Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Virtue and its Substitutes: Rousseau and Natural Impulse

“THE NATURAL LAW IS THE ORIGIN and principle of all virtues and their acts," says William of Auxerrre in his Summa aurea. For the next various blog postings we will focus on the concept of virtue, relying on the French philosopher Yves R. Simon's The Definition of Moral Virtue (New York: Fordham University Press, 1986). This slim book was edited by Vukan Kuic, and its basis is a series of lectures given by Professor Simon at the University of Chicago in 1957. As William of Auxerre suggests, virtue ethics and the natural law are closely aligned; indeed, traditionally, it was impossible to conceive of one without the other. Modernly, virtues--like the natural moral law--remain largely out of favor, although they have some signs of resurgence, spurred by the works of Alasdair MacIntyre, especially since the publication of his works After Virtue and his Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. Their modern rebirth in secular Academia may be laid at the feet of two women: one a Catholic and the other an atheist: G. E. M. Anscombe (in particular her 1958 essay, "Modern Moral Philosophy" (originally published in the journal Philosophy, vol. 33, no. 124 (January 1958)), and Philippa Foot, who published a collection of essays entitled Virtues and Vices in 1978 (recently republished by Oxford University Press). Virtue was also popularized by William Bennett, U. S. Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan who wrote his bestselling book, The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories (1993). Of course, within the moral tradition of the Catholic Church, and within cultural conservatives, the notion of virtue, which is fundamentally human, never lost favor.

Simon identifies virtue with one of its fundamental indicia: dependability or a lack of conditionality. Virtue has staying power, a staying power which human nature as we find it, with its impulses, its foibles, its emotional flux does not. Virtues, are, of course, also part of human nature and support it, but in a manner of speaking they are imposed over those predispositions or tendencies in us which tug against moral right, sort of like a muzzle over a biting dog. They are acquired; they are obtained a posteriori, by habitually learning and doing right, as it were, not a priori, as if innate and spontaneous. Viewed positively, virtues may be considered a sort of dampener which resists the downward dug or bad and temporary impulses. Viewed negatively, the virtues may be considered as a sort of insulating boundary between an errant impulse and objective right. But before we look at virtue, we begin by focusing on modern replacements for virtue, for just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does the absence of virtue create a vacuum in the moral man. Something, a substitute, sometimes one which shares at least superficially in some of the qualities of virtues, but which is yet a counterfeit, will step in. Simon identifies three such substitutes or rival versions of what is required to perfect man and take him to happiness: the theory of natural goodness, social engineering, and what he calls psycho-technology.

Traditional virtue found an enemy in the romantic naturalists such as Rousseau (1712-1778). This may be confusing and hard to believe because, especially with respect to Rousseau, the word virtue was never far from his lips or his pen, though, understood in any traditional sense, the notion of virtue seemed to be far from his heart. The traditional notions of virtue for the likes of the Rousseauians appeared to them to be conventional strictures that squelched the natural and spontaneous good that was within man. The dogma of original sin or a realistic anthropology or assessment of the human condition was not part of their thinking; instead, they adopted a highly-optimistic view of man that stressed natural spontaneity. This is, of course, fatal to the traditional notion of virtues as acquired qualities of the mind or of character. Though natural, virtues must be built into us; they are sort of a secondary nature.

Now spontaneity is not, in itself, an evil thing. There is not much attractive in those who are conventional for convention's sake any more than there is anything attractive in those who are spontaneous for spontaneity's sake. But spontaneity (like convention) has no measure of right and wrong, no ratio ordinis, by which it is internally measured. Spontaneity (like convention) must be measured by something extrinsic to it. To suggest that spontaneity in itself is the measure of good, and that any habitus of virtue that resists or inhibits such impulses in any particular case must needs be a restriction on man's freedom and happiness is the kernel of Rousseauian error.


Rousseau, the "Cartesian" Moralist
What the "light of natural reason" was to Descartes in intellectual knowledge,
"natural spontaneity" was to Rousseau in the moral realm.

