(Before I jump into this, let me qualify this post. Aristotle might have been an atheist. Or, he might have simply believed in a god similar to what you find in modern deism. However, in the passage below, he writes as if he might share the religious views of the common people in ancient Greece. Whatever the case may be, I am only sharing a few thoughts that I had in response to the specific passage below. Regarding his religious views at large, I can’t really comment.)
I am currently reading Aristotle’s view on friendship in Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics. He discussed three different types of friendship as well as a host of other topics. It is an extremely enjoyable read and quite beneficial for anyone wanting to reflect upon the nature of friendship or the type of friend they want to be. By reading, you can peer into the mirror and consider whether you are a good friend. In addition, reading the book is like sitting at the feet of Aristotle and allowing him to speak into our lives (including our friendships). As Rene Descartes once wrote, reading books written by great minds in the past is like sitting at a table with them and letting them mentor us.
In my reading today, this is the passage from Aristotle’s notes on friendship that I found interesting in relation to the holiness of God. Aristotle writes:
This becomes clear if there is a great interval in respect of virtue or vice or wealth or anything else between the parties; for then they are no longer friends, and do not even expect to be so. And this is most manifest in the case of the gods; for they surpass us most decisively in all good things. But it is clear also in the case of kings; for with them, too, men who are much their inferiors do not expect to be friends; nor do men of no account expect to be friends with the best or wisest men. In such cases it is not possible to define exactly up to what point friends can remain friends; for much can be taken away and friendship remain, but when one party is removed to a great distance, as God is, the possibility of friendship ceases.*
When I read this passage, my immediate thought was “His view regarding the virtue of the gods is very similar to the view that Christians hold regarding God’s holiness.” Let me explain. The main point that Aristotle is making in this passage is that friends cease to be friends when they differ significantly in virtue, vice, or wealth. Though this is not true 100% of the time, I do think that his observation is valid to some degree. He then provides evidence for his view by writing that we see this principle at play in another area, namely, the lack of friendship between the Greeks and the gods because of the disparity in virtue between the two parties. In other words, the disparity between the imperfection of human beings and the virtue, or excellence, of the gods is too great to allow for friendship.
As a follower of Christ, I find this extremely interesting from a theological standpoint. This is very similar to what Christians believe. Because of the holiness and perfection of the one true God, sinful humanity cannot call him “friend.” However, contrary to Aristotle, there is an additional theological piece to the puzzle in Christianity that leads to an altogether different conclusion. What is this piece? Jesus Christ in his specific role as mediator of the New Covenant. Whereas Aristotle’s view ended with there being no fellowship due to the perfection of the gods and the imperfection of human beings, Christianity teaches that friendship is still possible because of what God has done on our behalf. Christ the mediator has come (i.e. incarnation), died (i.e crucifixion), and rose from the dead (i.e. resurrection) so that we could, by grace and through faith, receive God’s forgiveness without having any merit of our own. God did it all and we simply have to say “yes.”
So while Aristostle and Christians both embrace the theological notion that perfection and imperfection cannot cohabitate, this is not where the story ends in the Christian faith. God comes. God dies. Gods rises from the dead. Christ takes all of the sinful imperfection upon himself so that when someone places their trust in his life, death, and resurrection, they are forgiven and justified, paving the way for God to see the perfection of Christ and not the imperfection of sin when he looks upon that new, born-again child.
For Aristotle, the disparity between perfection and imperfection concludes with separation. According to Christianity, it concludes an offer to receive the needed perfection from another so that we can be friends with God.
*Excerpt From: Aristotle. “Nicomachean Ethics.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/nicomachean-ethics/id378246206?mt=11
2 thoughts on “Aristotle: Holiness Without a Mediator”
I enjoyed your article. Most modern Americans aren’t interested in what these ancient thinkers said.
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Hello. I really appreciate your encouragment. After posting it, I told my wife, “I don’t know why I wasted my time writing this. It is not like anyone turns to a blog to read this type of material.” Very encouraging words. Thank you again.