St. John of Damascus, On the Virtues and the Vices: Our Irreducible Humanity

Once again, in this last section of this work, John stresses the difference between

occasional, unintended virtue and virtue that is purposeful and consistent. We see the great difference between acts of compassion and being compassionate, doing and becoming. The path toward union with God requires becoming—undergoing inner transformation rather than only performing occasional acts.

Hence it is clear that someone who occasionally shows compassion is not compassionate, and someone who occasionally practices self-control is not self-controlled. A compassionate and self-controlled man is someone who fully, persistently, and with unfailing discrimination strives all his life for total virtue; for discrimination is greater than any other virtue; and is the queen and crown of all the virtues.

A passage from Romans came to mind, as I read this, about what constitutes the core of one’s personhood and identity:

A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God. Romans 2: 28, 29

The same principle of human wholeness and irreducibility applies to vices. We don’t call a man a fornicator, drunkard or liar because of individual lapses unless there is a persistent pattern, St. John tells us. We do not judge a person “on account of a single lapse, but only when he keeps on falling into the sin in question and makes no attempt to correct himself.…”

St. John challenges with a question. Would we judge a man as sinful for entering a brothel even if his purpose was to save a prostitute?

We live at a time when, in our attempt to prevent egregious, hurtful behavior, a person’s life and career can be instantaneously destroyed because of the utterance of one single word. A single act or association forever defines a person’s totality, reducing them to labels such as “leftist” or “right-wing extremist.” This is the slippery slope that leads to demonization of others and deep divisions.

St. John shows us that we are much more than our isolated acts or words; more than what we say or do. A complex cluster of forces such as, intention, purpose, state of soul and heart, capabilities for discernment and repentance, work in tandem to define a man’s character.  

Human beings are simply not reducible to component parts because we are made in the image and likeness of God.

Being made this way, however, means that we have the faculties and capabilities (likeness) to achieve true union with Him, but that it takes our will to actualize these capabilities and become one with the image of God.

Every man possesses that which according to the image of God “for the gifts of God are irrevocable.” Rom. 11:29. But only a few—those who are virtuous and holy and have imitated the goodness of God to the limit of human powers- possess that which is according to the likeness of God.

Hence, virtue is not an abstract attribute we are born with. We acquire it only by using our God-given faculties, such as intelligence, to make a conscious choice of it.

Virtue (areti) is so called because it is something we choose (to aireisthai). We choose it and will it in the sense that we do good but deliberate choice and of our own free will, not unintentionally and under compulsion.

God’s gifts, John reminds us in quoting Rom. 11:29, are “irrevocable.”

Irrevocability is an important concept. Man’s capabilities for virtue, such as “what regards the dignity of his intellect and soul,” stems from our covenant with God. It cannot be taken away, appropriated, objectified and reduced: “that is to say, the quality in man that cannot be scrutinized or observed us immortal and endowed with free will and in virtue of which he rules, begets and constructs.

John gives us an exhaustive list of all the types of virtues and vices, their categories and the interrelationships among them, so that we can be constantly alert, maintain an open heart and tend our inner garden.

It is important to note that in this work, that St. John presents virtue as relational process rather than a solitary endeavor in isolation from others. On the contrary, the actions through which we imitate God “consist having deep sympathy or one’s fellow men, in mercy, pity and love towards one’s fellow servant and in showing heartfelt concern and compassion.”  It is only in relationship with God and each other through love and compassion, that we can be saved.

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