There is, to be sure, a distinction between the habitus of virtue and social convention. It may be that a social convention, one leastwise that is not directly tied to the habitus of virtue, improperly restricts a perfectly good spontaneous desire. Perhaps a conventional notion that one must raise a family suppresses the spontaneous vocation toward the monastic, celibate life. This is perhaps the truth that Rousseau seized upon and exploited. However, it is an error to equate, to make coterminous, virtue with convention. It is also an error to say that convention and virtue are always and everywhere opposites. Even where virtue and convention overlap (and that seems to be less the case modernly), to squelch spontaneity because convention demands it is hugely different from squelching spontaneity because virtue demands it. Virtue is perennial, and perennially human and good; convention is contingent, and conditionally human and good. Virtues, in other words, are built upon the foundation of the natural moral law. Conventions may or may not be, since they are conventionally-based on customs or the positive law, and not naturally-based on natural law. Yet they both govern or influence behavior and so are found playing on the same field, as it were, the field of morality. To confuse convention and virtue is to confuse team players; it is to neglect the difference between the jerseys of the home team with the jerseys of the visiting team. That blindness will make you a very bad player on the field of morality.

Rousseau's moral teachings are, in Simon's view, analogous to Descartes's intellectual teachings. What Descartes did in the area of speculative reason, Rousseau did in the area of practical reason. Descartes desired to free the human intellect from what he saw as the shackles of tradition, specifically the natural, Aristotelian scholastic philosophy of the time. The construct of the philosophers had to be scrapped in Descartes's view, and one had to seize the "natural light of reason," la lumière naturelle, a natural light which, unconstrained by the accouterments of the schools, would once again allow man to gain true knowledge. As Descartes expressed it in a letter to R. P. Mersenne dated October 16, 1639: "pour moi, je n'ai pour règle des miennes [i.e., de mes vérités] que la lumière naturelle," as for me, I have no other rules [in regard to truth] other than the natural light [of reason]."* Intellectual tradition or patrimony of thought, then, was to be disdained not because it was untrue, but simply because it was traditional. Rousseau applied that very same form of thinking to the matter of morals.

According to Descartes, therefore, the main problem in the progress of knowledge is how to get rid of and stay away from false ideas that not only come from bad teaching, and from old wives' tales, but are generated by our imagination running wild in childhood. . . . For the understanding of Descartes, this is a crucial point. . . . What [the mind] really needs is to recover somehow the natural, native power and light of reason, impaired by bad education, by vulgar opinions, and perhaps most of all by childhood fantasies.

Simon, 3. What Descartes tried to do with regard to the intellectual knowledge, Rousseau tried to do with respect to moral knowledge. In a sense, the Cartesian intellectual optimism was recruited to the moral realm, and there became the Rousseauian natural optimism, a natural optimism which is so attractive to the lazy, to those with moral acedia.
True, Rousseau and his followers never stop talking about 'virtues.' But if we go beyond mere words, we quickly realize that what they are after is not to work for it but rather to tap in the individual a natural spontaneity toward goodness, which they take to be antecedent to both rationality and social order.
Simon, 4.

Thus, though Descartes and Rousseau had different material interests (intellectual knowledge versus moral knowledge), their formal interests were the same (extracting their underlying subject matter from any restrictions, conventional, traditional, dogmatic, etc.) The problem is, of course, that one does not want to throw out the baby with the bath water. Why throw out the virtues in the name of getting rid of convention?

In a manner of speaking, if the notion of virtue is thought of as expansive, in the manner of Aristotle, then Rousseau and Descartes were battling the same thing: virtue. "Aristotle . . . attributes both moral and scientific progress to acquired qualities which he calls virtues." Simon, 3-4. Viewed in this manner, Descartes and Rousseau were battling the same thing: virtue. One did this by hailing back to the supposed "light of natural reason," the other by hailing back to supposed unspoiled "natural spontaneity."

Rousseau's thinking continues on its vicious path. He is read with great avidity or perhaps cupidity today: Rousseau's thought "continues to operate in our society at a deep, mostly unconscious level as a substitute for a genuine theory of virtues." Simon, 4. In summary, however, we must not forget that "rather than an acquired quality of mind or character, 'virtue' for Rousseau means nothing more than 'natural spontaneity.'" Simon, 4.

In other words, if we want to begin learning about virtue, one of our first virtuous acts would be to throw away any reliance upon Rousseau. There is too much of the devil that smolders within his pages.

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*Ouvres Philosophiques De Descartes (Paris: August Desrez, 1838), 562.

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