An Essential but Neglected Element in the Christian Theory of the Moral Life Dallas Willard

A paper for a conference of The Society of Christian Philosophers

“It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good.”
(Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1105b, 10-12)

“We are inquiring, not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, since otherwise our inquiry would have been of no use.”
(Nicomachean Ethics, 1103b, 27-30)

“The barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some tine. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
(MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 245)


I would like to begin this talk by saying something about that issue in the moral life to which asceticism has, historically, provided one response: the issue, namely, of how to bring one’s actions into conformity with one’s moral ideals, and how, further, to become a good person.

Of course there has been much more to asceticism as a cultural phenomenon then simply a response to this issue, especially where ascetic practices have served as punishment or as a means to merit, or where they have been expressions of abhorrence or hatred of the body or of physical existence generally. But there is in the Western world, at least from Philo on, the tradition which finds in ascetic practices the exertions of the “spiritual athlete,” intended to train the individual’s personality toward the point of spiritual and moral perfection, and then to maintain life on a high moral and spiritual plane by continuation in systematic and more or less routine practices.

In Philo’s expositions, Jacob, who wrestled with the angel all night and would not let him go until the spiritual blessing was imparted, stood as the model of the spiritual athlete. According to the article on άσκέω in Kittel’s Dictionary of the New Testament, the early Church Fathers, from the time of Clement of Alexandria and Origen on, followed Philo’s interpretations, thus laying a foundation for a range of ascetic practices which was, with modifications, to characterize Western Christianity for a millennium.

The specific practices which we shall be referring to as “ascetic” include solitude, silence, fasting and deprivations of various kinds, certain types of prayer, frugality, simplicity or plainness, certain acts of service or submission to others, pilgrimage, “watching” (going without sleep), submission to a director, and meditation. However they may also include poverty and celibacy, and have on occasion involved more extreme practices such as wearing uncomfortable clothing or painful harnesses, living for years on a small platform on top of a pole (Simon Stylites et. al.), living in a cubicle no bigger than a small closet, flagellation (inflicted by oneself or by others), refusing to protect oneself from the elements or from insects, and avoiding the sight of a woman (even one’s relatives) for decades.

Of course not all that, at one time or another, has passed as an ascetic practice or as a discipline for the spiritual life need be regarded as legitimately so. We shall here not be so much concerned with particular practices, “legitimate” or not, as with the idea of engaging in any such practice for the sake of its contribution to the realization of moral ideals.

Modern Western civilization, drawing largely upon Protestant concepts of religion and morality, generally proceeds as if such practices made no essential contribution at all—and possibly even were harmful—to cultural, moral or spiritual life. In his fine (though now outdated) study, Askese und Mönchtum, Otto Zöckler entitles the chapter on Protestantism simply, “Anti-asketismus.” And this is, on the whole, certainly justified, though the many sects originating from the Reformation were not without ascetical practices, some of which carried on into the present century: as in the regular fast days (Wednesday and Friday) of the Methodists or the frugality and plainness intended by Quakers and Mennonites.

Generally speaking, however, Lutheran and Reformed teaching on the essentials of religious practice (see the Augsburg confession, for example) come down to the preaching of the (correct) gospel and the (correct) administration of baptism and communion. Increasingly in American Protestantism even these have come to be regarded as more or less optional, since intellectual enlightenment in the more Liberal wing, and “salvation by grace through faith alone” in the more Conservative, have come to be regarded as the essential and sufficient substance of the religious life.

