The Analogy of Love

St. Maximus the Confessor and the Foundations of Ethics

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Demetrios Harper
  • Yonkers, NY: 
    St. Vladimir's Seminary Press
    , September
     2018.
     320 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780881416336.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Perhaps it goes without saying that readers of Maximus the Confessor hold a prime fascination with his reappropriation and synthesis of those who wrote before him. Scholars of Maximus repeatedly make this point. Maximus takes up the Hellenistic tradition, along with that of his faithful Christian progenitors, into a Christocentric, cosmological unity. Many scholars have steeped in the Maximean brew, drawing out various aspect of the Confessor’s synthesis, namely, his Christology (Demetrios Bathrellos, Jordan Daniel Wood), cosmology and metaphysics (Torren Tollefsen, Nikolaos Loudovikos), anthropology (Adam Cooper, Lars Thunberg), and so on. In The Analogy of Love, Demetrios Harper attempts to do for Maximus’s ethic what others have done for their various topics. He attempts to describe Maximus’s Christologically synthesized ethic.

But this book goes far beyond a reading of Maximus on Maximus’s terms and in his context. At its heart, this book is a reappropriation of Maximus’s ethic into our contemporary (Western) milieu, about which Harper provides description, diagnosis, and critique. To illustrate this context and set the stage for critique, Harper reads Immanuel Kant, who serves as an ideological forbearer of our current situation. According to Harper, who on this point follows Alastair McIntyre closely, this Kantian view sets the foundation for the (post)modern solipsistic, emotivistic ethic in which we find ourselves. Those familiar with the 20th-century ressourcement tradition would place this book in that tradition.

Harper does not so much focus on the particular, practical content of one’s ethic—that is, naming this or that behavior as good, bad, or indifferent. His scope is philosophical rather than practical, and his approach is wide-ranging: to deal with the “foundation” of ethics, he engages metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, aesthetics, and theology. On these topics, Harper critiques Kant most primarily around the German Idealist’s understanding of nature, teleology, and the place of human agency (chapters 1 and 2). This reading of Kant is not unique or new, and in fact the author does not claim to propose something fresh about Kant. Much if not all of Harper’s critique of Kant mirrors that of the virtue ethicists Alastair McIntyre, Bernard Williams, and so on (see p. 13 for a list). Harper’s overview of Kant is rich and thus generates confidence for the reader as Harper moves to critique him.

Harper drills into three of Kant’s errors. The German eradicates a connection between teleology and human nature, because for Kant nature is not tied to ethics, which for him exist in moral law and categorical imperative, both of which are in the noumenal, not phenomenological, realm.  Kant errs also by placing reason and anything “more-than-physical” (83) in the realm of immanent subjectivity—such that there is no substantive connection to transcendent, ultimate reality. Finally, Kant focuses on guilt and moral obligation, a “duty for duties sake” (42), in which he eschews as egoistic any sense of eudaimonia. In other words, by trying to affirm Copernicus and Bacon’s views of nature while simultaneously affirming the validity of subjective morality, Kant creates a “de-ontological” view of nature: ethics is detached from human nature and human action cannot change one’s deepest (i.e., “ontological”), true nature.

Maximus, by contrast, holds an “anagogical” view of nature, which includes a view of human nature that is tied close to ontology (hence the “ontological” view of Maximus against the “de-ontological” view of Kant). Harper writes: “Nature is not merely a phenomenological reality, as Kant would say, but insofar as it has an eschatological destiny and is capable of participating in divine life, it has ontological content” (135; summarizing much of chapter 2). What is more, this ontologically based view of nature is something that the human actor can influence via ethical action (chapter 3), a point which Harper sees again as contrasting sharply with Kant. Maximus views human action as capable of affecting both one’s (eschatological) destiny and indeed one’s nature—human action affects one’s “ontology.” Kant left nature both detached from teleology and the ethical realm. Hence, human action does not affect (human) nature, nor is it linked with one’s ultimate end.

Maximus’s conception of virtue is an “analogy of love” (chapters 4 and 5). Harper unpacks the contents and function of a Maximean ethic, moving somewhat beyond the polemic against Kant toward a descriptive account of the Byzantine monk’s unique conception of ethics. This ethic is “analogous” in the sense of imitation or mimesis: the human agent, by imitating Christ, does not merely make an internal, psychological act, but instead receives by participation Christ-like virtues. Then, the human actor becomes co-transmitter and co-distributor of Christ’s virtue (260). This ethic is analogous also because the virtuous life is a “mode of existence that resembles, to the extent possible, the divine monad” (261), which is love itself.

Maximus’s analogy of love encapsulates an ethic that is ontological—virtuous human actions affect and transform one’s nature; teleological—virtue is eschatologically consummated in Christ; metaphysical (i.e., more-than-physical)—human nature and divine nature are reconciled consubstantially via Christ’s hypostasis; eudaimonistic—happiness (i.e., well-being) is on the same plane as virtuous action; and, unifying—various virtues sum into one (love) as the human grows into a divinelike monad.

The raison d’être of Harper’s book is not his appropriation of Hellenistic thought against a (post)modern, solipsistic, emotivistic ethic. The author sees that this course has been well-worn by McIntyre and crew. The noteworthy aspect of Harper’s book, rather, is that he argues against this culture using Maximus the Confessor’s expressly Christological ethic. The path forward is not a merely Aristotelian or otherwise flatly Hellenic ethic—the path forward is Christological, top to bottom. What is more, Harper does the hard work of bringing this dense philosophical work down one level further into our common ethical milieu. This reading of Maximus’s ethic is, as far as I know, the most robust treatment to date.

A blurb on the back of this book—written by no less than Paul Blowers, an eminent Maximean scholar—puts Harper in grand company, alongside Orthodox theologians Georges Florovsky, Sergei Bulgakov, Vladimir Lossky, and Dumitru Stăniloae. This is high praise, which I affirm. Harper’s philosophical and scholarly skills, along with his sense for cultural trends, are elegantly manifest in this expansive monograph. I indeed recommend this book both to serious, academic readers of Maximus and the patristic tradition in general. These academics and their students will benefit not only from Harper’s very good reading of Maximus but also from his placement of Maximus next to the modern ethical tradition.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brian Dant is a graduate student in Theology at Regent College.

Date of Review: 
October 10, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Demetrios Harper is a post-doctoral Research Fellow in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

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