The Joyous Dance of Humility and Magnanimity: Jennifer Herdt on Virtue and Joy
How shall we think about the apparent conflict between the call to humility and the call to greatness and honor? Is it demeaning to be humble given that we are made in the image of God? Or is humility the ultimate regard for humanity? How can we put on Christ without being guilty of “acting” or “faking it”? How can we be magnanimous, or have greatness of soul, without pride interfering? Professor of Christian Ethics Jennifer Herdt responds to these questions and helps us navigate the balancing act between humility and magnanimity.
3:49—Begin interview, Jennifer’s intellectual conversion story
4:44—Herdt’s Putting on Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices book and putting on Christ vs. “faking it”
7:53—17th century interest in virtue
9:52—The court and virtue vs. performance to influence
10:43—Reference to Socrates’ concern for reality vs. appearance
11:54—Reference to Rousseau
12:24—Unpacking Augustinian phrase “splendid” or “glittering” vices
16:42—Humility as a virtue or as a vice?
20:00—Modern critiques of humility as a virtue
23:04—Friedrich Nietzsche’s perspective on humility
26:42—Historical and philosophical views of magnanimity
31:55—Balancing magnanimity and humility; Jesus as the exemplar
35:14—The “great things” that we are called to
38:25—Infused vs. acquired virtues
42:30—Goodness by imitation or hypocrisy?
44:36—Jesuit theatrical tradition, reference to book Silence and feature film Silence
47:33—Humility and joy
51:30—End interview, credits
Quotes from Jennifer Herdt
- “We are called to befriend the sinner and the outcast. We’re called to relationship with one another. We’re called to connection. Pride separates us from that connection. Insecurity separates us from that connection.”
- “This lens that Philippians gives Christians for thinking about humility is a very different one. It’s this notion that our tendency to compare ourselves with one another separates us.”
- “If humility enhances friendship because it takes down those barriers that separate us from one another in our tendency to always compete with and compare ourselves to one another, then humility is a path to friendship.”
- “If Jesus is the exemplar of humility and magnanimity, the great things to which we are to aspire must have something to do with what Jesus does.”
- The Table is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and The Blankemeyer Foundation
- Theme music is by The Brilliance
- Production and engineering by The Narrativo Group
- Edited and mixed by TJ Hester
- Production Assistance by Laura Pelser
- Special thanks to Jennifer Herdt
- Evan Rosa on Twitter
- CCT on Twitter
Evan Rosa: “The Table Audio” is made possible by the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation and the Templeton Religion Trust.
Dr. Jennifer Herdt: We are called to befriend the sinner and the outcast. We’re called to relationship with one another. We’re called to connection. Pride separates us from that connection. Insecurity separates us from that connection.
Comparing ourselves with one another, whether we compare ourselves and think we’re better than others, or we compare ourselves with others and we think that we’re worse than others, both of those things separate us from connection. We’re ashamed of ourselves, or we’re too good for other people. We don’t need them. It all really hangs together so intimately.
Evan: I’m Evan Rosa, and you’re listening to The Table Audio, a podcast about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions.
Evan: Humility wasn’t always considered a virtue. Aristotle thought that humility made you pusillanimous. That is, small of soul and dishonored. Nietzsche thought humility was a form of slave morality that makes a moral standard out of weakness and abasement.
Scottish philosopher, David Hume, numbered it among the “monkish virtues” — vices, really — which, as he says, [Scottish accent] “Stupefy the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy, and sour the temper.”
I’m so sorry you had to hear that.
Evan: No one wants any of that, right? All this humble‑hating seems predicated on a misunderstanding of the virtue. Is it demeaning to be humble, or is it the ultimate regard for the value of humanity, the common ground of being, and the path to joy and abundant life?
St. Augustine once wrote to an inquiring student — and I’m sorry, but I just don’t know what his accent would have sounded like — “If you were to ask me, however often you might repeat the question, ‘What are the instructions of the Christian religion?’ I would be disposed to answer always and only, ‘Humility.'” Amen, and amen, and amen, but there is something left to be wondered about.
How should we think about the apparent conflict between the human call to humility, which means acknowledging limitation and dependence without much self‑concern, and the human call to greatness and honor on the other hand? A proper pride in achievement and accomplishment, what Aristotle would call magnanimity. That is, greatness of soul.
This sensibility is captured in the early 19th century rabbinic saying of Simcha Bunim, quoted in Martin Buber’s collection of tales and teachings of Hasidic Jewish masters.
