Aristotle and the Good Samaritan,
Robinson College Chapel
19th June, 2019
Aristotle’s Ethics was the first book I read in which I realised people in the ancient world were not stupid. Like many, I had assumed that if you were born 400 years before Christ, the most you could achieve intellectually and morally, was the kind adolescent knuckle-scraping grunt-monkey antics I have come to expect from my teenage boys. Aristotle’s description of the human character, of the sheer complexity of the hopes and beliefs and behaviours and habits of his contemporaries – shone a light onto his own contemporaries that for me – brought them to life and made them feel like my contemporaries. Aristotle’s Ethics is a work of sheer genius, and clearly we can only scratch the surface here – and only offer a single interpretation.
In the broadest of brush strokes, one way of distinguishing between morals and ethics, might be to say that Morals concern rules and regulations, whereas Ethics concerns character and personal virtue. Morals – from the Latin mores – are more concerned with codes of behaviour and conduct. Ethics – from the Greek ethos – are more concerned with the cultivation of human character and virtue. People often regard religions, for instance, as preoccupied with morality, with rules and codes and commandments – though it’s true to say that in an era of identity politics and political correctness, we are witnessing a new generation more preoccupied with morality than we have experienced for decades.
It is very easy in my generation, for armchair moralists who have never lifted a finger to help anyone – to demonise good people who have struggled against injustice their entire lives. We demonise them if their media profile fails to adhere to the newly invented moral code to which we subscribe. Social and mainstream media are magnificent tools for the contemporary unwittingly self-righteous moralist. But moralism, of course, is nothing new. Ethics, can be perceived as something entirely different.
Aristotle is concerned with ethics, with the cultivation of character – because if you can cultivate good character, you don’t need to follow an external body of moral codes. If you can develop virtues through cultivating new habits – then you will automatically become the good person whose behaviour manifests itself in ways that almost accidentally adhere with a strong moral code. Of course, the virtues treasured by Aristotle differ from those treasured by other philosophers, and probably from those treasured by us. But the electrifying core of Aristotle’s thought, seems to be that practicing virtues, you become virtuous. By forming good habits, you become a good person. Inside-out rather than outside-in.
It is not simplistic to say that much of the tension faced by Jesus of Nazareth, was tension between morals and ethics. On the one hand, there was a prevailing Morality, in the form of religious and cultural codes. On the other, Jesus would talk about ‘bearing fruit’ – about work at the core of your being, that would manifest itself in good behaviour. You rarely find Jesus giving people rules to live by – in fact, Jesus doesn’t ever preach at people. The nearest thing you can find to a sermon, has him encouraging his followers to break the prevailing moral code. Jesus was not big on morality.
Aristotle is helpful then – in the way that he unpacked how virtue can take root in a person’s life, the influence that a person’s background can have, and the importance of fostering good habits rather than only following rules.
The parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates the point beautifully. By the standards of the day, Jesus should have issued a trigger warning. The phrase, ‘a Priest, a Levite and an Israelite’ rolled off the tongue of a first century Palestinian rather like we might say, ‘Friends, Romans and … Countrymen,’ or ‘the good, the bad and the … ugly.’ And Jesus throws a hand grenade into people’s rhetorical expectations. Perhaps the best illustration is Goldilocks – who went into the house of the Daddy Bear, the Mummy Bear, and the Isis Operative. In the politically correct circles of the moral majority, it was profoundly offensive to speak about Samaritans, especially as objects of virtue. It’s that kind of behaviour that gets you no-platformed. There were no safe spaces anywhere near Jesus when he was in full-flow.
The priest and the Levite, not to mention the lawyer at the heart of this controversy, represented morality – religious or social mores that ought to be applied. It is a parable about morals as opposed to ethics. It was a story told to a lawyer who had asked what good thing he must do, i.e., what procedure he must follow, what rules he must apply, in order to receive eternal life, what morality should he treasure? Jesus responds not by telling him which rules to follow, but by calling him to love his neighbour – because in loving his neighbour he is loving the God of Israel.
If you want to turn this into a moral tale, then you can list all the things that the Good Samaritan did – a list which incidentally was at odds with the prevailing moral code of the day, and at odds with the particular virtues treasured by Aristotle. Or you can reduce it to some shallow and inoffensive moral injunction – like ‘hug a hoody.’ But the Samaritan was hated more than that. He was more irredeemable than someone who voted differently from me in the referendum. It was assumed that he was automatically and beyond question, a bad person. So how did the Good Samaritan show that he was good?
It has nothing to do with consciously trying to do the right thing or refrain from doing the wrong thing. Instead, it was because he loved God and loved his neighbour. Because he was the kind of person who already loved God and already loved his neighbour. And when confronted with the tragedy that was in front of him there was no moral dilemma – he had not choice but to act in accordance with his pre-formed ethos. We heard an example of this at an inquest this week, the story of Kirsty Boden, a 28 year old nurse who, in the midst of a terror attack, saw a young man bleeding to death on London Bridge. She appeared to be incapable of ignoring the danger. Why? “I’m a nurse,” she said, “I have to go and help.” She had long since committed herself to helping. She had already cultivated the habit that led to virtuous, self-sacrificial action. And it cost her her life.
It is here that Jesus parts company with Aristotle. By whatever method Aristotle sought to cultivate virtue – an area of ongoing debate – none of the possibilities aligns with the route taken by Jesus. For Jesus it is in relation to other people that your character is made and remade. It is by loving the God of Israel that you begin to reflect his character. It is by loving your neighbour that you become loveable. There is no striving to become a better person, no battle to become virtuous, no moral dilemmas. For Jesus of Nazareth, there is no such thing as a good person anyway – it is an irrelevance. What drives his ethics is the relationship with the God of Israel.
When the lawyer asked for a moral code, all Jesus would say is – Love God and love your neighbour – if you want moral task to go and do, do that. Because that will change who you are. And it will change the way you relate to others. And it will change the way that you view Samaritans. And it will liberate you from your identity politics, and draw you out of your echo chamber. Then you might just be able to hear the voice of God.
The Good Samaritan Intercession
Lord, help us to love you in all that we do, that our characters might grow in Christlikeness.
We thank you that you are the God who blesses people with whom we disagree, who welcomes those we would exclude, who loves those we do not. And so we pray that our characters might come to reflect yours more faithfully.
When we are happy to judge, and dislike and hate others – simply on the basis of gossip, or ignorance, or laziness – forgive us. May we become people who offer practical and political love in a way that is not calculating.
When we have immunised ourselves to the distress of others, simply because our society has taught us to disguise our distress, and social conventions require that we conceal our weaknesses – give us discernment, and courage, and the capacity to listen well.
When we cross the metaphorical road to avoid doing the right thing, because we are afraid of the consequences, cause us to question our commitment to others and to you. Give us the courage to face up to the realities of our own cowardice.
Help us to see you as you really are, and to see others as they really are. Help us to hear you more clearly, that we might instinctively hear your voice in unexpected places. Help us to worship you more faithfully, that we might love more fully. To the glory of your name.