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.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Virtue as Dispositio or Diathesis

ARISTOTLE RECOGNIZES THAT THERE ARE DIFFERENCES between the "virtues" found in nature and those that are moral in nature, and consequently found only in men. These latter moral virtues, the moral virtues strictly so called, share in the characteristic of "existential readiness" or finality of the "natural" virtues. But they have their own unique characteristic, one which is derived from the fact that the are born in freedom and exercised or gained by choice and confirmed by free repetition. The natural world has its dispositions to behave toward a certain end, their existential readiness, pre-programmed. Man is not pre-programmed. Man's choices and acts, when they reliably conform to human excellence, may be predictable, even close to determined, by the moral virtue. For this reason, they share superficially the same predictability of the "natural" virtues which proceed necessarily.

This is not to suggest that because a humanly virtuous action is predictable it is unfree. "The predictability of [a virtuous man's] action will thus appear to deny his freedom only those who automatically associate free choice with indeterminism." Simon, 75. To be free is not to be impulsive, arbitrary, indeterminate, without guiding principle. That's not freedom, but flailing. And it is another form of slavery to be married to impulse, to passion. "The unfortunate person suffering from such a lack of virtues can hardly be considered acting either freely or objectively; on the contrary, he is plainly seen as harming himself and others precisely because he cannot--subjectively--help himself," so poorly is his life based on virtue. It is the acquisition of virtue, and the predictability that comes with it, that allows a man to overcome subjectivism's chains, and allows an act to be, beyond merely subjectively desired, one that is right objectively. It is possession of virtue (and the virtues), where the power is found wherein "one freely abstains from doing wrong because it is wrong, and one freely does right because it is right," that true freedom is found. Simon, 78.

To help in understanding moral virtue, Simon distinguishes different forms of "existential readiness" or finality. The first distinction is between "independent" existential readiness and "instrumental" existential readiness. The former is, for reasons accidental or essential, not tied to any purpose. For example, if, by force of habit, we drive unthinkingly down a certain road to an old office after we have moved offices. There is a story that was once told me of students at Oxford who, upon leaving their refectory, would bow their heads upon exit. No one understood where this custom derived until the old paint was removed from the wall above the exit door and a painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary was found underneath. That habit of the Oxford students had become "independent," severed as it were, from original purpose.

Instrumental existential readiness--whether of strict habit or, more broadly, of habitus--retains its tie to its purpose; it is tied to a sound moral reason. The habit of pressing the break when approaching an intersection with a red light, even if habitual and unthinking, is an example of a habit that has an instrumental existential readiness because there is a morally sound reasoning to it. These sort of unthinking habits play an important role in human virtue. "Virtues thrive on instrumental habits," even those done without thinking.

But as we have said before, the good life, and the virtues that are required for it, are more than mere instrumental habits. Virtue is not merely a good habit, or an ensemble of good habits Virtue is a hexis, a habitus.* "Virtue," says St. Thomas referring to the teaching of St. Augustine, "is a good quality of the mind, by which we live righteously, and of which no one can make a bad use."**

So moral virtue may be distinguished from science because it has existential as well as qualitative readiness, whereas science enjoys only qualitative readiness. Moral virtue is not merely a habit, because it enjoys an objective reality, and is not merely subjective. Moral virtue is thus characterized by objective reference and by existential and qualitative readiness. "Virtue is the state of character which makes a man good (as man) and which makes him do his own work (as man) well." Simon, 79.

The Seven Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Faith, Charity, Hope, Fortitude and Temperance and their representative Saints (Pesellino Shop, Birmingham Museum of Art)

The qualitative and existential readiness that is part and parcel of a moral virtue makes a man disposed to act in a good way. "Disposition! To dispose! To be disposed! We use these expressions spontaneously when we want to describe a person's readiness to act in a certain way rather than another." Simon, 79. The notion of disposition (in Latin, dispositio; in Greek, diathesis, διάθεσις) suggests an arrangement or ordering of "the parts of a given whole with a view to an effect pertaining to the whole." Simon, 79. Disposition or diathesis is, for Aristotle, "the arrangement (τάξις) of that which has parts (μέρη), in respect either of place (κατὰ τόπον) or of potency (κατὰ δύναμιν) or of kind (κατ᾽ εἶδος); for there must be a certain position (θέσιν), as even the word 'disposition' shows." Simon, 88 n. 9 (quoting Aristotle's Metaphysics).***

If disposition is an arrangement or ordering of the parts of a given whole with a view to an effect pertaining to the whole, then the question presents itself: what kind of whole of parts are we talking about when it comes to man? Simon characterizes the kind of whole man, his "psychological totality," as as a "dynamic whole with dynamic parts," or, less preferably, "a functional whole with functional parts." Simon, 81. Both parts and whole have movement, a dynamism or potentiality, that other wholes--a room full of well-placed furniture, an attractive display of toys in a shop window, the hours in a day, the form of a marble statue--do not have. There is a dynamism of parts and a dynamism of the whole, and so man is a miniature of the state, which has a dynamism of parts (its citizenry) and a dynamism of the whole (the state itself, composed of an aggregate of its citizenry and something more).

