Tracking Perfectionism in Stanley Hauerwas’s Theology: An Essay on Hauerwas’s Application of Aristotle’s Ethics

Daniel Reffner
Emory University

“No philosopher… has been more important to me than Aristotle”[1]
Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas is one of the most prolific theologians of the twentieth century. His extensive writing on ethics and theology has influenced generations of thinkers over his four decade career. With the gift of such an extended career, a student of Hauerwas now has the unique ability to look back and study how Hauerwas’s thought has evolved. Because of the variety of material at different stages of his career, determining what Hauerwas thinks about an issue requires not only asking “what?” but also “when?”

In this essay, I track the evolution of Hauerwas’s Christian moral theology, particularly as it concerns his ideas of Christian perfectionism, through a sequential analysis of three of his books: Character and the Christian Life (1975), A Community of Character (1981), and Sanctify them in the Truth (1998). I will argue that this chronological analysis can best be described in terms of how Hauerwas relates to aspects of Aristotle’s virtue theory. I hope to demonstrate that Hauerwas’s work on the Christian moral life has evolved on a trajectory that leads away from Aristotelian individualism and teleology while maintaining close parallels to Aristotle’s theory of friendship and imitation. I trace this trajectory by demonstrating how Hauerwas evolved from a robust account of agency in Character in the Christian Life, to a substantive narrative theology in A Community of Character, to finally a communitarian view in Sanctify them in the Truth. This evolution represents not only a transformation in Hauerwas’s relation to Aristotle, but also a transformation in how Hauerwas interpreted Aristotle. My task is not to offer an exhaustive analysis of each book’s thesis, but to highlight the evolution to show Hauerwas’s fluctuating relationship with Aristotle.

Aristotle’s Teleological Perfection

Before analyzing Hauerwas, it is appropriate to give a brief treatment of his conversation partner, Aristotle. Aristotle’s work on ethics and teleology found in the Nicomachean Ethics has persisted as one of the most influential perspectives in Western philosophy. His virtue theory has influenced generations of philosophers and theologians, including Hauerwas. Although influential, Aristotle’s theory has not always been received with ubiquitous acceptance—an argument I will demonstrate by contrasting his virtue theory with Hauerwas’s evolving theology.

For Aristotle, perfection is a matter of seeking the good and, ultimately, the final good. Aristotle’s notion of the good can be best described by identifying what it is not, namely, a universal Form. The theory of the Forms is an idea that there is one abstract and universal concept that represents the perfected state of any given object, in this case, the Good. Things are deemed “good” in so far as they relate to this otherworldly and perfect concept of Goodness. Aristotle outlines multiple contentions against such a theory, the most relevant for this discussion being his argument that there are numerous sciences and, therefore, necessarily a different “good” for each.[2] A science for Aristotle is not limited to our contemporary understanding that only includes disciplines such as biology, chemistry, or engineering, but rather is a general term referring to every possible way of existing. Therefore, the science of opportunity in war is called strategy; the science of disease, medicine; and the science of exercise can be called gymnastics.[3] Because all of these disciplines are inherently different in their subject matter and in their ultimate purpose, the notion of good “is not a term that can be applied to all these things alike in the same sense or with reference to one common idea or form.”[4]

If the good is not universal, it can be expressed in unique ways for different beings. The variance of the existing sciences are aiming at some good, but the good for which they aim is particular to the unique science and does not require any notion of a universal good.[5] How, then, can one determine what is good in each case? Aristotle answers this question succinctly:

What then is the good in each of these cases [sciences]? Surely that for the sake of which all else is done. And that in medicine is health, in war is victory, in building is a house, – a different thing in each different case, but always, in whatever we do and in whatever we choose, the end. For it is always for the sake of the end that all else is done.[6]

The ultimate good of any object is the goal for which it orients all actions. Aristotle calls this good or goal “a teleological end.” In these terms, the chief moral task is to first clarify the unique human telos and, through the exercise of human agency, conform every action toward that telos so that the telos can be obtained.

Determining a teleological end requires discerning the best thing possible, for that will be the thing worth directing every action toward. This final end cannot simply be a means toward another goal but must be a final end in and of itself, for nothing can be greater or more desirable than the best thing possible.[7] For Aristotle, the greatest human good is happiness:

Happiness seems more than anything else to answer to this description: for we always choose it for itself, and never for the sake of something else; while honour and pleasure and reason, and all virtue or excellence, we choose partly indeed for themselves…but partly also for the sake of happiness, supposing that they will help to make us happy. But no one chooses happiness for the sake of these things, or as a means to anything else at all.[8]

Happiness describes the human telos. It is essential that this word be carefully explained lest one misunderstand Aristotle’s idea of happiness on the grounds of a 21st century understanding of the word. The original Greek word often translated into “happiness” is eudaimonia, which, as Jonathan Barnes describes, “does not refer to a mental state of euphoria, as happiness tends to in English: to be eudaimon is to flourish, to make a success of life, and the connection between eudaimonia and happiness is again indirect.”[9] For Aristotle, the ultimate goal of human life is not to be joyful and cheerful, but to be an excellent, successful, and fully flourishing human being. This notion of happiness stands in stark contrast to the modern idea that finds happiness in pleasure or in novel and exciting circumstances.

