Vol I No. 7
From the Quarterly


by William J. Martin

four-cardinal-virtuesThe Gesima Sundays begin with St. Paul likening the Christian journey to a race. He lived in the Greco-Roman world, and so was familiar with the Olympic games and the athletic competitions that characterized it. The Greeks taught that the healthy man was one whose appetite, spirit, and mind each did its job as best it could and united to generate balanced existence. The unity of man’s body and soul or flesh and spirit was an end which every thoughtful Greek aimed at perfecting. The discovery of balance and moderation- nothing too much (meden agan), was the means to a good life, for only then could man contemplate truth without disturbance or distraction.

The reason for the Greeks’ interest in the balanced personality was found in their profound determination and resolution to search for the Divine. Their search for the gods (or God in later history) involved a true assessment of the things that moved and defined human life. They knew that what moves man captures his attention and captivates his mind. If certain objects or passions move man too much, he becomes consumed with them to the detriment of his soul’s journey after God. Should such obsessions or compulsions claim too much to his time and energy, his soul is dragged down and imprisoned in a body that has enervated and weakened its zeal and alacrity. The gods, of course, represent the truth, and their discovery depends upon man’s willingness to shun lesser instantiations of happiness in order to find them. Thus the need for a balanced life.

The balanced life for the Greeks began to emerge when they learned to tame the gods of necessity or need. Thus food, wine, and sex were the first gods to be confronted, bridled, and relegated to their proper spheres of influence. Food is necessary for energy and biological preservation. Only so much as is needed for sustenance should be ingested. Wine or water are necessary to satisfy the same end, and so should never be pursued in excess. Sex is given to man for engendering the species, and should be seen as such and nothing more. Of course, to some extent, the Greeks understood that these gods can provide pleasure, but the happiness they engender can be dangerous. The fact that each of them must be repeated over and over again to yield happiness is evidence enough of their relative impotence and frailty.

A balanced life also included the proper use of spirit or passion. Such is the seat of the will, and thus is the place of choice and desire. A man’s will or desire should be moderated and balanced also, so that it is used to tame the physical and appetitive world and use them in the service of the higher pursuits. The realm of spirit for the Greeks is interesting, for it takes its place in the middle between body and soul, or appetite and reason. This realm is a kind of arbiter and judge between the two, and so it functions properly when it balances and moderates the parts of the soul. If man is stirred up for the search of the gods, then spirit will habituate a man to reason’s search for truth. If man is stirred up by appetite or the words and works of this world, his spiritual odyssey will be hampered fatally.

A balanced life serves first and foremost the mind’s proper vocation in discerning the invisible and unknown powers that move the universe and draw man to knowledge. For the Greeks the mind is truly the highest part of the human soul. The mind takes the whole world into itself, ponders it, searches for its definition and meaning, and then discovers simultaneously that its own thinking is being generating by the same being and knowing. This coincidence of being and knowing is God. The human mind has discovered the divine realm by taking the temporal realm into itself. It cannot do this if it is consumed with the false gods of the body, the overactive and unruly emotions and passions of the spirit, or even the mind’s potential fascination with itself. Balance is the key. The Greeks knew it, and so did St. Paul. The Christian is no less called than the Greek pagan to pursue and find balance and peace in his personality. He finds this by pursuing his true end in knowing nature, himself, and God. But to find God, nature and himself must be kept under in order that he might run the race that is set before him.