Friday 27 March 2015

Trusting in drunkenness: a note on Clement of Alexandria

At the start of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observes that moral action does not arise from deliberation. In order to think clearly about virtue, one must first already have a virtuous disposition formed by good habits. Aristotle drily remarks that the endless ethical debate of some philosophers is really just a sophisticated way of doing nothing. You become virtuous – and thus able to understand virtue – by acting virtuously. Nobody ever reasoned their way into right living.

Clement of Alexandria’s second-century Exhortation to the Greeks has a similar view of the priority of acting over deliberating. Clement’s Hellenistic friends don’t first need to comprehend all the complexities of the Christian faith. What they need first of all is a change of disposition. They need to be charmed by the magic of Christ, enchanted by Christ’s music. The first step is to accept Christ and to begin to follow his way. Understanding what it’s all about comes later.

In a typically affable illustration (he is the most affable of all the early fathers), Clement explains the point by comparing conversion to getting drunk at a party:

Let me give you an illustration. You might have some doubt about whether it’s right for a person to get drunk. But it’s your practice to get drunk before considering the question. Or in the case of self-indulgence, you don’t first make a careful examination: you hurry to indulge. Only when divine things are in question do you first inquire. When it’s a question of following this wise God and his Christ, you think this calls for deliberation and reflection, even though you have no idea what would be pleasing to God. Put faith in us, just as you do in drunkenness, that you may become sober! Put faith in us, just as you do in self-indulgence, that you may live! (Exhortation to the Greeks 10.77)
This is not to suggest that the Christian faith is irrational. For the one who has had a change of disposition, Christ also begins to shine as a rational light. Clement assures his readers that he has "an abundance of persuasive arguments about the Logos" – but these are for those people who have already had their desire awakened and have already begun to "contemplate this clear faith in the virtues", i.e., in the way of life that it initiates.

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