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, January 12, 2011

Virtue Defined

WE ARE NOW POISED TO PROPOSE a definition of moral virtue. But before we do, we ought briefly to recapitulate our prior postings on this issue. First, we looked at and criticized the modern substitutes for virtue: the notion of natural spontaneity, the notion of psychology and its techniques, and the notion of social engineering. Each of these, while they contain germs of truth, are not, in any event virtue. They may have a subordinate role to play in perfecting man, but they are subordinate to moral virtue which objectively fits into natural law, and so has a guide to right and wrong which these other techniques dangerously do not have. From these substitutes, we looked at the notion of habit, and distinguished the Aristotelian notion of hexis which has been translated as "habitus," and the meaning of which is inadequately conveyed by the term "habit." Principally, hexeis or habitus is grounded on an objective reality. It is a form of knowledge (epistēmē), in the area of morality practical knowledge to be sure, and not opinion (doxa). Though the word virtue is used by Aristotelian and his followers in a sense broad enough to include both intellectual and moral virtues, and, may broadly be used even to refer to inanimate behaviors that are reliable and dependable, it needs to be distinguished in its general sense from its sense in the context of moral virtues. Simon distinguishes the intellectual virtues from the moral virtues by using the concept of existential readiness and qualitative readiness. The intellectual virtues have a qualitative readiness, but not necessarily an existential readiness (which may be equated with the notion of "finality"); whereas the moral virtues have both qualitative and existential readiness (finality) as part of them. From the notions of qualitative and existential readiness, we looked at the notion of disposition or diathesis, which is the the arrangement of that which has parts, in respect either of place, or of potency, or of kind, and in the area of morality, yields the notion of reliable, arranged, and ordered response to the contingent circumstances met by a human being during the course of his life. From these concepts, we turned to the traditional four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

The Moral Relativist, who Demands Normativity,
Cuts Himself Off From the Trunk of Normativity

With this backdrop, we are ready to tackle a definition of virtue. This notion of virtue has an unusually strong and rich pedigree, and it has been found among the followers of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, St. Augustine, and the medieval theologians, most notably St. Thomas, and into all the moral theologians, manualists, and advocates of traditional morality. Only recently, with the advent of modern, materialistic substitutes of the natural law taking precedence in the 18th but especially mid-19th centuries, have these notions been lost. Instead, there has been a collapse of a central moral ethic, and we wallow in relativism which is not benign and tolerant, but which has turned out to be quite tyrannical. It imposes the normativity of relativism on an objectivist, though it has sawn itself off the trunk of objectivism. Refusing to recognize that it sits proverbially on the branch which it is sawing off from the tree, and so is bound to being supported by nothing, relativism accuses the entire stable trunk from which it has sawed itself off as intolerant, dogmatic, obscurant, and unfeeling. The fundamental inconsistency does not seem to bother the relativist, since he is based upon nothing other than naked assertion, a moral ideology not founded on reality, but on a moral revolt and skepticism. There has been a resurgence--how lasting it will be is difficult to tell--of both the natural law and virtue ethics which may result in these concepts once again being central to Western thought. But we are a long way off from that, if it even happens.

In any event, we may start with Aristotle's definition of moral virtue found in his Nicomachean Ethics.

Virtue (aretē, ἀρετὴ), then, is a state of character (hexis, ἕξις) concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e., the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle (logō, λόγῳ), and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom (ho phronimos, ὁ φρόνιμος) would determine it.

ἔστιν ἄρα ἡ ἀρετὴ ἕξις προαιρετική, ἐν μεσότητι οὖσα τῇ πρὸς ἡμᾶς, ὡρισμένῃ λόγῳ καὶ ᾧ ἂν ὁ φρόνιμος ὁρίσειεν.

Aristotle, Nic. Eth., 1106b-1107a.

