A Post-Enlightenment Ethics of the Desert Fathers | Ljiljana Radenović
Guest Column #015
For over three centuries, Enlightenment ethics have been central to philosophical debates on morality, shaping how we think about moral actions and ourselves. Instead of thinking of the moral person as a virtuous person who leads a good life, we are more inclined to think in terms of someone who performs good deeds. In other words, our ethics debates have moved from the question of what kind of person we aspire to be and what kind of character we would like to have, to the question of what is the moral thing to do. As we shall see, this is one of the major causes, if not the main source, for discontent in contemporary ethics.
The key player in the development of Enlightenment ethics was, of course, Immanuel Kant; celebrated for releasing ethics from Church teachings and bringing it within the purview of human reason. This is not to say that Kant abandoned Christian ethics. On the contrary, he remained Christian, but asked us not to submit to any ethical principle before checking it via reason—our own reason. If the principle can be universalized (i.e., if we can imagine all human beings following it without contradiction), then the principle is here to stay. ‘Keep your promises’ is a good example. If we say it is fine to break a promise, we are undermining the world in which promising makes sense at all. Similarly, if we say it is morally acceptable to lie, we are erasing the distinction between telling the truth and lying. As most of the Christian ethical principles are universalisable, Kant could remain at peace with God.
Besides being an entirely human affair, Kant’s ethics is also an ethics of duties. Through reason, we identify what our duties are. So when we are about to act, we do not need to evaluate the morality of that action through its consequences, our sympathies for those affected by it, our tradition, or God’s commandments. If the action is done out of duty, and duty alone, it is moral. So while Kant’s ethics may yield the same conclusions about what we are to do as other moral philosophies, its foundation lies not in moral emotions nor in the good effects of an action, nor even in God’s approval. In this way, Kant’s ethics fully escapes heteronomy. Nothing and no one external can justify our acts. Only our reason can do so.
There have been countless objections to Kant’s ethics. Some critics chafe at the concept of universalisability; others dislike its cold, rational undertones, while still others disapprove of Kant’s disregard for the consequences of our moral actions. The ethics most commonly presented as a viable alternative to Kantian ethics is utilitarianism. Developed by Bentham and Mill, both of whom bore witness to the indignities of the Industrial Revolution, utilitarian ethics focuses not on our duties, but on the good outcomes of our deeds. The most famous of utilitarian principles is that we should act in a way that will produce the ‘greatest good for the greatest number of people’. What that good is varies. Happiness is frequently not measurable, and sometimes avoiding pain is the best one can do. But regardless of how we understand ‘the good’, it is the outcome of our action, not our motivation, that decides its morality.
Utilitarianism has also been abundantly critiqued. The famous trolley thought experiment, in which we are asked if we would divert the trolley so that it kills only one person instead of five, is meant to cast doubt on our utilitarian ethical intuitions.
Regardless of our thoughts about utilitarian ethics, we apply its main principles to policymaking. We carefully calculate what it is best to do (and more often, what is least harmful) when designing public regulations that affect many people. Still, despite its obvious ‘utility’ in some situations, utilitarian ethics, like Kantian ethics, is far from the only game in town.
For all their striking differences, Kant’s ethics and utilitarian ethics share the same focus. Both ask ‘What am I to do?’, rather than ‘What am I to be?’ In this way, they aim to tackle the proper procedures for moral action. But by concentrating on procedure, they tend to move from messy everyday life into the realm of abstract principles and calculations. The thought experiments often deployed in these discussions only reinforce our impression that these ethics’ questions are unrelated to how we actually live and what moral dilemmas we face in the course of the day.
This detachment from real life contributed substantially to the revival of Aristotelian virtue ethics in the second half of the 20th century. Unlike procedural ethicists, Aristotelians insist that the essential part of acting morally is being a virtuous person. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle develops an account of what it means to be virtuous and how we become virtuous people. He argues that good habits instilled at an early age are crucial to the process, and that a good upbringing will eventually make people of character. It is important to note that good people do not only behave virtuously in particular life situations, they do so for the right reasons and are able to feel the right accompanying emotions. The appeal of Aristotle’s ethics lies in his descriptions of concrete life situations and parenting techniques that look quite contemporary. Even Kantians use Aristotelian methods of moral education.
Furthermore, Aristotle opens his Nicomachean Ethics by arguing that the goal of human life is eudaimonia (happiness). This is another point neglected by procedural Enlightenment ethics, and the question of the good life has been partially revived through virtue ethics which, being mostly tied to the communitarian opposition to liberalism, has not left the narrow field of ethics and political philosophy, i.e. the narrow field of academic debate.
