Reply To: The Virtues/Character Debate
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Thanks for posting this.
O’Donovan’s distinction strikes me as, in some sense, correct; however, I worry that his notion of “imitation” is assuming a rather wooden high-modern caricature of what “imitation” involves, rather than a more subtle and flexible Aristotelian notion of imitation as involving a general similitude susceptible of recognition (and allowing for differences). The point is not a matter of hair splitting, but goes to key assumptions regarding the moral-formation rationale for studying literature. At one level, O’Donovan is clearly correct–and the same point is made most vividly by Dante–the purpose of virtuous exempla is not merely a direct implication to “go and do likewise”; rather, the main benefit is to re-orient the affections that are integral to true virtue. However, I would hesitate to draw a sharp distinction between imitation and admiration because of the central place of “following” Christ in Christian formation. 1 John is helpful on this point: Christian “following” involves not only obedience but also presumes the capacity to recognize how Christ’s example of self-giving love is to be practiced in one’s own life. The assumption that self-giving can take a variety of forms rather assumes that the “imitation” of Christ a far more subtle affair than O’Donovan’s use implies and necessarily requires some role for imaginative interpretation and discernment (rather than a direct one-to-one correspondence, as though literal crucifixion were the only acceptable mode of Christian fidelity). Of course, O’Donovan knows this, but by rejecting the mere caricature of “imitation” he risks missing the necessary role for literary formation in moral formation–the growth in the capacity to discern what similitudes do and do not apply in comparing two human actions (verbally rendered or otherwise).