An Ethical Response to the Fragility of Human Life
Human life is a fragile thing. The goodness of human life is dependent on (or threatened by) external circumstances such as wealth, health, beauty, talent, and simple luck. Since antiquity, people have pondered how to factor in the seeming necessity of external contingents into an ethical account of the “good life.” The Stoics were notorious for their conclusion that external contingents like health, wealth, friends, and family were not relevant factors in the formula for a good life. For the Stoics, all that mattered was virtue. If you were a virtuous person–that is, a courageous, temperate, just, and prudent person–you could lose your home, your friends and family, all your possessions, and even your health and still, if you kept your virtue, you would still be happy.
Although most of us probably feel that the Stoic response is somehow not really human, we can be sympathetic to what this school of philosophy was trying to achieve. Bad things happen to good people. Even in antiquity, this was a truism. In light of this, the task of ethics is to keep good people from turning into bad ones when disaster hits. The Stoics concluded that detachment from the need for external goods was the only way to stay good in a world full of badness. “Love only virtue,” was the Stoics’ rallying cry. If you loved only virtue, you could lose a child and remain unfazed. If you loved only virtue, you could get a cancer diagnosis and not be troubled. In the face of any adversity, you stayed stoic, and most importantly, virtuous.
The alternative to the Stoic conception of happiness and morality in light of the fragility of external goods is Aristotle’s way. Aristotle said that we need more than just a virtuous character to be happy. As humans, we need food and shelter, we need a certain degree of wealth and life success, we need good health, and we need relationships. No amount of virtue will create a happy life if we are missing any of these things.
The Stoic tendency shows up a lot in history, Christianity included. Christian morality is often caricatured as teaching the saints live an austere life, indifference to grief, joy, pleasure, or pain. I want to argue, however, that the Christian conception of happiness is much closer to the Aristotelian notion than the Stoic, namely, that we need certain external goods to be happy.
Enter Job. Job is a righteous man, and blessed by God. He has a big family, robust health, a huge estate with lots of animals, and quite a bit of wealth. Not only is he a happy guy, he’s virtuous as well.
But then he gets tested. He loses his animals, his children die, his home is destroyed, and eventually, even his health goes. Poor Job is sitting on the ash heap covered with boils and sores, and he is miserable. Not only is he miserable, but he wants answers from this alleged “good” God that has allowed him to suffer so.
And God gives an answer:
Then the LORD addressed Job out of the storm and said: Who is this that obscures divine plans with words of ignorance? Gird up your loins now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answers! Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size; do you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid the cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:1-7)
I heard my husband preach on this text this weekend, and he brought Job into dialogue with Paul in 2 Corinthians 6 who is not, unlike Job, complaining about his suffering, but actually boasting and rejoicing in it. My husband pointed out that there is a major difference between Job and Paul when they confront the contingency of external goods, and the terror that comes with losing them. The difference is that Job has something to lose, but Paul, as well as the other apostles, have already given everything up. They have left their homes and their families, and given up any hope of being rich. With nothing to lose, suffering does not present the same sort of problem for the disciples of Christ as it does for Job.
The moral lesson of the story, according to this sermon, was to be preemptive when it comes to losing the external goods that cause so much suffering by giving up these goods voluntarily. If you don’t want to be afraid of losing your money, give most of it away. If you don’t want to suffer badly when you lose your job, don’t get to attached to it.
That sounds nice in theory, but Paul’s boasting in his suffering and the disciples’ total renunciation of worldly goods is not the way most Christians live. And it sounds a little too Stoic for my taste. Plus, it is fine to talk about the renunciation of external goods like property and wealth, but what about external goods like relationships and health? Surely Christians are meant to have at least some attachment to these external goods. So how are Christians to make sense of external goods that the world offers, and which sometimes are cruelly taken away?
Thomas Aquinas is Aristotelian in his approach to the question of external goods. This means that he is not going to recommend detachment from externals, like the Stoics or some Christian interpretations of the command to “hate the world.” Instead of detachment, Aquinas recommends “ordered love.” External goods can be loved, but they have to be loved in the right way. This means that goods like a nice home, a reliable car, a big family, and a sound bill of health are all goods that we can and even should desire. We just may not desire these goods as ends in themselves. Ordered love prefers always the greatest good, which is God, to all other lesser goods.
We pervert the proper order of love when we either love lesser things inordinately, like loving someone loving their car so much that they go bankrupt in taking care of it, or we pervert the proper order of love when we don’t love greater goods enough. The greatest good being God, all other goods should be subordinated to Him. This means that it is disordered to love your friends so much that you skip worship to spend time with them. It is disordered to love our health so much you spend all of your money on gym memberships and supplements and health food, to the neglect of other financial pursuits like charity and tithing.
But what is important to note about this idea of ordered love is that according to Aquinas, Christians can still love the goods of this world, and be attached to them, and mourn them when they are lost. It is good and proper to mourn for a lost loved one, and it is appropriate to worry about losing your home and possessions during tight economic times. Aquinas recognizes that we need these things to be happy, that is, to lead full and flourishing human lives. Aquinas’ way is not a way of detachment, but rather of proper attachment. Aquinas recognizes that becoming a Christian disciple does not necessarily prevent you from becoming Job yourself, sitting on top of an ash heap and mourning the fact that you’ve lost everything against your will.
Life on this earth is full of contingents. Sometimes things work well for us. Sometimes, we get to marry the person of our dreams, land a dream apartment in a cool city, get a job that is not only a career but a vocation, and surround ourselves with friends and family that love and care for us. At other times, we may have to deal with the mess of losing our job, or having a spouse lose their job. We may have to face a debilitating illness or watch a loved one succumb to a terminal disease. We may lose our home to the force of nature, become victims of violence, or find that the love we once thought was strong has grown dim or even disappeared. A good ethical response to the fragility of life on this earth is not detachment from external goods, but rather, fostering the sort of attachment that allows you to desire and love and mourn properly, without losing your desire and love for the greatest good—the God who is the source of all good things.