The translation of hexis into "state of character," might be better rendered by the term "habitus" were that latter term better known. The notion of a "state of character" or moral habitus is, as we have seen, "a stable, objective disposition of the diverse parts of the soul." Simon, 105. This state of character or moral habitus avoids both excesses and defects into which all our actions may fall. This is the famous Aristotelian "golden mean," or aurea mediocritas, the via media between defect and excess wherein virtue lies. One should not fail to see the genius in the definition, as it incorporates both objective notions of excellence and habitus, yet also subjective realization of those in a particular person ("relative to us"). "The mean has to be relative to us," Simon notes, "because it is we and nobody else who have to decide what to do in a given situation." Therefore, what may be within the mean of temperance for someone who can hold their liquor, would be intemperance for an alcoholic. What would be an act of courage for a lifeguard who saves a person drowning, might be an act of rashness on the part of a man who cannot swim. Though the decision is our own, and must reflect circumstances, including those of our ourselves, "that does not make our decision unqualifiedly subjective. For if we have practical wisdom, we shall determine what is to be done, and do it, on the basis of rational principle and objectively with regard to the circumstances." Simon, 106.

Aristotle insists that our choice must be in accord with "rational principle," or in accord with logos or reason. The invocation of logos into the moral mix is significant. Logos as Simon notes, is "a powerful word with a beautiful multiplicity of meaning. It means 'word,' it means 'concept,' it means 'reason,' it means 'rational principle.'" Simon, 109. Yet, for Simon, this statement of Aristotle is "rather ambiguous," and does not sufficiently invoke the notion of "what is good or what is bad" into his definition. Some effort is made to tie in the decision with that of a wise or prudent man, the objective man of practical wisdom. However, in Simon's view, the Aristotelian definition of virtue does sufficiently contain a "theory of how we know the basic premises of the moral order." Simon, 107. In other words, it seems inadequately grounded, at least in any express sense, in the natural moral law. In a world that accepts an objective moral order to be referenced in moral decisions, the gap in Aristotle's definition is not consequential. However, where such a concept is lacking in a culture, as in ours, the gap becomes problematic, and Aristotle's definition's insufficiency is felt.

The notion of right and wrong relates to the notion of nature and its finality. "To know what do do, one must consider the nature of things." Simon, 107. In the case of man, it requires the recruitment of both reason and inclination, an "intellectual feltness" which is grounded in the natural moral law.
Natural law . . . is known first of all by inclination. That does not mean, of course, that it cannot be known rationally, or that rational knowledge of its principles is not desirable. it is simply that primordially, primitively, and primarily, natural law, whose core is constituted by the premises of the moral order, is known by inclination.
Simon, 108.* Again, this knowledge by inclination, though intensely subjective, is also intensely tied to the objective moral order. Through this intellectual feltness, a man intellectually "smells" and what is wrong, though this intellectual "smelling" is consisting with an intellectual "feel" or an intellectual "sight." As Simon observes:

For just as we use metaphors derived from the sense of sight when we speak of analysis, and metaphors derived from the sense of touch when we want to convey certainty, we come closes to describing knowledge by inclination in moral matters by comparing its feelings of attraction and repulsion to the sense of smell.

Simon, 109. There is, then, this wonderful synthesis of objective and subjective worlds in the decision of a virtuous man:
In knowledge by inclination, subjectivity--that is, the constitution of a subject--works as a way of judgment in all cases, including the case of correct, right good objective judgment. And then we, too, can say with Kierkegaard that "in der Subjektivität liegt die Wahrheit [Truth lies in subjectivity]."
Simon, 111.** Perhaps the simplest way to explain the intermingling of objectivity and subjectivity is the Scholastic formula that joint right reason with good will. We might view it in antimetabolically: to be virtuous, we must use both use both heartfelt reason and a reasoning heart.

*Simon invokes the teaching of Jacques Maritain on the natural law, particularly his notion of the role of inclinations in informing our sense of right and wrong from a natural law standpoint. It has been the subject of prior postings. The reader is particularly referred to Jacques Maritain and Natural Law: Inclination and Law, Part 1 and Jacques Maritain and Natural Law: Inclination and Law, Part 2. We have described the Maritanian notion of inclination as an "intellectual feltness." Simon characterizes this "intellectual feltness" or inclination, as an intellectual sense of "smell," which should be distinguished from strictly rational operations which might be analogized to sense of "touch" or "sight."
**Simon's reference is to Kierkegaard's "Concluding Unscientific Postscript."

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