book cover imagePutting on Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices
by Jennifer A. Herdt.
University of Chicago Press, [2008] 2012.
Paper, 467 pages, $35.

“’Tis hard to believe,” wrote Michel de Montaigne in his essay “On Virtue,” “that these so elevated qualities in a man can so thoroughly tinct and imbue the soul that they should become ordinary, and, as it were, natural in him.” It is easy to attribute Montaigne’s typical skepticism to the rampant Pyrrhonic philosophy characteristic of early modern universities. In fact, Montaigne follows this statement with a summary of Pyrrho: “he maintained the imbecility of human judgment to be so extreme as to be incapable of any choice or inclination.”

In her erudite book Putting on Virtue, Jennifer Herdt sees elements ofthis skepticism in most modern conceptions of virtue. During the Reformation, Herdt argues, thinkers like Martin Luther demonized the acquisition of pagan virtues as “false and fruitless assertion of human moral agency,” relying instead on the individual’s ability to “abandon” human agency “and rely wholly on God’s grace.” This “hyper-Augustinianism” portrayed virtue acquisition as hypocritical, pitting “thepurity of Christian virtue over against pagan vice.” The reliance upon an “instantaneous evangelical rebirth, a lightning bolt from heaven” reshaped large veins of Western virtue, stressing the individual over the community, honesty and hypocrisy as the epitome of virtue and vice, a skepticism of all human activity to attain the good, and a bias toward Christian righteousness in contrast to pagan “splendid vices.”

Recently, moral philosophy and virtue ethics have regained some of their former glory in academia with thinkers like Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas. Putting on Virtue should be read alongside these thinkers as an ambitious—sweeping across fifteen hundred years of philosophy—contribution to the field. Herdt builds upon an Augustinian model of virtue but calls for a greater degree of openness toward different pagan moralities. This is what she describes as a “chastened account of Christian distinctiveness,” which is humble enough to recognize how pagan and Christian traditions intersect. Herdt begins by outlining Augustine’s view of the pagan “splendid vices.” Augustine confirmed the Greek wisdom that happiness (eudemonia) was humanity’s ultimate good, but he criticized pagan philosophers for not making room for the gift of grace. He also, while allowing for human agency in virtue acquisition, denies that human virtue can produce the ultimate good. In other words, true virtue “is not something we passively undergo,” but it is an “embracing [of] our ultimate dependency.” This healthy tension between human activity and dependency is shared by others like Thomas Aquinas and Desiderius Erasmus for whom, as Herdt describes, “There is no competition between divine and human agency.”

One of the book’s most important contributions is an emphasis on Erasmus as a useful figure for virtue acquisition today. Erasmus’s “mimetic . . . virtue” is acquired through civic acting, a sort of noble pretending. In Erasmus’s own words, “What else is the whole life of mortals but a sort of play . . . It’s all a sort of pretense.” This recognizes the need for divine agency, as it is only the pretense of virtue, but it does not abolish the role of human activity. And unlike other Renaissance conceptions of decorum and courtly manners, Erasmus’s acting is not done to achieve status or applause, but to achieve the good. Herdt’s reading of the development of this mimetic virtue in seventeenth-century Jesuit theater is particularly insightful as a reflection on the practice of transforming a person’s being through doing (or acting).

Martin Luther’s writings and John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners mark the break with this Augustinian tradition. Unlike Erasmus, Luther, et al. are suspicious of most methods of virtue acquisition. While Herdt admits that Luther and others promoted a “gradual growth in Christian righteousness,” this growth is only begun after the moment of justification. She concludes that in general an unjustified person is left only with moments of “restless self-scrutiny,” a state which is exemplified by the Puritan genre of confessional writings (à la Bunyan).

Granted, this is an oversimplification, and a very bleak one. Certainly, Herdt’s critique would do well to include different Reformed pastoral writings that stress righteous living, before and after justification, and she stretches the narrative too far when Bunyan’s theology becomes a blanket statement for most of the Protestant world. But her argument still carries a great deal of wisdom. Her sustained criticism of the inherent individualism in hyper-Augustinian thought should not be ignored. Protestant writers were in fact adept at ignoring the classical and Catholic foundations of the moral thought to the detriment of their moral philosophy. Demeaning or diminishing the importance of either Aristotle or Aquinas to modern forms of moralityis self-destructive, and not a little self-deceptive.

Hyper-Augustinianism, in its rampant individualism and its emphasis on hypocrisy, made its most damaging impact in the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. In the final section of the book, Herdt weighs the moral thought of these men, often identifying certain useful elements. Unfortunately, the Enlightenment both embraced aspects of hyper-Augustinianism and rejected divine agency, creating for Herdt a sort of catch-22. Kant, like Luther, insists that human goodness must be achieved by either God or humanity alone. But because of his secularism, Kant has less recourse to divine intervention than Luther, forcing him to fall back almost helplessly upon a deontological ethic. Kant and those following him are left with what philosopher Luc Ferry, in his book Learning to Live, has described as the “small beer” of Enlightenment morality.

As a result of Putting on Virtue’s sheer breadth, there are a few unfortunate gaps. John Locke and Adam Smith are only briefly mentioned. Likewise, Lord Shaftesbury, who preserved something of Erasmus’s moral tradition, is given only a brief nod. These men do not fit well into the binary opposition between Augustinian and hyper-Augustinian that the book maintains; a close analysis of at least one of them would have enriched Herdt’s narrative and elucidated the complex development of hyper-Augustinianism that much more.

Despite these gaps, Herdt carefully handles a variety of thinkers and traditions. She effectively challenges the skepticism of Luther and Montaigne and encourages a strengthening of the current mechanisms and philosophies of virtue acquisition. Herdt wants the reader to, as Erasmus puts it in De virtute, “be incited to a zeal for virtue.” This she accomplishes. The overarching critique of hyper-Augustinianism should inspire a rethinking of such things as the sources and motivations of civic responsibility, the conservative and liberal ideals of the good life, and our definitions of happiness.  

David J. Davis is an assistant professor of history at Houston Baptist University.