Perhaps unsurprisingly, people expect ethics or moral philosophy to be a very practical area of philosophy, an area that does not involve mere theoretical argument but practically useful counsel and advice, a field that is not lost in words and positions but involves the active pursuit of the good life. After all, if ethics isn't practical, what is? At the same time, however, much of what is studied as ethics seems to have only an indirect application to practical life.
There have been times and places, however, in which ethics was taken seriously as philosophy -- indeed, taken seriously as the philosophy, the area of most crucial importance -- precisely insofar as it is practical. The era of the Desert Fathers was one of those. We don't normally think of ethics or moral philosophy as a bunch of hermits praying in the wilderness. But if you had asked them what they were doing, they would have answered without hesitation that they were doing philosophy. Indeed, that is exactly what they did say they were doing. We get a nice summary of this view in the Life of St. Theodosios the Abbot. In his youth he began to take a passionate interest in the philosophical life, and the philosophical life he was interested in did not have much to do with debates in the lecture hall, but he did wish for a life devoted to the study of the good by actual practice. And what kinds of life were available for such a philosophical pursuit? The eremitic and coenobitic. Hermit and monk.
The idea behind the lavra as a form of philosophical research was nicely laid out by St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite in his 1783 preface to the Evergetinos, one of the major works of Orthodox piety. One of the most significant aspects of moral life is how we manage our more disruptive passions, and the Hagiorite argues that what we see in the Desert Fathers is a sort of intensive research into this practice of obtaining a dispassionate view. As he puts it:
And so, isolating themselves in the "deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth", to quote St. Paul, and having chosen unbroken silence, they set themselves to the task of uncovering in a positive, exact fashion, the original causes of the passions and eradicating them. (p. xxxiii)
More than this, however, the intense pursuit of virtue under difficult conditions led them to discover different ways to classify and categorize virtues; and by teaching others they passed on this practical know-how to others, so that directly and indirectly we can benefit from it through works like the Evergetinos. Nikodemos uses a striking analogy to clarify his point:
Just as those interested in physiology determine bodily properties by means of countless instruments and after numerous experiements, chemical analyses, and multifarious tests, in similar fashion these men of God experienced countless temptations, carried out trials and experiments over numerous years (for it could take these men up to fifty years to test a single principle), and discovered, byt the illuminating guidance of the Holy Spirit, the depths of moral philosophy, refining these virtues out of their respective excesses and deficiencies. (p. xxxiv)
Thus the ascetic life in the wilderness is a sort of massive moral experimentation away from the distractions and disruptions of civil life; in this relative isolation they tested out various moral principles by trying to live their entire lives according to them, with the aim of discovering truths about moral virtue in its purest form. Like an inventor experimenting with different materials or an artist experiment with different techniques, the Desert Fathers began to develop a practical know-how in the artistry and craft of the moral life, which they then communicated to each other and to those who were willing to journey out to them in order to listen to them. Just as the discoveries of a scientist can be put to use in the lives of non-scientists, so the expertise of the Desert Fathers in this or that ethical matter can be put to use in our own lives:
...[T]hese men teach us which virtues are bodily, which are spiritual, and which noetic; and how and to what extent and why, if put into practice, they are welcome or not. They teach us which passions are general or specific, which in turn are bodily, spiritual, or noetic, and how one might readily be rid of these. In short these men set forth the man in Christ. Indeed, it is extraordinary that the sayings of these blessed desert Elders, though couched in a simple, colloquial style, nonetheless greatly enrich us with their immediacy, so that they influence nearly all those who read them. (p.xxxiv)
But, of course, it's not just their words that teach us; we have their lives, the failings they had to overcome and the ways in which they did so, and these, too, teach us about the moral life; the isolation of the hermit or monk isolates the moral principles and shows us how they work in a relatively undisrupted environment. This can give us a better understanding of the moral principles themselves, and therefore a better understanding of how they might be applied in our own rather more turbulent environments.
Such is the Hagiorite's argument. One can find similar arguments in other contexts, e.g., in St. Thomas Aquinas's idea that a religious order is a school for charity. It is noteworthy, I think, how far from this very practice-oriented pursuit modern ethics is; given that modern ethics really is something taught and studied in debates and lecture halls rather than in practical life. One suspects that someone like St. Theodosius the Abbot would view this in much the same way we tend to view people who try to solve problems in biology by conceptual analysis -- some worthwhile ideas might come up, but the real source of, and the real test for, great ethical ideas is the intense practical living of an actual ethical life. I would suggest that it is worth asking how such a practical approach to philosophy, where the philosopher is supposed to delineate actual moral life and distill moral experience into usable, practical ideas, would work in our own day. Of course, that makes it sound like it has totally vanished; but, rare though it may be, there are still eremitics and coenobitics in this world who see themselves in much the same terms their forebears did. We pay little attention to them, all things considered, particularly for moral insight; and, having never really replaced it with anything else, we have lost the sense of moral philosophy as a master craft. It is worth remembering that it is entirely possible to think of moral philosophy in those terms; it has been done before, with interesting result.
All quotations are from The Evergetinos: A Complete Text, Book I, Chrysostomos and Patapios, trs., Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies (Etna, CA: 2008).
There's a pretty good edition of selections from the sayings of the Desert Fathers at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America website.