Could secular ideas from before Christ be similar to Catholic ideas and morals that are taught today?

Mary Elizabeth Antoon

When talking about living in a just society there is a deep convergence between the Catholic Church’s teachings and Aristotle’s philosophical views. First, both the Catholic Church and Aristotle address the importance of a good moral formation for an individual. Secondly, there are correlations between the Church’s stance and Aristotle’s perspective on how humans are made to live in a community and be communal. Lastly, both the Catholic Church and Aristotle have similar views on the orientation of the state. Could secular ideas from before Christ be similar to Catholic morals that are taught today? According to Catholic Social Teaching, the call to family, community and participation serves as an important aspect for the lives of Catholics [1]. The Catholic Social Teachings provide wisdom on how to live a life of justice in order to fulfill our purpose here on earth. Similarly, in Aristotle’s The Politics, he explains his views on how a human can achieve their fullest potential [2]. We can see how the Catholic Church and Aristotle’s philosophy focus on how an individual can live out the good life. Aristotle lived before Christ, and so we know that he did not base any of his philosophical conclusions on a Christian stand point. However, it is rather interesting to think that Aristotle’s philosophies have similar perspectives with the Catholic Church on how to live life to the fullest in a just way while also achieving the end goal of happiness.

Aristotle’s Nicheomachean Ethics states that “the proper excellence or virtue of man will be the habit or trained faculty that makes a man good and makes him perform his function well”[3]. Aristotle is implying that as humans we are all here for a purpose and when we develop our gifts and talents we are working towards fulfilling that purpose. In order to fulfill this purpose and become the best we can be at our function, training and practicing are necessary. We need others to help us develop our skills and teach us how to be good humans. The formation of the individual is vital for a society to flourish. The Catholic Church states that one of the family’s primary responsibilities is to educate their children and “that all true education ‘is directed towards the formation of the human person in view of his final end and the good of that society to which he belongs and in the duties of which he will, as an adult, have a share” [4]. The Catholic Church stresses a similar meaning in regards to the formation of the individual, by explaining how one’s final end is associated with a good education. When we are born, we know nothing and we have to learn from others. It is defined in the Catholic Church’s teachings that “a society that wishes and intends to remain at the service of the human being at every level is a society that has the common good — the good of all people and of the whole person— as its primary goal” [5]. This is a fact of human nature, and so the Catholic Church and Aristotle both came to a similar conclusion that forming and educating an individual is the first step to living in a cohesive society aimed towards the well-being of all.

Also, the Vatican states that “the human person cannot find fulfilment in himself, that is, apart from the fact that he exists “with” others and “for” others” [6]. Here it is clear that man is made to live among others and to interact with others. According to the Catholic Church man is not made to find his purpose by looking at himself, but by engaging himself with those around him. Catholics believe that we are made for communion and we are communal beings. In order to reach our end goal the Catholic Church says that “the common good therefore involves all members of society, no one is exempt from cooperating, according to each one’s possibilities, in attaining it and developing it”[7]. It takes every person in a society to contribute their gifts and talents in order to work towards the common good of all. These same ideals and views are similar to that of Aristotle and what he says in The Politics. By saying, “if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good,” we see correlations to the Catholic teachings [8]. Once again, the common good and the highest good are primary points in explaining what helps humans reach ultimate happiness. In addition, The Politics states that man is “a political animal” [9]. The reference to a political animal essentially means that we are created to work with others and form a political community. The Catholic Church and Aristotle have similar views in the sense that they both believe that it is natural for people to form communities because it is what enables us to reach our final end.

Furthermore, the Catholic Church and Aristotle discuss how the structure of the community is created through a state. The Catholic Church teaches that the state has a responsibility for attainting the common good since the common good is the reason why we have political authority [10]. Living as a state helps to create a system that enables everyone to contribute to society with the intention of reaching the common good for all. Also, the Catholic Church says that the government of every country has a duty to help in creating peace among society’s differences with the requirements of justice [11]. The Catholic Church holds the government to a standard and believes that their duty should be to promote justice. Promoting justice is in accordance with the Catholic Church’s beliefs because it is the primary factor that can create a good society aimed for the common good. Just like the Catholic Church explains how the state is necessary for justice and the common good, Aristotle says something along the same lines by explaining that “when several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life” [12]. Overall, it is implied from the Catholic and secular view point that a state forms from a community and this structure is the natural way for a society to function in order to reach the good life and promote justice.

In terms of what is natural, the Catholic Church emphasizes natural law. Not only does the Catholic Church mention what is natural, but so does Aristotle when he writes that “if the earlier forms of society are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end” [13]. We can concur that the final end is something that is natural, meaning it is in accordance with our purpose and fulfillment in life. If what is natural to humanity is discussed in the Catholic faith as well as in philosophical writings, we can justify the fact that both the Catholic Church and Aristotle would agree that natural law is something that is universal. Our nature is the foundation of the law and so the nature of a thing is its end. Also, Aristotle’s The Politics states that “for what each thing is when fully developed, we call it nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family. Besides, the final cause and end of a thing is the best, and to be self-sufficing is the end and the best” [14]. If this is so, the whole point of natural law is accessible by reason. What fulfills the nature of a human being is in accordance with natural law because it is nature.

This proves that the Catholic Church and philosophical reasoning hold similar truths when it comes to discussing the purpose and meaning of human involvement in order to create a just society. Humans can be born with a moral compass that when developed properly we can achieve happiness. What makes the secular and Catholic Church beliefs similar is that Aristotle states that achieving the good life and happiness is the end goal just like the Catholic Church strives for social justice as an end goal by taking what Jesus has taught us and trying to apply it to our lives. The way in which one can achieve the good life or social justice is through a good moral formation, communal involvement, and state structure in society, which is what the Catholic Church and Aristotle teach. Our lives need community and political structure as well as many other things to help us develop our gifts and talents and strive to live a life that is aimed towards goodness and happiness.

Footnotes

[1]. “Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching.” Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching. Accessed April 22, 2015. <http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/seven-themes-of-catholic-social-teaching.cfm&gt;.

[2]. Aristotle. The Politics. Bernardo Aparicio, 2015.

[3]. Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. Bernardo Aparicio, 2015.

[4]. “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.” Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Accessed April 22, 2015. <http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_justpeace_doc_20060526_compendio-dott-soc_en.html>.

[5]. Ibid.

[6]. Ibid.

[7]. Ibid.

[8]. Aristotle. The Politics. Bernardo Aparicio, 2015.

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.” Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Accessed April 22, 2015. <http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_justpeace_doc_20060526_compendio-dott-soc_en.html>.

[11]. Ibid.

[12]. Aristotle. The Politics. Bernardo Aparicio, 2015.

[13]. “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.” Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Accessed April 22, 2015. <http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_justpeace_doc_20060526_compendio-dott-soc_en.html>.

[14]. Aristotle. The Politics. Bernardo Aparicio, 2015.

Fig. 1. Accessed April 23, 2015. <http://www.makingchangenow.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/social-justice-copy1.jpg.&gt;

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