Theology & Spirituality

The Siberian and the Statue


There once lived an early modern Siberian man who loved nothing more in life than to mold statues. In fact, his whole soul was fulfilled to the utmost by the process of his labor and the results of his art: beautiful, good statues of virtuous humans. He too was a virtuous man, possessing habits that facilitated his happiness. As such, he was looked upon by his community as honorable. One day, the man was in his workshop while his wife was cooking dinner. Suddenly the secret police broke down the door and captured him, escorting him to the chambers of Stalin (who was visiting the province and had heard of the man’s skill). Stalin demanded that the artist construct a great and gigantic statue in Stalin’s own image, for the purpose of striking fear and respect into his citizens. The artist was threatened with death if he did not complete this task adequately and to the best of his abilities.  Furthermore, the project would take nearly a year to complete. The artist would not be allowed to do anything else, or see anyone else, until he had finished the statue. He was, however, guaranteed that he would be set free and never bothered again upon completion of this task.

The man’s happiness depends on the completion of the statue, because only then can he regain his freedom and continue to live a virtuous life. But he knows that the statue itself represents vice (the excess of governance and celebration of a tyrant). If he were to create the statue, he would be implicitly approving a principle that he rationally abhors and compromising his future effectiveness as an artist. Further, since he would be working on this statue alone for many days, he would have to repeatedly and violently subdue his own disposition to create good statues. Can his virtue be preserved despite the repeated action of carving the sculpture and effecting the sculpture’s horrific purpose?

Analysis according to Aristotle’s Four Causes

To explore these questions, we should first examine the artist’s assignment in relation to the four causes. The material cause would involve the actual carving of rock—an action that fulfills part of the man’s nature qua artist. However, the formal cause (the emerging shape of the rock) is not beautiful but distorted; it conveys the merits of dictatorship. Since the image being carved is not good, the material act of carving would pull the artist toward vice. He could resist by creating a disconnect in his mind between process and product. But this strategy, while no doubt useful to the artist during his hundreds of days of carving, does nothing to change the outcome. He is still carving a bad statue. Since this is the case, the efficient cause (his human act of carving) cannot be good, for agents must choose acts “for their own sakes” in order to be virtuous (Nicomachean Ethics 1105). The final cause is divided, since it is good insofar as it allows the artist to be released, yet evil since the statue will be used to proselytize people (Stalin has informed the artist of all the horrendous uses that he has planned for his gigantic likeness). How might this artist act virtuously?

Analysis according to Aristotle’s Definition of Virtue

Aristotle tells us that a virtue is always a mean between two vices. Here, I ascertain the two vices to be the following extremes:

Vice One: Not working at all. Instead of pursuing happiness (e.g. the promise of being released and the act of producing his art) the artist simply gives up and chooses to die instead.1

Vice Two: Pouring his whole soul into the work, which could cause him to embrace ideas that he abhors—a grievous offense that is impossible for a virtuous person to commit.

Possible Mean: Working on the statue, but not pouring his soul into the work.

Can a man use a vice to attain a greater virtue? If the answer is yes, then the act of carving the statue in order to gain freedom may indeed be virtuous. Yet the artist is bound by the limits of the situation to construct an inferior product—one into which he is unable to pour his soul and produce as a true artist. Aristotle, acknowledging the limits of humanity, claims that a virtuous person could commit a non-virtuous act and still be virtuous. There is only one final cause of the statue, and therefore only one final actuality. Thus, the days spent working on the statue do not make a thousand “little vices” but only parts of one simple vice (or “non-virtuous act”).2

There is, however, a different solution that would not force the artist to violate his nature by creating a bad or inferior statue: the artist could spend his days crafting the best statue possible with the goal of doing so. When the statue is complete, both the product and the producer would be excellent (Nicomachean Ethics 1106). The artist should then degrade the statue into the shape of a dictator, reflecting his righteous anger toward Stalin for forcing him into this situation. This action would be accomplished with the goal of returning home; thereby protecting the artist from the paradox of making a bad statue by subjugating his operative power beneath a disordered will. The artist could justify both the first (making the statue good, for its own sake) and second (degrading the statue, for the artist’s sake) acts. For Aristotle, virtuous action arises from the correspondence of rational habits with an object of happiness. Since both acts balance the reasoned will with an object of happiness, this surprising solution fulfills Aristotle’s concept of virtue.

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Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is assistant professor of theology at Divine Word College. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. His interests outside the academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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