Now that the human end has been clarified, how does one achieve eudaimonia? Aristotle distinguishes between natural and distinctly human experiences of final causality: namely, Aristotle does not attribute intentionality to natural objects like he does to humans. Indeed, in the words of Johnathan Barnes, Aristotle “does not attribute intentionality to animals and plants, nor does he suppose that the final cause of their activities are what they themselves purpose.”[10] Even though natural objects such as plants lack the ability to intentionally seek after their telos, their very nature still testifies to the existence of a telos, for their actions seem to be oriented toward a particular function. For example, the fact that ducks have webbed feet is not evidence of intentionality but evidence of their teloswhich, in the case of ducks, involves the ability to swim. In contrast to the lack of intentionality experienced by natural objects, Aristotle attributes the ability to act purposefully to humans. This clear difference in agency between humans and nature illuminates the most foundational and distinct quality of humanity: humans are rational beings.

Rationality enables humans to have intentionality and to be self-governing agents, unlike plants and animals. This unique faculty characterizes humanity’s main function, which Aristotle defines as the “exercise [of] his vital faculties [or soul] on one side in obedience to reason, and on the other side with reason.”[11] The exercise of vital faculties is done through the practice of reason, for reason is the vital faculty which sets humans apart from other objects. To be a good person, as opposed to simply a person operating one’s function, is to exercise one’s vital faculties in accordance with excellence and virtue. In the same way that a harper’s function is to harp, and a good harper’s to harp well, humanity’s function is the exercise of vital faculties in accordance with reason, and a good human’s function is to do so beautifully and well, cultivating habits of virtue and excellence.[12] This last statement can be used as a specific definition of how one attains happiness, for Aristotle believed that becoming a good and virtuous human led to eudemonia.[13]

Aristotle distinguishes between two kinds of excellence, intellectual and moral. Intellectual excellence is related mostly to instruction and, therefore, grows over time as we learn. Moral excellence is the result of virtuous habits that are also developed over time.[14] For Aristotle, none of the virtues are granted at birth through nature. Instead, humans are given by nature the capacity for acquiring them through the training of habits.[15] Aristotle writes, “[By] the virtues we acquire by doing… acts…we become builders by building, and harpers by harping. And so by doing just acts we become just, and by doing acts of temperance and courage we become temperate and courageous.”[16] Habits are not necessarily virtuous. In fact, we can train ourselves in vicious habits, for “acts of any kind produce habits and characters of the same kind.”[17] Therefore, we must be aware of our actions and be intentional to positively train ourselves in virtuous habits so that we may move onward toward our end.

Although actions are what cultivate virtue, actions themselves do not contain inherent virtue. In fact, Aristotle’s ethic is largely concerned with the inner disposition of the individual agent. In order for an action to be good, the agent must not only act in accordance with virtue but must also act from a certain state of mind. Aristotle’s criteria for this state of mind are threefold: first, one must know what one is doing; second, one must choose it and choose it for oneself; and, third, the action must be the expression of a formed and stable character.[18] In this way, a person does not become good by simply doing virtuous actions but by becoming a certain kind of person through the formation of habit that causes one to act virtuously as a consequence of such character.

In order to determine the virtuous response to a moral dilemma, Aristotle argues that reason is required insofar as it illumines what he calls “the relative mean.”[19] According to Aristotle, there are three different classes of disposition, “two kinds of vice, one marked by excess, the other by deficiency, and one kind of virtue, the observance of the mean.”[20] To display either an extreme excess or deficiency of virtue is a vice, and the use of reason allows one to determine the appropriate, balanced response that lies in between both vices. This creates a spectrum of virtue where both extremes are undesirable, and the characteristic moderated by reason is virtuous. Aristotle calls this mean “relative” because he acknowledges that the mean will not be the same for everyone. Instead, the rational process will lead each unique person to a mean that is suited for them depending on what kind of virtues they need to exhibit in order to be successful in their unique lives and the tasks that come with it.[21]

For Aristotle, one must cultivate habits of virtue according to the relative mean, for it is through such cultivation of character that one moves toward one’s teleological end of happiness. Indeed, humans are good to the extent that they cultivate virtuous habits. Aristotle writes, “[W]e may safely assert that the virtue or excellence of a thing causes that thing both to be itself in good condition and to perform its function well. The excellence of an eye, for instance, makes both the eye and its work good; for it is by the excellence of the eye that we see well.”[22] A person therefore becomes good to the extent that they cultivate virtuous habits within themselves that cause their actions to be virtuous.

