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.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Preliminary to a Definition of Virtue: Prudence and Justice

MAN HAS A FUNDAMENTAL NEED FOR a deliberate disposition of the dynamic parts of his psyche that would make him existentially ready to do good. That disposition, then, must be tied to the objective moral order (or else it could be a vice),* must be reliable, and must also be qualitative. Yet there is one more element that must be attached so to speak to this qualitative existential disposition to make it a moral virtue, as distinguished from some other behavioral disposition. A businessman may be disposed to pay his bills on a timely basis, not because he has an qualitative existential disposition to be just, but merely because he is convinced that "honesty is the best policy" and will, in the long, run more fruit. In other words, how do we mark a moral virtue--which makes us a good man--from a virtue that is conventional or bourgeois--a disposition that makes us a good citizen, and not necessarily a good man.

A better grasps of what a moral virtue is can be gained by reflection upon the traditional, classical list of cardinal virtues. There is remarkable unanimity in the tradition regarding the list, from Plato and Aristotle through modern writers on virtue ethics. Prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance are the cardinal virtues.

Prudentia by Giotto (Scrovegni Chapel, Padua)

Prudence (in Greek, phronēsis or φρόνησις; in Latin translated as prudentia) is particularly unique because it has one foot in the intellectual realm and another foot in the moral realm. It bestrides the intellectual and moral realms like a colossus. Thus prudence is companion to other intellectual virtues (understanding, science, wisdom, and art) which have only a qualitative readiness, as well as companion to the moral virtues (fortitude, justice, temperance) which have both qualitative and existential readiness. Prudence may be translated as practical wisdom, "wisdom in acting, wisdom in practice, wisdom in what we have referred to as human use."** Prudence exhibits itself most splendidly not in common, run-of-the-mill situations which may be handled by the standards of manualists. Prudence exhibits its worth in those areas where the person is confronted with unique and contingent circumstances which do not yield ready-textbook answers. Prudence is that moral disposition that allows one to take in all the factual circumstances, all the other virtues, and, through proper disposition or inclination derive the morally-mandated act in the premises.

Justitia by Giotto (Scrovegni Chapel, Padua)

Justice is the moral virtue that applies in relations with another. The "other," it may be observed, may be, but need not be, another human being. The "other" might be the community at large (i.e., the common good), or the "other" might be the Other, that is, God. In our modern focus on individualism, we have lost a sense of justice as it may related to the common good, the commonwealth, and even more significant, our duties in justice to God. "The world has heard enough of the so-called 'rights of man,'" said Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Tametsi Futura Prospicientibus, "Let it hear something of the rights of God." Even in the Catholic Mass, in the "Sursum Corda," the justice owed to God would seem to have been squelched in the current translation of this wonderful prayer which introduces us into the Mass of the Faithful:

* Priest: Dominus vobiscum.
* People: Et cum spiritu tuo.
* Priest: Sursum corda.
* People: Habemus ad Dominum.
* Priest: Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro.
* People: Dignum et iustum est.


* Priest: The Lord be with you.
* People: And also with you.
* Priest: Lift up your hearts.
* People: We lift them up to the Lord.
* Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
* People: It is right to give him thanks and praise.

The "dignum et iustum est," which might be translated "it is fitting and just," has been suppressed in the English translation for whatever reason (which cannot have been a good one) and conflated into the vague term "right," which weakens, if not altogether removes, the notion that we owe to God in justice the lifting of our hearts to Him, that is our worship.

Justice might be further distinguished depending upon whether we are dealing with justice between individuals, justice between an individual and the whole of society, and justice between the whole of society and the individual. General justice (also called legal justice) involves the relationship of the individual to the whole. Distributive justice involves the relationship between the whole to the individual. Commutative justice involves the relationship between one individual and another individual. Rectificatory or corrective justice steps in to correct injustices. Thus, Simon summarizes:

So in the context of community as such, commutative justice is, in sense, taken for granted [in that it relates to individual to individual relationships, in which the State is uninvolved]. And that leaves us with just three kinds of what we may call social justice: general justice, ruling the relations of the parts of the community to the community itself; distributive justice, governing the relations between teh community and its members; and rectificatory or corrective justice, which is what the community must enforce when the rule of just exchange (which, incidentally, is strict equality) is not lived up to by individual citizens.

Simon, 100.

In our next blog posting, we shall look and the virtues of temperance and fortitude.
*For Simon, vice is "a stable disposition not of habitus but of the habit type, because the necessity involved in it is subjective rather than objective." Simon, 92. Although Aristotle uses the term "hexis" to describe vices, and this is inconsistent with the necessity of hexis or habitus being tied the the objective order, Simon attributes it to a certain carelessness in Aristotle. It seems that vice relates to a seeming (objective) good, whereas virtue would relate to an authentic (objective) good. In reality, there is no objective necessity underlying a vice. They arise as a "result from a poor handling, a poor resolution of the conflict that normally exists between our senses and our reason." Simon, 93.
**See our blog posting on particular use versus human use. A Good Man is Hard to Find: Nature and Use.

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