The debate begins as follows: actions may be good in themselves (e.g. giving help to the poor), but they may be performed for purely selfish reasons; such as avoiding tax, improving our “image”, or even increasing our chances of going to heaven. Do these dubious motives invalidate the moral character of the deeds themselves? Or does an action remain good in itself, whatever the character and motives of the doer? (E.g. Al Capone was always very generous in giving aid to the poor of Chicago, especially during the Depression. To a mediaeval thinker, this would be counted in his favour when before Divine judgement)
Can an action be well-intentioned but bad in its consequences? E.g. giving money to a beggar, who may spend it on drugs or booze; or to a charity which may be fraudulent. We are often warned against irresponsible donations!
(Jesus specifically told us to give our wealth to the poor, and denounced the rich. In mediaeval Catholic theology, performing good deeds would definitely improve your chances of going to heaven. In the morality play “Everyman” the central character is setting out on a journey (i.e. he’s dying), but “Good deeds” will accompany him, whereas “property” is revealed to be his greatest enemy. But early Protestant theologians specifically denied that good deeds could bring you any closer to salvation).
As against this, the ancient Greek philosophers, Plato, Aristotle and their successors, were less concerned with good deeds than with the creation of moral character: the virtuous man
“Virtue” = a combination of courage, justice, temperance and intelligence. A virtuous man could be relied upon to be truthful and honest, to act wisely and justly, to avoid corruption and self-indulgence, and to have the courage to behave properly under pressure. This would be more important than good deeds (in any case, we would expect a virtuous man to perform good deeds). Such a man could be called magnanimous: “great-souled”
It would appear that the magnanimous man is in a position of power and authority. It would be difficult for a slave to behave like this.
The ancient concept of “virtue” was rediscovered in the Renaissance and revived by radical Jacobins in the French Revolution, where it appeared by mean a combination of patriotism and frugal living. In Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, Brutus shows “virtue” when he kills his friend and benefactor for the good of the state. By comparison, Dante saw Brutus as the arch-traitor, almost as wicked as Judas Iscariot.
David’s paintings illustrate “virtue” as understood by the French revolutionaries, by portraying two episodes from the legendary early history of Rome.
In the first, the consul Brutus (ancestor of Caesar’s killer) receives the bodies of his sons, who have been executed for plotting to betray the Republic. The women weep, but Brutus deliberately shows no reaction at all.
In the second, “The oath of the Horatii”, the three sons of Horatius are about to go forth to kill Rome’s enemies. Again, the women are weeping: they are the sisters of the three Horatii, and the men to be killed are their husbands! In both these cases, “virtue” and patriotism are portrayed as being more important even than family.
Aristotle’s concept of moderation is quite different from Christian humility: helpless without divine grace – a concept unknown in the classical Greek world. Aristotle saw moderation as having a realistic view of your abilities: pretending you’re worse than you are is just as foolish as vainglorious boasting.
The British public schools, from the days of Thomas Arnold’s Rugby (and all the masters were of course educated in the classical writers!) saw their role as not so much teaching knowledge and skills as building character: creating the ideal of the Christian Gentleman: an up-to-date version of Aristotle’s “virtuous man”; and a fit type to go out and rule the empire, hopefully in a magnanimous fashion (which they did!)