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Matthew Rodriguez
Matthew Rodriguez

Pagan Virtue An Essay In Ethics

The study of the virtues has largely dropped out of modern philosophy, yet it was the predominant tradition in ethics from the ancient Greeks until Kant. Traditionally the study of the virtues included the study of what constituted a successful and happy life. Drawing on such diverse sources as Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Hume, Jane Austen, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Sartre, Casey here argues that the classical virtues of courage, temperance, practical wisdom, and justice centrally define the good for humans, and that they are insufficiently acknowledged in modern moral philosophy. He suggests that values of success, worldliness, and pride are active parts of our moral thinking, and that the conflict between these and our equally important Christian inheritance leads to tensions and contradictions in our understanding of the moral life.

pagan virtue an essay in ethics


Christian theology, philosophy and divine: illumination emotion: in the Christian tradition ethics: virtue free will free will: divine foreknowledge and medieval philosophy moral responsibility Neoplatonism Plotinus political philosophy: ancient Porphyry skepticism: ancient Stoicism

1/16&18 INTRODUCTION. Which came first? Thevirtues or moral laws? What is a virtue? What is a vice? How does one define virtueethics? MacIntyre, chap. 14; MacKinnon, chap. 2; Carr (Hooke), 179-185; Haydon, chap. 5;Simon, chap. 5; ; for a very good introduction to virtue ethics see Fieser, chap. 3.1/18 FIRST PAPER DUE. Kupperman, chap. 1; MacKinnon, chap.3; Taylor, chaps. 3 & 4: Haydon, chaps. 8 & 9. Click herefor paper topics. The papers should be 2-3 pages long and should follow thisstyle sheet.

4/17&19 Free Choice Week. We will readarticles from the Midwest Studies, McKinnon, and Crispin and Slote volumes (except theones critical of virtue ethics) and you will choose one for your paper.

5/1 THESES ON VIRTUE ETHICS. Your instructor willattempt to defend at least a half dozen theses regarding virtue ethics. He wille-mail the theses out beforehand so student will have a chance to articulate their bestarguments.

The cardinal virtues are four virtues of mind and character in both classical philosophy and Christian theology. They are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. They form a virtue theory of ethics. The term cardinal comes from the Latin cardo (hinge);[1] virtues are so called because they are regarded as the basic virtues required for a virtuous life.

The cardinal virtues were carried over into the European Middle ages largely due to St. Thomas Acquinas, who made an enormous effort to reconcile this pagan system with Christianity in the Summa Theologica, and succeeded in this aim. Due to that work and the work of other Scholastics, the four virtues remained part of European culture into the modern era (Pieper, 1965).Unlike the doctrine of the four humors, the candidates for the four cardinal virtues tended to shift with time and place, resulting in several different representations of this idea, even within the works of a single author. This is an interesting phenomenon, suggesting a shifting set of hidden premises, definitions or arguments might be at play. Freezing any interpretation of the four virtues is thus problematic, but a few representations will be made for the sake of discussion.

The case in favour of four of them - the "pagan" or "aristocratic" or "political" virtues of courage, justice, temperance and prudence - was made by Plato, Aristotle and Cicero. In the early thirteenth century, St. Albert the Great summarized Cicero's claim that every virtuous act has all four: "For the knowledge required argues for prudence; the strength to act resolutely argues for courage; moderation argues for temperance; and correctness argues for justice." In sophisticated ruminations on the virtues until the eighteenth century, these four persisted - as, for example, in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.

The pagan four are the political virtues in many senses - for example, in the ancient sense of contributing to the survival and flourishing of a polis containing political animals. A hoplite in the phalanx of the polis needed courage, prudence, temperance and justice - all four. So did a politician speaking to the Athenian assembly. When Athens ignored any of them - for instance, justice in its treatment of Melos or prudence in its expedition to Syracuse - the results were distressing. Vices undermined Athenian flourishing, as they will do.

The four pagan virtues and the three Christian make an odd marriage, consummated in the middle of the thirteenth century by Aquinas in his analysis of the virtues. The seven often contradict one another. No free, adult male citizen of Athens, for instance, regarded love by any definition as a primary virtue. It was nice to have, doubtless - see, for instance, Plato's Symposium - but it was in no sense "political," and was devalued therefore in a world that took politics as the highest expression of human virtue. Aristotle admires most of all the virtue of megalopsyche, the great-souled-ness, translated literally into Latin as magnanimitas. Magnanimity is the virtue of an aristocrat, someone with the moral luck to be able to exercise it from above.

