Long, but worth the read…
Originally at: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/01/06/4158425.htm
The case can be made that a flourishing human life must show seven principal virtues.
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’sTheory 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 other three virtues for a flourishing life, adding up to the principal seven, are faith, hope and love. These three so-called “theological” virtues are not until the nineteenth century regarded as political. Before the Romantics and their nationalism and socialism, they were thought of as achieving the salvation of an individual soul, as achieving the City of God, not a city of humans.
“The theological virtues are above the nature of man,” wrote St. Albert’s student, St. Thomas Aquinas around 1270. “The intellectual and moral virtues perfect the human intellect and appetite in proportion to human nature, but the theological virtues do so supernaturally.”
The theological virtues could also be called “peasant,” to contrast them with the aristocratic four, or “Christian,” without implying that Christians have been especially skilled at achieving them. The case for the three Christian virtues is made very early in the history of that great Jewish heresy. When, in about 50 AD, St. Paul in his first extant letter praises the theological three, he appears to be drawing on a tradition already established among the emergent Christians (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 5:8). His most famous statement of it is, of course, to be found in 1 Corinthians 13: “Faith, hope, and love, these three abide. But the greatest of these is love.”
The theological virtues can be given, however, entirely secular meanings. The “love” in 1 Corinthians 13 is agape, transcendent love, not eros or even philia. In a world in which God has died, a human without some sort of love for the secular transcendent – science, art, the nation, cricket – is not flourishing. Faith is the virtue of identity and rootedness. It is backward looking: who areyou? Hope is forward looking: who do you wish to become? Both sustain humans, and indeed can be viewed, along with agape, the virtue of connectedness, as the characteristically human virtues. A woman without faith is no person. She is, as we say, “hollow.” A man with no hope is without a life project.
The virtues, their contradictions and complementarities
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, 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 asmagnanimitas. 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.
From about 400 BC to about 1749 AD, the moral universe was described as mixtures of the seven principal virtues, containing hundreds of minor and particular virtues. The tensions among the seven, and their complementarities, too, can be expressed in the following diagram:
Minor though admirable virtues such as thrift or honesty can be described as combinations of the principal seven. The seven are, in this sense, primary colours. They cannot be derived from each other, and the other, minor colours can be derived from them: blue plus red makes purple, and blue plus yellow makes green, but you can’t get red from maroon and purple. Honesty, that bourgeois virtue, is justice plus temperance in matters of speech, with a dash of courage and a teaspoon of faithfulness.
A vice, in turn, is a notable lack of one or more of the virtues. Aquinas was the master of such analyses, and provides scores of them in showing that the seven are principal. “The cardinal virtues,” he notes, “are called more principal not because they are more perfect than all the other virtues but because human life more principally turns on them and the other virtues are based on them.” Courage plus prudence yields enterprise, another bourgeois virtue. Temperance plus prudence yields thrift, said also to be bourgeois. Temperance plus justice yields humility, said to be Christian.
Various moderns have tried to make up a new colour wheel, with “integrity” or “civility” or “sustainability” as primary. Making up new primaries is like depending on purple and green, or chartreuse and aquamarine. These are good and important colours – indeed, they are among my favourites. But they are technically speaking “secondary” or even “tertiary” – the palette of Gauguin and Matisse against that of late Van Gogh and late Piet Mondrian. In the ethical case, the faux primaries are accompanied by no tradition of how to mix or array them.
The tensions and complementarities are embodied in the above diagram.
In ethical space, the bottom is the realm of the profane, where prudence and temperance rule. The top is the realm of the sacred, of spiritual love and of faith and hope. Moving up is moving from self-disciplining virtues (prudence, temperance), whose main object is the self, through altruistic virtues, whose main object is others (love of humans; justice) and finally to the transcendent virtues (faith, hope and love of a transcendent), whose main object are God or physics or the betterment of the poor. That is, bottom to top is the axis of wider and wider ethical objects.
Prudence and justice in the bottom and middle are calculative and intellectual. They have often been thought, since Plato and the writers of footnotes to Plato, to be the most characteristically human of virtues. They were glorified, especially by the hard men of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe fleeing from religious faith and hope and love. Immanuel Kant elevated a combination of prudence and justice – which he called “pure reason” – to the very definition of a human and a citizen.
By the grace of Darwin, however, we now see that calculative virtues are not particularly human. They can be found in the least human of beings – in ants justly sacrificing themselves for the queen, or dandelions prudently working through the cracks in the sidewalk. The terminology is of course figurative – a human attribution, not Nature’s own way of putting it. But that is what I am discussing here: human figures of speech, since Nature has no words. Natural history has taught us since 1859 to realize that the lion is not actually “courageous,” ever, but merely prudent in avoiding elephants, with a bit of justice, perhaps, in acknowledging the hierarchy of the pride.
Courage and temperance are emotion-controlling and will-disciplining, and therefore, we now realize, more characteristically human than prudence and justice. And the most human virtues are those secularized theological virtues – faith, hope and love – providing the transcendent ends for a human life. The rest – even courage and temperance – are means.
The triad of temperance-justice-prudence near the bottom and middle is cool and classical, and therefore commended itself in the eighteenth century to early theorists of the bourgeoisie such as David Hume and Adam Smith. Hume called them the “artificial” virtues, following in substance Grotius and Pufendorf, because they are the virtues necessary for the artful making of any community whatever. The coolness of temperance, justice and prudence was particularly beloved by men who had seen or had vividly imagined their communities collapsing in religious war and dynastic ambition, of Jesuit and Presbyter, of Habsburg and Bourbon and Stuart.