Accordingly, virtue is the stable state of character that gives order to the various powers, urges, qualities, potentialities in man who faces an indefinite number of contingent situations. To respond to these contingencies, to the possibilities and circumstances of life, requires choice, and, one would hope, such a choice that gathers together and orders the various individual dynamisms of man, or rather, that is the result of that order, should not be arbitrary, but deliberate, and the deliberateness which ought to guide and order those dynamisms in any given situation is a disposition.

In the case of the moral disposition (as distinguished from disposition that relates to opinion), the disposition must be formed in light of objective reality (similar to that disposition relating to science). Moral disposition therefore relates to epistēmē (ἐπιστήμη), objective knowledge, and not doxa (δόξα), subjective opinion.**** Such disposition in the moral area represents moral character, "the unique arrangement of all his moral traits." "And when this arrangement makes him totally reliable and dependable in human affairs, we call both the man and his disposition virtuous." Simon, 84.

This . . . has always been the common understanding of the meaning of virtue: dependability in matters pertaining to the good of man as man. . . . . While Aristotle saw it as a compound product of nature, habit and reason, achieved literally by good disposition of personal inclinations and qualities, modern writers have looked for simpler and easier methods. But I am afraid that there is no cheap or automatic way of solving the problem of how we should live . . . .

Simon, 84.

That complex dispositio or diathesis that orders character is therefore far more complex and dynamic than the advocates of natural spontaneity (such as Rousseau or Emerson) would have us believe. There are times when such spontaneity does not accord with the good, but is the result of disordered urges, or stems from accidental sources confused with spontaneous impulse (e.g., traits caused by growing up under a domineering or cruel father) which must be overcome or controlled. Similarly, the suggestion by the psycho-technologists for improving the ordering of the mind never extends out to the objective realm, and so has limited, though perhaps in the proper cases, a real enough role. Similarly, external tricks of social control cannot control and order the inside of a man. The governance of men is not the same as the governance of a man, and so the social planners have not the entire answer.

The Aristotelian notion of disposition does not necessarily reject the notion of spontaneity, the role of psycho-technology, or even the role of society in forming character; however, it takes these notions and broadens them and adds to them in a realistic, complex, dynamic way. Aristotelian and Thomistic virtue is no facile achievement: it offers no quick cure, no immediate fix, no instantaneous recipe. But it offers an authentic, lasting, albeit rigorous and demanding cure, with a lot of moral exercise and training and discipline. It is a regime that, though it may not be ready and automatic, yields, if the proper moral dispositio and habitus are acquired, true freedom. True freedom requires order and requires reliability, and the moral dispositio (diathesis) and habitus (hexis) that gives us order and reliability in the moral life, the combination of which is virtue, and which guides us to freedom.

The unexamined life, which leads to knowledge and truth, is not worth living.

Neither is the unexercised life, which leads to virtue and the good.
*For the notion of virtue as habitus, see Virtue as Habitus: In the Realm of Knowledge.
Virtus est bona qualitas mentis, qua recte vivitur, qua nullus male utitur. S. T., Iª-IIae q. 55 a. 4 arg. 1. Simon cites to St. Augustine's De Libero Arbitrio, II.19 as the source for this quote in St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae; however, that cite appears to be incorrect. It appears that the statement may be a compilation or formulation of St. Augustine's teaching in De Libero Arbitrio by Peter Lombard. See James Colman Lineham, Rational Nature of Man with Particular Reference to the Effects of Immorality on Intelligence According to St. Thomas Aquinas, a Metaphysical Study (Catholic University of America, 1937), 57 nn.9-10.
***Aristotle, Metaphysics 1022b (διάθεσις λέγεται τοῦ ἔχοντος μέρη τάξις ἢ κατὰ τόπον ἢ κατὰ δύναμιν ἢ κατ᾽ εἶδος: θέσιν γὰρ δεῖ τινὰ εἶναι, ὥσπερ καὶ τοὔνομα δηλοῖ ἡ διάθεσις.).
****For the difference between epistēmē (ἐπιστήμη) and doxa (δόξα), see Virtue as Habitus: In the Realm of Knowledge. Simon thinks that taste in art or aesthetics is also a habitus ultimately based upon objective epistēmē (ἐπιστήμη) grounds, and not mere opinion or doxa (δόξα). "I remain convinced that, if there is objectivity in the creation of beauty, it must be possible for its appreciation also to become objective." Simon, 84. Simon's best evidence is that there is such a thing as just plain bad art, and if there is an objective negative standard, it suggests and objective positive standard, however elusive it may be to comprehend.

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