He says, “Everyone must have two pockets with a note in each pocket so that he or she can reach into the one or the other depending on the need.
“When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket and there find the words, ‘For my sake, the world was created,’ but when feeling high and mighty, one should reach into the left pocket and find the words, ‘I am but dust and ashes.'”
This balancing act between humility and magnanimity, that’s what’s on The Table today, along with a discussion of what it means to become a good person. My guest in this episode is Jennifer Herdt, Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics at Yale University Divinity School.
She works at the intersection of religion, ethics, and politics, focusing especially on questions of human flourishing, the virtues of mind and morality, as well as formation, how will we make progress in moral, intellectual, and spiritual matters.
Dr. Herdt: I’m Jennifer Herdt. I’m at Yale Divinity School on the faculty there. This is my seventh year after over a decade at the University of Notre Dame in the faculty of theology.
Evan: What is your… you might think of it as your intellectual conversion story?
Dr. Herdt: It goes pretty far back. I remember, as a child, just being utterly fascinated with theological ideas. I loved to go to church, and I loved to think about God. I thought, “Look, if this is the world we live in, this world created by God that we’re called to love as created, then isn’t this what we should be thinking about all the time? Why would we be worrying about anything else?”
Evan: In 2008 Jennifer released a book called, “Putting on Virtue—The Legacy of the Splendid Vices.” The book’s subject is excellence. That’s what virtue means in the Greek word arete, human moral excellence in particular, what makes people good.
Can you be good without God’s grace? Can you fake it till you make it, so to speak? What should we make of non‑Christian efforts towards a life of flourishing? The book’s title is a nod both to Paul’s admonishment to put on Christ, but also suggests the problem of theatricality. Faking it. How can we truly become good if we’re just imitators, fakers, a sham put‑on of virtue?
It’s a provocative title. The sense of putting on virtue where it’s a mask, where you wear it and it’s very much this appearance reality thing. The virtues that we normally think of, whether its courage, or justice, or temperance, or prudence, you put on the face of being that way to the world.
There’s something beneath that as well. There’s who you really are. There’s the truth about you, and then there’s what you project to the world. Perhaps it’s this gesture toward the theater and acting out your life. All life’s a stage sort of thing. That’s maybe seeing it more positively, but hypocrisy on the other side.
I wonder if you could just give us an introduction to this concept of what is this problem, the core problem that you’re finding.
Dr. Herdt: You’ve already started to unpack it very nicely there.
Dr. Herdt: I was clearly playing in the title. It’s a double‑entendre at least if not more than that. There’s a reference there to putting on Christ. Good biblical language. What does the Christian do? You put on Christ like maybe not a mask, but a robe. The notion of forensic justification.
God looks at Christ and so we’re justified because God’s looking at Christ and not at our sins. How could that be problematic if it’s biblical, it’s reformed, it has good credentials? Also, of course, referring to something more troubling of an act that you’re putting on, a mask that you’re putting on, a role that you’re assuming that’s not really what you are.
Evan: We call it a put‑on.
Dr. Herdt: Yep, absolutely.
Evan: Faking it.
Dr. Herdt: I was interested, in particular, in fascination with the appearance of virtue that we really see in the early modern period, 17th century, it’s peak. Then tracing that back earlier to see where is it coming from and how is it transforming.
Why do we have this intense preoccupation with sincerity which, in a way, cannot but produce a worry about appearances, about a gap between who we really are and what we seem to be?
Evan: How would you describe that pinnacle of where you describe? Is it 17th century interest in virtue? What are you thinking of and how did that get expressed in moral life? Did you find it on display just in the thinking and the scholarship of the time, or did it make its way even into society in moralistic sense?
Dr. Herdt: One sees it everywhere in Baroque society. You see it in art, in trompe‑l’oeil painting where it’s supposed to look three‑dimensional, but in fact it’s a flat surface. There is very much a sense that there is a visible reality, and then there is a reality beyond. They were conscious of the gap between the two.
I think it does play out in multiple registers culturally at the time. The one that I was most focused on is having to do with human character with a sense that maybe it’s associated with a growing sense of human agency that we do have the capacity to change some things about ourselves, about our societies. Not unlimited freedom, but a freedom to transform.
Together with that is the anxiety that we might deform things or that we might fool others into thinking that we are something that we’re not.
Evan: Hence, the emphasis on authenticity and sincerity and being one’s true self, which, in your writing, you can acknowledge that those are very expressive of renaissance thought as pinnacle of being at the center of our own universe, and enlightenment thought man is the measure of all things and, whatever else that means, it means projecting your true self and living into that authenticity.
