Commodus and Skewed Justice

Where Virtue Goes to Die

Aug 22, 2022

In the movie, Gladiator, young Commodus says to his father, Marcus Aurelius (emperor of Rome 161-180 CE):

You wrote to me once, listing the Four Cardinal Virtues: 

    1. Wisdom,
    2. Justice,
    3. Fortitude,
    4. Temperance.

As I read the list I knew I had none of them. But I have other virtues, father.  Ambition, Resourcefulness, Courage, Devotion.

And then he murdered his father with his bare hands.

I am not concerned, here, with the historicity of this event, only the depiction of the four Cardinal Virtues—and the vivid demonstration that Commodus was right:  he had none of them. Today, “virtues” are sometimes considered a cliché, an outmoded and odious product of the evil “patriarchy.”  At other times, the response is a kind of dumfounded silence, with no idea what virtue means, except something to do with church or religion (which, of course, we all know is old school and can be ignored).

So, unless we are aware of the significance of such a word as “virtue,” we can watch such a scene and completely miss the gravity of the words being used. The key word, again, is virtue.  We’ll come back to this.

It is interesting to compare Commodus’ own list of virtues with that of Americans as listed in a book by Gary Althen,  American Ways: A Guide for Foreigners in the United States.

    1. Individualism
    2. Equality
    3. Informality
    4. The Future, Change, and Progress
    5. Achievement, Action, Work, and Materialism  [Ambition / Success]
    6. Directness and Assertiveness
    7. Time

Although this is different in specifics, it is similar in its tendency to focus on "what I want, and what I get." Both are quite different from the first list. 

There was nothing perfect about ancient Greco-Roman philosophy or society. But the subject, here, isn’t perfection.  It is, however, interesting to ponder for awhile that a steady stream of Greek philosophers elevated the Greek term aretē  (pronounced, "ar-eh-tay";  meaning at base = “eminence/excellence/moral virtue”) as a kind of head noun for all the virtues, standing for what is at the very pinnacle of “the good.”  Aretē would represent “the ideal or very best one could be” in some given category.

The word was used to express a wide range of ideas, including eminence, manliness (courage), merit, virtue, self-declaration of splendor, fame, or glory, and it was used quite commonly. For example, Philo (just after Jesus and before Paul) used the term 954 times in his writings that survive.  Hence there were specific virtues for men and women that would help them “be all that they could be” as men and women.  (Some people over-read this as the evil patriarchy confining women to the hell of slavery to men; but actually, it was just the opposite.  It was an effort to help both men and women thrive in their commonly accepted roles within culture. Certainly, these could be misused; just like ideologies today twist past philosophies for their own benefit.)  

The Four Cardinal Aretai [Virtues] (listed above from Marcus Aurelius) are spelled out in an easy-to-read manner by Wikipedia as follows:

    1. Prudence (φρόνησις, phrónēsis; Latin: prudentia; also Wisdom, Sophia, sapientia), the ability to discern the appropriate course of action to be taken in a given situation at the appropriate time, with consideration of potential consequences.
    2. Justice (δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosýnē; Latin: iustitia): also considered as fairness; the Greek word also having the meaning righteousness.
    3. Fortitude (ἀνδρεία, andreía; Latin: fortitudo): also termed courage: forbearance, strength, endurance, and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation. [manliness].
    4. Temperance (σωφροσύνη, sōphrosýnē; Latin: temperantia): also known as restraint, the practice of self-control, abstention, discretion, and moderation tempering the appetition. Plato considered sōphrosynē, which may also be translated as sound-mindedness, to be the most important virtue.

Some biblical and apocryphal texts (i.e., the Greek LXX and NT) use the word aretē (“eminence/excellence/moral virtue”) a modest number of times, and I will summarize that usage here.  When we look at these texts, we immediately see 12 (mostly Hellenistic) sources using the term (including 7 biblical sources).  (Note: This kind of "word-study" exercise takes discipline and patience, and it is not like looking up a list of proof texts in old sermons to prove they all mean the same things. Rather, the goal is to notice the range of ways that words get used in various, unrelated contexts.) 

    1. Esther 4:17;
    2. Hab. 3:3;
    3. Zech. 6:13;
    4. Isa. 42:8, 12; 43:21; 63:7;
    5. 2 Maccabees 6:31; 10:28; 15:12, 17;
    6. 3 Maccabees 6:1;
    7. 4 Maccabees 1:2, 8, 10, 30; 2:10; 7:22; 9:8, 18, 31; 10:10; 11:2; 12:14; 13:24, 27; 17:12, 23;
    8. Odes 4:3;
    9. Wisdom 4:1; 5:13; 8:7;
    10. Phil. 4:8;
    11. 1 Pet. 2:9;
    12. 2 Pet. 1:3, 5

I'm not suggesting that you should spend your time looking these up, but if you were to take the time to read each of these in context, you would see that the term is used with a variety of meanings, sometimes to describe God’s exalted (eminent) character, or for humans, the highest possible character one could hope to attain as an ideal. 

