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Credit for Micah

In response to:

Can We Live the Good Life? from the November 5, 1981 issue

To the Editors

In his superb review essay of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory [NYR, November 5], J.M. Cameron makes the point that the Greek ideal of eudaimonia will necessarily include free exercise of reason, and that the virtues, like justice, courage, veracity and so on, are not just instruments for producing the end, but part of the end itself. He then proceeds to say: “Aristotle strikes us as deficient in one respect: he talks, not about the human telos but about the telos of Greek males, a telos they do not share with slaves, women and barbarians…. One of Christianity’s historical achievements is to have rescued Aristotle from some of these parochialisms.” Conventional wisdom has it that broad, universal philosophic concepts are to be sought among the Greeks, while narrow, intense particularisms derive from the Hebrews.

It may be worth pointing out that the human telos which Professor Cameron finds lacking in Aristotle, and which he credits Christianity with introducing, was clearly enunciated by the Hebrew prophet Micah four centuries before Aristotle and eight centuries before the birth of Christianity: “He has told you, O human being (adam) what is good and what the Lord your God requires of you, to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:7). Not the Jew or the freeman or the male (ish) but the human being irrespective of race, status or gender, is being called upon to obey the Divine imperative.

That biblical and post biblical Jewish thought has a significant contribution to make to a theory of ethics based on natural law, is a position I have proposed and maintained ever since the great days of Bob Hutchins’ Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara during the Sixties.

Robert Gordis

Jewish Theological Seminary

New York City

J.M Cameron replies:

Dr. Gordis is quite right and I gladly accept his correction. I would add only two things. Historically, the moral tradition of Judaism came into European culture mainly, though not entirely, through Christianity. But Christians have often forgotten that Abraham “is the father of us all” (Letter of Paul to the Romans, 4:16), and this forgetting has had terrible consequences.

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