Dr. Herdt: One context that I look at in putting on virtue in particular is the court. If you think about it, a transition from virtue being demonstrated in military valor to a context in which the nobles are hanging around the court, being a great fighter isn’t really the way to make progress in that context.
You make progress. You gain and influence people by being a good speaker, by being able to present an effective performance to others, by pleasing others, by being polite and civil, and so on. Then there’s always the question, “Are you really just trying to please people and influence them? Are you flattering, or are you genuine?” That courtly context is a significant one.
Evan: One connection that I found myself making as I thought through and was reading your book is Socrates’ concern for reality as opposed to appearance in the “Apology,” investigating all of these very noble, very honorable, supposedly wise people who project wisdom, make themselves wise.
Then finding posture only, and not getting to what he thinks is the depth of wisdom, [laughs] which is knowing what you don’t know, and his embodiment of not caring about how he was perceived by others.
In that sense, there’s a strain of authenticity in Socrates, too, about virtue is its own reward, “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks so long as I’m living true to that value.” I found that an interesting connection, especially relevant to appearance and reality stuff going on in contemporary society in the way average people interact.
Dr. Herdt: Absolutely. We all want recognition of some sort. So often, we want recognition that differentiates us from others. We want to be seen as better than others, more powerful. I think Russo is one of the best analysts of us, that we get caught up in comparing ourselves with others.
Whether the comparison goes well or not, we end up with a very unstable source of self‑worth. We may be temporarily [laughs] doing really well in comparison.
Evan: Those virtues of the court dating back. This is going more historical in thinking back to this Augustinian phrase that is in the subtitle of your book, The Splendid Vices. I’m wondering if you could unpack that term, where it can from. What was the original context that Augustine was thinking about? What was his point behind calling them splendid or glittering vices?
Dr. Herdt: This notion that Roman society had wonderful heroes that he absolutely adored. He had a standard classical education. He’d read this literature, and he imbibed these ideals and was quite ambivalent about them, but remained always, in some sense, a deep admirer of these heroes and of these values.
To be a hero in that context is to be a civic benefactor of some kind. His worry was that the virtue in that context couldn’t be genuine virtue because it wasn’t referred to God. It was in a context of lack of cognition of God the creator.
Glittering vices because they really did benefit the civic good, the common good. They did good. They had good results. Also, splendid because they appear wonderful. They attract our admiration.
Evan: They speak to human excellence or the desire for it.
Dr. Herdt: Absolutely.
Evan: They look like they produce results.
Dr. Herdt: They do produce results.
Evan: They really do.
Dr. Herdt: They do produce results. In some sense, we cannot but admire them. His analysis is that the basic flaw…The basic law is the lack of recognition of God, but we can always understand that flaw in terms of pride.
The splendid vices are infected by pride so that, although it appeared as though these Roman heroes were absolutely devoted to the common good, they were devoted to the common good because that would result in honor and glory. In fact, they were seeking honor and glory.
They were devoted to themselves and not to the common good. This leaves us with a sticky problem because is there a way that we’re going to end up deconstructing any kind of commitment with the hermeneutic of suspicion that says, “Well, you think you’re devoted to God but, in fact, really, you’re devoted to yourself.”
Can we do the same deconstructive analysis of any virtue?
Evan: In what sense does humility emerge here as a motivation for thinking about pagan virtue as these splendid or glittering vices? How does humility demand of us that we make the evaluation that we make about those?
Dr. Herdt: He thought that pagan thinkers were convicted of a lack of humility. Pagan virtue had to be critiqued because being a glittering vice was being prideful. It was failing to be humble. It was a failure to be willing to embrace a truth that seemed foolish. It was a failure to be willing to embrace the notion of God on a cross, humiliated.
It was absolutely central, and it was also central to this notion that to be a Christian was to be willing to hang out with ordinary people and not live the life of philosophy.
Evan: It’s lived after this pattern of divine humility. Say more about how, for Augustine or the rest of the Christian tradition, in fact, that humility is one of these first stopping points for the imitation of Christ or the imitation of God in Christ.
Dr. Herdt: Absolutely. Well, Philippians 2 is central here. This kenotic notion, this notion that God becomes incarnate, that Christ does not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. That becomes a central lens for understanding who God is, that God is revealed in Christ as a self‑emptier, as this one who is willing to be humble.
Whatever it could possibly mean to follow in that way would be to be willing to be humble as well.