This process of cultivating virtuous habits surely takes time, and Aristotle thinks it is a process that should not be experienced alone. In fact, Aristotle heralds friendship as one of the most important aspects of the good life. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle outline three different kinds of friendship.[23] The first is friendship based on pleasure. These friendships are those that exist and are maintained based on the experience of pleasure that one receives through another’s company. Second, there are friendships based on utility. These friendships are based on the usefulness of someone to another and are maintained through the continued existence of advantage through the relationship. Finally, there are friendships based on virtue. Virtue friendships are the only true kind of friendship on Aristotle’s terms, for friendships based on pleasure and utility have the tendency to be fleeting as soon as the object that gives pleasure or usefulness ceases to exist. On the other hand, friendships based on virtue are friendships that unite two people together through their common pursuit of virtue. This kind of friendship is marked by an unselfish and mutual willing of the other’s good.[24] In this way, virtuous friends have a deep and sincere love for one another, whereas the other two kinds of friendship unite two people together through fleeting means. To wish for the other’s good is simply to say that you wish your friend to be happy in the Aristotelian sense—excellence of virtue. This willing for the other’s happiness is not merely passive for Aristotle:

Thus the friendship of those who are not good comes to be positively bad; for, having no stability of character, they confirm each other in things that are not good, and thus become positively bad as they become more like one another. But the friendship of good men is good, and grows with their intercourse; and they seem to become better as they exercise their faculties and correct each other’s deficiencies: for each [molds] himself to the likeness of that which he approves in the other; whence the saying “From good men thou shalt learn good things.”[25]

Virtuous friends are critical to moral growth because they spur growth by exhibiting and encouraging virtue. This is what it means to will the other’s good: to have a love for them that desires to see them reach happiness. The above passage indicates further that these friends aid us in this way specifically because we are able to imitate the virtue that we see in them. The virtues that our friends exemplify will probably be different than the virtues that we exemplify, and through friendship, each one’s deficiency can be made up for as they imitate the virtue in their friend, thus cultivating the virtue in themselves. Therefore, not only are virtuous friendships one of the greatest joys in life for Aristotle, but imitating friends is essential for the cultivation of virtue.

All this work of cultivating virtuous habits leads one to finally obtain the teleological end. Aristotle calls the obtainment of this goal “the unity of virtue.” The unity of virtue is the state one reaches when one has cultivated all of the virtues in their fullness. The unity of the virtues maintains that the virtues will never contradict or be at odds with one another. Rather, there will always be an objectively virtuous action that should be pursed in any given situation. This obtainment of all the virtues is achievable in this life and gives the perfected person the ability to navigate the complexities and difficulties of moral situations so as to always be able to exhibit the virtuous response. To have the unity of the virtues defines perfection on Aristotle’s terms, and this perfection enables an experience of eudaimonia.

This analysis justifies some key conclusions about Aristotle’s teleology, namely, that he constructs a virtue-oriented perfectionism that hinges on an individual’s ability to obtain perfection in this life through the intentional exercise of reason and the cultivation of virtuous habits. Aristotle’s account is inherently individualistic, as the object of perfection is always a single person and the cultivation of virtue a journey that each must take up on their own. The presence of good friends helps the individual grow in particular virtues, but the journey remains the responsibility of the individual and no one else’s. Aristotle thus proposes a personal perfection that is obtainable in this life through the disciplined actions of the will.

In the next sections, I will show how Stanley Hauerwas’s work has paralleled and deviated from this strict Aristotelianism, especially in regards to how one is perfected. In short, it will hopefully become clear that although Hauerwas began his career arguing for a robust account of individual agency that was in harmony with virtue ethics, his thinking evolved to argue that an account of narrative—and even later, communitarianism—captured the essence of Christian sanctification.

