Thursday, July 24

The Only Tragedy: St. Maximilian and The Nichomachean Ethics

I demand that you become saints, and great saints.

--St. Maximilian Kolbe

Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics states that that the highest commendation belongs to those who do virtuous actions that they take pleasure in doing. However, one might claim to the contrary, with Kant, that commendation should go to those who do virtuous actions that are otherwise painful. Aristotle would respond that the person who takes joy in virtue has progressed farther morally than the person who merely endures painful virtue.

Rather than simply enjoying enjoyable virtuous things, a fully virtuous man, habituated through practice, as the Philosopher suggests, would take pleasure in a conventionally painful act such as blessing "those who curse you," for he would be properly attuned by his training (Luke v, 27). As Aristotle explains, "he who stands his ground against things that are terrible and delights in this…is brave, while the man who is pained is a coward" (Ethics 32). The man who is pained by his actions has not yet completed his ethical training. You have to keep working at it. It is common sense that acts done with pleasure and joy have a greater perfection of action than painful acts: we don’t praise the half-finished above the whole or complete. Why should we shower more praise on a man who finds duty joyless? Instead, we should reserve it for those who have taken virtue into their souls and do all actions with the hidden joy which virtue should possesses.

Aristotle's system works. The practice of virtue leads to the just man doing all virtuous actions, no matter how repugnant on the surface they seem, with joy, and in turn that leads to eudaimonia, a good, virtuous and productive life. I find his system to be in agreement with the Catholic morality that I profess; there exists the practical proof of Aristotle's system. When one can take pleasure in virtue, the most remarkable things can happen. I have a number of theoretical justifications in this matter, but none are more potent than the ones the Philosopher has already given us. We must not "take refuge in theory," as he reminds us (35). The greatest reason for my agreement lies instead in practical examples of such a morality--the lives of the saints.

In particular, St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941) comes to mind. Kolbe sought virtue in a manner similar to Aristotle's; the perfection of his life and, above all, his death are proof that this method, in which joyous action is the highest form of virtue, works to give one a life—and death—of what the Philosopher called eudaimonia, sometimes translated as "happiness." Kolbe was once asked how to live a blessed life, a question not unlike Aristotle’s own problem of how to find eudaimonia. Kolbe responded by writing "v=V" on the chalkboard. The v indicated your will, while V indicated God's. In his death we find the ultimate proof of this. A good man, after all, has "a death worthy of his life" (19). Kolbe was condemned to Auschwitz during the German occupation of Poland. On 30 July 1941, the commandant ordered ten men executed in retribution for an attempted escape. Kolbe, as many of us know, asked to take one man's place in the starvation bunker.

This ultimate virtuous action was accompanied with astonishing and almost unnerving joy. A janitor stated that St. Maximilian led the others in the bunker singing hymns. The janitor added, "They were often so deep in prayer that they did not…hear that inspecting S.S. men [coming]." Kolbe survived the bunker and was put to death on 14 August 1941 by lethal injection. The fact that even one solitary soul can do such a monolithically virtuous action with such serenity is proof of the truth of Aristotle’s ethical idea of joyous virtue. It would have been impossible to do that if he had been a man merely enduring his duty. We may say that the difference between the man who does virtue but takes pain in it and the man who finds joy in virtue is the difference between the merely good man and the saint.

And in the end, as Leon Bloy once remarked, "the only tragedy is not to be a saint."

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