In the past several decades, though, New Stoicism has taken the question of the good life outside philosophical circles and into the public realm. It’s a similar development to what occurred with Ancient Stoicism. While Aristotelianism remained a scholarly endeavour, Stoicism was an eminently practical philosophy that offered concrete life hacks and was aimed at a broader audience. Stoicism, not Aristotelianism, was the first ‘cognitive’ therapy.
But let us look more closely at what this new, modern stoicism is. It is often advertised as a two-in-one combo of cognitive therapy and ethics, both of which serve as guides to a happy life. Following Ancient Stoicism to understand their emotional lives, the New Stoics have developed a set of cognitive techniques to help them deal successfully with life difficulties. The crux of the stoic view (old and new) is that our emotions are cognitive in nature. What this means is that if we fix our understanding of the world and ourselves and have a proper grasp of it, we will also fix the way we feel. In other words, these insights will invariably cure our fear, anger, melancholy, and other disagreeable feelings. But how is this achieved? How are we to gain the necessary insights?
Greek and Roman stoics argued that only life according to virtue brings peace, and that this is what our human nature dictates. In a nutshell, practicing a life of virtue is the ultimate life hack for dealing with our emotional states and life difficulties. This does not guarantee an easy life, but it can ensure a clear conscience and emotional calm. Modern stoics, however, disapprove of reliance on ‘natures’: a reliance on the nature of the world that, for the Ancient stoics, was ultimately good and orderly, and a reliance on our human nature that can be made orderly through proper understanding. Instead of relying on ‘metaphysical’ natures, Lawrence Becker (2017) proposes that we, as modern stoics, give up the metaphysics of our predecessors in stoicism and adopt only their virtue ethics, along with cognitive techniques. We can do this by grounding the ethics in empirical science and facts. Science, Becker argues, can give us everything we need to know about human nature. Biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology and the like, can provide us with descriptions and explanations of who we are. This, in turn, will help us understand how to behave.
But what remains most important for stoicism old and new alike, regardless of their underlying ‘metaphysics’, is the emphasis on our sense of agency: what we can and cannot control. The main difference is the New Stoics tend to argue that we can extend our powers by exercising our agency; meaning we can influence our destiny if we understand how.
There are two main features of virtue ethics as resuscitated by the New Stoics. First, it remains profoundly individualistic; second, it aims, as we have seen, to refloat stoic views of a good life without ‘metaphysical baggage’. Unlike the procedural ethics of the Enlightenment, New Stoicism reintroduces and emphasizes the intrinsic connection between a good life and moral acts. Even so, New Stoicism is still preoccupied with the individual; other people and society remain peripheral and are introduced into the discussion only when we need to tackle the question of how we are to behave toward or feel about them. In that sense, New Stoicism, despite all its talk about virtues, remains an egocentric ethics and outlook.
To overcome ethical individualism and develop an ethics that will provide a view of a good life and good deeds (i.e., ethics that answers both questions: ‘who am I to be?’ and ‘what am I to do?’) beyond self-help recipes for the individual, we must begin instead with the assumption that we are, first and foremost, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, friends—relations. We start with the assumption we belong to our communities and are inseparable from the people we love and care about. If our ethics is to do justice to our inherently social human nature, it must focus not on us as individuals with wants and needs, but on the people we are close to as the most important aspect of our identities.
In short, we need a post-Enlightenment ethics. To a certain extent, such a ‘relational’ (as opposed to ‘individualistic’) ethics can be found in the newly proposed ethics of care (e.g., Noddings 2002). The ethics of care starts with the understanding that we are born and raised within a network of relationships, so caring for one another is something that comes naturally to us. We do not need additional reasons to care, and what we are to do in a particular situation must be determined by those whom our care affects. This knowledge cannot be derived from some universal principle, in which sense the ethics of care is particularistic, not universalistic. It is, moreover, one of the rare ethics that emphasises the relationship between two or more people, by insisting that ‘care’ is not located in the moral actors only, but the matter of the relationship.
Despite its advantages, however, the ethics of care also remain a mostly theoretical debate, occasionally impinging on policy in healthcare. So how are we take it to the world and spread it among ordinary people? And how are we to complement it with a view of the good life, something the ethics of care is still lacking?
What I propose here as the answer to both questions may seem radical, because the ethics I advance does carry heavy metaphysical baggage and is not neutral when it comes to the metaphysics of human nature and our place in the world. To overcome the shortcomings of other available options, what we need is the ethics of the Desert Fathers; that is, the ultimate ethics of care within its original Christian framework.
