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, September 3, 2012

Stoics: The Exaltation of Moral Intention

IN OUR LAST POSTING, we discussed the Stoic concept of duty--a notion encapsulated in Greek in the word καθῆκον, kathēkon, pl., καθήκοντα, kathēkonta, and the Latin word officium--a term which ought to be understood as meeting fittingness or conformity with nature.  While this was an important, even central, concept of Stoic ethics, it ought not to be understood as being sufficient for virtue.  There was more to virtue than mere conformity with nature.

For example, in his De finibus (written ca. 44 B.C.), Cicero outlined five steps requisite for moral development.  In order to do one's duty, in order to comply with nature, five things were required. These five steps were viewed as a sort of hierarchical ladder, from low to high, and it was only in completing the fifth and highest rung that one could say that virtue had been achieved.

The first such rung in the Ciceronian schema was the lowest, and it was one that humans shared with the brute animals.  This was the innate inclination that all animals have to preserve their own nature or existence.  The inclination towards self-preservation is a strong natural instinct, and it is one found present in both brute animals as well as reasonable man.  It was expected that man, to comply with his duty, should strive to effect, to realize that inclination towards self-preservation and therefore avoid self-destructive behavior and strive also to incorporate behavior that allowed one to thrive (eating, procreation, etc.)

Life alone was clearly not sufficient to live a virtuous life.  What had to be done was to develop a sort of habitual preferential attitude toward duty, so that duty became a sort of second nature.  Cicero viewed this process as having three steps, each one being an increased perfection of the virtue of duty.  (See De finibus, III.20)  The first step occurred as one held on to what is good and rejected what was evil so that one developed a preference for the former and a dis-preference for the latter (ut ea teneat quae secundum naturam sint pellatque contraria; qua inventa selectione et item rejectione).  That developed preference matures into a dutiful preference (cum officio selectio), then finally a permanent dutiful preference, which leads to the threshold of an unwavering, constant and harmonious accord with nature (ea perpetua, tum ad extremum constans consentaneaque naturae).  It is in this final step where good, that is virtue, can be said to first exist.

Young Cicero Reading, fresco by Vincenzo Foppa

This internalization of what is in accord with nature is at the heart of Stoic virtue.  It should be stressed that this interiorization was not a utilitarian or consequentialist ethic.  The focus is not on the external act as much as the internal disposition of the actor.  Though at first focus is on the act and its conformity with nature, the objective is to develop an keen sense of the order in nature, of the desirability of one's acts in conformity with that order, and an interior disposition and ready duty to conform to that order, and so, finally, to live a life fitting and harmoniously compliant with the order of nature.

As Houser puts it:

At first, we concentrate on 'things done in accord with nature,' but virtue refocuses on 'seeing the order of things that should be done,' order that is not an individual action but the plan that organizes individual actions. Virtue leads us to perform actions with consequences 'finely done (honeste facta),' to be sure, but virtue consists in 'the fine itself (ipsumque honestum),' that is, in the inter character and habit of virtue. The safe focuses on inner intention and character (diathesis), because these are what constitute virtue, properly speaking. The Stoic conception of virtue, then manifests 'the exaltation of moral intention.'

Houser, 22 (quoting Cicero, De finibus, and P. Donini, "Stoic Ethics," in The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy, 717)

Taking the Aristotelian example of an archer striving to hit the target, for the Stoic hitting the target--while important--is not what determined whether the archer was virtuous.  What was important was not the success of hitting the target, what was important was "to do all he can do aim straight."  If external forces resulted in the arrow missing the mark, that was not the result of lack of virtue, but rather non-moral forces at work.  Virtue consisted not so much in success, but in an internal disposition which strove for success by conforming oneself to the order in nature steadily and with unflappable resolve.

This internal disposition, of course, reached full flower in the apothegms of Epictetus, the words of Seneca, and the meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

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