Learning from a Pagan: 3 Takeaways from Aristotle’s Ethics (Part 1)

This year I finally got around to reading Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics, and I’m glad I did.

Just in case you’ve never heard of this book, let me give you the basics. Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who lived from 388-322 B.C. The adjective Nicomachean refers to Aristotle’s son Nicomachus, to whom the book was probably dedicated. And the topic of ethics means that this is Aristotle’s take on how people ought to live.

Why did I read this book? Simple: it’s a classic. It’s a book that’s still being read even after 2,000 years. And even though it’s not a Christian classic, it’s a book that almost every church father, medieval schoolman, and Protestant Reformer would have read and been influenced by to some extent.  You can hear its echoes whether you’re reading Basil the Great, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, or C.S. Lewis. That makes it important.

And for the record, C.S. Lewis was right: you shouldn’t be afraid to read old books like this, because the great old authors are usually easier to understand than their modern commentators (see his essay “On the Reading of Old Books”). Full disclosure: there were entire sections where my eyes glazed over and I had almost no idea what he was talking about. But for the most part, it was straightforward. And the tougher sections were worth wading through in order to get at the more accessible ones.

You can read a summary of the book online at places like Sparknotes. What I want to do is simply give you three takeways—reflections that I thought would be helpful for any thinking Christian. This post will contain the first takeaway, with the second two coming soon.

The first reflection that I took away from Aristotle’s Ethics was…

  1. The value of natural revelation

Why should a Christian like me read a pagan like Aristotle? Can he really have anything to offer? That’s a good question, especially considering that his Ethics contains practically no mention of God. And as far as I know, he never had access to the Bible. We might therefore assume that he would know nothing about right and wrong.

But that would be a big mistake. If you don’t believe me, try reading a few pages.

You can’t read The Nicomachean Ethics without recognizing that despite having never read Proverbs or the Pentateuch, Aristotle seemed to know a lot of their moral content. This might surprise some Christians today, but it shouldn’t. Scripture itself tells us that God has written the work of his law on every human heart, including the hearts of those who have no access to the Bible (Rom. 2:14-15). There are some moral truths (many in fact, see Rom. 1:29-32) that can be known even apart from Scripture—not because human beings are so wise, but because God has woven these truths into the warp and woof of creation, including the human conscience. Older theologians referred to this as “natural revelation”–i.e. truth that God has revealed in nature.

This is why Paul could find truth in the writings of pagans like Epimenides and Aratus, whom he quotes in Acts 17:28 and Titus 1:12-13. And it’s why we shouldn’t be surprised to find truth in the writings of men like Aristotle. John Calvin said this of the ancient pagans:

…let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. . . . Those men whom Scripture [1 Corinthians 2:14] calls “natural men” were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.2.15)

As far as I know, Aristotle was a “natural man” in the 1 Cor. 2:14 sense. But as Calvin points out, that didn’t stop him from getting a lot of things right. Indeed, when I hear people say that America needs to “get back to the Bible,” I can’t help but think “I agree. But even getting back to Aristotle would be better than what we have now.”

So that’s the first takeaway: as Christians, reading The Nicomachean Ethics can remind us that natural revelation is real, and that it’s worth something. It’s not the gospel (as we’ll see in Part 3 of this blog series) but it’s not chopped liver either. God has gone to great lengths to make his truth plain in his world. So much so that it can be found in the strangest of places… even in the writings of a pagan like Aristotle.

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