Evan: From Augustine’s perspective, humility is thus absolutely central to the genuineness of Christian virtue, there can be no pagan humility. One of the first things to acknowledge is that the pagan might say, “Yeah.” Aristotle can say, “Yeah. Humility has no place. Humility makes virtue impossible.” I wonder if you can, again, connect that.
I just want to think about humility from the perspective of Christian virtue. Then humility from the perspective where the pagan’s thinking of it as a vice. What differences are drawing out here between understanding the central Christian virtue and then understanding the pagan seeing it as a stumbling block?
Dr. Herdt: Ultimately, as you know, I think there’s plenty of room for pagan humility, but…
Dr. Herdt: …but Aristotle has no room for humility as a virtue. The closest he comes to talking about humility would be pusillanimity, which is a failure to think you’re self‑capable of doing good that you’re capable of doing. It’s a failure of self‑knowledge and a failure of willingness to put yourself to a task.
From Aristotle’s perspective, it’s crucial that we cultivate our capacity to, again, be a civic benefactor to contribute to the common good of our polis. It does nobody any good to downplay our capacity to do that. It’s also a failure of courage, pusillanimity. That’s his primary lens for thinking about something like humility.
This lens that Philippians gives Christians for thinking about humility is a very different one. It’s this notion that our tendency to compare ourselves with one another separates us. This is also a hugely important theme in Augustine. He’s very concerned about wealth and power separating people.
He’s not a critic of wealth per se, but he’s constantly reminding the wealthy, “Look, you came into the world just as naked and crying as anybody else and, when you leave, these social distinctions will be erased as well.”
It’s actually the same move that Rousseau makes. In order to deal with this tendency to compare, to make invidious comparisons with others, remind yourself of your basic human vulnerability.
Evan: Which is common to all.
Dr. Herdt: Common to all. Jesus Christ born in the manger is an incredible reminder of that, of that shared human vulnerability. This notion that at the heart of Christianity lies a God who’s willing to become vulnerable in a way that erases separation, to identify God’s self with the human situation gives a very, very different way of thinking about what humility might be.
Evan: What I love to do is think about the other ways in which, apart from the early Augustinian perspective on humility, there are modern critiques of humility as well. Even though you can do this big split in the intellectual world between the ancient period and the modern period or ancient medieval and modern, there’s something shared, at least one thing.
I’m sure there are many, of course, but this resistance to humility as a virtue. It doesn’t just show up in Aristotle, it shows up in Hume, in Nietzsche, Voltaire, perhaps others. What is going on in the modern period that is also suspicious of humility?
Dr. Herdt: Hume and Nietzsche certainly come to mind right away. For Nietzsche, humility is associated with slave morality, with idealizing subservience, which is something he thinks only the weak would do. If you’re weak, it might be something you would do in order to come to terms with your situation, but it’s a poor substitute for declaring your freedom, for not being subservient.
For Hume, humility is one of the monkish vices serving no social purpose. He sees it as just a useless bad mood that…
Dr. Herdt: …Christians have had tendency to assume.
Evan: To give both those guys some credit, there are these strains of an understanding of humility prior to them, prior to their period that does look like debasement. It looks like a kind of denigration of the self. Can you speak to that, the reaction that’s going on there and what they were reacting to?
Dr. Herdt: Yeah, they had plenty to react to. I think a lot of Christian thought has not done humility any great favor. There really has been a strong emphasis on self‑denigration as though that’s the problem. Any thinking well of the self needs to be erased. That’s something that was rightly targeted and critiqued.
Evan: You move beyond Augustine’s call to what in your life has not been gift? Ask of anything and you’d be able to trace it back to some form of grace and, therefore, the importance of scaling back one’s perception of one’s self.
Then we pendulum swing [laughs] and we go so far as to say that not only is it a gift, it’s a gift that we’re so unworthy of that we almost erase the image of God in us. We almost erase anything worthwhile and, in so doing, demean ourselves.
Dr. Herdt: Thinking of it as a pendulum swing is helpful in any particular context where we tend to overcorrect a particular problem [laughs] in our social moment. Then it requires its own correction.
Evan: I want to ask a little bit more about the Nietzschean perspective on humility as a tactic of the weak. I wonder if you’d be willing to enter into that psychological criticism of Nietzsche against the humble. He uses a word that I probably will butcher, ressentiment. How do you…?
Dr. Herdt: Ressentiment.
Evan: Ressentiment. You say it so much better.
Dr. Herdt: You have to get into it. [laughs]
Dr. Herdt: There you go.
