The ethical belongs beyond the law

If the infinite is ontologically primary, then the finite must somehow stand in relation to the infinite. Moreover, we know that the finite thing itself bears witness to this primacy, because we cannot conceive of any bounds to the finite as such: we must assume that the finite “goes on for ever” and, moreover, that it does so as much microscopically as macroscopically. This leads us to question whether there truly are any strictly finite things without qualification, outside the sphere of logical supposition. Hegel was right (and merely echoing Augustine): the finite is of itself nothing whatsoever. And Nicholas of Cusa was also right: the infinite identities of the maximum ad the minimum reveal that the paradoxicality of the infinite invades the finite realm also. By extension from the merely mathematical example, every finite quality must be supposed to tend to an extreme degree of itself, but at this extremity it is identical to all other qualities. The entirely courageous man, for example, would have courage not to fear doing justice and would also have the courage to be patient and to cultivate also the other virtues whose lack (according to Aristotle and rightly in extremis) is not compatible with genuine courage — for the unjust man really fears his victims; the rash foolhardy man has not realized the meaning of true bravery, while the liar is fearful of the truth, and so forth. Perhaps this is why, as Chesterton noted, Christ’s ethical teaching consisted mainly of a series of ridiculously extreme and at times incompatible imperatives — don’t work, don’t own anything, carefully cultivate all your talents, never resist, be deliberately feckless, make a long-term investment in the eternally lasting, take the law violently into your own hands in the face of abuses of its spirit, be ruthlessly cunning, be naively innocent, return to childhood, be wiser than all your ancestors, and so on and so forth. As Chesterton further suggested, Christian ethics therefore seems to involve a redefinition of the Aristotelian mean less as half-and-half balance between different qualities of action and as, rather, a seemingly impossible “both at once.” The logic of this would seem to be that an extreme degree of a quality, tending to the infinite, flips over into its opposite — thus, as Paul Claudel noted, turning the other cheek is actually an act of strategic aggression within an ongoing war (unlike responding verbally, or just turning away).

So at its exemplary extreme, ethical action, for Christianity, exceeds finite characterization because infinite courage, for example, is all the virtues and so no longer specifically courage. This is one reason why, for Christian teaching, the ethical belongs beyond the law. As Kierkegaard suggested, the good now lies for Christianity in the utterly singular and so not generalizable (and only problematically communicable), decisively eventful and self-defining action (or series of actions) of the individual person. Here the finite has taken on the weight of an infinitely disclosive significance, such that the personhood or “personality” of the human being breaks entirely, as Jacques Maritain and Emmanuel Mounier taught, the bounds of her “individuality” — she becomes distinct precisely at the point where her action cannot be seen as a mere example of a general principle and, rather, becomes “equal” in significance to humanity taken as a whole.

John Milbank, “The Double Glory, or Paradox versus Dialectics: On Not Quite Agreeing with Slavoj Žižek,” in The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?, pp. 167-8

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