As an example, let’s look at just a few of these texts:

Wisdom 8:7 is really interesting. All four cardinal virtues are listed here:

And if any one loves righteousness, her labors are virtues (aretai); for she teaches self-control and prudence [wisdom], justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for men than these. (Wis. 8:7 RSV)

Paul, in sharp contrast to Philo's 954 times, uses the word aretē (eminence/excellence/virtue) only once: Phil 4:8:

Finally, brethren,

whatever is true,
whatever is honorable,
whatever is just,
whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely,
whatever is gracious,

if there is any eminence/excellence/virtue [aretē],
if there is anything worthy of praise,

think about these things. (Phil. 4:8 RSV)  

Obviously, Paul is not giving a typical list from Greek culture. Here the two ideas (1) eminence/excellence/virtue [aretē] and (2) worthy of praise are used in parallel as summaries (head nouns) of the previous six, but also inclusive of anything else that could be included as eminent or praiseworthy from the standpoint of God. Obviously, Paul wants his readers to “think on” what is at the very highest of human possibility, but not in the sense of human achievement for oneself that builds personal fame or glory; rather on what is right in itself or that builds human relationships, all as a reflection of how God works in and through us. 

In 1Peter 2:9 we have a praise of God’s divine virtues which his followers are to take on to themselves and to proclaim as moving from dark to light:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the eminence/excellence/virtue [aretē] of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Pet. 2:9)

This text is in conversation with multiple texts (Ex 19:5-6; 23:22 (LXX); Isa 43:20-21; and Mal 3:17); in fact, the Isaiah text actually uses our term (aretē):

I have provided water in the wilderness
     and rivers in the dry land,
to give drink to my chosen race,
     my people whom I have acquired
to set forth my eminences/excellences/virtues [aretē].
(Isa. 43:20-21)

In 2Peter 1:3, 5 we have a list of virtues, some of which are the same as in the lists of Greek writers, but notice how these are adjusted to include godliness and brotherly affection;  the whole list is in the shadow of God’s aretē, and it starts with faith and ends with love. This is very clearly a Christianization of the standard lists—which means that the writer is in conversation with the culture for how followers of Christ should function in the world:  

His divine power has granted to us
all things that pertain to life and godliness,
through the knowledge of him
who called us to his own glory and eminence/excellence/virtue [aretē]. . . .

For this very reason make every effort to supplement your

faith with

eminence/excellence/virtue [aretē], and aretē with
knowledge, 6 and knowledge with
self-control, and self-control with
steadfastness, and steadfastness with
godliness, 7 and godliness with
brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with

love.  (2 Pet. 1:5 RSV)

God, who is the ideal of eminence/excellence/moral virtue [aretē], calls his followers to the same.

All of these texts clearly show that early Christian writers are in conversation with their own culture, taking what is commonly known and yet shifting the focus toward God, following the lead of the LXX. 

To summarize, the word aretē (eminence/excellence/virtue) is used in biblical and related texts to mean the highest possible existence (1) for moral character (i.e., for what is right and wrong), and also (2) for personal reputation, both of which are God-derived and sustained. The word aretē in biblical texts, unlike in Greek literature, is viewed entirely within the sphere of God. Especially NT texts (Paul and 2Peter) are in conversation with commonly known Greek ideas of virtue, but now fully engulfing those ideas inside God’s own being—the Greeks never did this.  Such a God-stirred ideal is held up as the ideal towards which God’s followers all strive. 

Since there is no single English word that conveys all of aretē (eminence/excellence/virtue), English Bible translations rarely ever do this word justice. They say something like excellence, or virtue, or moral virtue. None of these is wrong; but none is fully on target either.  This is one of those places where a simple comparison of English translations and picking the one you like the best is simply not enough, and may even render a completely flat or even a misleading reading.  Something like “God-defined eminence” or “God-defined moral virtue” might come close to a fair meaning in biblical texts.

The aggrandizement of the self is where virtue goes to die. As with Gladiator’s Commodus, it might be that the current-day “virtues” of world cultures are more akin to self-centered cravings and base passions than to laudable things that raise us up from our own “bugs-drawn-to-a-light” depravity. But the question remains:  Is there not any place for a “God-defined eminence” in pursuit of things like Wisdom, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance?  Or for whatever is True, Honorable, Just, Pure, Lovely, and Gracious?  Are these really just clichés?  Or are they a God-defined path to excellence in human potential, even in our own day?

Postscript #1:

So let’s see just how real these things are to Christians, or how theoretical.

In the past year or so I have kept on hearing, over and over again (and just today again, actually), from people who profess to be Christians, that “you need to separate your feelings about a particular presidential candidate’s personality from his policies.” 

Really?  I don’t care who the candidate is:  Trump, Biden, or Betty Boop.  Is that really the role that “God-defined eminence” plays in our Christian proclamations—we just boil everything down to personality and then sidestep it? 

That is not what followers of Jesus do.