Thus the age-old practices associated with the spiritual life cannot, from the modern point of view be regarded as desirable “…where men judge of things by their natural, unprejudiced reason, without the delusive glosses of superstition and false religion.” These, as you may recall, are the words of David Hume, who here, as in so many other respects, gave precise expression to the modern world-view underlying the current version of “the good life.” How nicely he puts it:

“Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues:—for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupefy the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper …. A gloomy, hair-brained enthusiast, after his death, may have a place in the Calendar; but will scarcely ever be admitted, when alive, into intimacy and society, except by those who are as delirious and dismal as himself.” [Enquiry into Morals, Selby-Bigge, ed. (Oxford University Press, 1957), p. 270]

Yet we must ask if this outlook, so much a part of the contemporary world, is compatible with an adequate theory of the moral life, much less an adequate Christian theory of the moral life. I think that it is not. In particular, if I am right, it cannot deal with the problem of how individuals become good, consistently acting and feeling as they know they ought, and it sustains itself only by means of a naive hope in the power of enlightenment over life.

Sidgwick and others have pointed out that there is a natural desire in man to do that which is right and reasonable. But, as George F. Thomas responded some decades ago:

“…that desire, by itself, is not strong enough in most men to overcome the natural passions and social forces which are opposed to the right and the reasonable. It is not enough to appeal to the reason; the will and the affections must somehow be brought into line with the dictates of reason. Plato realized the importance of moral education through associating pleasure with the good and pain with evil, and Aristotle emphasized the necessity of forming right habits. But philosophers have seldom probed this problem very deeply. They have tended to assume that if we know our true good we will seek it and if we know our duty we will do it. Therefore, they have thought that when they have defined the good and the right, their task is over. But man’s will is divided and he cannot love his true good with all his heart. Again and again, he finds himself in the tragic situation of St. Paul: he knows what is good but he chooses the evil. He is powerless by himself to acquire the virtues or perform the duties which are required of him by moral philosophy. If he is to attain true goodness, he must be radically transformed. His desires must be redirected and his affections fixed firmly upon the good.” [Christian Ethics and Moral Philosophy (Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1955), quoted from p. 315 of R. B. Brandt, ed., Value and Obligation (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1961)]

Those who adopt Hume’s view on ascetic practices cannot, it seems to me, deal with this problem of moral formation, and they cannot do so, I maintain, precisely because that view does not take seriously the bodily nature of human personality and the foundation of the effective will for good and right in the ingrained behavioral tendencies of the body and its parts. It is because the effective moral will is so founded that I refer to asceticism as an essential element in the Christian theory of the moral life.

To be an adequate theory of moral phenomena any account of the moral life must provide plausible answers to questions of the following four types:

  1. Intentional: What is (the nature, analysis, definition of) goodness, rightness, worth, obligation, virtue, etc., and their opposites?
  2. Extensional: Which particular or particular types of persons, acts, character traits, institutions, etc., are good, right, obligatory, praiseworthy, blameworthy, etc.?
  3. Criteriological: How does one identify or know which things or acts or persons etc. are good, right, obligatory, etc.? I.e., What are the marks, criteria or evidence of goodness and rightness in a particular object?
  4. Technological: How are good persons and institutions, or right and praiseworthy actions and behavioral traits, produced and maintained? What are their conditions in reality that are open to human control? Education? Training? Social structure? Law? Sanctions? Something else (such as drugs, genetic engineering, evolution, psychotherapy, divine grace)?

These conditions of adequacy in theory seem to me to be much the same for moral phenomena as for any other in the domain of concrete things and events, e.g. the chemical or economic.

Now when we turn to what is to be said about moral phenomena from the Christian point of view, there can be little doubt concerning the general outlines, at least, of the ideal of human goodness and virtue that is set before us in the writings of the New Testament and in the history of the Church. We are to follow Jesus Christ. We ought to be like Him in the moral as well as in the spiritual dimensions of our lives. That means that we ought to be dominated in our inner motivations (thus going “beyond the kind of righteousness found in the Scribes and Pharisees,” which lay at the level of overt action alone) by love of God and of our fellows. That is to say, we are to hold precious, to delight in and care for, persons, finite and infinite, guiding our actions accordingly. This is the characterizing feature of those generally regarded as approximating to the ideal type, such as St. Francis of Assisi or Mother Theresa of Calcutta.

