The Never-Ending Race of Virtue

In the Life of Moses, capsule Gregory writes in response to the question: What is the perfect life?

Even though he will explore the question by using Moses as a template for the pursuit of a virtuous life, he actually starts his treatise with a reflection on Philippians 3:13-14 because “that divine Apostle, great and lofty in understanding, ever running the course of virtue, never ceased straining toward those things that are still to come.” (I, 5)

For Gregory, perfection comes in the process, which is quite different from the neoplatonism of his day, that understood perfection as fixed and unchanging. And because the process is what is important, Gregory argues that the pursuit of virtue can never cease in this lifetime. It is an infinite process without end in this life. For each time a new level of virtue is reached, the Christian looks on the horizon and sees that she hasn’t reached the end, but that there is indeed more to pursue.

Not only that, if a Christian stops pursuing virtue it does not mean that she has merely stopped, but, in fact, she has traded one race for another:

“Just as the end of life is the beginning of death, so also stopping in the race of virtue marks the beginning of the race of evil.” (I, 6)

This is because God is himself absolute virtue (I, 7), and so the pursuit of virtue is participation in God. To abandon this pursuit is to abandon God.

3 thoughts on “The Never-Ending Race of Virtue

  1. This happend to be my today’s evening reflection, which I meditated while it was raining. I pose a question and leave it for you. As Christians should we not follow the footsteps of Jesus, which was a life of ‘Kenosis’. that is of constant ‘self-emptying’ than of filling oneself. So as Christains should we throughout our life want to fill our selves with virtues or should we constanly empty ourselves so that God could fill it. Thus God’s glory will be proclaimed and not our glory of acquired virtues.

  2. “So as Christains should we throughout our life want to fill our selves with virtues or should we constanly empty ourselves so that God could fill it.”

    Jefferson, I think the key is that it’s not just any virtues, but the virtues that characterize a Christian life. We’re not filling ourselves with virtue to just fill ourselves with virtue. I would suggest that Christians pursuing virtue can be in fact a form of kenosis, as we are guided by Jesus and filled with the Holy Spirit.
    And I don’t think that we will be able to glory in our acquired virtues, for indeed one of the virtues is humility, which would preclude glorying in our own strength.

  3. JB, if you want more on a kenotic approach to the virtues, see Nancey Murphy’s book “Why Psychology Needs Theology.”

    To begin with, I agree with Amanda that “which virtues” is an important question, as there are some virtues (e.g., Aristotle’s virtue “megalopsychia”, which might be considered a “justifiable pride”: if I have this virtue, I’m full of myself but only because I’m THAT awesome.) that serve the self’s desire for glory.

    Most virtues endorsed by Christian thinkers can be seen as self-emptying in their nature and function. I’ll roll with the Cardinal Virtues for the purposes of this discussion. My own ego says that nothing is more important than myself, so courage empowers self-emptying by empowering me to accept real or potential loss or harm to myself in the name of something more important than me. My ego hates justice, since justice puts us all on equal footing and requires me to treat people with the respect due to one create din the image of God. Temperance requires silencing the demands of the self, while the self wants uncontrolled gratification. As for wisdom, Robert Sternberg’s psychological research on wisdom and foolishness indicates that failure of wisdom most often involves allowing egocentrism to unbalance one’s thought processes.

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