I don’t care who you vote for, that is not my business or interest.  But for God’s sake, advocate for God!  Not in abstract generalities or platitudes, but in the particulars of what God has shown us are important for all of humankind.  As followers of Jesus,

  1. Pray. Of course pray! 
  2. Insist to your candidate (verbally call upon him or her) that he or she be a person of substantive character—a person of principle and moral virtue; a person who understands that these are not simply nice ideas of a bygone era; a person who pursues and represents a God-defined eminence rather than some man-made importance or presumption. 
  3. Go online and write even a short but strong note to your representative of congress. If you get a chance, sit down with that person and tell him or her how your strong urgings about the importance of virtue and character. 
  4. Go online and write to news agencies about this. Tell them it is important to you that you receive balanced reporting and urge them to help "bring the temperature down" in how the news is reported.
  5. Encourage your friends and loved ones about the importance of virtue and character (including our own!) in all current-day political discourse. 

These are minimal things. They don't take much time, and most don't require that you leave your computer.  Certainly, more could be done. (And yes, I have done all of these things. I'm not a political activist on any level. But as a Christ-follower, I'm called upon to advocate for the principles that God has given us.  Many others have done many more things than this. But are these things so beyond our ability to speak out?)

In none of this am I talking about seeking a perfect candidate, someone who has never made mistakes or never had a change of mind or direction—that would leave all of us out!  And I'm not talking about personality quirks. I’m talking about setting our compass on true north;  about a serious pursuit of principle. I'm talking about what Gladiator's Marcus Aurelius exclaims about Commodus, "He is not a moral man:  he cannot rule, he must not rule!"  He does not say this in some cheap religious sense, as if Commodus has slipped up in some of his language, or has shown poor judgment now and then, but in the sense that he does not highly value, pursue, or represent virtues like Wisdom, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance, and he does not give himself over to the pursuit of being True, Honorable, Just, Pure, Lovely, and Gracious.  (Yes, I capitalized all of these on purpose.)

And what about you and me?  When we engage in political conversations with anyone, who do we become?  Do we simply fall in line with current-day political wrangling?  Or can we say that our agenda is guided by the pursuit of  Wisdom, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance?  Or for whatever is True, Honorable, Just, Pure, Lovely, and Gracious?  Or are these just nice sounding words for us?

If that’s all they are to us—nice ideas—is it Jesus we are following?  Or some politician who wants our vote?

I say once again that I am not advocating for any political candidate or party;  if you think I am, it is your imagination.  I am focused on what is clearly articulated in biblical texts about what is truly eminent. 


Postscript #2:

I had a dear friend respond privately to this note. He expressed deep frustration and disgust saying, "But there are no perfect candidates! The best I can do is just leave this all in the hands of God!"  He quoted 2 or 3 texts that basically said, "Trust God, and he will deliver you." 

First, I completely understand the frustration, or anger, or disgust.  Who doesn't feel some (or a lot) of that?

But, I wonder why the following texts were not ALSO grabbed along the way: 

  1. The prophet’s before kings (like Nathan before David 2Sam 12:1ff)? 
  2. Or Jesus before Pilate (Jn 18:37-38)?
  3. The disciples before kings  (Matt. 10:18; Mk. 13:9; Lk. 21:12; Acts 9:15)
  4. Or Paul before Agrippa (Acts 26:27-28)? 
  5. Or James 2:18-20 (“Faith without works is dead.”) 
  6. Or numerous other texts that speak of our responsibility to speak and live our faith, and not to hide behind it.

Why were these not among the texts thrown into the mix?  Why? Because the texts that were grabbed were not used to find a course of possible action, but instead to justify an already preconceived stance (as in cement) of inaction that true faith in God means I am free to deny responsibility to do anything.

Anyone who takes the time to read what I actually wrote in my postscript above will see that it does NOT advocate “only voting for a perfect candidate” or living in a gumdrop world with rivers of chocolate. That would be ludicrous. What it DOES advocate is that people who claim to be followers of Jesus tell their chosen candidates that they expect them to be people of high moral character.  Is that really too much to ask? The prophets did it. Jesus did it.  Paul did it.  Why should we not do it?  Aren’t we followers of Jesus? Didn’t Paul say we should follow him as he follows Christ? 

And now for a shameless quote from Batman Begins:  "What chance does Gotham have when the good people do nothing?" 

As Christians are we so gutless that we resort to playing Bible hopscotch (and then hide-and-seek) to justify our refusal to do anything?  Do we even consider the possibility that our Father would be ashamed of us?

To my dear friend and all others I say this:  We are all frustrated. By all means, encourage people to pray.  And while you’re at it, go online and write to your candidate or congressional representative and 'take a stand' for God’s sake, that our candidates and office-holders need to be people of virtue, and not simply politicians. 

Will any of this accomplish anything? Of course it will. If nothing else it will mean that you acted as a person of virtue and character, and that you did what was right to do. 

"But be sure you live out the message
and do not merely listen to it
and so deceive yourselves." (Jas. 1:22 NET)


Postscript #3:

Re: the bust to the left of Commodus in the included picture:
Interestingly, it appears to be Thrasymachos, a sophist and one of Socrates’ philosophical sparring partners. In Plato’s “Republic”, Socrates asks the question “What is justice?”, and Thrasymachos answers: “justice is the advantage of the stronger”. Perhaps that’s the relevance to the scene?
Gordon Doherty August 27, 2019 at 10:11 am


Gary D. Collier
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