Evan: “The psychological state arising from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred that cannot be acted upon, frequently resulting in some form of self‑abasement.”
I wonder if you might speak to, on this side of the pendulum swing, when humility goes wrong and we continue to lord this command of humility over those who already are oppressed and weak, and it becomes a way for them to cope without standing up and resisting that oppression.
Dr. Herdt: Absolutely. The same is true for an important dynamic in feminist thought. The early article by Valerie Saiving basically saying humility is a virtue for women. It’s a correcting a vice that woman don’t have. It’s wrong to be erecting the same ideal for groups that actually don’t share the same vices.
I think we need to be very careful about what we are advocating and to whom. That’s one reason why it’s actually really helpful to see humility and this other virtue that we don’t tend to talk about very much today, magnanimity, [laughs] as a pair.
Evan: But we will.
Dr. Herdt: If humility and magnanimity, greatness of soul, are seen as two sides of the same coin, as unable to be perfected without the other, then we can get out of this, the worry about the pendulum swing or the danger that you erect an ideal that really is reproducing a social situation of one grouping subordinated to another.
Evan: What’d she just say? Magnanimity? What is that? Find out what magnanimity really is and how it dances with humility to produce joy, after the break.
My magnanimous podcast listeners, thank you so much for following The Table Audio. This podcast is actually just one of the many resources we offer through Biola University Center for Christian Thought.
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Before the break, Jennifer said a big word. I said it too. Magnanimity. Literally, the word means greatness of soul. Magna like in magnification and anima, soul, like an animal. If you like Japanese cartoons, I know you might have heard manga and anime there, but those are two completely different things, great in their own right.
Greatness of soul, Jennifer points out, is an incredibly important balancing virtue that prevents humility from sliding into an inferiority complex or demeaning self‑abasement. It also offers a way of cultivating humility that doesn’t demand further downtrodding of the oppressed, but, rather, leads us to the common ground of joy. A common call to rightful honor.
Maybe give some context here for how these two virtues of humility and magnanimity, as Aquinas calls them, twin virtues that really go together and maybe perfect one another in a certain way. Give us some context into what are the domains of each of these things and why do they find themselves so closely linked.
Dr. Herdt: We’ve talked quite a bit about humility and here, just briefly, what Aquinas sees as central here is this consciousness of a gift character of what one has. He does echo some things that sound like self‑denigration and so on, I think if we put those comments in context, it’s really all about an awareness that our abilities are gifts.
He pairs that with greatness of soul, magnanimity, which was… If humility is the Christian virtue that seems constantly troubled and constantly critiqued, then magnanimity is the Pagan virtue that seems constantly troubled, critiqued, and so on.
The favorite whipping boy is Aristotelian magnanimity because the magnanimous man in Aristotle, he’s definitely a man, has a low voice and a slow gait.
Evan: It’s incredible.
Dr. Herdt: He only cares about doing great things so tends to look a little bit lazy the rest of the time because it’s only worth getting geared up to do something truly splendid and is uninterested in being indebted to anyone, wants to remember the greatness of his own deeds, and is particularly concerned with honor.
Yeah, that does sound like a very problematic thing to be the crown of the virtues as it seems to be in Aristotle. Now, there’s a huge mass of scholarship, not surprisingly, on this and that is not really a good summary of Aristotle’s own view of the virtue of magnanimity; but, it does get passed on into the tradition and therefore becomes a difficult thing.
Evan: It comes into the culture surrounding it.
Dr. Herdt: Oh yeah. Yes.
Evan: This is where it gets really pernicious. Being fair to Aristotle is important, but the way that it comes across and the way that it gets interpreted in someone’s societal circumstances, it has its effect.
Dr. Herdt: Yeah, we could say that Nietzsche’s ideal is an ideal of magnanimity. The powerful should be powerful, they should go do great things, and they shouldn’t be held back by everybody else. It’s had a long life of its own, but it has also been subject to critique.
Here’s Aquinas trying to redeem as much of Aristotle as possible. Assuming that Aristotle is usually right and that there’s truth in there somewhere that can be reconciled with Christian revelation, he assumes the same is true for magnanimity.
His account is embedded to another whole strand of interpretation of the virtue which comes from the Stoics and Cicero as his primary source, which thinks of magnanimity in terms of confidence in great undertakings. Magnanimity is a virtue that strengthens one in hoping to be able to accomplish great things.
Aquinas thinks that is, indeed, a virtue. Then he makes this very interesting claim that it’s going to be the complement to humility. I find this absolutely fascinating and so, so helpful to our present moment.
