Reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics might seem a long way removed from anything useful, like ministering God’s Word to people in helpful and practical ways. In previous posts, I suggested that a growing and detailed knowledge of systematic theology is necessary for responsible exegesis (here), and tried to show that the doctrine of divine impassibility and a Chalcedonian Christology both help when preaching on ‘Blessed are those who mourn’ (here). Now I’m going for a bigger stretch: I want to convince you that reading Aristotle might prove pastorally beneficial for preachers and their congregations. I’m not, of course, claiming that reading Aristotle is necessary; just that his insights can be helpful in explaining and applying God’s Word.
As I preached through the Beatitudes on a church weekend away recently, to judge from conversations with various people, one of the most helpful things I did was discuss the meaning of meekness. In particular, several men were helped by understanding what meekness is and isn’t, and realising what a strong and attractive virtue it is. And many of us were challenged by how short of true meekness we fall.
To be meek sounds, to contemporary ears, so weak, so craven. But a truly meek person is not weak, not a doormat, not a wet dishcloth or a soggy lettuce leaf. Meekness is not weakness: it is strength under control. There is all the difference in the world between someone who is soft and squishy and someone who is firm and gentle.
This is clear from Scripture. The word translated meek in Matthew 5:5 (praüs) is elsewhere in Matthew used of the Lord Jesus: he is ‘gentle (praüs) and lowly in heart’ (Matt 12:29). When he entered Jerusalem, he came, in the words of Zechariah 9:9 ‘humble (praüs) and mounted on a donkey’ (Matt 21:5). So praüs maps onto a range of overlapping English words: meek, gentle, humble. But not soft. On entering Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple and overturned the tables of the money changers with a sharp rebuke (Matt 21:12–13). Meekness is perfectly compatible with anger, violent action (in John 2:15, Jesus drove out the money changers with a whip he had made) and burning zeal (Jn 2:17).
Similarly, Moses is described as ‘very meek [MT ‘anav; LXX praüs], more than all people who were on the face of the earth’ (Num 12:3). Yet this meek man had the strength to confront Pharaoh repeatedly. And when he came down Mount Sinai and saw the golden calf, he smashed the stone tablets engraved the Ten Words, ground the golden calf to dust, scattered it on water and made the people drink it (Exod 32:15–20). These are not the actions of a soppy weakling.
Meekness is strong; it includes righteous anger. But it is strength and anger under control; strength and anger governed by reason; strength and anger tempered by gentleness. Ultimately we can trace the goodness of creaturely meekness back to its formal cause in the character of the Lord himself, who is ‘compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Exod 34:6).
Thus far the biblical material, and it is surely sufficient. However, in understanding and applying meekness of character, what people seemed to find most helpful was further clarifications that come from Aristotle. I should stress: I didn’t name Aristotle in my sermon—in my estimation that would have been distracting, and I wanted us to be taught by Scripture and captivated by Christ, not distracted by what the preacher had been reading! But what I said was drawn from and shaped by my reading of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
Aristotle discusses the virtue of meekness, or calmness in Nicomachean Ethics IV.5. As with his treatment of all virtues, he regards the virtuous state as a mean (or as I put it in my sermon, the middle-ground) between vices of excess and defect. This is typically a very helpful way of thinking about what makes for a godly character, and the various ways it can go wrong.
When it comes to meekness, Aristotle sees it as middle ground between the failings of being quick-tempered (irascible) on the one hand, and spineless, or lacking spirit, on the other. This helps to make sense of the description of Moses and the Lord Jesus as meek as well as strong, and sometimes angry. Their strength and anger do not stand in tension with meekness, but their proportionate anger, anger under control of reason, are what makes them meek rather than weak.
It is also an immensely valuable insight pastorally: it warns us that there is more than one side of the horse of meekness from which we might fall. And it prevents us taking refuge in the false assurance of passivity and cowardice. So I asked, I wonder which side of the horse you’re more likely to fall off? Are you quick to confront and get angry? Or are you so conflict averse, so mild, that you never resist anyone or anything?
But how do we know when anger is righteous (and in harmony with meekness), and when it is sinful? Or how can we tell when meekness slips over into passivity and cowardice? Aristotle offers a helpful analysis (one he repeats in the case of other virtues): the meek person, “is angry at the right things, and with the right people, in the right way, at the right time, and for the right length of time.” Once again, this points to some very helpful questions for reflection on particular actions, and on the state of our own character. They are also helpful for us in pastoral counselling. Why did I get angry? What did I get angry about? With whom was I angry? Was the intensity of my anger justified or excessive? Was I angry enough, given what had happened? Was the length of my anger in proportion to the circumstances?
This Aristotelian analysis—deployed not instead of Scripture, but in the service of understanding Scripture more precisely—helped us to get a clearer picture of what it means to be meek, and also of whether we could be described as meek.
Mostly, our anger is a sign that we are not yet perfectly meek. But someone who never gets angry is not a meek person. They are spineless, weak, apathetic, preferring the negative peace of lack of tension to the positive peace of justice. The order of the beatitudes is significant and they interpret one another and form a harmonious whole: a meek person hungers and thirsts for righteousness (Matt 5:6). But because they are meek, their zeal for justice is rooted in sorrow for their own poverty of spirit (Matt 5:3-4) and tempered by mercy (Matt 5:7).
Meekness is firm and strong and courageous. But it is strength under control, strength that is strong enough to refrain from lashing out and seeking revenge, and that instead waits patiently and prayerfully on the Lord (Psalm 37).