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.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Stoics: Kathēkon or Officium: Our Duty to Nature

IN OUR LAST POSTING, we noted how the Stoics branded as "indifferent" or pre-moral a number of goods which Plato, but particularly Aristotle, had labeled as part of the good life.  The Stoics were not, however, blind that humans gravitated to those supposedly indifferent goods.  Why was it most men preferred wealth (a supposedly "indifferent" good) than poverty?  Why did most men prefer fame (another supposedly "indifferent" good) than being ignored?  It would seem that the Stoic adiaphora were often proēgmena.

To explain why there was this apparent desire for the adiaphora, the Stoics cleverly coined some neologisms--some new words--and so developed an entirely new moral vocabulary and moral category.  They recognized that all animals, including humans, have impulses (hormē [ὁρμή] in Greek, appetitio animi, in Latin), and these latched on to the supposedly indifferent things, the adiaphora.

The Stoics recognized that the animal impulse shared by man perceived these adiaphora as have some sort of value or worth: they were estimable (axion [ἀξιον], in Greek, aestimabile, in Latin).  This perceived value or worth is what made them preferred (proēgmenon [προηγμένον] in Greek, praepositum or selectum, in Latin).  On the other hand, some of these adiaphora were seen as having a dis-value (apaxion), and were therefore dis-preferred (apoproēgmenon, in Greek, reiectum, in Latin).

Depiction of the Stoa Poikile (Painted Stoa) 
from which the Stoics derived their name

To avoid a lapse into subjectivism--to avoid the preferred and dis-preferred to being mere whim, mere wants, arbitrary desires--the Stoics sought to put some sort of objective (though not moral) reason or ratio behind these impulses.  They found the objective guide in nature (physis).  Impulses that were in accord with nature (kata physin) were preferred; those against or contrary to nature were dis-preferred.  Above and beyond my nature was a cosmic logos (in Latin, ratio) that provided the sort of common or universal law behind the natural law specific to particular animals.

Those actions that were in accord with nature (kata physin) were considered proper (oikeion [οἰκεῖον]), while those that were contrary to nature were considered alien (allotrion [ἀλλότριον]. These proper actions were also called dutiful or appropriate (kathēkon [καθῆκον], a word that became in Latin as officium.  Whenever we see, as, for example in Cicero, the use of the term officium (often translated as "duty"), it has the meaning of kathēkon or a duty arising from or based upon one's nature.  This notion of duty to one's nature was, of course, a principle that would have a profound effect on moral philosophy and would eventually (with important modifications) be incorporated into Christian thought and given Scriptural dignity via reference by St. Paul in his epistle to the Romans.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Stoics and Virtue: The Adiaphora

ALTHOUGH THE STOIC PHILOSOPHERS took their inspiration from Socrates, sidestepping the developments of Plato and Aristotle, their contribution to virtue theory was the addition of the notion of logos or reason underlying the entire virtue inquiry.  However, the Stoic thinkers did not disdain Plato or Aristotle in their entirety.

For example, the Stoic thinkers accepted the four-fold division of Plato, and thought it convenient to divide virtue into the four cardinal virtues that Plato had identified: fortitude, temperance, prudence, and justice.  They also followed the notion that these virtues were related to each other and mutually supported each other.  The Stoics found that the inter-relatedness of the virtues also applied to their corresponding vices.

The Stoics, however, rejected the Aristotelian moderation of virtue/vice distinction.  Whereas Aristotle saw vice and virtue as two extremes to a continuum, with most of mankind in between the two extremes, the Stoics saw virtue and vice as all-or-nothing qualities.  One either was virtuous in toto or not, and if not, one was vicious.  This led to a sort of moral rigorism for which the Stoics were famous.  As Diogenes Laertius put it in his work on the life of the philosophers (Vitae, 7.127), "'while the Peripatetics [Aristotelians] say that progress lies between virtue and vice,' the Stoics'believed there is nothing between virtue and vice.'"  Houser, 19 (quoting Laertius).

Cicero--himself a disciple of the Stoic moral school--described this Stoic position in his De finibus (3.14.48) thus:

For just as those who are submerged in the ocean cannot breath, whether they are so close to the surface that they are just about to emerge or they are down deep . . . so too whoever is making a little progress toward the habit of virtue is no less in misery than one who has progressed not at all.

(quoted in Houser, 19)

The Stoic Chrysippus

Another contribution of the Stoic school is that they did not adopt Plato's "philosopher king" (philosophos basileus) or Aristotle's "great-souled" man (spoudaios) as the exemplar of the virtuous soul.  These notions were too tied to the political life of the polis or were too practical in perspective.  Rather, consistent with their Socratic emphasis and their notion of the logos as the underlying standard, the Stoics looked toward the wise man or sage (sophos) as the paradigm of the virtuous human.
By putting a cosmic and cosmopolitan twist on Socrates' search for universal definitions, the Stoics thought [the sage's] single-minded devotion to the logos allowed [the sage] to submit with equanimity to death, seemingly the worse of evils . . . . The Stoic sages was conceived as a paragon of moral virtue.
Houser, 19.

It should be noted that the Stoic sage's equanimity before death in his devotion to the logos was a quality that was quite compatible with the martyr's devotion to the Logos made flesh, Jesus the Lord, which led him to spurn death and witness to the truth.  The heroism of the sage and the heroism of the martyrs were thus analogous.

The Stoics recognized that virtue was not only something that made a man extrinsically excellent (in his relations ad extra), but that virtue was something that pertained to the inner life and so made a man excellent in his interior life (ad intra).  Indeed, it was the inner aspect of virtue which was emphasized.  Thus virtue's intrinsic goodness is not necessarily measured by results, but rather by what is right and good.  The Stoics therefore came to see virtue as its own reward, irrespective of consequences or happiness.  The Stoic philosopher Zeno, for example, "concluded that virtues are not one among many things that are intrinsically good, they are the only things that are good intrinsically (agathon, kalon; honestum); and likewise th only thing intrinsically bad is vice (kakia; vitium)."  Houser, 20.

Diogenes Laertius (Vitae, 7.102-3) summarized the Stoics' view thus:

The virtues--prudence, justice, courage, temperance, and the others--are good (agatha); and their opposites--imprudence, injustice, and the others--are bad (kaka); neither good nor bad are those things which neither benefit nor harm, such as life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, wealth, good, reputation, noble birth, and their opposites death, disease, pain, ugliness, weakness, poverty, bad reputation, low birth, and such things . . . . For these things are not good, but things indifferent (adiaphora) in the category of preferred things (proegmena).  For just as heating, not cooling, is a property of the hot, so benefiting, not harming, is a property of the good; but wealth and health do not benefit any more than they harm; therefore, neither wealth nor health is a good.

(quoted in Houser, 20).  The Stoics therefore saw a great many goods as pre-moral goods to which a sage ought to be indifferent; whereas Plato and especially Aristotle tended to see man and his good (happiness) as more a blend of extrinsic and intrinsic qualities.  The Stoic man could be "happy" lacking all things but virtue.  The Aristotelian man could not be "happy" even if virtuous, if he was lacking health and a certain level of wealth.

As we shall see in the next posting, this scheme of the Stoics--which labeled a whole host of things seen as intrinsically good in the Platonic-Aristotelian analysis as morally indifferent.  In order to explain which humans gravitated to such supposedly indifferent goods and avoided such supposedly indifferent evils, the Stoics had to develop some explanation.  They therefore developed a sort of dualistic moral theory that distinguished between animal impulse and desire tied to man's animal nature and the higher reason-based nature of rational man.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Stoics and Virtue: Introduction

THE STOICS ARE THE NEXT group of philosophical thought that might profitably be looked at in terms of the development of virtue theory.  The Stoics looked not towards Plato or Aristotle for inspiration, but rather turned to Socrates, from whom, like their philosophical adversaries the Skeptics and the Epicureans, they sought answers to the question of "how should we then live?" as a title to a famous book once put it.

Skeptics took their inspiration from the Socratic aporia, the puzzlement, the "the only thing I know is that I do not know" tradition of Socrates.  This deconstruction by Socrates, of course, was a sort of intellectual unraveling of conventional knowledge so as to be put in a place where real thinking could begin.  However, what Socrates intended as a new beginning, the Skeptics apparently saw as an end.  All knowledge, the Skeptics held, is unknowable.  We are condemned not to know.  Translated into the moral life, this leads to a vicious relativism.

The Epicureans also sought inspiration from Socrates.  The Epicureans here focused on the elitism which was implicit in the Socratic manner.  It was not the many, the hoi polloi, that could be counted to provide us enlightenment as to how we should live.  The rabble is not the source of the good.  Rather, the Epicureans "found in Socrates' preference for the views of 'the few' inspiration for preferring the cultured pleasure brought by wisdom over the baser pleasures of 'the many.'"

When Christian thinkers came on the scene, they found both the Skeptic and the Epicurean schools unpalatable and not consistent or synthesizeable with the truth of the Gospel and the moral teachings of Jesus.  At root, a Christian cannot be a skeptic, for he believes in the sure footing of faith and reason.  Nor can a Christian be an epicurean or hedonist, for he would never adopt a pleasure principle as his moral pole star.

It was the last Socratically-inspired school--the Stoics--which Christians thought sufficiently aligned with their  teachings to make it an attractive complement to the teachings of Christ.

Stoicism, of course, takes its name from "painted porch," stoa poikile, the place alongside the marketplace of Athens where Socrates had spent so much time as philosophical gadfly to the consternation of the Athenian leaders who eventually found the need to condemn him to death for impiety and supposed corruption of youth.  When Plato and Aristotle founded their own schools (the Academy and the Lyceum, respectively), they abandoned to Stoa.  By re-appropriating the original teaching locus of Socrates, the Stoic philosophers manifest an intent to go back to the sources: a Socratic ressourcement.

Zeno of Citium, founder of the Stoic School

Unfortunately, much of the material of the early Stoic founders and thinkers has been lost to us.  Zeno of Citium (ca. 334-262 B.C.) has been generally honored as the founder of the Stoic school.  He authored a new Republic as a short of challenge-piece to the Platonic original.  Chrysyppus (ca. 280-226 B.C.), Zeno's disciple, carried this tradition on, authoring his own critique of Plato's Republic in his On the Republic.

One of the teachings of the Stoics that the Christians ultimately found attractive as analogous to the moral teachings of Jesus to which they were heir was the notion of Socrates's personal impetus--his daimon--a sort of spirit of universal reason that inspired Socrates, which warned him, which urged him on.  This Socratic daimon was identified by the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes (died 232 B.C.) with the universal reason (logos) which was further tied to Zeus (God), the author of nature.  One can see in Cleanthes' interpretation of the Socratic daimon a compatibility with the Christian notion of a God who creates a world through the Word (Logos) and which therefore displays in some manner in that world a truth about how we should then live.  Here, a notion of created order and the notion of an inspiration that acts in accord with that created order (reason, conscience, Holy Spirit).

It was the Stoic doctrine of the Logos that drew the early Christian thinkers toward Stoicism as a possible philosophical source with which to buttress the teachings they had received from Jesus and his apostles.  After all, it would have seemed as if the Apostle John had already given them the directive.  In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.  It was this Logos that became flesh, and had dwelt in the world, full of grace and truth.

What was the relationship between the Logos of the Stoic and the Logos-made-Flesh of the Gospel of John?

To answer that question, of course, we have to understand what the Stoics thought about the Logos, and we shall spend the next few postings on just this issue.

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.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Plato: Temperance, Courage, Wisdom Yield Justice

PLATO'S VIEWS ON VIRTUE APPEAR to have evolved. Initially, he seems to have adopted Socrates's view that virtue was knowledge.  So it appears in the following dialogues: Laches, Charmides, Euthyphro, Euthydemus, and the Protagoras.  But the Socratic reductionist formula (virtue=knowledge) appears to have been abandoned by Plato and replaced with a four-fold formula which would yield the classic cardinal virtues of wisdom, fortitude, temperance and justice (sophia, andreia, sophrosyne, and dikaiosyne, respectively) 22. We find the virtues treated thus in Plato's Republic, specifically in sections 427d through 445e.

Plato's synthesis is gained by his reflection on the topography of the soul, a soul which is the city writ small.  So the city (polis) reflects the soul (psyche) as the soul reflects the city.  They are analogues in Platonic thought as expressed in the Republic.

Each city--and consequently each soul--must have three classes effectively to function as a community: craftsmen (those who produce services or goods).  In the soul, the analogue of city's craftsmen is the virtue of temperance.  There is a subordination or discipline of self for the purpose of producing the goods or delivering the services to the city.  A similar subordination or restraint of the passions, of the appetites is found in the virtue of temperance.  But temperance suffers from a certain timidity.  More is required than mere businessmen, craftsmen, tradesmen for a city effectively to function.  Similarly, a soul requires more than temperance.

Hence the need for the next class: the warriors.  The warriors in a city assume the disciplinary or enforcing occupations--the police, the military.  They order or supervise the city, have a rugged strong frame.  These are the analogue to the virtue of courage.  While warriors do no lack temperance (just like craftsmen have courage), their predominant virtue is courage.

The warriors, on the other hand, have no governing virtue.  They are merely auxiliaries.  Their irascibility must be tempered by some extrinsic measure, and hence the need for some class that is able to establish the form of order, the end of the citizenry.  What are the goals in war?  What are the arrangements for peace.  The warrior class is not fit for these sorts of questions.  There must, therefore, be a guardian class.  These guardians in the city are the analogue for the virtue of wisdom.  When the temperance of the craftsmen and the courage of the warrior are well-ordered by the guardians of the city, one arrives at a complete and full justice.

The soul has has thee parts: reason (logistikon), emotion (thymos), and desire (epithymia) with three corresponding virtues, being, respectively, wisdom, courage, and temperance.

Wisdom is found wherever reason knows and chooses the good; courage is found wherever the emotions overcome obstacles to the good; and temperance is found wherever desire for pleasure is so controlled as to lead to the good rather than away from it.

Houser, 10-11.

Where does justice fit in?  Justice is "ontologically homeless."  It is the "harmony produced when each of the three parts functions well," and in unison.

To accommodate his theory, Plato had to expand upon and in fact amend the Socratic reduction.
Plato emended Socrates' thesis that wisdom is a necessary and sufficient condition for virtue, by substituting the combination of wisdom, courage, and temperance for Socrates' single virtue of wisdom. Taken together, these three virtues are the necessary and sufficient condition for justice. Taken together, these three virtues are the necessary and sufficient condition for justice: 'That which preserves and fosters this inner harmony is called a just and find action' ((W·C·T) ⊃ J); and 'an action which destroys this harmony is unjust' (˜(W·C·T) ⊃ ˜J).
Houser, 11 (quoting, Republic 445c).

Justice is therefor a reduction of the three other virtues of temperance, courage, and wisdom.  Plato's contribution was to show that interconnectedness of virtue.  By expanding the Socratic formula of wisdom = virtue to the formula that justice is a harmonization arising from well-ordered virtues of courage, temperance, and wisdom, Plato developed the idea of virtue, of arete.


Corresponding to virtue was its opposite: vice. Though there is but one kind of virtue--that which yields justice--the imbalance that can occur as a result of disorder--whether in the soul or in the polis--is literally infinite.  There are "unlimited forms of vice," but only four are worthy of being mentioned, says Plato.  Republic 445c.

The justice of the aristocrat can yield to honor, and so the aristocrat--that man governed by excellence--may corrupt into a timocrat--that man governed by honor.  A timocrat "loves the honor that accompanies good action more than the goodness that such action produces." Houser, 11.  The wrong focus is bound to create disharmony, and though the virtues remain, they are disordered and lose their inner life, their inner harmony.

A similar corruption occur with the oligarch.  Here, courage is foregone or deprecated, while temperance runs amok.  Wealth is this man's preoccupation, and as a result, the virtues of courage, of wisdom, and hence justice suffer.

When temperance yields to an overabundant sense of freedom and equality, one has the democrat.  Here justice seems to be the desire, and yet a justice without courage, without temperance, without wisdom.  Impossibly, the democrat's justice is "but a pale imitation of true justice, for its claim to the name of virtue is that some genuine goods, notably equality and freedom, are still prized, though they are attained in more and more unjust ways."  Houser, 12.

The last devolution or corruption is the tyrant.  Here, the mind is enslaved to power without order, to arbitrary impulse, and so all vestiges, all pretense to the virtues--to courage, temperance, wisdom and their harmonious product of justice--are gone.  (Republic 543a-592b).

Plato's theory of the four virtues is one of harmony, proportion, balance.  Perfection is achieved in the aristocratic soul, where courage, temperance, wisdom harmoniously interplay and produce their desirable fruit: justice.  "This harmony is produced through functional unity, not as Socrates thought, through ontological unity."  Houser, 13.

Plato's doctrine can be summed up as follows: following Socrates, Plato held that whoever truly has one virtue has all the virtues, and whoever lacks on virtue lacks all true virtue. But he departed from his teacher in recognizing four virtues, not just one. Because thee virtues exist on their own, they can be gained and lost one by one. Until all virtues are present together in the soul of the truly just person, however, they are only images of true virtues and therefore really are vices.
Houser, 13.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Socrates: Virtue as Knowledge

PERHAPS THE FIRST GERM of virtue ethics in the West is found in Socrates. To be sure, the Greek military ethos as we find displayed in the Homer's Iliad or the wily, practical scheming or cunning of Odysseus that we find in the Odyssey, gives us a notion of arete (ἀρετή), perfection or excellence. But this is largely, though not exclusively,* a military or athletic prowess, not an ethical or moral quality attached to general goodness or happiness. The word, in any event, is largely tied to a specific excellence--an excellent soldier, an excellent horse, etc. It is a functional, not ontological quality.

It is only when used by the Sophists that we find any broader notion of excellence in human character, though even then it is tied to convention, and made part of political life.  In Socrates, however, we find this word wrested from its practical or political context and placed into its ethical or moral context of excellence in general.  Famously, Socrates equated virtue and knowledge or wisdom.

The noun arete is derived from the word ἀριστος (aristos), which is the superlative degree of ἀγαθος (agathos, meaning good); accordingly, it means "the best" or "excellence" or "perfection."  Clearly, it implies nobility, and this is where we get the word aristocrat or aristocracy.

As is frequently the case in the Greek pantheon, arete was personified into a goddess.  The goddess Arete (excellence) was the sister of Harmonia (who personified harmony or concord).  Both were daughters of the goddess of justice Praxidike. For this reason, Arete and Harmonia were called the Praxidikai or "exacters of justice."

The goddess Arete at the Library at Ephesus

In a story related by the sophist Prodicus, the goddess Arete appears to Heracles as a young maiden at a crossroads.  She offers a life of glory arising out of struggle against evil.  Beside her appears Kakia (derived from (κακία--kakia--meaning "badness") who offers him wealth and pleasure.  Heracles chooses the path Arete shows him.

The sophists  understood arete in its political connotations as being tied to convention or opinion  (nomos) and not necessarily nature (physis).  Man was the measure of arete, not God.  The practical sophists (sophistei) were not necessarily concerned with a greater, "useless" wisdom pursued by the sages (sophoi).

[T]he sophists [made] morality a matter of individually or culturally relative custom (nomos) rather than of unvarying human nature (physis). Such is the meaning of the revolutionary principle that began Protagoras's On Truth: "Of all things the measure is man." Sophists adjusted their claims to knowledge accordingly. Correct action is to be guided by right opinion rather than certain wisdom, and they coined the name "sophist (sophistes)" as a sign of their epistemological downsizing. The position of the sophists can be summaried thus: If your opinion is right by the standards of yourself or your family or your tribe or your city, then your action will be good (RO ⊃ GA).

Houser, 7.

It was Socrates who "turned sophistic techniques against their creators," and thereby revolutionized the meaning of arete--excellence--catapulting it into the moral or spiritual realm.  No longer was arete limited to function or convention--a good soldier, a good Athenian, a good citizen--but it was to have a greater, universal meaning--a good man.  Socrates believed that "moral goodness is based on nature, not on custom."  Although there may be an analogy between the craft and skill of a soldier, or a carpenter, or a physician and moral action, "virtue must find its necessary and sufficient conditions, not in opinion but in certain knowledge."  Houser, 8.

Using the technique of questioning of which he had unquestionable mastery (elenchos), Socrates set his sights on trying to determine the "what is it?" of arete, perfection.  Famously, Socrates found virtue's essence to consist in knowledge.  As Xenophon summarizes the Socratic conclusion:
For just actions, and all things done virtuously [δίκαια καὶ πάντα ὅσα ἀρετῇ πράττεται], are fine and good [καλά τε κἀγαθὰ]. Whoever knows these will never choose anything else, and whoever does not know them cannot do them and, even if he tries, will fail [ἁμαρτάνειν]. Thus the wise [σοφοὺς] do what is fine and good; the unwise cannot, and even if they try, they fail.
(Xenophon, Memorabilia 3.9.5)** (quoted in Houser, 8).

Knowledge equates to virtue: K ⊃ V, ˜K ⊃ ˜K ∴ K ≡ V.  As Houser puts it:  "The logical identity of wisdom [sophia] and virtue [arete]--their mutual entailment--seems to have led Socrates to an even stronger claim, their ontological identity; and so he reduced virtue to wisdom."  "What is called virtue is simply knowledge under another name."  Houser, 9.  The difference between virtue and wisdom is thus only a nominal difference.  This is clearly enunciated by Xenophon as being at the heart of the Socratic conclusion on this matter:

Therefore, since just actions and all other types of find and good activity are done virtuously, it is clear that justice and every other type of virtue is wisdom [ἀρετὴ σοφία ἐστί].

Xenophon, Memorabilia, 3.9.5 (quoted in Houser, 9)

Arete sophia esti.  Virtue is wisdom.  Since Socrates equated knowledge or wisdom with virtue, it follows that knowing the good necessarily meant doing the good.  Akratic behavior--knowing what is right, but doing what is wrong--is impossible in the Socratic moral economy:
When asked further whether the thought that those who know what they ought to do but do the opposite are wise and strong (egkrateis), he said: No, rather, they are unwise and weak (akrateis).
Xenophon, Memorabilia, 3.9.4 (quoted in Houser, 9).

For Socrates, then, virtue is equivalent to knowledge.  One knows the good and ipso facto does it.  If one is ignorant of the good, one ipso facto is condemned to an imperfect life.  There is no middling struggle.  It is a life of either/or, not becoming.  There is no law of gradualism.  Whether Socrates thought that virtue was even achievable (Socrates famously maintained aporetically that he knew nothing, that wisdom was to know that he had no knowledge, which implies virtue is impossible for man), there was no notion of the Pauline struggle between the law of the good, the call to excellence, and the law of the members, which impeded the doing of the good. "But I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind, and captivating me in the law of sin, that is in my members." (Rom. 7:23)

The Socratic formula of equating virtue and wisdom is reductionist.  Although there is some truth in this notion, it is clearly inadequate.  And this inadequacy was addressed by Plato, and, after Plato, by Aristotle.

*The word arete is also used to describe the cunning of Penelope and her fidelity in the Odyssey, and is used of animals, such as horses.  There is, therefore, some relationship of arete to the nature of the thing.  The notion of excellence or arete clearly has aristocratic or noble pedigree, but it becomes part of the laborer of the land (e.g., in Hesiod's Works and Days) and ultimately an important quality of life in the city (polis).  The arete of the soldier, the athlete, the hero therefore slowly becomes a political virtue, and then develops into a moral or spiritual quality. 
**τά τε γὰρ δίκαια καὶ πάντα ὅσα ἀρετῇ πράττεται καλά τε κἀγαθὰ εἶναι: καὶ οὔτ᾽ ἂν τοὺς ταῦτα εἰδότας ἄλλο ἀντὶ τούτων οὐδὲν προελέσθαι οὔτε τοὺς μὴ ἐπισταμένους δύνασθαι πράττειν, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐὰν ἐγχειρῶσιν, ἁμαρτάνειν: οὕτω καὶ τὰ καλά τε κἀγαθὰ τοὺς μὲν σοφοὺς πράττειν, τοὺς δὲ μὴ σοφοὺς οὐ δύνασθαι, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐὰν ἐγχειρῶσιν, ἁμαρτάνειν. ἐπεὶ οὖν τά τε δίκαια καὶ τἆλλα καλά τε κἀγαθὰ πάντα ἀρετῇ πράττεται, δῆλον εἶναι ὅτι καὶ δικαιοσύνη καὶ ἡ ἄλλη πᾶσα ἀρετὴ σοφία ἐστί.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Cardinal Virtues: Introduction

MOST OF US ARE GENERALLY familiar with the cardinal virtues: prudence, courage, temperance, and justice. The virtues are fundamental features of a complete and adequate moral philosophy or moral theology. So long as man is not defined by one act, but a series of acts which both define who he is and how fitting he is with who he is, there must be a "rule" or a fixity, a habitus or hexis (ἕξις), that comes along with it. Since man acts discretely in matter, in time, the sort of continuity in discreteness that links the acts and gives them some sort of union--like pearls on a string--might be said to be these virtues.

Thankfully, there has been a sort of revival in virtue ethics in addition to the ethics of natural law, one that has perhaps been given the greatest push by the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and his 1981 book After Virtue.  One ought not to view the natural law ethics and the virtue ethics as opposed.  They are both features of a fully-developed and accurate portrayal of the moral life.  A virtue ethics bereft of natural law is as odd a creature as a natural law ethics bereft of virtue.  One can see the two strands brought together well in the excellent works of Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P.

Within the Christian context, the cardinal virtues perhaps reached their greatest importance during the course of the middle ages.  Here, the doctrine of virtue generally, and the doctrine of the cardinal virtues, received a great emphasis.  Medieval artisans painted or sculpted depictions of the virtues, and so we find allegorical depictions of the virtues in medieval manuscripts, in stained glass windows, in paintings and frescoes, embossed on doors, and beckoning in statuary.

The Four Cardinal Virtues, Strassbourg Cathedral (13th Century)

Obviously, the doctrine of the cardinal virtues did not spring out of the head of the scholastic theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas ready-made like Athena sprung out from the head of Zeus.  Rather, the synthesis or development achieved by the medievals regarding virtue clearly borrowed from prior traditions which we might conveniently divide into three groups: the philosophers (philosophi), the Church Fathers (sancti), and prior schoolmasters (magistri).  The central vein that brought these three sources together might be said to be that scriptural injunctions found in the Book of Wisdom:
She [Wisdom] teacheth temperance, and prudence, and justice, and fortitude, which are such things as men can have nothing more profitable in life. (Wisdom 8:7)
It seems that the Book of Wisdom gave scriptural warrant for focus on the cardinal virtues and allowed use of the insights of the pagan philosophers just like the analogous reference of St. Paul to the natural law in his epistle to the Romans (Rom. 2:15-16) allowed use of the insights of the Stoics as it pertained to the natural moral law.  The notion of the cardinal virtues is therefore warranted by Scripture.  Here both revelation and reason seemed to be tightly bound into one strong moral rope.

During the next few postings, we will discuss the cardinal virtues, relying largely on the discussion contained in the book The Cardinal Virtues: Aquinas, Albert, and Philip the Chancellor by R. E. Houser (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2004).

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

God's Glory Appears: Found Wanting

IN HIS BOOK ON THE ETHICAL thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Christopher Steck, recognizing the thinness of von Balthasar's ethical thought, tries to develop or thicken von Balthasar's insights by joining them to Iris Murdoch's ethical reflections which are--like von Balthsar's--based on a sort of aesthetics. These efforts will not be reviewed, and so we will entirely pass over the penultimate chapter of Steck's book.

There is some valuable insight which von Balthasar's aesthetically-inclined ethical thought adds to moral theology, but in the main, it seems to be an inadequate account.  As we have seen, von Balthasar's ethical thought is highly influenced by Barthian Protestant thought.  In its zeal to erase or overcome the traditional nature/supernature or reason/revelation distinctions, von Balthasar's ethics turn out to be highly voluntaristic, almost fideistic.  There is, it would seem, little purchase in the theory for arguing a universal moral code (i.e., the natural moral law) independent of a response to God in Christ.

While there is some beauty in von Balthasar's proposals as a supplement to traditional theories of natural law,     and thought it may provide insights to the Christian moral life, it seems that von Balthasar's voluntaristic, Christ-focused, and mission-centered ethics are inadequate to allow conversations with non-believers.  Gone for all practical purposes is the will of God reflected in nature's order.  It is as if von Balthasar wishes to side-step the entire tradition in the Church which took in the Stoic moral insights and grafted them, with proper and careful pruning, into the Gospel trunk.

Perhaps von Balthasar's value is to remind traditionalists of Christ's importance in the ethical life, of Christ's one-on-one relationship with the believer, of the beauty that it is to behold Christ on the Cross and yield oneself over to that beauty that beckons from the interior heart of the Crucified one who gave himself up for me, indeed, who gave himself up for all  mankind.  Doesn't the crucifix demand a response, a discipleship, a taking up a cross of our own so as to imitate the great love of the Lord?  Surely this intimate I-Thou relationship must color, and indeed, not color, but be entirely central to the Christian's moral life?

But there is a fear in von Balthasar of the universal, of law, and this stems from a need to preserve fundamental autonomy, as if autonomy is the unum necessarium, the one-thing-necessary to preserve at all costs.  This autonomy, and the fear of any sort of moral heteronomy, is the bugbear of moderns.  It is, perhaps, the unfortunate heritage of a world that has been corrupted by the critical turn of Kant and the prior errors of Occam.

The Christian's response to Jesus on the Cross is more than submission to law, is more than taking upon oneself the yoke of duty, is more than putting on a robe of proferred grace upon a soiled body of nature.  It is the response of love to Love, of created love being given the supernatural grace to love Love as Love loved us, and then to love those loved by Love as Love loves them and as we love ourselves.  This response to Love is akin to response to great beauty, and so aesthetics--understood not in a Kierkegaardian sense, but in a Balthasarian sense--should play a supportive role in the entire economy of human moral response.

To view the ethical response in two dimensions--"vertical" and "horizontal" components--as von Balthasar does is not particularly controversial.  After all, these two components are reflected in the two-fold command to love God and to love neighbor.  Any Christian ethic will recognize the dual nature of the Christian moral enterprise and will never compromise the love of God for the love of neighbor or the love of neighbor for the love of God.

Von Balthasar's ethics stress our autonomy, but one fears it does so at the expense of law.  The replacement of law with covenant is, in my view, problematic.  The I-Thou covenant that von Balthasar proposes--where each Christian has his or her own covenant with the Lord--is dangerously lawless.  It is as if there is no order, no rule, no greater covenant that runs through and binds us all as humans, whether this "covenant" is one of the created order or one that is superadded to the created order.  All covenants, it seems, are between God and a people.  We are not all Noahs, Abrahams, Isaacs, Jacobs, Moseses, or Christs.  To view the moral life as a sort of amalgam of individual covenants seems to stress an individualistic ethos over a more communitarian ethos.

While the natural moral law as informed by Christ on the Cross is not the application of an extrinsic moral law, a law foreign to our nature, it remains a binding, universal reality which should not be viewed as minimizing our freedom or our unique response to Christ's beckoning call.  It is true that the "appropriate response to a moral situation will not be like the 'solution' to a mathematical problem."  Steck, 153.  The whole tradition of the virtue of prudence recognizes this.  Nevertheless, there is law, there is rule, there is a sort of minimal floor--the Ten Commandments, the natural moral law--where God will never require trespass as long as God is God.  These laws do not encumber "the Christian agent space for input and creativity."  Steck, 153.

While it is unquestionably true that "moral actors are not interchangeable," and that "a discernment of what is fitting for one agent in a particular situation does not necessarily apply to other agents," Steck, 153-54, it is likewise true that moral law is not interchangeable and that there are instances where something is without exception fitting or unfitting.  There are absolutes in the moral life, in the economy of salvation.  Moral life has a skeleton.  We are not moral amoebas.

There is truth in the following statement, but taken as an absolute, as the central moral guide, it would represent a collapse of Christian ethics:

The Christian will respond to God's approach not only according to what is required of all good people or all Christians but also according to "who" the Christian senses God calls him or her to be. That call will come objectively and subjectively--through neighbor-need, one's natural talents and gifts, one's life situation, the ways God gives one strength to do difficult tasks, the experience one has of one's identity, what biblical and ecclesial witnesses (or saint) one finds inspiring, one's own creative desires, and so on.

Steck, 154.

Similarly, no one will begrudge the role of the Holy Spirit in animating the Christian life.  The Holy Spirit is, after all, central to the life of the Church and to our participation in the life of the Church.  Without the Holy Spirit, we are orphans.   But the Holy Spirit has been invoked to excuse a whole lot of sins and a whole lot of disobedience.  The Holy Spirit blows where he wills, but where he wills conforms to the will of the Father and the Son, and not against the other two persons of the blessed Trinity.  "The Spirit's governance is not punctual and occasional, but dramatic, in that the Spirit looks finally to impress the christological form, which is itself a dramatic form, onto the drama of the world's broken tragedy."  Steck, 155.  "There are endless ways in which the ever-free and ever-greater Spirit of God can both speak God's address to each person in the idiom of the world and call forth something new, creative, and original in the drama of divine-human encounter."  Steck, 155.  Such truths--and truths they are--must be coupled with other truths.

Steck sees this and backpedals.  He admits that though there are "endless ways," one ought not thereby imply that "creation is endlessly malleable."  Steck, 155.  And yet there seems little in the way of guidance.  Indeed, statements such as these are positively frightful: "General 'norms' (not moral absolutes) are appropriate guides for the Christian so long as breathing space is allowed to the Spirit to impress new christological forms in our world and call forth new responses."  Steck, 155-56.  Are we given to believe, then, that there are no moral absolutes?  No "general 'norms'"?  Why this seems like the Holy Spirit is a spirit of anarchy.

Steck seems to relish in the Balthasarian moral formlessness.  A "moral theory 'need not be useful to be valid.'"  Steck agrees that von Balthasar's moral theories do not provide "primarily a method for ascertaining the good, but rather a description and explanation of the nature of Christian conduct."  He does not see this as a weakness, much less a "mortal blow."  What!  Me worry that von Balthasar's theory "does not easily produce clear answers to the perplexing ethical situations that confront the human agent"?  Steck, 156.

I have ultimately one word to say about von Balthasar's ethics as presented by Steck: תְּקֵ֑ל.  Tekel.  When placed on the scales, it has been found wanting.  (Daniel 5:27)