It speaks to this whole issue that we have today of being always insecure, wanting recognition, wanting to make contributions and be praised for them, and so on, and yet having that desperate sense of insecurity, instability, a sense of self, and so on. To see magnanimity and humility as inseparable from one another, I think, is super helpful.
Evan: They seem to correct any possibility of going too far the other direction, perhaps. I think of them as almost dance partners, holding onto one another. If magnanimity were to let go of humility, humility could be cast down to the floor.
If humility were to let go of magnanimity in this dance, then magnanimity might well fly up into the ceiling. Yet, it’s in that tension of holding on to each other. [laughs] Does Aquinas give us any help or other…?
Dr. Herdt: That’s a great image.
Evan: How do you think about this grasp between the two? How can they hold onto one another, especially in the context of an individual’s life?
Dr. Herdt: I think abstractly speaking, they hold on in the sense that we should be confident in trying to make contributions and trying to live up to what we’re capable of doing. We also need to be reminding ourselves that, when we succeed, it’s not really our own doing, that this comes from a gift.
For me, the big realization, the breakthrough thought was seeing that, in Aquinas, it’s always Jesus that is the exemplar of the virtues. Then, in using that to think about, “Well, all right, so how is Jesus the exemplar of this dance of humility and magnanimity?” I think that’s critical because it helps us to reinterpret what great things we’re supposed to aspire to. That also needs redefinition.
If we just think in general, “Oh, great things. OK, so I’m gonna aspire to be, you know, a super important academic and I get as many citations as possible and…Oh, yeah. Then I’ll remind myself that — what else? — because my parents paid for college.”
Dr. Herdt: That’s well and good, but I think that doesn’t really get us out of this seesaw that we will be going back and forth between an inflated sense of self‑worth and then the deep sense of insecurity.
If Jesus is the exemplar of humility and magnanimity, the great things to which we are to aspire must have something to do with what Jesus does. Now, obviously, Aquinas is not saying aspire to be the second person of the trinity.
Dr. Herdt: Aspire to be the savior of humankind. Jesus is the exemplar of perfectly human virtue. It’s a virtue of humans who are limited, vulnerable, and finite creatures. Aquinas does have an exalted sense of what human beings are called to do, which is to play a part in the accomplishment of God’s purposes in creation.
God’s purposes in creation are to befriend creation, friendship. What does Jesus do? He befriends us while we are sinners and enemies of God.
Evan: I think about who He befriends.
Dr. Herdt: Turn into the outcast. Turn to the enemy, to the sinner. These themes are so deeply ingrained in scripture. The great things that we are called to aspire to are things that don’t look like great things. Here’s another subversion of the whole pagan story. We are called to befriend the sinner and the outcast. We’re called to relationship with one another. We’re called to connection.
Pride separates us from that connection. Insecurity separates us from that connection. Comparing ourselves with one another, whether we compare ourselves and think we’re better than others or we compare ourselves with others and we think that we’re worse than others.
Both of those things separate us from connection. We’re ashamed of ourselves or we’re too good for other people, we don’t need them. It hangs together so intimately.
Evan: In this final segment of the interview, we discuss more about becoming good, character formation in light of God’s grace and our effort. Dallas Willard famously said that, “Divine grace is not opposed to human effort, but is opposed to earning.”
Then, what is God’s role in becoming good? What is our role? Throughout the scriptures and Christian wisdom tradition, there is a vision of Christian virtue — wisdom and human excellence after the way of Jesus. We are called to sanctification and progress in spiritual and moral formation. We’re called to seek the fruits of the spirit.
Some ethicists and moral theorists have thought that ethics can be formulated and programmed into an algorithm. You might call this approach calculator ethics. Hat tip to my friend, Greg [indecipherable 36:49] , for calling it that.
The typical examples of this would be the modern ethical theories like utilitarianism, where the right thing is whatever produces the greatest good for the greatest number, or a different version, a system of duties where the right thing is to perform your objective moral duty so that you always treat people as ends in and of themselves and never as a means.
Those systems have much to offer, but they’re at odds with what we find in this discussion about virtue. Thinking about virtue ethics means talking about a person’s character, not just her actions. Who she is, not just what she does.
In this way of thinking about ethics, it’s a wonderfully social aspect of how we become good, how we can parent good kids, educate whole person’s, lead and guide others in our community toward the image and likeness of Christ.
