” and “virtue in God.” It’s also the contrast between what is a virtue in humans under the present conditions of their existence and what will be a virtue in them when they are no longer encumbered by the limitations that give their virtue its point and necessity—above all, the body and its appetites (at least as we know them). The notion of “limitation,” in this regard (and surely inherently), points beyond itself. Underlying al-Ghazālī’s and many of his fellow-thinkers’ meditations on virtue is an envisaged beyond in which the present parameters of the human condition fall away. What steps forth, as out of a chrysalis, when they do? What exactly will they be like, those human beings who have spent their earthly lives in a pursuit of virtue galvanized by God’s beauteousness, when they finally make that crossover? What will be left of the human exemplification of “hauteur” when there are no longer bodily appetites or mundane goods to despise, or of religious trust when there is no longer epistemic limitation to overcome? This is simply a way of asking: “What will be left of humanity as we know it?”

These aren’t easy questions to answer. Al-Ghazālī, on his side, is more reticent about this future prospect than he is about the slow and arduous steps required to reach it. For the viator or murīd ţarīq al-ākhirah he is addressing, perhaps this type of insight is not the medicament he needs to keep going. Our imagination, besides, is constrained by our present limitations. Heaven is that which “no eye has seen and no ear has heard.” Yet ultimately, what seems clear is that for al-Ghazālī, as for many other philosophers in the Islamic world, this is the point at which the moral virtues—rooted in the body and limitation—hand over to the intellectual ones, for which they have helped clear the ground. At the end of this long road stands the polished mirror and the truths it reflects, God the most resplendent among them. But is it humanity as we know it? Perhaps such questions will not seem relevant when virtue no longer needs a measure and the “most beautiful” inquiry is finally at an end.


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