Over the past several decades both philosophers and theologians within the academy have participated in a revival of interest in what is generally called “virtue ethics”-an ethic that focuses not so much upon what we ought to do, but upon character, upon the sort of persons we ought to be. Interest in the topic of virtue has also been evident in our culture at large-as evidenced, for example, in the popularity of William Bennett's Book of Virtues and the various spin-offs from that project. None of this, however, has really translated into serious, sustained discussion of particular virtues. The academicians seldom get beyond method to actual substance. The popular discussions are a little too concerned with practical results to engage in the kind of leisurely rumination that moral reflection at a certain level requires.
For these reasons this little book by David Baily Harned is both welcome and unusual. Most of us, if asked to write two hundred pages about the topic of patience, might quickly become impatient with such a request. Harned has done it, however, in a beautifully written book that probably needs to be read and pondered rather than summarized. His project is self-consciously one of retrieval. “By and large, a rich and complex idea [i.e., the virtue of patience] that was consistently employed for almost two thousand years to represent the highest possibilities of human life, both in the classical and the Christian traditions, has been allowed to wither away.” Puzzling as this may be, the way to deal with it is to show the significance of patience for life.
Harned attempts this chiefly through a series of chapters that take up various thinkers who considered patience important enough to reflect upon and write about. Arranged chronologically, these chapters are not, though, primarily historical in character. They are an attempt to think about the structure of patience, instructed by those who have gone before us. Thus, a reader is led from thinking about the patience of God as displayed in the Bible . . . to early Christian thought as displayed in Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine . . . to the characteristically medieval emphases of Gregory the Great, Aquinas, and Thomas à Kempis . . . and finally to Calvin, Jeremiah Burroughs, and Kierkegaard-men who, though quite separated in time, represent perspectives shaped by the Reformation. Drawing on these chapters Harned then characterizes a fourfold shape of patience: as endurance (suffering without discontent), forbearance (bearing with the faults of others), expectancy (a willingness to wait), and perseverance (constancy). We can understand the virtue better by considering its “adversaries,” which are also fourfold: impatience and apathy (the extremes of which patience is the mean), boredom, and displacement (loss of touch with one's purpose in life).
Before even beginning this journey through the history of reflection upon patience, Harned considers “the loss of patience” in our time. Why is it that what was once an important virtue has dropped from sight, “seen either as an anachronism or as a notion devised by oppressors to contain the restlessness and discontent of the oppressed”? He suggests several reasons. We have, for example, come to regard waiting as “accidental” in life. We do not think of waiting as occupying a place “at the core and center of human life.” In the world as we want it to be, there should really be no waiting at all. In addition, we are unable to see waiting as “doing anything.” What counts in life is “activity, agency, getting things done.” Such a world, in which we have difficulty receiving anything as a gift, is a profoundly un-Christian world. For “does not Christianity mean, first of all, the acceptance of gifts?” Perhaps, indeed, patience could be a virtue only within a world such as that depicted by the Christian story: “the disclosure of God's nature in his mighty acts, the obedience of Christ, and the reciprocity and responsiveness that life in community involves.”
Indeed, on Harned's account, the heart of the biblical story is God's patience. Thus, Jonah's dissatisfaction with the Lord is funny precisely because he holds against God the well-known fact of his patience with evildoers. Jonah loses sight of the fact that this God is one “who never crowds or hurries the creatures he has made.” To be sure, Christians are by no means the only ones who have appreciated the importance of the virtue of patience. At several places in his discussion Harned notes how significant patience has been in the Stoic tradition, and, indeed, how that tradition influenced early Christian thinkers. At the same time, however, he observes quite acutely the sense in which Christian patience is, finally, quite different from the passionless apatheia of the Stoic sage. “One tradition celebrates the love that inspires patience, and the other patience that has conquered love.” Nor could that Stoic patience that had “conquered love” really wait with anticipation for what was yet to come.
Throughout the book one comes upon observations that invite us to pause, reflect, and see the relevance of patience to everyday life. “How could we hold the simplest conversation if we were not willing to wait for the other to speak?” Patience is, therefore, absolutely essential in a family, which is “a potential structure of destruction if patience is not present in the house.” Hence, Harned suggests, it is significant that in the Bible the relation between Creator and creatures is depicted as one of Father and children. “At the heart and center of this relationship is God's patience, his lovingkindness and long-sufferingness and forbearance.” But, in fact, the mystery and centrality of patience go even further into the being of God. “The doctrine of the Trinity affirms that the status of patient is essential to the perfection of divine activity.” At the heart of the divine life is a companionship in which each must wait upon the other.
If patience is this foundational in life, we had better be reminded that “[t]he root meaning of patience is suffering.” We must, of necessity, wait upon one another, “suffer” each other's action in various ways. Because our lives are not simply our own, because our very person is shaped by the words and deeds of others, because so much of our action is responsive, patience is essential. Whether we notice or not, our life will be response to others. What patience makes possible is attentive responsiveness, gratitude for the fact that we “suffer” the attentions of others; for without such attention we cannot be at all. In a world in which we inevitably suffer from illness and disease, in which many fear that they will also suffer from the technological expertise of their caregivers, and in which some therefore seek death on their own terms and at a time of their own choosing, it is good to be reminded that affliction by itself does not necessarily produce good character. We must bring the virtue of patience to our sufferings if they are to do us any good.
I am less clear precisely how Harned wants both to affirm the unity of the virtues-that we can have none of them apart from the others-while at the same time claiming that patience can sometimes be a vice. We can understand, of course, what the latter claim might mean. It seems as if patience can be put in service of evil ends. I can very “patiently” plot revenge upon an old adversary. And certainly Harned is right to note that there may be times-when others, rather than we, suffer-that we should be “impatient” on their behalf. Still, in the first case, “patience” in the service of evil or ignoble ends, one might argue that this is not true “patience” at all. And in the second case, “patience” when others suffer, one might say that “patience” simply has to take on a strange and alien form. Harned prefers to say that patience can sometimes be a vice and impatience a virtue, and perhaps that move has, at least, the virtue of sticking quite close to our ordinary moral intuitions.
This is, I repeat, less a book to be summarized than to be read and contemplated. Precisely as a specimen of “virtue ethics,” it gives relatively little direct guidance about what we ought to do. But it may inspire fresh thought about the sort of people we should strive to be. It is a book that a young man could probably not have written, inviting and encouraging us, as it does, to accept-indeed, to accept with gratitude-”the slowness of the good.”
Gilbert Meilaender holds the Board of Directors Chair in Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University.