In Book II of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle famously describes virtue as a habit of choosing an intermediate between two bad extremes in regard to human action:
“Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by reason, and by that reason by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.” (trans. David Ross)
This is, then, a Goldilocks sort of intermediate, a “just right” point. According to Aristotle, human action is the sort of thing–like porridge or dancing or Halloween candy–that admits of a “too little” and a “too much.” Take the particular example of generosity: Give away too little money and you are stingy. Give away too much money and you are prodigal. The human excellence of generosity lies somewhere between those two bad extremes.
But what is more rarely noticed is how Aristotle anchors this intermediate in reason. This prevents people from making absurd claims, such as “Well, being faithful to your wife might be okay for you, but for me one woman is not enough. Discretely keeping a mistress in addition to my wife is the ‘just right’ point for me.” Such a person attempts to define the good intermediate point in terms of his own concupiscence, what some translations of the Bible call “the flesh.” But reason would say something radically different, recognizing that the exclusivity of marriage is shattered by any infidelity at all.
And if it is rarely noticed that Aristotle anchors the choice of the intermediate in reason, it is almost never noticed that he grounds the analysis even more fully: reason itself gets anchored in a specific type of person, the “man of practical wisdom,” the virtuous agent.It is not some sort of strange, disembodied thought that determines what the good intermediates are–it is rather the reason of good people, people with the ability to live lives of true human flourishing. The actions considered to be good by people like that–your grandfather, perhaps, or an older, wise doctor–are the actions that are truly good. Such people see things most clearly.
For Aristotle, you see, was a realist. He knew, well over 2,000 years ago, that we do not sit around in dark rooms thinking ourselves into existence as the people we are. No, to be human is to construct your identity by imitating others. And we learn what is humanly possible, what we can imitate, from virtuous agents, people who are excellent in various ways. Just as we learn what it means to play baseball well by watching players such Carlos Beltran and David Ortiz play, so do we learn what it is to act morally by observing the actions of good people. Such people reveal to us what it means to be good, what kind of actions are appropriate for us as human beings.
This disclosive power of virtuous agents is part of the natural basis built upon by a particular aspect of grace, the Catholic cult of the saints. Along with the example of the King of All Saints–Christ–the Church constantly strives to put before the faithful the lives of the lesser saints, various exemplary Christians throughout history. “Catholic art” is an important manifestation of this cult: Catholic churches are decorated, inside and out, with paintings, statues, carvings, mosaics, etc. of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. Such art puts before us, again and again, the history of these saints.
However, the most prominent aspect of the cult of the saints is the honor paid to the saints in the Church’s liturgy throughout the year. And of the various feasts held in honor of the saints, today’s has a primacy: the Solemnity of All Saints. This is a liturgical celebration directed not to the honor of any one particular saint, but rather to all the saints. There is even an aspect of justice to this: there just aren’t enough days in the year to honor all of the great human beings Christianity has produced, and so some saints are in danger of not being honored and remembered, even though such honor is indeed their due, being a share in the honor that is due to Christ himself.
Big deal, you say; the saints are happy with God and don’t care about being honored. That’s partially true, at least in the sense that saints in heaven surely aren’t desperate to receive honors. But it would be bad for us not to honor them. Humanly, it damages you when you are so insensible as to fail to honor that which is worthy of honor–for example, not to wish your mother a happy birthday makes you at least a little bit worse as a person.
And, just as importantly, the lack of a Solemnity in honor of all the saints would deprive us of the public opportunity to commend ourselves to their charitable intercession before God. For the Catholic cult of the saints has another aspect beyond the imitation of virtuous agents: communion and friendship. As the CCC puts it in #828, the Church recognizes “the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors.”
Put more bluntly, the saints do care, in the sense that they want to help us. But it is easy to forget about the non-canonized saints and their desire to intercede for us. As the maxim goes, “out of sight, out of mind”; that is, the non-canonized saints don’t have statues and mosaics to remind us of them. Today, then, is the day the Church liturgically reminds us that we have in the saints many more friends than we realize. And the realization is the key. For as Aristotle also reminds us, friendship is mutual goodwill that is recognized by the persons involved. The realization of the friendship constitutes it, and unlocks its transformative power.