Hauerwas in Character and the Christian Life

Character and the Christian Life (CCL) was one of Hauerwas’s earliest works, published originally in 1975. In this text, Hauerwas establishes a strong account of agency as the basis for character formation. Hauerwas argues that Aristotle did not go far enough in developing an account of character, and he sees his task as providing a constructive theory of character that makes clear what Aristotle left ambiguous.[26]

Hauerwas begins his constructive argument with a definition and defense of agency. A Hauerwasian account of agency, on the simplest terms of this book, attributes agency to “anything that has the power of producing an effect.”[27] More specifically, human agency affirms the ability to make something happen that would not have happened without one’s intentional action. Hauerwas sees agency as the ability to be the cause of one’s own actions, to have the power to produce the results one envisages.[28] This definition of agency grants enormous power to an individual to choose and define what their actions are. When actions are misinterpreted by another person, the misinterpretation does not have norming power to define the action. Rather, the acting agent has the final say in describing what their action actually was.[29] To say that an action is determined by an agent’s own descriptions is to reveal the crucial tenant of Hauerwas’s thesis in CCL: by choosing to act in certain ways and not others, and by defining these actions in certain ways and not others, we become certain kinds of people that directly resemble our chosen actions and descriptions. He writes, “The agent is able to form a whole life pattern using certain descriptions rather than others; as agents we become who we are because we act in some ways rather than others.”[30] Agents are necessarily characterized by what they do, that is to say, the actions they choose. In this way, Hauerwas’s closely resembles Aristotle’s argument that humans are shaped by what they intend to do. Although an explicit account of agency is absent from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics,[31] Hauerwas develops a theory of agency that does not conflict with Aristotle.

The idea of character developed by Hauerwas does not describe a state to be achieved like Aristotle’s unity of virtue, but rather an “aspect of our being that is open to change and growth.”[32] What Hauerwas proposes is not a telos, envisioned as a perfect and finalized experience of all the virtues, but a sense of character as the dynamic qualification of self-agency. In other words, character constantly evolves because the demands of new actions make our character less permanent and open to new applications. Hauerwas writes:

Man’s capacity for self-determination is dependent on his ability to envision and fix his attention on certain descriptions and form his actions in accordance with them. His reasons for his actions, his motives and intentions are really explanatory because they are the essential aspect in the formation of the act and consequently of himself. By embodying his reasons, beliefs, and intentions in his agency he acts.[33]

Because character involves the formation of actions but is also formed as a result of those actions, we never reach a state where we can claim to have a complete or perfect character. Instead, the formation of character is an ever-occurring process where we encounter new moral situations that require us to apply our chosen descriptions in ways we never could have previously imagined. This process of applying our descriptions (our character) to new situations that demand action continually advances our character forward as it incorporates new experiences.

This theory of character forms the backbone for the idea of Christian sanctification found in CCL. He writes:

To be sanctified is to have our character determined by our basic commitments and beliefs about God. It is a willingness to see and understand ourselves as having a significance only as our agency is qualified under the form of Christ and the task he entrusts to us. Christian character is the formation of our affections and actions according to the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith and life. To have Christian character is to have one’s attention directed by the description of the world that claims it has been redeemed by the work of Christ…Thus to learn the language of faith, in the sense of being qualified by it, is to become a different kind of person.[34]

This formulation of sanctification emphasizes the individual agent. To have one’s character formed by the Christian narratives so that they become a new kind of person (a sanctified person) requires the exercise of agency. This understanding of sanctification asserts that the individual agent is the object of sanctification. Even though Hauerwas includes the importance of the common narratives as the descriptions that should form our character, the narratives are of secondary importance to the primary cause of character: the exercise of individual agency.

There are both similarities and differences between Hauerwas’s defense of perfection in CCL and Aristotle’s ethics. Hauerwas’s account of agency parallels Aristotle’s in that agents have norming power to choose their actions and to describe them accurately. The task of Christian perfection for Hauerwas involves choosing certain descriptions over others and acting in accord with those chosen descriptions. When these chosen descriptions reflect the “form of Christ,” and when one acts faithfully upon them, they become a new kind of person that is “committed to [the] reshaping of the world and in the process, [themselves] according to the dictates of God’s kingdom.”[35] Hauerwas’s thesis is essentially a Christian reformulation of Aristotle in terms of how virtue (or sanctification) is obtained through the centrality of individual agency.

As aforementioned, Hauerwas in CCL disagrees with Aristotle on the question of teleology. Whereas Aristotle argues that a unity of virtue is achievable in this life, Hauerwas maintains that character is always dynamic and never stops growing. Hauerwas rejects sanctification as a state of perfection because complex moral situations will always provide new opportunities for our character to be applied in previously unfathomed ways. This motif will be consistent throughout Hauerwas’s next two works, although he offers a more robust account of this teleology in Sanctify Them in the Truth.