In order that the Christian imperative to love not dissipate into formless abstractions at the level of feeling or concept, we have illustrations of what the morally ideal person may do in the very concrete images of going the second mile, turning the other cheek, and not using others as the object of disdain or lust. We are directed to: “Love your enemies bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven …. Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:44-48)

The Pauline interpretation of the Love Principle takes its place along side the “Sermon on the Mount” as an expression of what the human being ought to be and can be within the economy of the Kingdom of God, his proper habitat: “Love is patient and kind: love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful: it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (I Corinthians 13:4-8 RSV) In the classical formulations of Christian ethics, Love, with its necessary companions Faith and Hope, was to provide the foundation upon which the cardinal virtues of temperance, courage, wisdom (or prudence) and justice could pervasively and harmoniously operate within society and the individual personality.

So much for the Christian moral ideal. How is it to be realized in or by particular persons? What precise steps can bring us to actual participation in this ideal, against which the ordinary course of human existence seems so steadily to offend? I think that Christian ethical thinking in the modern period has not done well with this question because of its (often knee-jerk) rejection of ascetic practices as a possible means of Christ-realization in the individual self. This is associated with a usual failure to understand the body’s positive contribution to moral transformation and the realization of ethical ideals.

If we but allow ourselves to think of the New Testament as containing the reflections of some rather observant and intelligent people who were heirs of centuries (if not millennia) of high culture concerned with human behavior and character, that may permit us to find in it an incipient philosophy of the body and some significant contribution to the theory of moral enablement and formation. It is almost proverbial in Christian circles, and very commonly accepted beyond, that the primary hindrance to doing what we admittedly ought lies in the “flesh,” and thereby in the body. “The spirit is willing but the flesh is week” (Matthew 26:41) can be regarded not as a scolding, but as an analysis; “In me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing” (Romans 7:17) can be taken not as a complaint or a condemnation, but as a description, stating a useful truth about a fundamental component of human personality.

It is the active tendencies to feel and act which are present in the substance and the parts of the human body that foil the conscious and sincere intent of Christ-realization—or, more generally, the ordinary human intent to do what is acknowledged to be right and good. The general human condition is then characterized by the words of St. Paul: “The good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” (Romans 7:19)

This need not be taken as saying that the body or the bodily is, as such, opposed to moral behavior, or even to the higher reaches of the spiritual life. It is no part of the position here taken that the flesh or the physical is inherently evil. It is enough that the body as we normally find it functioning in developed human personality has very much of a life of its own, which in various ways opposes (but equally well might assist?) conscious intent, whether prudential, moral or spiritual.

Two elements in what I am calling the “incipient philosophy of the body” to be found in the New Testament have been given considerable philosophical elaboration during the last century or so: (1) The body as a locus of (not necessarily self-conscious) intentionalities and (2) The “plasticity” of the substance of the body.

(1). In Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the body as will we find expressed a conception of the body as a complex of selective tendencies which, so far from being exhausted or guided by “representation,” actually serves as the condition and guide of all our representations. Some such view of the body is revived and given extensive elaboration in the 20th Century French Existentialist thinkers, Marcel, Sartre and, above all, Merleau-Ponty. [See Albert Rabil, Merleau-Ponty: Existentialist of the Social World, (Columbia University Press, 1967), pp. 24-39.]

For Merleau-Ponty, there are intentional orientations implicit in the living organism of each type, which determine a priori what will be experienced and undergone in the course of its life. To these a priori intentionalities or tendencies are then added, under the contingencies of existence, “a posteriori” ones which they make possible: for example, the “acquired” tendencies and abilities that make up actual mastery of the English language, ice-skating or solfeggio. The important thing to say in the present context is that, on his view of the body, these intentionalities are “in our members.” They occupy, in the manner peculiar to them, certain vaguely defined areas of the body, whether the brain tissue or the musculature of the legs, the hand or tongue, for example. These bodily meanings, both a priori and acquired, serve to make possible our field of conscious representation and choice—but then also, of course, to determine what and how we represent things and what choices effectively present themselves to us. We are always poised to think, feel and act in certain definite ways in virtue of them, and will so act, for the most part, independently of—and possibly contrary to—any conscious intent and effort.

