Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Close Parallel in the Sociology of the Virtues and of Religion

I was struck by a helpful analogy between two literatures that I have been reading.

Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, says that the main end of life is happiness.  Happiness, he says, is an action of the soul in accordance with virtue.  The whole middle of the book is a detailed consideration of the action involved in cultivating each of the main virtues.

And then in the last chapter he throws a curveball.  He says that there is a virtue that is different from all these active virtues.  It is higher, and ultimately makes those who can achieve it the happiest of all.  This is the virtue of contemplation. Contemplation is what the gods do often, and in contemplating we come as close to being like the gods as human beings can.

The sociology of religion finds over and over again that the religion has many good effects for religious people.  The main good effects come to those who participate in religious institutions, becoming part of a network who help one another and who spur each other to help others, as well.  This leads some people to say that religious institutions are really just social clubs, and the same benefit could be had from all kinds of secular social clubs.

However, in the last chapter, as it were, the sociologists of religion find that there is a kind of religious experience that is different from all this social relationship practice.  It is higher, and ultimately makes those who achieve it the most fulfilled of all.  This is the practice of contemplating and experiencing God.

Nearly everyone contemplates sometimes.  Nearly everyone contemplates God and experiences the transcendent sometimes.  However, only what Max Weber calls the virtuosi make a habit of contemplation (like the gods) and make a habit of contemplating God.

1 comment:

Kerri said...

That's funny. I just read the Nicho Ethics for my philosophy class on Tuesday.