Hauerwas in A Community of Character

Hauerwas continues to develop his understanding of character formation and Christian growth in his book A Community of Character (COC) which was published in 1981. In this book, Hauerwas continues to argue that Christian character must be formed by the Christian narratives, but he takes his previous thesis a step further by explaining how one’s character is formed by the narratives of specific communities. In this way, he takes steps toward a community-centered ethic and away from an agent-centered ethic. The emphasis in this text is the ways in which our character is formed by the multiple narratives that make up our communal existence. He writes:

“Character” is but a reminder that it is the self that is the subject of growth. But the kind of character the Christian seeks to develop is a correlative of a narrative that trains the self to be sufficient to negotiate existence without illusion of deception. For our character is not the result of any one narrative; the self is constituted by many different roles and stories. Moral growth involves a constant conversation between our stories that allows us to live appropriate to the character of our existence. By learning to make their lives conform to God’s way, Christians claim that they are provided with a self that is a story that enables the conversation to continue in a truthful manner.[36]

The claims made in this passage are grounded in the same argument found in CCL, but Hauerwas’s focus has shifted from the individual agent’s capacity to the way Christian narratives give coherence and content to our character.

Hauerwas argues that Aristotle and Aquinas were both wrong to say that a unity of virtue was a pre-requisite for being able to perform moral actions. By assuming that a unity of virtue must first be in place before moral actions can be claimed as one’s own, Aristotle and Aquinas not only commit the fallacy of circular reasoning but also falsely presume that the virtues are sufficient to provide us with the tools for claiming a sense of self that can make sense of our actions.[37] Hauerwas disagrees that obtainment of virtue is sufficient to obtain a sense of self and instead argues that this sense of self can only be achieved when understood as part of a larger narrative. He writes, “[W]hat we need is not a principle or end but a narrative that charts a way for us to live coherently amid the diversity and conflicts that circumscribe and shape our moral existence.”[38] Such a narrative gives the tools that are necessary to navigate the conflicts we confront in our lives, a task that the unity of virtue thesis fails to accomplish convincingly. These skills include the ability to make our past our own through incorporation into our ongoing story.[39] This incorporation happens as we develop the character necessary to embody the stories of our communities in ways that lead us to take responsibility for our actions and character.[40]

It is important to note that, for Hauerwas, the truthfulness of the narratives we are shaped by remains crucial. Hauerwas argues that, for Christians, such a true narrative can be found in Scripture.[41] By learning the inner-workings of the Christian story, Christians discern a narrative sufficient for giving them the unity of self required to navigate the complex and ever-changing demands of this life. This narrative is always a gift, as is the sense of coherent self that is derived from it. By learning and participating in the story of the Christian community, they are provided with a narrative that can sustain their sense of self even through the “unresolved, and often tragic, conflicts of this existence.”[42] According to Hauerwas, the Christian narrative is equipped to do this:

The story of God does not offer a resolution to life’s difficulties, but it offers us something better—an adventure and struggle, for we are possessors of the happy news that God has called people together to live faithful to the reality that he is the Lord of this world. All [people] have been promised that through the struggle of this people to live faithful to that promise God will reclaim the world for his Kingdom.[43]

The aim of the Christian life on these terms is to fully participate in the shared story of Christianity. To grow in such a way, one must be trained in the story, often with the help of others, so that their character reflects the narratives that have formed the community. Therefore, an account of perfection on these terms can only be described as full integration into the Christian story.[44]

In COC we see the first evolution of Hauerwasian thought in our analysis. Hauerwas remains consistent with his argument in CCL insofar as he maintains that the individual is the object of sanctification,[45] but he makes a shift from emphasizing agency to emphasizing narrative as the necessary vehicle for making sense of one’s character. Being able to claim our actions as our own is a primary concern in COC just as it is in CCL.[46] What makes COC unique and significant is that it represents Hauerwas’s progression away from the primacy of agency and toward the primacy of narrative for constructing a coherent sense of self.

This evolution in Hauerwasian thought represents a complex relationship with Aristotle. On one very fundamental level, Hauerwas maintains the individualism found in both Aristotle’s ethics and CCL. The individual continues to be the object that is sanctified, and this remains the clearest parallel to Aristotle. On another level, the shift from agency toward narrative is indicative of a key Hauerwasian critique of Aristotle’s unity thesis. This is significant because, in CCL, Hauerwas used a theory of agency to respond to the inadequacy of Aristotle’s unity thesis. Thus, Hauerwas persists in maintaining that the Aristotelian telos, the unity of virtue, should not be pursued as an attainable goal, but his thinking evolves with respect to what the proper formation of character looks like, namely, that it involves the integration of narratives and not the exercise of an agent’s will.

Hauerwas also deviates from Aristotle regarding the role of others for the formation of character. Whereas Aristotle saw the benefit of others in their ability to be imitated, Hauerwas sees the value of others in their ability to highlight the different roles played within narratives. Hauerwas claims that the ability to incorporate one’s life into a narrative requires knowing which role you play and which ones you do not.[47] The existence of other roles, played by other people, enables the opportunity to investigate your participation in the story against others in order to better understand the limits and possibilities of your role. Moral growth happens when we better understand our role and are thus better able to incorporate our lives into the story.[48] Other people are thus gifts not because they provide examples for cultivating virtue, but because, through their contrasting role in the story, we learn who we are and who we can, and should be.