In this closing segment, Jennifer and I discussed the difference between humanly acquired virtue versus divinely infused virtue. She explains her views on habit formation and the role of imitating exemplars for the sake of real transformation and progress. We close with her thoughts on love, grace, and how humility does play a role in the human attainment of joy.
What I love about your work is it’s a bringing together. It’s wanting to say ultimately that these things are more of the same kind than you might realize at first. Can you give us a little introduction to the problem of infused versus acquired virtues?
Dr. Herdt: I could try.
Evan: Without writing a book. Books have been written.
Dr. Herdt: Interestingly, it really isn’t until the high medieval period that we get a really clear systematic account of acquired versus infused virtues. Augustine assumes all virtues are infused, but they’re going to be acquired, too. It was typically assumed by Christians that virtues were infused.
Evan: What does infused mean?
Dr. Herdt: Given by grace. Of course, if that wasn’t supposed to exclude the acquisition of virtue, then grace works through all sorts of secondary causes.
Evan: Is there a metaphysical component to infusion? Is it meant to suggest that there is a weaving of virtue into the soul, so to speak?
Dr. Herdt: I certainly think it was understood metaphysically that there really was God acting in the human person.
Evan: As opposed to, say, imputed or a more forensic perspective on, for instance, the process of sanctification or salvation?
Dr. Herdt: Right. There was the sense that God can’t really befriend a human person until that person has been transformed such that…Friendship requires some kind of likeness. It would just be words to say that God befriends somebody who’s thoroughly vicious. Friendship wouldn’t really be possible.
There is a sense that salvation has to evolve real transformation, not just imputation. That is a process. Not an instantaneous transformation, but a slow, drawn out process, and that’s how character changes.
Evan: On the other side, acquired virtues. How would you describe those?
Dr. Herdt: Virtues as acquired through habituation, whatever habituation means. Now, interestingly, we tend to think of Aristotle again, but Aristotle doesn’t really give us a very well worked out account of acquisition of virtue or of habituation.
The Stoics actually do quite a bit more. The Stoics had all sorts of well worked out practices of self‑inventory, reflection on one’s deeds and misdeeds, meditation on them, and so on that fed directly into later Christian practices as well.
Broadly speaking, the notion is one of having some grasp of an exemplar of virtue, of being able to recognize virtue out there as something good, as something one would like to embody in one’s own life, and in trying to act the way the virtuous person acts, the way the courageous or temperate person acts.
That that very process of recognition, aspiration, longing, and imitation is transformative such that, at the beginning of the process, you’re not acting as the virtuous person acts. Your intention is not the same. The structure of one’s desire is not the same.
Yet, you’re initiating a process in which your non‑rational desires come to be in harmony with reason’s grasp of the good so that you would move from viciousness to self‑control and then from self‑control into a genuine harmony reflective of the state of virtue.
Evan: I love this literature, exemplar theory. I think it fits so well in the Christian story. Virtue ethics, I think, presents this wonderful way of even seeing how children develop and how we take on the form of the world around us, the form of the people around us, the form of life, the way of life.
We’re so inherently social that we just turn ourselves towards certain exemplars. It calls for imitation. This is coming back to the theatrical aspects of putting on virtue. We imitate people who are much better than us in hopes that such outer or external imitation will slowly grow down into us.
It grows down into an inner goodness, we hope. In a real transformation of character. In the early stages, how does imitation not just mean hypocrisy?
Dr. Herdt: I play with that a little bit in the book because it could seem as though there’s not a way to distinguish. In fact, I think we all recognize that it isn’t just hypocrisy and that it’s distinguished by that genuine desire to become what one is imitating.
Not a desire to appear to others to be other than one is. It’s not a desire to deceive others. It’s an aspiration to transform one’s self.
Evan: Which might even be a reference to magnanimity, just a hope that one can become something that’s really excellent.
Dr. Herdt: If you’re stuck in pusillanimity, if you don’t even try, you’re blocking that. You’re blocking that energy that inspires us when we see and want to become something that we’re not yet.
Evan: Gilbert Mylander, one of your reviewer’s for the book, brought up this interesting question about — and you bring it up in the text — can a person become a Christian by acting like one.
I just found this recent example of this. It’s in the context. Of course, for you, it’s the Jesuit theatrical tradition. A very recent Jesuit theatrical piece is “Silence,” this book by Shūsaku Endō. It’s now a film. Martin Scorsese directed it.
The lead actor, or one of them, Andrew Garfield, he was Spider‑Man. He took on this role as a Jesuit priest. He’s quoted in saying this. He reports having been agnostic, atheist, not knowing what he is.