By contrast, the virtue of love, as Nietzsche said with a sneer, accompanies a slave religion. It is, he almost said, feminine. When, in the late 1930s, Simone Weil, a French secular Jew on her way to Christianity, witnessed a religious procession one night in a Portuguese fishing village, it struck her that "Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others." Love - even in its social forms emphasized in the nineteenth century as an abstract solidarity - begins as personal, pacific, Christian and yielding, quite contrary to the macho virtu of a free adult leader of Athens or of Rome or of early sixteenth-century Florence. Alasdair MacIntyre notes that, "Aristotle would certainly not have admired Jesus Christ and he would have been horrified by St. Paul," with all their embarrassing talk of love. The pagans were not lovelorn, at least not in their philosophies. The Christians claimed to be so.

You can test their adequacy by imagining a person or a community that notably lacks one of them. A loveless life is terrible; a community without justice is, too. Philippa Foot, one of the rediscovers of virtue ethics, wrote in 1978 that "nobody can get on well if he lacks courage, and does not have some measure of temperance and wisdom [her word for prudence], while communities where justice and charity [the King James Bible's word for love] are lacking are apt to be wretched places to live, as Russia was under the Stalinist terror, or Sicily under the Mafia."

Francis Bacon, for example, who in his old age employed the young Hobbes as a secretary, spoke a great deal about ethics in his Essays, on which Hobbes worked. But he spoke with contempt for ethical tradition. A Victorian editor quoted with approval an apology by one Dean Church, who wrote of the Essays that "they are like chapters in Aristotle's Ethics and Rhetoric on virtues and characters; only Bacon takes Aristotle's broad marking lines as drawn, and proceeds with the subtler and more refined observations of a much longer and wider experience." Ah, yes: such as Bacon's own "long and wide experience" in betraying at the behest of Elizabeth his friend and benefactor Lord Essex; in corrupting judges while a crown officer; and, when at length he became Lord Chancellor of England, in extorting bribes for favours, not delivered. Bacon was the last man in England (wrote Macaulay) to use the rack for official purposes. This is our ethical guide. One is reminded of William Bennett.

Whatever the reason, a century and half later, we find Hobbes providing a list of virtues which has learned not a thing from Aristotle, Cicero and Aquinas. Nothing at all. It is a pile of chopped-up good and bad passions unsystematised. Earlier in Leviathan, he had sneered at the very idea of ethics, much in the style of logical positivists and their descendants nowadays:

Hobbes and Machiavelli nowhere take the virtues seriously as a system. They were early in that strange belief that a serious political philosopher had no need to be serious about ethics. Ancient rhetoric is scornfully dropped by the same people at the same time. After the seventeenth century in the West, a serious ethical or epistemological philosopher had no need to be serious about persuasion. I suspect a connection, and note that virtue ethics and rhetoric revive in academic circles at about the same time, the 1960s.

Europeans in the early modern times, when this atheoretical attitude towards the virtues got underway, had not literally forgotten the Platonic root of the Good, or the Aristotelian branches. After all, they read Latin and sometimes Greek well, and were raised on Cicero, that clear-headed popularizer. Until the seventeenth century, in fact, and aside from the Italian books of Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Ariosto, Tasso, with French romances, there was in Europe not a great deal in the way of non-Latin or non-Greek literature to be read. The readers were, anyway, Christians steeped in the pagan and theological virtues, 4 + 3 = 7. Until the twentieth century, the prestige of the classical languages kept the books analysing the pagan virtues alive, as until the twentieth century the prestige of Christianity kept the books analysing the theological virtues alive. Every literate person from Machiavelli to Bertrand Russell knew the seven virtues and was even acquainted to some degree with the body of reflection that supported their system. Adam Smith, a late writer in the tradition, stands four-square on five of them - trimmed, that is, of faith and hope.

The tradition of the virtues was the model for moral practice from Aristotle to Luther. This tradition framed practices of living well in relation to visions of the good, and in its later Christian version, of God. One became good through practice, just as a harpist might play well through disciplined habits of exercise. In Alasdair MacIntyre's extraordinary excavations of philosophy and intellectual history, the Reformation is by and large neglected as he traces a path from Aristotle to Hume and beyond. This special issue seeks to put the Reformation(s) back into the picture and to see what avenues might be opened as a result. Articles explore what happens to ancient and medieval habits, practices, and conceptualizations of virtue and the virtue tradition resulting from the complex reorganizations of ritual, sacramental, ecclesiological, theological, and ethical practices during the Reformation era. The essays in this issue explore various strands of the Reformation in which the virtue tradition is maintained, transformed, or rejected.


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