Hauerwas in Sanctify them in the Truth

Hauerwas’s perfectionism develops further in his 1998 work Sanctify Them in the Truth (SIT). This more reflective Hauerwas articulates in his own words how he came to redefine the role of agency for the Christian moral life over his career:

I thought [the language of agency] was required in order to provide an adequate account of character. Accordingly, I maintained, in Character and the Christian Life, that character is the qualification of our agency befitting our nature as creatures capable of self-determination. I was trying to eat my cake and eat it too. That is, I was trying to find a way to sustain an account of moral continuity while not having our lives “determined” by our character. After all, it seemed that character had to qualify something and I took that something to be our irreducible agency.[49]

The agency-centered ethic of CCL does not represent Hauerwas’s most recent thinking of Christian character. In SIT, Hauerwas argues for a narrative and communitarian account of perfection which demonstrates a transformation in how he understands agency.

Postmodern understandings of the self are gifts to Christian theology because the postmodern task of diminishing the self is parallel to Hauerwas’s task of “rediscovering holiness not as an individual achievement but as the work of the Holy Spirit building up to body of Christ.”[50] Rediscovering holiness requires an alternative to individualistic agency that maintains the discipline of our bodies as central to morality. He writes, “[W]e need to recover the discipline of the body that at least offers an alternative to the endemic individualism and rationalism of modernity—an individualism and rationalism that has too often been thought necessary or at least confused with holiness.”[51] Endemic individualism creates a Pelagian doctrine of perfection that places the most emphasis on human effort and reduces what it means to be Christian down to middle class moralism.[52] In contrast to this individualism, Hauerwas proposes that agency should be understood as the “the skills necessary to make our past our own.”[53] Because we often make decisions and perform actions without knowing exactly what we are doing, we require a community that teaches the critical skills necessary to make sense of our past actions in a way that maintains the continuity of our character. For Christians, this necessary body is the church.[54]

At the center of this shift is the assertion that agents do not maintain a privileged perspective on their life that always allows for accurate description of actions.[55] In SIT, Hauerwas observes that humans do not have this robust and privileged agency and thus argues that communal narratives are required to make sense of past actions.[56] Therefore, the fundamental evolution in SIT is that we do not get to determine what kind of person we are but are shaped by the communal narratives that give sense to our actions in retrospect.

His primary example is Christian marriage. He argues that although the two lovers who are married claim to know what they are doing when they make a lifelong commitment to each other, it is impossible for them to know the full extent of such a commitment when they make their vows. Instead of insisting that young married couples know fully what they are doing when they make their vows, the church should trust them to live into the promise they made, even though they did not exactly what they were doing.[57] The church’s role is to help the married couple understand what it means to make a promise and give them the skills to live into the promise fully. To live into such a promise requires narratives that clarify the nature of the promise and impart skills for living into that reality.

The chief skills given by the Christian narratives are sin and grace.[58] Sin and grace as chief Christian skills allow one to look back at their past actions and, in retrospect, make them their own through incorporation into their story. They are properly called “skills” because they are the tools used by the church to articulate the salvation narrative. These skills allow one to truthfully name and take ownership of the mistakes they have made in the past while providing a way to move forward in life without bondage to shame and guilt. Without an understanding of sin and grace, incorporating our past selves into our stories would be impossible. The Christian narratives give shape and understanding to our lives by making sense of our past actions in ways that we would not have been able to describe in the moment of action. This argument proposes that Christian narratives have more normative power than an individual’s own faculties to make sense of actions. We are shaped and formed by communal narratives that teach forgiveness, mercy, and healing—essential components for reconciling past mistakes that lead toward the Christian telos of “making us God’s friends and, in the process, making us friends with one another and even friends with our own life.”[59]

Hauerwas clarifies this telos later in SIT by engaging with the perfectionisms of John Wesley and William Law. He argues that Wesley’s language of stages for describing growth toward one’s telos should be exchanged in favor of Law’s imitation theory because the language of stages doesn’t accurately represent the complex human journey:[60]

What is required [for characterizing perfection] is the actual depiction of lives through which we can be imaginatively drawn into the journey by being given the means to understand and test our failures and successes…For the telos of the Christian life is not a goal that is clearly known prior to the undertaking of the journey, but rather we learn better the nature of the end by being slowly transformed by the means necessary to pursue it. Thus, the only means to perceive rightly the end is by attending to the lives of those who have been and are on the way.[61]

Law’s account of imitation in A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life places great importance on attending to the lives of others for growing in perfection. Law creates extensive fictional characters that serve to exhibit what we should and should not do in the journey of perfection.[62] Such displays are necessary because perfection is a nuanced affair that tempts us to be deceived about what it requires of us.[63] These characters continually clarify for the journeyer the narrative of perfection, granting clarity as their lives demonstrate what a life of perfection does and does not entail. To glean from these characters their knowledge requires properly attending to their example, to learn how to live a life properly oriented toward perfection. Law’s thought closely resembles Aristotle’s theory of friendship, for it acknowledges the gift of others to display ways to live virtuously that can be learned through imitation.

