What Does Jerusalem Have to Do with Athens? the Moral Vision of the Book of Proverbs and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

By Ansberry, Christopher B. | Hebrew Studies Journal, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

What Does Jerusalem Have to Do with Athens? the Moral Vision of the Book of Proverbs and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics


Ansberry, Christopher B., Hebrew Studies Journal


"The Greek concern for virtue, which seems to be receiving renewed interest among moral philosophers, is closer to the Old Testament ethics" than our modern preoccupation with individual conscience and the consequences of our actions. (1) This striking assertion by Cyril Rodd provides an indication of the heuristic framework that dominates modern ethical investigations of the Old Testament in general and the wisdom literature in particular. The classical concern with virtues or dispositions--the traits that constitute character--has been revived in contemporary moral discourse through the discipline of virtue ethics or character ethics. This virtue-based approach to the ethical enterprise is employed by many scholars to investigate the moral dimensions of Israel's sapiential material, particularly the book of Proverbs. (2) However, the relationship between the classical Greek concern with virtue and the moral vision of the book of Proverbs is given particular expression in the recent work of Michael Fox. (3)

Fox explores the relationship between Greek ethical theory and the book of Proverbs through the work of Socrates. In the main, Fox incorporates the fundamental principles of Socratic ethics as a heuristic model for understanding the ethical presuppositions behind the variegated materials within the book of Proverbs. (4) For Fox, the ethical vision of both Proverbs and Socrates is based on three basic principles: (1) virtue is knowledge; (2) no one does wrong willingly; and (3) all virtues are one. (5) In light of the ethical and epistemological correlation between Proverbs and Socrates, Fox concludes that both attempt to demonstrate that "human knowledge is a sufficient precondition for virtue." (6) This conclusion not only accounts for Proverbs' particular concern with wisdom, but it also allows Proverbs to provide a comprehensive guide to ethical behavior without recourse to the Torah. (7)

In view of Fox's work and the preoccupation with virtue in modern ethical discourse, it is necessary to compare the ethics of Proverbs with a classic work on moral virtue: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. This comparison is significant in at least two respects. First, human virtue is the central topic of both Aristotle's ethics and the book of Proverbs. Since the materials within Proverbs address a variety of virtues in order to provide the addressee with a kaleidoscopic and paradigmatic portrait of the wise life, (8) the comparison with Aristotle may reveal the degree to which the moral vision of Proverbs is similar to and different from the Nicomachean Ethics. Second, Aristotle's ethical vision is different from the ethical theory of Socrates. In light of the differences between the two approaches, the comparison with Proverbs may reveal whether Aristotle provides a better model for understanding the sapiential material than Socrates. That is, the comparison may reveal the degree to which Aristotle's ethics serve as a useful heuristic model for understanding the ethical prescriptions within the book of Proverbs.

In order to determine whether Aristotle's ethics provide a useful model for understanding the moral vision of Proverbs, it is necessary to examine two particular topics: (1) the differences between Aristotle and Socrates' ethical theory and their relationship to the book of Proverbs; and (2) the relationship between Aristotle's approach to ethics and the moral vision of the book of Proverbs. This essay will examine each topic in turn.

1. Socrates, Aristotle, and the moral Vision of the book of Proverbs

As noted above, Aristotle's moral vision differs from the ethical theory of Socrates. Though both philosophers identify virtue as the essence of human happiness and give particular attention to the role of knowledge in moral formation, (9) the differences between their approaches to the ethical enterprise are striking. These differences may be summarized under two headings. The first pertains to the definition of virtue. …

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