(2). The human body is malleable before the meanings which may inhabit it, and is thus “plastic” in the sense made familiar by William James famous statement:

Plasticity … means the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once. Each relatively stable phase of equilibrium in such a structure is marked by what we may call a new set of habits. Organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity of this sort; so that we may without hesitation lay down … that the phenomena of habit in living beings, are due to the plasticity of the organic materials of which their bodies are composed.” [The Principles of Psychology, Chapter IV.]

While we cannot by direct effort just will selective tendencies of feeling, thought and action into or out of our bodies and minds, we can within limits choose to enter courses of action and experience that result in those tendencies being changed.

The phenomena here in question are, of course, not essentially religious or moral. Demosthenes, the great Attic orator and statesman of the 4th Century B. C., is said to have made himself into a tolerable public speaker, in spite of some difficulty of speech, by placing pebbles in his mouth and speaking over the sound of the waves by the seashore. To strengthen his lungs for speaking to large groups in a day without benefit of Edison he declaimed as he ran uphill. He shut himself up in a cell, having first guarded himself against a longing for human company by shaving one side of his head, and copied out Thucydides eight times over in order to provide an abundant store of material from which to speak. There can be little doubt that such self-selected activities would make a considerable difference in the active tendencies and abilities ready to display themselves on the appropriate occasion. There can also be little doubt that such an asceticism as this, painstaking training to make possible what cannot be realized by direct effort of will, remains crucial when we come to moral or spiritual accomplishment.

The human body is, then, the plastic bearer of massive intentionalities of will, feeling and perception which do not depend for their functioning upon self-conscious awareness or direct effort, but rather provide the essential foundation of such awareness and effort. The body thus understood is not transformed by religious conversion or ritual alone, much less by mere intellectual enlightenment, but by intense, large-scale and long-run experience, and especially by ascetic practices or spiritual “disciplines.” Such a transformation is essential to bring us to the point where we effectively do what we would (ought) and do not do what we would (ought) not.

That the way to transformation is hard is something that has been long recognized. In Hesiod’s Works and Days, section 287, it is said: “Unto wickedness men attain easily and in multitudes; smooth is the way and her dwelling is very near at hand. But the gods have ordained much sweat upon the path to virtue.”

The ingrained tendencies which St. Paul refers to as “the motions of sin which work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death” (Romans 7:5), or “the law of sin which is in my members” (7:23), defeats the moral intent in two main ways: (i). Through the speed of its reaction it leads to action before reflection can bring the moral intent into play. (ii). Through persistence of feelings and conative tendencies associated with contra-moral activity it wears down the will to good and right. With these two ways working together, the self remains entangled in patterns of feeling, action and social interaction which overwhelm the moral intent and direct efforts to perform and be as one ought. But the automatic and persistent active tendencies toward evil or wrong-doing are diminished, redirected or even replaced through appropriate ascetic practices in such a way that “the flesh” becomes the ally of “the spirit,” and the individual becomes free and able to do the good which he or she would and to avoid the evil which is in fact not intended.

To refer once more back to the New Testament writings, it is clear that ascetic practices were seriously engaged in by Jesus as well as by St. Paul. Both were upon occasion intensely involved, for long periods of time, with solitude, fasting, prayer, poverty and sacrificial service, and not because those conditions were unavoidable. It would seem, then, that those who would follow Christ, and follow Paul as he followed Christ (I Corinthians 11:1), must find in those practices an important part of what they should undertake as His disciples. Certainly this was so in the early centuries of the Christian era. For some reason, however, it is rarely done now; and outstanding Christian writers of the present time do not normally suggest that the practices of Jesus and Paul should be adopted by us. We are to be like them, but without following techniques which they seem to have found necessary.

