I am reading James W. Thompson’s Moral Formation according to Paul (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011). In the following Thompson talks about the individualistic understanding of human flourishing in ancient Greek culture, which is really worth noting.
They [Greek philosophers] were individualistic, attending to human flourishing (eudaimonia). They all assumed that the context for individual eudaimonia was the Greek polis, or city-state, in which the harmony of the larger community was essential. Consequently, Plato put justice at the heart of the virtues, Aristotle associated justice with the concern for others (Eth. Nic. 5.1.1129b), and the Stoics insisted on the good of others within the context of the ancient city-state. These philosophers assumed that correct behaviour is derived from proper insight. Consequently, they assumed that through knowledge humankind could overcome destructive impulses and do the good. (Page 8; Emphasis added in blue)
In light of this, one wonders whether today’s Western individualism has something to do with this ancient Western heritage? Indeed, we should consider whether our brand of Christianity is somewhat coloured by this ancient Greek worldview. Is our ethics primarily based on the flourishing of individuals?
What about the apostle Paul’s ethics? Here is what Thompson says.
But despite the formal connections that scholars have observed, major differences between Pauline ethics and the ethics of the Hellenistic moralists suggest the limitations of Hellenistic morality as a consistent source of Pauline ethics or as the basis for the coherence of Paul’s ethical instructions. In contrast to the focus on individual flourishing (eudaimonia) within the city-state in Greek ethics, Paul speaks to communities, insisting on practices that are consistent within the subculture of the house churches. His focus on sexual vices has little analogue in Hellenistic ethics. Similarly, Paul never refers to the four cardinal virtues; the term aretē appears only once (Phil. 4:8). The dominant place of faith, hope, and love in Paul’s ethical instruction has few parallels in the Hellenistic moral tradition. Moreover, Paul’s emphasis on humility (tapeinophrosynē) transforms a Hellenistic vice into a positive quality. (Page 11; Emphasis added in blue)
If Thompson is right, then Paul’s ethics is not based on individual flourishing within the city-state. Rather, his focus is on the community’s faith, hope and love, which are practised within the house churches.
In light of this, it seems to me that our ethics should centre around communal attitudes and behaviours that seek to love and embrace one another in faith and hope. Human flourishing takes place within the community of faithful Christ-followers, which, in turn, serves to bear witness to Christ in the world.