sábado, 8 de agosto de 2015

Of the several paths that lead to virtue, the broadest and the most promising is the way of imitation.


by Robert Louis Wilken

Of the several paths that lead to virtue, the broadest and the most promising is the way of imitation. By observing the lives of holy men and women and imitating their deeds we become virtuous. Before we can become doers we first must be spectators. Origen, the fecund Christian teacher from ancient Alexandria, said, “Genuine transformation of life comes from reading the ancient Scriptures, learning who the just men and women were andimitating them.” He shrewdly notes the reverse of this lesson: we can also grow in virtue by “learning who were reproved and guarding against falling under the same censure.”

In a scene in The Brothers Karamazov shortly before Father Zossima’s death, the aged monk gathers his fellow monks and friends in his cell for a final conversation. He recalls that as a child he owned a book with beautiful pictures entitled A Hundred and Four Stories from the Old and New Testaments. From this book he learned to read, and as an old man he has retained it on his shelf. Fr. Zossima remembers its many stories of good and holy men and women, stories of Job and Esther and Jonah, the parables of Jesus, the conversion of Saul, and lives of the saints Alexei and Mary of Egypt, stories that planted a tiny mysterious seed in his heart. Some of these “sacred tales,” like the story of Job, he could not read “without tears.” Like a bright spark amidst darkness, or a seed that never dies, they lodged indelibly in his memory. In these stories of God’s people, says Fr. Zossima, he “beheld God’s glory.” “What is Christ’s word,” he asks, “without an example?”

Without examples, without imitation, there can be no human life or civilization, no art or culture, no virtue or holiness. The elementary activities of fashioning a clay pot or constructing a cabinet, learning to speak or sculpting a statue, have their beginning in the imitation of what others do. This truth is as old as humankind, but in the West it was the Greeks who helped us understand its place in the moral life. And in classical antiquity it is nowhere displayed with greater art than in Plutarch’s Lives.

“Our senses,” writes Plutarch, “apprehend the things they encounter simply because of the impact they make upon us. For this reason the sense must receive everything that presents itself whether it be useful or useless. The mind, however, has the power to turn itself away if it wishes, and readily fasten on what seems best. It is proper, then, that it pursue what is best, so that it may not only behold it but also be nourished by beholding it. . . . Our spiritual vision must be applied to such objects that by their charm invite it to attain its proper good.”

“Such objects,” continues Plutarch, “are to be found in virtuous deeds; for these implant in those who search them out a zeal and yearning that leads to imitation. In other cases, admiration of the deed does not at once lead to an impulse to do it. Indeed, in many cases the contrary is true. We take delight in what is produced, but have no desire to imitate the one who produced it.” We may take pleasure in, for example, the product of a carpenter or factory worker without wanting to be like them. Their actions generate no “ardor in the breast to imitate” their labor, “nor any buoyancy in the soul that arouses zealous impulses to do likewise. But virtue (arete) disposes a person so that as soon as one admires the works of virtue one strives to emulate those who performed them. The good things of fortune we love to possess and enjoy, those of virtues we love to perform. . . . The good creates a stir of activity towards itself and implants at once in the spectator an impulse toward action.”

In writing the lives of noble Greeks and Romans, Plutarch gave literary form to ideas and conceptions that reached back into Greek antiquity and that continued to exercise their spell over moralists in the early empire. The idea of acquiring virtue by imitating noble examples was a simple yet profound truth, acknowledged by all, even those who chose another vehicle for moral formation. Plutarch’s contemporary Seneca, a Stoic philosopher (Plutarch was an eclectic Platonist), wrote letters and moral essays. In one of many letters to Lucilius, a youth he hoped to mold, Seneca wrote: “Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages . . . derived more benefit from the character than from the words of Socrates. The way is long if one follows precepts, but short and accommodating if one imitates examples.”

Long before Plutarch and Seneca, Aristotle had shown that, the pursuit of virtue was indissolubly bound to deeds, that good actions are not simply the end toward which one strives, but the means to reach the goal. It is only through the repeated performance of good deeds that a virtuous life is possible. In Aristotle’s famous formulation: “We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” From this conception it was only a short step to the idea that character could be deduced from actions; hence a narrative (selective, to be sure) of a person’s actions (i.e., a life, bios in Greek) was an appropriate instrument for engendering virtue. The philosophical grounding for the writing of lives rested on this intimate bond between “deeds” (praxeis) and character(ethos). And, as Plutarch recognized, deeds need not mean great and noble displays of bravery or courage. “A slight thing, like a phrase or a jest,” he wrote, often revealed more of character than “battles where thousands fall.” For character had to do with constancy and steadiness.

By the time Christianity made its appearance in the Roman Empire, the practice of writing lives was well established. Yet Christian hagiography, if we wish to use the later term, does not emerge until the end of the third century and does not burst into luxurious bloom until the fifth. There are of course “tales” of heroic men and women in the apocryphal acts of the apostles (as well as in the canonical Acts), and the early acts of the martyrs narrate the “deeds” of a martyr’s final hours or days. And most important of all, there was the life par excellence, the life of Jesus, displayed with subtlety of perception and refinement of feeling in the gospels.

The initial impression one receives from early Christian literature, however, is that the preferred vehicle of moral instruction was the precept. In the earliest Christian writing (1 Thessalonians, for example), Paul says: “You know what precepts we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from unchastity; that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself . . . that no man transgress and wrong his brother in this matter. . . . “ Sprinkled throughout the New Testament are other lists of precepts, some simple imperatives to refrain from “anger, wrath, malice, slander, foul talk” (Colossians 3:8), others graceful and polished aphorisms constructed on the model of the book of Proverbs or the Wisdom of Sirach—”Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. . . . If anyone thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain” (James 1:19, 26).


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