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.

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.

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