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No less than any other approach to ethics, Christian ethics is best discussed in terms of the tensions that it attempts to reconcile. Jennifer Herdt's book focuses on one of the fundamental tensions within the development of Christian morality: the status of "mimetic" virtue. If morality consists of possessing virtue, and virtue is habituated, how do distinguish between being moral, as opposed to merely "acting out" a moral position? Can we even become virtuous, indeed, "without first acting the part?" (p. 1)
Herdt's book is thus both a history of the formation of "true virtue" as a moral concept, and an exploration of the idea of how ethics is formed itself. As such, while the book is written for an audience at least familiar with the key debates within Christian ethics, it is also an invaluable resource for moral philosophers and theologians alike interested in both conceptual and historical tensions within the moral notion of "virtue".
The book's title refers to Augustine's distinction between Christians and "pagan" moralities (although, as Herdt notes, Augustine never actually referred to splendida vitia (p.45)). The contrast between Aristotelian magnanimity – the awareness of one's worth – and Augustinian humility – one's worth in relation to another – are placed as the fundamental tension between pagan and Christian beliefs (p.40). For Augustine, this produces a somewhat ambiguous difference between the "virtues" of the Christian moralist who acts in relation to God, and on the other hand the "splendid vices" of the pagan who merely acts well for their own benefit. But, as Herdt argues, this categorization is clearly not adequate by itself to constitute a complete boundary between "true" and "false" virtue (p.61). Indeed, despite the systematic development offered by Aquinas, and the more reductionist accounts of pagan virtue by the Reformation thinkers such as Luther, she claims that the "anxiety that the virtues cannot be cleansed from the taint of the splendid vices" remains in within the contemporary revival of virtue ethics and its theological possibilities (p.345).
In terms of both breadth and depth, Herdt's book is a masterful treatise. Its originality and intrigue lies in two areas in particular. The first is her overall project of demonstrating how this tension of mimesis and performance lies at the heart of virtue-based morality, which not only informed the early modern Christian thinkers, but also established the theoretical resources for the modern secular morality of Hume, Kant and Rousseau. These thinkers, Herdt argues, all reflect in different ways "the defining influence of inherited anxieties concerning the authenticity of humanly acquired virtue" (p.342). She thus demonstrates how the idea of true virtue in relation to God becomes, in modern moral language, a quest for individual authenticity. Thus, links are drawn between the turn to the individual, displayed in Bunyan's use of autobiography and Pascal's use of "moral psychology", to the earlier concerns of imitative ethics in Erasmus and Aristotle.
The second area of originality is her specific retrieval of many thinkers who have often been overlooked in terms of what contribution they might make to contemporary discussions of virtue. Each chapter offers broad accounts of the moral foundations of each thinker, but also proposes new and challenging readings of their works. For example, Augustine's critique of habituated virtue is related to his ambivalence towards the theatre. His suspicion, firmly rooted in Plato's thought, is that theatrical mimesis is an embodiment of hypocrisy. This interesting angle of analysis enables Herdt to examine the Jesuit theatrical tradition, and the ways in which it attempts to uphold and justify a conception of mimetic virtue rooted in Erasmus' thought. Consequently, she demonstrates how the Jesuit Gracián nevertheless furthers Augustine's initial critique, despite appearing to adopt a "pagan" model of virtue (p.234). Without shying from ambiguity, Herdt nevertheless draws links and developments which a reinvigorated approach to the history of virtue ethics.
There are, of course, methodological and hermeneutic issues which arise from any study with this kind of scope and scale. Perhaps the most pressing is the relationship between historical and conceptual analysis, which at points affects the consistency with which Herdt's overarching argument is articulated. The book is written in chronological order, from Aristotle through to Kant; yet the contextual history of the ideas is often left unexplained. This is becomes most apparent when Herdt initiates dialogues between thinkers from different times: for example, Augustine's work is presented almost as a direct response to Aristotle, on the basis that Aristotelian virtue is the representative of a systematic pagan virtue ethic. Little is mentioned of Aristotle's disappearance from western thinking until well after Augustine's ideas had taken root. The organising principle of the work thus suggests itself to be more conceptual rather than historical. But the conceptual approach is not wholly unproblematic. Partly to allow for these "dialogues", certain key concepts – in particular, "virtue", "semblance" and "morality" -- are not always articulated or conceptualised as fully as they might be, instead (and necessarily) crossing several perspectives and formulations in order for the project to take place. Herdt notes this, for example, when she argues that her use of "virtue" as a singular entity rather than the "virtues" (more common to contemporary pluralistic discourse) is justified in part because this better reflects early modern discourse (p.10). But this does not stop one wondering whether, for example, the Jesuit notion of the theatre as an imitative tool, and the Rousseau critique of theatre as instigating pathos of distance and passivity between individuals, correlate as straightforwardly to the same concept of semblance. The criteria for attributing these general concepts may well be a pragmatic one, but it is one that could, I think, be brought more to the fore of the discussion itself.
These are, however, discussions which should not diminish the importance, or indeed the academic excellence, of Putting on Virtue. Indeed, the real value of the book is that it provides not only a provocative reading of the history of ethics, but also a rich basis upon which further discussion and exegesis may take place.
© 2009 Tom Grimwood
Tom Grimwood, Lancaster University U.K.