Monday, July 12, 2021

Saints and faith

There are many ways of life that people claim to be virtuous. A central thesis of Aristotelian ethics is:

  1. The virtuous person knows what is the virtuous human form of life, at least insofar as this is relevant to her own circumstances.

She knows this by living virtuously, which enables a from-the-inside appreciation of the virtue of the virtuous life she lives. This is a mysterious thing, but it means that the virtuous person does not need to worry sceptically about the fact that other people disagree with her about this way of life being virtuous (maybe they say to her: “You should have a stronger preference for people of your country over foreigners”, and she just knows that her preference should not be stronger). These other people are not virtuous, and hence lack that from-the-inside view on what it is to live a virtuous life, and hence they are not her epistemic peers with respect to virtue.

Suppose we accept (1). Now imagine that Therese leads a kind of life L that is deeply intertwined with a particular religion R, in such a way that clearly L would be unlikely to be virtuous if R were false, but is very likely to be virtuous if R is true.

It is easy to imagine cases like this. Perhaps most religious and non-religious views other than R would object to significant aspects of L—perhaps, L includes forms of activism that R praises but most other religious and non-religious views look down on, or lacks forms of activity that most religious and non-religious views other than R think are required for a fulfilling human life. The life of a good contemplative Catholic nun is like that: most non-Catholic views will see it as a waste.

Suppose, further, that Therese is in fact virtuous. Then she knows that L is virtuous, and this gives her significant evidence that R is true because of how much L is bound up with R.

One may have a Christian worry about what I just said. What about humility? Would Therese know that she is living a virtuous life? But she might: true self-insight is compatible with humility. However, my argument does not assume that Therese knows that she is living a virtuous life. All that (1) says is that Therese knows that L is a virtuous life—but she need not know that she is in fact living out L. She knows the model of the virtuous life by living it, but she may not know that she is living it. (Aristotle wouldn’t like that.)

Now, suppose that Therese’s virtue in fact comes from God’s grace. Then Therese has a deep reason to know R on the basis of grace: the grace leads to virtue, and the virtue leads to knowledge of what is virtuous.

So, we have a model for how saints of the true religion can know the truths of their faith, because their radical forms of life are so tightly bound up with their religion that their knowledge that this way of life is virtuous (a knowledge compatible with certain ways of agonizing about whether they are in fact living that way) yields knowledge of their religion.

Can this help those of us who are not saints? I think so. It is possible to see the virtue of another’s form of life even when one does not have much virtue. And then the tight intertwining between the saint’s life of virtue and the saint’s religion provides one with evidence of the truth of their religion.

(Note the similarities to the line of thought in van Inwagen's deeply moving "Quam Dilecta".)

Is this immune to sceptical worries in the way that the virtuous person’s knowledge of the virtue of the form of life she follows is? I don’t know. I think there is room for some proper-functionalism here: we may have a faculty of recognition of a virtuous form of life.

Note, finally, that there are multiple virtuous forms of life, some less radical than others. The more radical ones are likely to be more tightly bound up with their religion, and hence provide more evidence—even if they are not necessarily more virtuous. Perhaps the difference is in how specific a religion is testified to by the virtue of the way of life. Thus, the contemplative cloistered saint’s life may give strong evidence of Catholicism, or at least of the disjunction of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, while the life of a married saint as seen from the outside may “only” give strong evidence of Christianity.

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