In An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, for example, Reinhold Niebuhr acknowledges that “Men cannot, by taking thought, strengthen their will …. The strength of the will depends upon the strength of the factors which enter into its organization.” But the necessary supplement as indicated by Niebuhr is a combination of “… the socio-spiritual inheritance of the individual and … the result of concatenations of circumstance.” “The church is the body of Christ and … the noble living and noble dead in her communion help to build up in her the living Christ, a dimension of life which transcends the inclinations of the natural man.” [SCM Press, 1936), p. 226] “Deeds of love are not the consequence of specific acts of will. They are the consequence of a religio-moral tension in life which is possible only if the individual consciously lives in the total dimension of life.” (p. 228) “The law of love is not obeyed simply by being known. Whenever it is obeyed at all, it is because life in its beauty and terror has been more fully revealed to man.” (p. 230)

How characteristic these pretty words are of writings by Christian moralists in the 20th Century! A fine discussion could be mounted of what, if anything, they really mean for practice. But they do not seem to address with any realism and practicality the problem of moral and spiritual enablement; and they seem to be in some wholly different vein from the rigorous advice on life handed out on the pages of the New Testament and by the Church throughout most of its history. They are, I believe, a form of the Protestant delusion that the fellowship of the Church or of Christ infuses the power to do as we ought to do without our undertaking a rigorous, individualized program of “exercise unto godliness” (I Timothy 4:7).

Current philosophical ethics has even less to say to the technological questions in ethical theory, though it provides a few discussions under the heading of “moral education.” I suspect that this is largely due to a feeling that to deal with these questions is to descend to the level of moralizing, or to enter the arena of mere psychology (Kohlberg and the like). Perhaps there is some justification for this feeling. However, it seems to me that no ethical theory which fails to deal with the technological questions can be complete. In particular, it must deal with the question: What kinds of persons must we endeavor to be, what kind of life must we lead, in order to be in a position to fulfill our moral obligations and realize our moral ideals? As Samuel Clarke observed over two centuries ago:

“Great intemperance and ungoverned passions, not only incapacitate a man to perform his duty; but also expose him to run headlong into the commission of the greatest enormities: there being no violence or injustice whatsoever, which a man who has deprived himself of his reason by intemperance or passion, is not capable of being tempted to commit. So that all the additional obligations which a man is in any way under, to forbear committing the most flagrant crimes, lie equally upon him to govern his passions and restrain his appetites: without doing which, he can never secure himself effectually from being betrayed into the commission of all iniquity. This is indeed the great difficulty of life, to subdue and conquer our unreasonable appetites and passions. But it is absolutely necessary to be done: and it is moreover the bravest and most glorious conquest in the world.” [A Discourse of Natural Religion, quoted from the selections in D. D. Raphael, ed., British Moralists 1650-1800, (Oxford University Press, 1969), Vol. 1, pp. 211-212.]

It is a question of moral theory, how we must aim in order to do our duty, as it is a problem in ballistics how we must aim the gun in order to hit the target, calculating on all the forces which bear upon our action. As we will miss the distant target if we aim our rifle directly at it, so we shall not be able to do our duty if all we aim at is to do our duty. The rifle must be aimed appropriately above or away from the target if the bullet is to find it, and we can come into position to reliably fulfill our moral ideals for action only if we aim higher, aim at being a certain kind of person.

This is true without regard to whether or not we are religious. Ascetic practices are relevant to the kinds of persons we become. Without them we can only drift, subject to whatever influences come our way. With them, on the other hand, we have the possibility of some significant control over our moral future. But this is especially true for the Christian, who can also count upon an assistance beyond him or her self—though not an assistance that replaces our own initiative toward moral realization through planned disciplinary exercises. A philosophically clarified understanding of ascetic practices which are psychologically and theologically sound is needed if we are to understand the meaning and process of the redemption of human personality. The St. Benedict for whom we wait must not come with a bundle of switches.