He says this about the experience. “What was really easy was just falling in love with this person, falling in love with Jesus Christ. That was the most surprising thing. That was the most remarkable thing — falling in love and how easy it was to fall in love with Jesus.”
This idea of acting into a position of Christian virtue…Of course, the film directly asks this question about courage in the face of persecution and a courage to believe. I find that so interesting about working one’s self, acting one’s self into the kind of vision of life that you want.
What are the nuances in the acting? Maybe you can tell us even a little bit about this Jesuit theatrical tradition, what it’s there for, and what moral purpose it has.
Dr. Herdt: There’s a lot wrapped up in that. I love the book “Silence,” and I haven’t seen the film. I didn’t know the story about the actor, but it’s fascinating.
Evan: It’s so fascinating.
Dr. Herdt: Absolutely. In here, too, Augustine is so profound because he grasps that there’s got to be the step of finding something attractive. You’re not going to imitate it in the [laughs] right way if you’re not already somehow drawn to it. Of course, when you become drawn to it, it could differ.
One could imagine an actor who just gets hired to play a role. You need the income and you take it.
Dr. Herdt: It’s really in that process of thinking, “Well, you know. Yeah, obviously I wanna do a good job at this role, because there was…Otherwise, there’ll be bad reviews and that wouldn’t be good, and so I better figure out what would it be like to inhabit this character.”
He does the research and acquires a fuller sense of what that would be. Then, at some point in the process, falls in love with that, finds something beautiful and fascinating. That then, of course, means your whole self is oriented.
It’s not just intellectual. It’s emotional, so you’re even more fully engaged with this process of figuring out what it is to inhabit this. That’s deeply transformative.
Evan: I think maybe a good place to land this is back in this context of humility and joy, this dance between magnanimity and humility. How do you see it as an important part of a life of a joy, a joy that transcends circumstance, that sees beyond present suffering, that holds onto hope? What is the role of humility in seeking a life of joy?
Dr. Herdt: I see humility as a wonderful joy enhancer because it dismantles a lot of the things that get in the way of joy, joy as this capacity to affirm something that is.
Dr. Herdt: Yeah, to celebrate something that is. Again, it relates to this humility. Maybe humility in this dance with magnanimity heals us of the deep sense of insecurity that makes us strive in ways that are self‑defeating.
We can only have momentary experiences of being better than others, of having done something that someone else hasn’t done that, ultimately, we are frail and disabled in one respect or another. If we are currently not, just wait. We will be eventually. If our self‑worth is hinged on those achievements, it will be fragile, and that will threaten our joy.
If, on the other hand, our joy comes from this overbrimming sense of gratitude that our achievements themselves are gifts that we’ve received and our capacities are our gifts, then that’s a constant invitation to joy, that we always have something to celebrate in that. That sense of confidence in being able to participate in a great good.
That we’re called to do something toward this great good, too, can be a sense of joy and satisfaction, especially when that great good is as simple as connection and friendship so that we correct our tendency to aspire to the wrong kinds of things because we’re confused and we think those are the great things that we’re supposed to be attending to.
Evan: You have this great word of describing it, reverberation of joy, and that humility and magnanimity facilitate that reverberating. The sense that I get is that most of the reverberating of the strings of the guitar acting in harmony here or of really two or more lives, but social component.
I think that’s a beautiful, beautiful image of talking about really the goals of virtue, the goals of developing, the goals of seeking excellence.
Dr. Herdt: Right, so if humility enhances friendship because it takes down those barriers that separate us from one another in our tendency to always compete with and compare ourselves to one another, then humility is a path to friendship.
Friendship then multiplies our joy, so we take joy in that friendship. We take joy in our friends’ joys. You’re thinking of the strings. I guess I’m thinking also of the end of endless mirrors reflecting back, that there’s just endless dimensions to that.
It’s not a zero‑sum game anymore. It’s not, “Oh, well. When I’m lifted up, you’re brought low. My greatness is my greatness because it’s compared with your lowliness.” When humility and magnanimity are dancing together, then that falls away.
Evan: Thank you so much, Jennifer, for your time. All the best to your future work. I’m excited to see what comes.
Dr. Herdt: Thank you. It’s been a treat.
Evan: Thanks for being here.
Evan: The Table Audio is hosted by me, Evan Rosa, and is produced by the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and The Blankemeyer Foundation.
Theme music is by The Brilliance. Production and engineering by the Narrativo Group. More info at narrativogroup.com. Edited and mixed by TJ Hester.
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