Hauerwas adopts Law’s Aristotelian imitation and applies it to Christian perfection in a new way. He describes Christian perfection as continually growing toward the Christian telos of fellowship with God through the aid of other Christians who are farther along in their journeys. By attending to the lives of those who are living a life of perfection, we better understand the nature of the telos and learn how to live toward that telos.[64] This task is not individual, as Aristotle proposes, but inherently communal:

Little has been said to this point about the communal context of a life of perfection, but the demand to locate and characterize lives of perfection is fundamentally a communal task. For the journey that Christians undertake is the journey of a people. The growth of their individual lives, which certainly is also a journey, is intelligible only within the movement we call the church. It is perhaps one of the church’s most important tasks to identify those people who in a compelling manner embody in their lives that larger journey.[65]

The task of perfection cannot be completed outside of a context of community. Perfection is not an individual task because it necessarily requires the presence of others to clarify the journey. It seems that there is a qualitative difference in the emphasis placed on community in SIT as compared to CCL and COC. This difference lies in the language found in SIT that sanctification is not an individual journey but a “journey of the people.” Individual growth still happens, of course, but the journey does not belong to the individual. Rather, it belongs to the community of people who are all journeying together. This is the central task of the church alone; a journey toward perfection without participation in the community will not work. Therefore, Hauerwas proposes a communitarianism that replaces the individual with the collective body of Christ as the object of sanctification.

In SIT, Hauerwas affirms a language of journey and imitation while maintaining that there is a Christian telos toward which the journey leads. This claim does not necessarily comment on such a telos attainability in this life, for Law himself believed that “the question is not whether Gospel perfection can be attained, but whether you come as near it as sincere intention and careful diligence can carry you.”[66] It seems that Hauerwas wants to hold this tension as well. He affirms that there is a Christian telos (for that is the object other Christians exhibit and clarify) but does not seem concerned with Christians reaching a state of complete perfection. Instead, cultivating a singleness of intention to embody the character of perfection is primary.[67] This singleness of intention characterizes the journey of perfection that is defined by growth, not accomplishment.

SITrepresents yet another evolution in Hauerwas’s thinking. He maintains his argument from COC that narratives are essential to make sense of our moral lives, but he expands the thesis to suggest that such a task is fundamentally communal. Making sense of our moral lives requires community because sanctification describes a transformation of the body of Christ. Without others to demonstrate and clarify the life of perfection, we would never be able to truthfully grow because, in observing others, we see embodied the singleness of intention required to live according to the Christian narratives of sin and grace. In this way, others do not merely have contrasting roles in the narrative (as proposed in COC), but they exemplify and demonstrate the very nature of the communal Christian telos.

Hauerwas’s emphasis on community and imitation represents a nuanced relationship with Aristotle. SIT represents a complete separation from the individualism articulated by Aristotle in exchange for a necessary community that makes growth in perfection possible. However, SIT offers a very Aristotelian notion of imitation according to which others offer help by displaying and modeling characteristics we do not yet possess. In this way, Aristotle’s virtue friendship could describe the primary Hauerwasian means by which growth occurs. SIT does not represent a complete return to Aristotle, however, as the imitation of others serves the inherently communal task of perfection. This represents the final plot on the trajectory that illustrates Hauerwas’s transformation away from the individualism of Aristotle.

A final point of departure from Aristotle remains Hauerwas’s teleology which rejects a state of perfection and proposes a journey of continual growth.[68] This motif has been constant throughout CCL, COC, and SIT, showing that Hauerwas has always been more concerned with participating in a journey of sanctification than with achieving an accomplishment of perfection. The nature of the journey is to continually clarify the telos; this, and not the obtainment of the telos, defines the primary task of perfection.[6]


I have tried to demonstrate that Stanley Hauerwas has changed his mind on perfectionism throughout his career. This by itself is an uninteresting claim, but by juxtaposing his evolving perfectionism with Aristotle’s virtue ethics, I have characterized this change of mind in a new way, namely, that it correlates to Hauerwas’s vacillating relationship with Aristotle’s philosophy.

In CCL, Hauerwas develops a robust account of agency that seeks to expand Aristotle’s ethics. This account argued that agency made a way for the individual to be sanctified by allowing them to determine their character. CCL affirms the Aristotelian idea that agents accurately describing their actions forms the foundation of character formation, but it differs from Aristotle on teleology in that Hauerwas rejects the attainability of a state where character became static.

