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.

No comments:

Post a Comment