Being & Doing: Aristotle & John Paul II

By Pfaff, William | Commonweal, April 22, 2005 | Go to article overview

Being & Doing: Aristotle & John Paul II


Pfaff, William, Commonweal


The pagan philosopher Aristotle argued that the acquisition of virtue is the proper objective in life, since a life is intelligible only when directed toward some end or good. For the human person, that involves exercising one's reason--the distinctive quality shared by no other being. The well-lived individual life requires a conception of what that life isn't yet, but under certain conditions could become. Since, according to Aristotle, there is no difference in kind between the good of one and the good of most or all, virtue also has to be the objective of a community or state. It is a goal of the individual, but is also a value to be universally sought.

I mention this to emphasize a continuity of thought and value from antiquity to the present, via the Christian religion, which rejects the modern utilitarian idea that the pleasure or material happiness of the greatest number is the objective of human existence and the measure of social and political worth.

The enormous attention devoted globally to the death and the funeral of John Paul II--and therefore to his life--emphasized the activism of his papacy, particularly his crucial role in the collapse of Soviet communism. But attention also centered on the changes he made (or refused to make) in the church and its practices, his ecumenism and pastoral journeys around the world, and the particular appeal he had for the young people of Western society, a generation seemingly given over to materialism.

I would argue, though, that the actual source of John Paul's appeal was not what he did but what he was: a self-evidently virtuous man. There are very few people in history, including papal history, of whom one would spontaneously say this.

Virtue is the quality of goodness in a person or in human conduct, obtained (again according to the Greeks) by the practice of wisdom or prudence (acquired by contemplation, in the Christian tradition), courage, temperance, and justice. These are not innate qualities, but have to be earned. In John Paul's tradition, faith, hope and charity are added to the four classical sources of virtue. For a nonphilosophical and nonreligious world, this comes down to the argument that what one is is more important than what one does.

The same goes for society, and what it does. …

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