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, August 24, 2012

Aristotle on Virtue

ARISTOTLE DEPARTED FROM PLATO'S thought in a number of ways, including in Plato's four-fold reductionism of virtue to the classic four: wisdom, courage or fortitude, temperance, and justice.  Although Plato had expanded upon Socrates' even more reductionist formula--virtue is equivalent to wisdom--Plato did not sufficiently capture the variety of virtue nor the essential balance that he believed virtue required.  Plato's virtue doctrine, like much of his doctrine, was too heady, to ideal.  Aristotle was much more empirical, practical in his doctrine of virtue.

In devising his view of virtue, Aristotle therefore withdrew from Plato's vantage point of looking at virtue from the perspective of it being a "power" of the soul.  Rather than look at the soul's powers to distinguish virtues, Aristotle thought that the issue could be better handled by focusing on the end of virtue, namely justice.  In Aristotle's view, ethics was less an ontological study than a practical study; accordingly, the goal of our activity was the focal point of analysis.

Famously, Aristotle developed his eudaemonistic ethic--and ethic based upon man's goal: happiness. This happiness of Aristotle might also be defined as flourishing, success.  It is an objective measure of success, and not mere emotional or subjective satisfaction, such as the modern notion of happiness.

In Aristotle's view, Socrates had over-intellectualized, over-theorized virtue.  Virtue was not principally an intellectual quality; rather, it was a practical quality.  Virtue should be seen as part of the art or craft of living well, and therefore it was a moral habit, not an intellectual habit which principally drove virtue in the realm of ethics.  Knowledge alone does not a virtue make; rather, virtues might be seen as moral habits, character traits with staying power that are acquired by repeated behavior in accord with some norm.  Virtue was sort of an inner well-worn path that led to moral excellence, happiness.

Aristotle analogized virtue to the senses.  Just like sight directs itself to color, and hearing to sound, so likewise does virtue lend itself to being understood by reference to its object.  This required a two-fold analysis:

For Aristotle, then, knowing a virtue depended on two things: (1) knowing its formal character, that is, attaining a middle point between the extremes of excess and defect, which are the two vices opposed to it, and (2) knowing this "mean" concretely, not abstractly, by limited each virtue to a precise area of moral life.

Houser, 14.  Aristotle's virtue ethics, therefore, famously revolved around the notion of a "golden mean" between two vices, the aurea mediocritas.

Aristotle's form of analysis--an amalgam of formal analysis and practical application--yielded a richer tapestry of virtues that the four-fold schema of Plato, and certainly more than the one-fold scheme of Socrates.  For Aristotle, the Platonic wisdom (sophia) expanded itself into wisdom understood theoretically (sophia), and understanding (nous), knowledge (episteme), productive craftsmanship (techne), and prudence (phronesis).  While Aristotle also adopted three of Plato's moral virtues into his scheme--courage (andreia), temperance (sophrosyne), and justice (dikaiosyne), these virtues were "transformed . . . into specific virtues by limiting the scope of each."  Houser, 14.


Courage or fortitude (andreia), which concerned itself with fear (phobia), was therefore the mean between rashness (thrasus) and cowardliness (deilos).  Temperance (sophrosyne) which concerned itself with pleasure (hedone) and pain (lupe), was the mean between profligacy (akolasia) and insensitivity (anaisthetos).

In Aristotle, the virtue of justice was more complex, as it recognized the broad expanse of justice, including justice in the city, which included the notions of distributive justice, legal justice, and retributive justice, and justice in the soul.

Aristotle also identified not other specific virtues in addition to these "Platonic three," interestingly finding them hidden within what Plato had banished into vice.

By combing and parsing through Plato's broad painting of human behavior as vice, including the timocracts, oligarchs, and democrats Plato painted as vicious, Aristotle found virtues unfairly portrayed as vices.  For example, in the timocrat's untoward love of honor, Aristotle found the virtues of proper ambition (a mean between being over-ambitious (philotimos) and lacking ambition (aphilotimos)  (when honors are small) and magnanimity (megalopsychia, a mean between vanity (chaunotes) and smallness of soul (mikropsychia) (when great honors are involved).

Whereas Plato saw love of money of the oligarchs as irredeemably vicious, Aristotle found virtues relating to the proper use of money, magnificence (megaloprepeia, a mean between tastelessness or vulgarity (apeirokalia or banausia) and paltriness or chinziness (mikroprepeia) (when large sums were involved, a virtue particularly of the wealthy) and liberality or generosity (eleutheriotes, a mean between prodigality or wastefulness (asotia) and meanness or stinginess (analeutheria) (when small sums were involved).

Likewise, in the democratic soul, Aristotle mined for virtues and found such virtues as shame (in the realm of desires), good temper (a virtue which controls emotions), and such social virtues such as truthfulness (aletheia, a mean between boastfullness, pretense, exaggeration (alazoneia) and self-deprecation, pretense in understatement (eironia), friendliness or gentleness (praotes, a mean between irascibility (orgilotes) and spritlessness (aorgesia), and wittiness or general pleasantness (a mean between obsegiousness (areskos) and flattery (kolax) and quarrelsomeness (dyseris) or surliness (dyskolos).

The great moderator of all these myriad virtues was prudence (sophrosyne).  Prudence for Aristotle was the virtue that concerned itself with good practical decision-making.  It was not so much a matter of the theoretical intellect, but a virtue of the practical intellect.  Prudence, therefore, was the monitor which allowed the entry into the golden mean.  "It is not possible to be good in the principal way," said Aristotle, "without prudence."  (Nic. Eth. 1144b30-32).

The rich tapestry of virtues in Aristotle's schema also led Aristotle to reject the Platonic "all or nothing" notion.  Plato thought that a person either was virtuous or was not.  For Aristotle, someone could be prudent in one area of his life, and yet imprudent in another.  There were therefore the vicious, the fully virtuous, and the gray area of someone with virtue in one area, vice in others, a gray area where most of us lived.

While Aristotle's contribution to virtue theory is massive, it did come at a cost.  As Houser explains it:
The way Aristotle treated the moral vision of Socrates had a cost: he sacrificed Plato's central insight that there are for virtues linked closely to human nature. It seems never to have occurred to him that in doing so he fell victim in the area of moral virtue to the same error he had attributed to Socrates and Plato in the area of intellectual virtue, namely, setting the standards for virtue too high. While he recognized moral acts and habits at work in everyday life, he reserved the term "virtue" for the outstanding excellence of the few.
Houser, 16.  Plato's "residue" of elitism remained.

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