COC demonstrates the first signs of the transformation from robust agency to robust narratives as the necessary factor for making sense of our moral lives. In this work, the individual is still the object of sanctification,[70] but communal narratives play a crucial role for integrating our past selves into our moral character. COC continues to argue that Aristotle’s teleology is flawed for providing a stable sense of character, but it proposes that the answer lies in narratives, not agency. COC and Aristotle share a common appreciation for other people, but the role others play is vastly different. Aristotle has a theory of imitation where COC sees the other as a source of contrast that helps define our role as one option among many.

Finally, SIT continues to develop the themes of COC to argue that communal narratives and moral exemplars are equally essential to perfection. Communal narratives enable us to makes sense of our past selves in ways that the former notion of agency would not allow, while moral exemplars reveal the nature of the telos toward which we all journey. This final evolution represents a total split from Aristotle’s individualism, as it places emphasis on the role of the community for shaping growth, but it also shows a deep parallel to Aristotle’s theory of imitation.

I began this essay with Hauerwas’s own words that declared the importance of Aristotle for him. Up to this point I have not explicitly discussed this quote, but I now remind the reader of it in order to draw a final conclusion. My task has been to show that Aristotle was and continues to be an important influence to Hauerwas. Such a claim is self-evident through Hauerwas’s words, but my burden has been to show that the relationship is important to Hauerwas despite deep disagreements. These disagreements primarily include a progressive evolution away from Aristotle’s individualism and a persistent refusal to accept that Aristotelian teleology provides a sufficient way to explain the Christian moral life. However, this evolution in Hauerwas does not represent an abandonment of Aristotelian influence, for he maintains a strong account of imitation that parallels Aristotle’s theory of friendship. This complex relationship perhaps gives insight into what Hauerwas means when he says that “no philosopher…has been more important to me than Aristotle.”[71] The importance of this most valued conversation partner for Hauerwas, I think, is not that they have come to agree on every issue, but that, through a dynamic relationship, his thinking has evolved and matured in ways it otherwise might not have. We could all benefit from imitating Hauerwas in this way, for he models how to see real value in those with whom we disagree.


[1] Stanley Hauerwas, The State of the University: Academic Knowledges and the Knowledge of God (New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 168.
[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. F.H. Peters (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004), 7.
[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 7.
[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 8.
[5] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 9.
[6] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 9.
[7] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 9-10.
[8] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 10.
[9] Jonathan Barnes, Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 124.
[10] Barnes, Very Short Introduction, 119.
[11] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 11. The inclusion of “or soul” is original to Aristotle’s text.
[12] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 11-12.
[13] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 16.
[14] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 25.
[15] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 25.
[16] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 25-26.
[17] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 26.
[18] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 30.
[19] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 33.
[20] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 38.
[21] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 33.
[22] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 32.
[23] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 175.
[24] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 176.
[25] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 219.
[26] Stanley Hauerwas, Character and the Christian Life: A Study in Theological Ethics (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1975), 83.
[27] Hauerwas, Character and the Christian Life, 83.
[28] Hauerwas, Character and the Christian Life, 87.
[29] Hauerwas, Character and the Christian Life, 105.
[30] Hauerwas, Character and the Christian Life, 106.
[31] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 101.
[32] Hauerwas, Character and the Christian Life, 83.
[33] Hauerwas, Character and the Christian Life, 114.
[34] Hauerwas, Character and the Christian Life, 203.
[35] Hauerwas, Character and the Christian Life, 204.
[36] Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 132-133.
[37] Hauerwas, Community of Character, 140.
[38] Hauerwas, Community of Character, 144.
[39] Hauerwas, Community of Character, 147.
[40] Hauerwas, Community of Character, 148-149.
[41] Hauerwas, Community of Character, 149
[42] Hauerwas, Community of Character, 149.
[43] Hauerwas, Community of Character, 149.
[44] Hauerwas, Community of Character, 149-151.
[45] Hauerwas, Community of Character, 132.
[46] Hauerwas, Community of Character, 147.
[47] Hauerwas, Community of Character, 148.
[48] Hauerwas, Community of Character, 148.
[49] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 100-101.
[50] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 84.
[51] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 86.
[52] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 86.
[53] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 99.
[54] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 106-107.
[55] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 108.
[56] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 108.
[57] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 109.
[58] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 109.
[59] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 110.
[60] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 134, 150.
[61] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 135.
[62] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 145.
[63] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 150.
[64] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 150.
[65] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 151.
[66] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 137.
[67] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 150.
[68] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 134.
[69] Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth, 135.
[70] Hauerwas, Community of Character, 132.
[71] Hauerwas, State of the University, 168.

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