An essay inspired by A Post-Enlightenment Ethics of the Desert Fathers. By Ljiljana Radenovic:
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
An essay inspired by A Post-Enlightenment Ethics of the Desert Fathers. By Ljiljana Radenovic: Des Hewitt.
Individual Ethics - Collective Ethics – the same difference?
Ljiljana Radenovic's article on the ethics of the Desert Fathers focuses on the need to recapture the moral and ethical approach of Christianity after the removal of ethical concerns from the church during the Enlightenment, not least by Kant; and thus offers us a reimagining of what it means to be human or, a ‘dutiful’ person, presumably of virtue – of morality. Radenovic asks how we can move from Kant’s self-governed and so arguably, a self-interested ethics, governed only by our own reason, and, from the limitations of utilitarian ethics back to a Christian approach. Radenovic argues the Kantian and utilitarian ethical approaches guide us only in limiting our actions to achieve maximum happiness for some members of society; Radenovic thus attempts through her paper to rekindle a deeper religious meaning to our existence, and one that reaches out to all.
Post-Enlightenment Ethics and Care
So through the Desert Fathers and thus in following the teachings of Jesus, Radenovic introduces a post-Enlightenment ethics and argues, we should embrace the philosophy of the ‘ethics of care’, that is, for example, to love our neighbour, practice forgiveness, and to sacrifice ourselves for others: indeed, Radenovic focuses on our selfless love of our neighbours and others in general, and this then raises the concern as to whether this is in fact possible. This essay argues a different love of our fellow citizens is possible, however we define the ‘individual’.
This in turn asks questions of the concept of self-abnegation: the denial of material life, our selves, and our characters, personalities and thus our individual nature, no less. However, Radenovic uses the ethics of care and the philosophy of the Desert Fathers to move ethics from determining how we act, that is, determining what we do and how and why, and returns ethics to a philosophy of being: what we should be, although in arguing this Radenovic by definition, does attempt to tell us how to act in encouraging a return to faith.
Unsurprisingly,Radenovic contextualises the attempt to revive a more moral approach to each other in the context of a discussion on individualist ethics. That is presumably, the rampant individualism of our times, and the endless pursuit of self-perfection and disregard for others. Journeying through various movements and derivations of Stoicism, the system of rationality and virtue, Radenovic visits Aristotle’s writing on the development of character, and importantly to the discussion, how become a virtuous person and what makes us happy – in other words, how to ‘be’, not what to ‘do’; in a sense then, Radenovic offers us an ethical epistemology of the individual – or person.
Happiness in Collective Action
It is in this context that Radenovic illustrates Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia. In the context of writing on morality and ethics and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Radenovic defines this concept as meaning happiness; Radenovic argues Aristotle’s writing presents this as our goal in life. However, the historiography of Aristotle’s writing suggests to fully understand eudaimonia it should be seen and more importantly, read in the context of the Nicomachean Ethics, the Ethics and Aristotle’s Politics.
Thus it seems appropriate to attempt to add to Radenovic’s article by suggesting the collective approach Aristotle’s writing seemingly encourages, through the idea of a politically engaged citizen. That is, the Zoon-Politikon; this is an alternative, secular approach to the development of our own moral selves, and of society more generally therefore. A collective ethical and moral approach to life, which this essay uses in an attempt to complement, not replace the Christian values presented in Radenovic's writing and which counters the individualism which is seemingly so prevalent today.
However, this is not to say one does and must not act as an individual whilst acting for the greater good of the collective. After all, and as Fuller has argued in a response to Radenovic, Jesus was an individual who spoke the good news to whoever would listen, although as theology records, this was in fact for the greater good. This, as Fuller’s response points out, raises the question as to what an individual is, or how we define the concept. So how do we live a good-life for ourselves and, others? Aristotle, perhaps arguably, has some of the answers to this question, so in revisiting his work now we can look at what being an individual in society could mean for our own good lives and that of others.
Excellence in Character
Eudaimonia, flourishing and feeling alive (not simply happiness then) in Aristotle’s writing, is usually connected to Arete, which is defined as a virtue or as ‘excellence’, which in turn is linked to Ergon, literally the good in ‘man’. Thus Aristotle’s writing across the Nicomachean Ethics and Ethics and Politics refers to the character building nature of a deeply virtuous approach to life.
Aristotle’s writing goes further and conceptualise a fulfilled active citizen – the Zoon-Politikon - as one who takes part in the political life, on the stage of the Agora in the Polis: they become an integral part of the Polity then; the political community of which they are apart. This is an ethical approach to life which arguably considers one’s own position, as well as what is argued politically is best for all: utilitarianism and Epicureanism, practicality of action and the painless, harmless good life together, no less.
Aristotle is said by some to have argued that philosophy is the highest form of contemplation, excellence in human endeavour in other words; and an elitist past time, reminiscent of the much fabled ivory tower of the University. However, the historiography[i] of Aristotle’s writing suggests that his writing across the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics contextualises eudaimonia, the highest, most moral and ethical form of life as the politically active citizen. And although Aristotle wrote in very unequal times, the metaphor his work produces now perhaps offers us a way to love our neighbour, and make sacrifices for each other. Because however we define the individual, the multifaceted actor in these times of reflexive modernization; we are always part of something bigger - society. If the pandemic has shown us nothing else it has shown us this: in a very timely pronouncement for us all, and indeed this essay, the Pope has said getting vaccinated against Covid-19 represents an act of love; presumably he meant an act of love towards our fellow citizens. ii This is a perfect example of what it means to act in an ethical way as an individual and as part of the collective.
 Zoon-Politikon: the political animal and the ability of thought and action on behalf of others which Aristotle argued makes us different from animals; this arguably gives us a soul.
[i] Adkins, A.W.H. 1984. “The Connection Between Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics.” Political Theory 12 (1): 29-49; Ackrill, J. L. 1980. “Aristotle on Eudaimonia.” In Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics edited by Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, 93-103. Berkeley: University of California Press; Aristotle. 1985. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Terence Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company; Aristotle. 2009. The Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by David Ross. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Aristotle. 2013. Politics. Translated by Carnes Lord. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Kraut, Richard. 1991. Aristotle on the Human Good. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Kraut, Richard. 2002. Aristotle: Political Philosophy: Founders of Modern Political and Social Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Kristjánsson, Kristján. 2007. Aristotle, Emotions and Education. Aldershot UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited.