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.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Virtue as Habitus: In the Realm of Knowledge

IN OUR LAST BLOG POSTING we reviewed the notion of "habit," and how such a term is unable to render adequately the concept of Aristotelian hexis. An understanding of the Aristotelian notion of hexis or the word that Yves R. Simon uses to translate hexis, habitus, is however, essential for understanding virtue in any traditional sense. The notion of hexis or habitus is "absolutely indispensable in a realistic theory of ethics." Simon, 56. There is no ready English word that sufficiently incorporates the complex reality underlying the Aristotelian concept of hexis, and that obviously causes problems in understanding the meaning of Aristotelian and Thomistic ethics, indeed any traditional, natural law and virtue-based theory of moral philosophy, including any Biblical notion of such as may be inferred by the teachings of St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans.

The Aristotelian concept of hexis or its Latin equivalent, habitus, might plausibly be translated by the words "state of character" (as W. D. Ross defines it in his translation of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics) if it is confined to the moral context; however, the concept of hexis in Aristotle extends out much further than the moral context or the practical realm. The concept of hexis extends out into the speculative or intellectual realm as well. For Aristotle, science as well as morals are hexeis. We could hardly speak of biology or mathematics as a "state of character," yet Aristotle could easily view such human knowledge as the fruit of hexis. Additionally, for Aristotle as well as St. Thomas, the four "intellectual virtues" of understanding, art, science, and philosophical wisdom are hexeis or habitus, but in no wise can be called "states of character" or "habits." So the translation of hexis or habitus by the words "state of character" is not adequate.

Yves R. Simon

Much less is the translation of hexis by the term "habit." For Aristotle as for St. Thomas, the four moral virtues--temperance, fortitude, justice, and prudence--are hexeis or habitus. But to characterize these dynamic virtues as "habits" is to do them an injustice since the term "habit" implies an involuntary or deterministic quality which the virtues do not have. The only thing that "habits" and hexei or habitus share is "stable dispositions established through repetition of acts," but beyond this, they are as opposite as can be. Simon, 58. Whether in Aristotle or in St. Thomas, Yves Simon observes, the "moral virtues are paragons of voluntariness, and thus the very opposite of habits." Simon, 58. In both Aristotle and St. Thomas, in contrast to the notion of habit, the hexeis or habitus, whether intellectual or moral, have a basis in objective reality. Habit and habitus also differ in their form of operation. While habits operate automatically or mechanically, or nearly so, "the operation of habitus is characterized by unmistakable vitality. Habit relieves us of the need to think; but habitus makes us think creatively. . . . Compared to habit, habitus represents thought that is truly alive." Simon, 60.

Not only must habitus or hexis be distinguished from habit, but it must be distinguished from opinion. Both Aristotle and Plato distinguish between objectively-grounded science or knowledge which they call epistēmē (ἐπιστήμη) and subjectively-grounded opinion which they call doxa (δόξα). The notion of doxa also encompassed the entire gamut of human decisions that were contingent, accidental, affected by chance, and so not absolutely true. The hexis or habitus which is the foundation of virtue, whether that virtue is one of science or one of morals, is, for Aristotle, clearly a matter of epistēmē, objectively-grounded knowledge.

The distinction between epistēmē and doxa is not always perfectly clear, as there is a whole world of human thought that seems to hover between both pure epistēmē and pure doxa.

In considering the relationship between science and opinion, then, let us make sure we understand when they mix and they they do not. True science, episteme, or the "capacity to demonstrate," excludes opinion by definition. But science in a looser sense includes also speculative hypotheses, probable judgments, and educated guesses, which we collectively call "scientific opinion." Because leak-proof demonstrations are as a rule very hard to com by in any field of knowledge, these opinions are very useful. But we must always remember that the function they play in science, that is, with regard to matters that in themselves are not matters of opinion, can never be more than substitutional, and that any such opinion my at any time be replaced by a better one, or, one hopes, by demonstration. By contrast, with regard to matters that in themselves can be otherwise than they are, our opinions play not a substitutional but an essential role. In the world of accidents and contingencies, doxa rules supreme, and episteme is excluded by definition.

Simon, 64-65.

The role of opinion in the life of humans is, of course, huge. And this presents significant problems for those who seek the purer, more rarified forms of both scientific and moral knowledge. Like habits, opinions are thicker than knowledge, and so have a similar lasting power which impede the acquisition of or the ruling by knowledge.
Despite the mutable nature of their subject matter, our opinions can be frightfully stable and enduring, while our scientific knowledge despite the certainty of its subject matter, is quite perishable. . . . Despite their merely subjective necessity, opinions like habits tend to be quite stable.
Simon, 66. As an example of this unfortunate quality of opinion, we might point to the popular and persistent opinion that that, following conception, that is the joinder of ovum and sperm, the zygote is not a human being, though though the scientific knowledge is absolutely unquestionable that it is. Just as it takes an effort to overcome a habit, so likewise does it take great effort to overcome opinion.

The Aristotelian/Thomistic notion of hexis or habitus resides outside the world of opinion or doxa. It is part and parcel of the world of knowledge or epistēmē. Both scientific and moral knowledge are objectively-founded and, for Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas as well as the entire tradition, need to be distinguished from mere routine, unthinking habit or contingent, conditional, accidental, and unreliable opinion.

In order to understand what Aristotle means when he defines moral virtue as a "stable state of character concerned with choice," it is necessary to keep habit, scientific habitus, and opinion separate and distinct. And we can do so here, if we remember that we recite Shakespeare's lines out of habit; that we predict election results on the basis of opinion; and that we grasp the Pythagorean theorem by mathematical habitus. Clearly, we need all these things and could not do without them. But in order not only to tell right from wrong but also to do the right thing, we still need moral virtue.

Simon, 66-67. The distinction between scientific hexis or habitus and moral hexis or habitus, that is the hexis or habitus that relates to speculative or theoretical intellect (which seeks the true) versus that which relates to the practical intellect (which seeks the good), is what we shall tackle next.

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