The excesses of faith and hope and the transcendent parts of love seriously spooked the men of the eighteenth century. Both Hume and Smith had witnessed from afar the Jacobite rising of 1745, with nothing like sympathy – they were not wild Highlanders or Jacobites, and certainly not Catholics, but lowland Scots of a deistic or even atheistic bent, who had made their peace with Englishry. And so they omitted faith, hope and transcendent love. Smith intended to write a book each for temperance, prudence and justice, and actually completed two of them.
The other, “natural” virtues of courage, love, hope and faith impart warmth and meaning to an artfully made community – sometimes too much warmth and meaning. The Scottish followers of Francis Hutcheson admitted love of other humans, as benevolence, and admitted courage, as enterprise, but rather off to the side of their main concerns. They certainly had no business with faith, hope and agape (Hume, for instance, being very fierce against their religious forms, “celibacy, fasting, and the other monkish virtues”)
Imparting warmth and meaning was decidedly not what the Scots of the Enlightenment had in mind. That is a later and Romantic project, and these were not Romantics.
Left to right in the diagram exhibits the gendered character of the virtues, masculine and feminine in the conventional tales. Left-right expresses the gender of the ethical actor, or subject, as up-down expresses the purpose of the actor, or object. Conventionally, of course, women are supposed to think of the world from the perspective of right-side love, or of its corresponding vices, such as envy and jealousy. Men are supposed to think of the world from the perspective of left-side courage, or its corresponding vices of cowardice, vainglory, self-absorption. Another name for the right side in the diagram is “connection,” and for the left, “autonomy.”
Frank Knight, who was more than an economist, believed that even ordinary human desires could be reduced “in astonishingly large measure to the desire to be like other people, and the desire to be different.” Theologian Paul Tillich called them “participation” and “individualization,” and noted that there is a “courage to be” but also a “courage to be a part” – that is, to participate.
Michael Ignatieff calls the one side “connection and rootedness” and the other side “freedom”: “a potential contradiction … arises between our need for social solidarity and our need for freedom.” We have rights, he noted, which is a good thing, allowing us to achieve our left-side projects of hope and courage regulated by justice. But we need “love, respect, honour, dignity, solidarity with others,” Ignatieff declares, on the other, upper-right-hand side, and these cannot be compelled by law. Hence Hume’s odd vocabulary of the “natural” as against the “artificial,” law-enforced virtues.
The end of the virtues
The seven are a roughly adequate philosophical psychology. Any full description of the human virtues would do just as well, surely, so long as it names them and does not collapse them all into duty or utility or contract from behind a pre-natal veil. Confucian thought, or Native American traditions, or African traditional law and custom, have local versions of the Western Seven.
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.”
The system of the virtues developed for two millennia in the West had been widely abandoned by the end of the eighteenth century, with Machiavelli, then Bacon, then Hobbes, then Bernard Mandeville as isolated but scandalous precursors of Kant and Bentham, who then rigorously finished off the job. It was not dropped because it was found on careful consideration to be mistaken. It was merely set aside with a distracted casualness, perhaps as old-fashioned, or as unrealistic in an age with a new idea of the Real, or as associated with religious and political systems themselves suddenly objectionable.
Francis Bacon, for example, who in his old age employed the young Hobbes as a secretary, spoke a great deal about ethics in hisEssays, 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.
Bacon’s text in fact gives no hint of viewing Aristotle or Aquinas or anyone else as his ethical guide. He never mentions them and never gives analyses similar to theirs. He needed no study but what accrued to him by natural wit. His “refinement” in ethics is behavioural, in the manner of Machiavelli or Hobbes, not philosophical: this is how to succeed in life, “success” measured by proud titles, the Lord Chancellor’s mace and the corresponding opportunity to solicit bribes.
I do not know why these hard men of the seventeenth century were so unwilling to build on the ethical tradition of the West. Perhaps they wished merely to put away everything the Middle Ages took from the classical world, rather like the scientific contempt for religious tradition in our own times.
It’s no hot news to observe that Machiavelli was the pioneer in such a new ethics. Ethics in Aristotle or Aquinas or Adam Smith concerns what people are and how they act, tested against a higher standard of the good of the polis or the approach to God or the simple and obvious system of natural liberty. Ethics in The Prince, by contrast, concerns the will of the prince. There is no other test. The test is, so to speak, aesthetic – the prince as artist of the state. The book is a manual for painting a “successful” state, success measured by the fulfilment of the prince’s artistic will. What do you wish to paint, young master? Here, let me show you the techniques. Hold the brush thus.
Isaiah Berlin sees Machiavelli as a hinge in Western thought, as realizing suddenly in his consideration of l’arte del stato, or statecraft, that Christian or any other comprehensive system of ethics is one thing and “Prudence Only” is another. Machiavelli is followed centuries later by a wider movement making the same argument, Romanticism, with its turning of everything, including politics, into art.
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 inLeviathan, he had sneered at the very idea of ethics, much in the style of logical positivists and their descendants nowadays:
“such as are the names of virtues and vices: for one man calleth wisdom what another calleth fear; and one cruelty what another justice; one prodigality what another magnanimity; and one gravity what another stupidity, etc. And therefore such names can never be true grounds of any ratiocination.”
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 populariser. 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.
What appears to have intervened, rather, is not sheer ignorance but a dropping of the system as a system, replaced by a new habit of making up virtues on the spot out of social theories or social graces. The authority of the Philosopher and of the Divine Doctor was challenged. The New Sciences, certainly, encouraged Europeans to retheorise the social and philosophical world as Galileo, Descartes and Newton had retheorised the physical. Every self-respecting theorist became his own Aristotle or Aquinas.
But this has proven not to be such a good idea.
Deirdre McCloskey is Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English and Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of sixteen books, including The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce andBourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World.