On the surface level, the Desert Fathers share many of the stoic takes on the world and others. They advise their fellow monks not to get attached to material possessions, and offer insights on how to best avoid melancholy, anger, fear, envy, pride, vainglory, and other unbecoming feelings. But their advice goes beyond temporary affective control, in that it is meant to help monks find their path to salvation. Evagrius (Sinkewicz, 2003), for example, experienced and carefully thought through the many temptations a monk faces on his way to God, offering a number of remedies. But in addition to writing for their fellow monks, some godly men responded to the worries and moral dilemmas of laypeople. In their letters, Desert Fathers like Barsanuphius and John (Barsanuphius & John, 2006) show a remarkably fine understanding of the difficult life choices their worldly contemporaries had to face. They respond to a wide range of pressing questions, including those from laypeople who asked whether they should sell or gift the land where a Church was going to be built, if they should lie in court when they had witnessed a murder, if it was morally acceptable for them to leave their spouses to join the monastic life.
What is striking in Barsanuphius’ and John’s answers is their focus on how these acts would impact other people, especially if it meant others would suffer. Their responses are guided by a profoundly Christian concern that we should help others, have mercy on others, forgive them and sacrifice for them in the way Jesus sacrificed for us. In this way, their advice is other-focused and attuned to other human beings and their needs. They never reply with a rule or an abstract principle, ignoring the particularity of a situation. Even the commandment ‘do not lie’ can sometimes be dropped. This is what makes their ethics both an ethics of care and a particularist ethics.
Now, can we keep the ethics of the Desert Fathers without this Christian ballast? In an insightful paper on theistic belief, John Cottingham (2006) notes that Christian virtues such as humility are easily expressed and explained within a Christian context. To be humble, to take a backseat and wait for our turn, to be aware that our gifts, if any, are not our own etc., makes perfect sense within a Christian framework in which we are who we are and have what we have due to the grace of God. But if we give up the framework, the incentive to be humble is slowly lost, because the goal of human life, its meaning—our place and our role in this world as a whole—are lost with it. The virtue of humility, as Cottingham says, ‘will be like a plant that grew in a certain soil, which could theoretically be uprooted and transported to a different climate and conditions, but which in reality cannot properly take root and thrive there’. Similarly, devoting ourselves selflessly to others, helping them, watching out for them—and in the end, sacrificing for them—have particular meaning in Christianity. Christ sacrificed everything, including his life, for us, and sacrificing for the other is the ultimate way to live within a Christian framework. Once that framework is compromised, the imperative to selflessly love and sacrifice for others is too. The reason why we should do so loses its force. A godless universe, in which Christ’s sacrifice has no importance, is a shaky ground for selfless love.
The ‘ethics of care’ of the Desert Fathers and the imperative to love, forgive, and sacrifice for our fellow man come with metaphysical baggage that cannot be simply excised for practical purposes. In order to revive such ethics and the good life espoused by the Desert Fathers, we must revive Christianity. But how are we to do this in a faithless world?
A chapter in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov addresses this. In ‘A Lady of Little Faith,’ Mrs. Khokhlakov confesses to Father Zosima that she suffers from a lack of faith and has come to him to try to regain it. She admits that, when she was a child, she believed without doubt and faith came to her naturally, but not anymore. To this, Father Zosima responds: ‘Nothing can be proved but one can become convinced.’ And we can become convinced, he says,
‘By acts of love. Try to love your neighbours; love them actively and unceasingly. And as you learn to love them more and more, you will more and more be convinced of the existence of God and of the immortality of your soul. And if you achieve the complete self-abnegation in your love for your fellow man, you will certainly gain faith, and there will be no room in your soul for any doubt whatsoever. This has been tested. This is the true way.’
But to follow Father Zosima’s advice demands that we open our hearts and minds and leave behind intellectual debates and attempts to ground selfless acts of love and Christian ethics in a godless universe. Instead, those of us with little or no faith should take the ‘as if’ stance and try to love, forgive, and sacrifice. Such a stance is of little use in arguments and reasoning, because it can never secure the value of selfless acts. It will, however, help us regain faith if love becomes the routine of our everyday lives. This lost faith is essential to keeping the teachings of the Desert Fathers alive and, along with them, the ethics that can help us overcome radical individualism.
David Teniers the Younger. The Temptation of Saint Anthony. ~1650. Oil on copper. 55 × 69 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.
Barsanuphius, S. and John, S. Letters, Volume 2 (Vol. 2). Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2006.
Becker, L.C.. A New Stoicism: Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 2017.
Cottingham, J., 2006. ‘What Difference Does It Make? The Nature and Significance of Theistic Belief’. Ratio, 19(4), pp. 401-420.
Noddings, N. Educating Moral People: A Caring Alternative to Character Education. New York: Teachers College Press, 2002.
Sinkewicz, Robert E., ed. and transl. Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus. Oxford Early Christian Studies, New York: OUP, 2003.
Ljiljana Radenović is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Belgrade. Her main research interests are the philosophy of psychology, cognitive science, and the history of emotions. You can follow her on Twitter @Ljiljana1972.