A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XLII.

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XLII. December 19, 2011

Introduction and Part II

“People with filthy clothes soil the coats of those who rub against them. Likewise, the immoral and the wicked, when they come into contact with the simple-minded and speak to them about evil, defile such people’s souls through their talk.”[1]

Desire is the foundation for sin and leads to its destruction.[2] “The beginning of salvation and of the heavenly kingdom for the soul is love.”[3]

The idle soul is just like copper which is left unused: it is blemished before it deteriorates. [4] “By her evil actions she deprives herself of God’s protection; and just as copper is rotted away by verdigris, so is she rotted away by the evil that idleness produces in the material body, and she becomes ugly, unserviceable and incapable of attaining salvation.”[5]

 

While we are alive, we must keep active. Activity indicates life. The same is true with the soul. Spiritual activity indicates a lively soul; spiritual inactivity, spiritual neglect, hinders its proper advancement and slowly makes the person blind to the spiritual reality around them. Such blindness does not just affect their spiritual life, but their daily life as well. They will not be properly grounded to the world, and so they will not understand the interdependent relationships of the world, relationships which have a spiritual element behind them. Morality is converted from a morality of love which gives meaning and value to morality to a morality of the letter which loses all meaning, and so, eventually will become something easily dispensed. This is exactly what we see in the world: those who have followed some worldly-accepted goal, such as the accumulation of wealth, are able to convince others to follow their example, even if it means undermining traditional moral claims. They are able to show their success and they will consistently use it as proof that their way is superior. Anyone who questions their behavior are merely envious of their success and not willing to do what it takes to be a success themselves; that is, their critics not only are envious, but they are lazy as well. And yet, on a spiritual level, they are the ones who have proven lazy, and so they do not see the full, real picture.

We must all struggle daily, we must all work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Philip. 2:12). The foundation of that struggle is love. What love allows, that we can do. But if we see someone we loved suffering and we could do something for them, we would.  Love, when it is put into practice, becomes universal and knows no partiality, and so the common good is promoted. As Mo Tzu points out, the suffering in the world is in part created due to this lack of universal love:

When we inquire into the cause of these various harms, what do we find has produced them? Do they come about from loving others and trying to benefit them? Surely not! They came rather from hating others and trying to injure them. And when we set out to classify and describe those men who hate and injure others, shall we say that their actions are motivated by universality or partiality? Surely we must answer, by partiality, and it is this partiality in their dealings with one another that gives rise to all the great harms in the world.[6]

Love gives of the self, while inordinate desire seeks to take to the self. The two provide two different ways in which we can live. The path of love opens up the self and so allows the grace of God enter into the soul and transform it so that the person who follows the path of love will show themselves in the image and likeness of the God who is love. Desire, on the other hand, closes off the world, objectifying the world at large and seeking to take a part of it and keep it to oneself for the benefit of the self alone. The self grows, weighing the soul down, keeping it shackled by the objects the self has grasped and taken as its own. The soul slowly perishes, and with it, the chance for the acting person to find the happiness and joy they seek; what they take for themselves through desire does not lead to everlasting happiness, but only a limited joy which, when it ends, leaves the person empty inside. They will then have the choice to abandon their desire and perhaps free the soul, or they can think they only need more of what they desire for their desire to be satisfied – the second path, of course, leading to greater imprisonment of the soul and greatest dissatisfaction when the temporary joy of attainment is gone.

To overcome the defilement of inordinate desire, we must therefore strive to follow God, loving him and our neighbor as ourselves. Love helps us overcome craving – and when we do, we will see the sorrows we have generated by acting out on our desires also vanish:

But whosoever in the world
Overcomes this childish craving, hard to get beyond,
From him, sorrows fall away,
Like drops of water from a lotus leaf.[7]

Love leads to the good, which is why it is the foundation for all morality. Love of God directs us to follow him in his goodness, which leads us to love our neighbor because God loves them. But we love them in and through God, we see them as good from good, so that in loving them, we show honor and love to God – this is why there is no discord between the commandments to love God and neighbor, for they are two aspects of the one love we are to follow. “For you could not love God unless you also loved your neighbour, because God cannot be loved with envy and hatred; yet, because in other things you were able to do this, that you wish something and not wish it with reference to your neighbour, it is clear that you understand that you must do both, although indeed you cannot do one without the other.”[8]

Those who do not follow the path of love, but only the path of desire, often lead others to follow the path of desire: they teach that one gets all one gets by oneself for oneself. They take out of the world what they desire, limiting its accessibility, causing those who do not understand the path of love to see and believe they must act the same in order to make sure they gain what they desire before it is too late. They make people afraid – they too must seek after what they want now, and the world at large slowly but surely gets eaten away by the great consumption which follows.

 

 

We have already seen the analogy of verdigris with copper to evil and the soul. Our author is repeating the theme, but now doing so in a way to encourage the reader to act so that they do not let spiritual verdigris affect their soul. The suggestion that salvation is had through love is certainly something which resonates with the Anthony of the Sayings, where Anthony is said to have no fear because he has acquired love for God.[9] It is also such a statement which also gives this text a Christian overtone – for it is such an agape  that distanced the Christian from other, wise sages of the Hellenistic world. The ascetic theme of this passage is, without surprise, one which also resonates with Anthony. He also, in the Sayings,  There is nothing in our text which would make us doubt an Anthonite connection.


[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 351 (#147).

[2] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 351 (#148).

[3] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 351 (#148).

[4] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 351 (#149).

[5] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 351-2 (#149).

[6] Mo Tzu, Basic Writings. Trans. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), 39.

[7] The Dhammapada. Trans. John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana. Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (New York: Book of the Month Club, 1992), 69.

[8] Hugh of Saint Victor, On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith, 381.

[9] See The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 8 (#32).


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