From its opening words, the book of Proverbs presents itself as a manual of instruction for the student to acquire the necessary discipline and virtues to follow the wise course. Because Proverbs often speaks in language of binary opposition (e.g., righteous/wicked, wise/foolish), many interpreters have described the book's vision of the moral world as relatively simplistic. Accordingly, shaping the student's character would seem a straightforward task of merely conveying the right course while warning of the dangers of the wrong course. However, the book imparts a much more complicated vision of the moral world than has often been assumed.
The moral world of Proverbs is closely related to the book's literary form. This project explores the strategies of character formation in Proverbs with particular attention to the function of Proverbs' poetry. Part I of the dissertation is a methodological framework for the study, examining the "character ethics approach" and the nature of poetry in Proverbs. Character ethics, in its various forms, has given great attention to the role of narrative in the formation of character, but Proverbs challenges this narrative orientation. Part II presents four different models of character formation: (1) rebuke, (2) motivation, (3) desire, and (4) imagination. These heuristic categories organize the diverse ways in which the book speaks about formation, uses certain rhetorical tools to enact formation within the student, and operates with implicit assumptions about the nature of learning and of human beings. Through its poetry, Proverbs presents a sophisticated understanding of the role of emotion, desire, and imagination in the formation of the moral self, thus suggesting that character formation requires educating all of the senses, not simply the cognitive faculties. While Proverbs often makes use of black-and-white binary opposition, it in fact schools the student to operate in a moral world of gray hue, a place in which he will be constantly barraged by competing choices and desires that require the mental acuity to make wise choices.
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