The Unity of the Virtues

One of the things that has been debated since ancient times is whether the virtues are a collection of things, or a whole. Socrates, who argued that virtue was a whole (and a form of knowledge that -- somehow -- could not be taught) argued the point with the famous Protagoras in the dialogue of the same name. [I will annotate the speakers for the convenience of the reader.--Grim]
Socrates: And has each of [the virtues] a distinct function like the parts of the face;-the eye, for example, is not like the ear, and has not the same functions; and the other parts are none of them like one another, either in their functions, or in any other way? I want to know whether the comparison holds concerning the parts of virtue. Do they also differ from one another in themselves and in their functions? For that is clearly what the simile would imply.

Protagoras: Yes, Socrates, you are right in supposing that they differ.

S: Then, I said, no other part of virtue is like knowledge, or like justice, or like courage, or like temperance, or like holiness?

P: No, he answered.

S: Well then, I said, suppose that you and I enquire into their natures. And first, you would agree with me that justice is of the nature of a thing, would you not? That is my opinion: would it not be yours also?

P: Mine also, he said.

S: And suppose that some one were to ask us, saying, "O Protagoras, and you, Socrates, what about this thing which you were calling justice, is it just or unjust?"-and I were to answer, just: would you vote with me or against me?

P: With you, he said.

S: Thereupon I should answer to him who asked me, that justice is of the nature of the just: would not you?

P: Yes, he said.

S: And suppose that he went on to say: "Well now, is there also such a thing as holiness? "we should answer, "Yes," if I am not mistaken?

P: Yes, he said....

S: Well then, Protagoras, we will assume this; and now supposing that he proceeded to say further, "Then holiness is not of the nature of justice, nor justice of the nature of holiness, but of the nature of unholiness; and holiness is of the nature of the not just, and therefore of the unjust, and the unjust is the unholy": how shall we answer him? I should certainly answer him on my own behalf that justice is holy, and that holiness is just; and I would say in like manner on your behalf also, if you would allow me, that justice is either the same with holiness, or very nearly the same; and above all I would assert that justice is like holiness and holiness is like justice; and I wish that you would tell me whether I may be permitted to give this answer on your behalf, and whether you would agree with me.

P: He replied, I cannot simply agree, Socrates, to the proposition that justice is holy and that holiness is just, for there appears to me to be a difference between them.... I admit that justice bears a resemblance to holiness, for there is always some point of view in which everything is like every other thing; white is in a certain way like black, and hard is like soft, and the most extreme opposites have some qualities in common; even the parts of the face which, as we were saying before, are distinct and have different functions, are still in a certain point of view similar, and one of them is like another of them. And you may prove that they are like one another on the same principle that all things are like one another; and yet things which are like in some particular ought not to be called alike, nor things which are unlike in some particular, however slight, unlike.

S: And do you think, I said in a tone of surprise, that justice and holiness have but a small degree of likeness?
You can see the issue. If the virtues are not in a sense the same, then justice and holiness -- or any two virtues -- are completely different. That is clearly wrong, as it requires that we say that it is never just to behave moderately, nor is it just to behave immoderately; nor is it courage to behave with self-control, nor is it courage to behave without self-control. The division makes no sense at all.

But the unity is a problem, too. It is clearly the case that the virtues do not come to be as a unity, as everyone knows someone who is brave but not wise, or wise but not brave; just in his dealings with others, but not moderate at the dinner table; etc. If the virtues were one, then to have one would be to have them all.

I think that the virtues are like the parts of a house, so that they are all part of a whole, but they have to come to be in a certain order. You can't put the roof on first; you have to have a foundation before you can put up walls. There's a little bit of variability in the order -- you could put up two walls and then a roof, if you wanted. Each virtue has a different purpose in a way, in that the roof provides shelter from the sun or rain while the walls provide shelter from the wind, but they are also all unified in a common purpose of providing shelter. This seems to address how virtues can be unified without losing either their different character or their capacity to exist separately in a given person.

Yet this isn't fully satisfying either, as it would seem as if you could say more than I can say about what precisely is the foundation of virtue, which ones come next, and so forth. The capstone virtue -- the roof -- might well be Aristotle's magnanimity; yet others might argue it is justice. Aristotle says that both are, in a way, complete virtue. I think magnanimity is the stronger candidate, as it crowns complete virtue with the activity of using that complete virtue to pursue the most honorable things, whereas justice (in its character as lawfulness) compels you to do the right things rather than making you desire to do them. Still, you see the point: you could argue either way, and if my view is right, it ought to be able to draw out something more specific about the order.

In any case, I was thinking of the question because of a scandal at Berkeley involving the philosopher John Searle. I think we were just discussing his Chinese Room thought experiment recently. Most philosophers take the ability to think clearly and come to deep philosophical insights as a fairly high degree of virtue; the ability to control one's sexual urges is supposed to be a more basic virtue, expected to come about earlier. And maybe it did; Searle is 84, and perhaps is less capable (or less willing) to behave himself now than when he was younger (as well as less famous and powerful). Or perhaps the ability to think clever thoughts isn't such a highly-placed virtue, but something more like athletic ability (which only some can attain in any great measure, for reasons that have nothing to do with virtue). Then the virtue to actualize one's native capacities may not be so very great; only a bit of discipline and practice, combined with a great deal of natural talent. Developing self-control over deep impulses could be much higher and harder than developing the self-control necessary to practice things one finds enjoyable and to which one is naturally inclined, which would account for why so many great athletes also end up demonstrating a lack in this area.

Alternatively, perhaps the view that these virtues come about in any kind of order is wrong. Perhaps you can just have some of them without others. But it does seem odd to say that you could be just without being capable of moderation, or be wise without being capable of self-control.

UPDATE: Speaking of Searle, here is a recent interview with him, with a heartwarming headline.


Ymar Sakar said...

Socrates had the benefit of a personal oracle telling him whether a course of action was right or wrong. That would be the same as the Holy Ghost that comforted Christians.

Without that personal spirit guiding the human, all the knowledge and wisdom in the world only ends up with another Genghis Khan and Alexander.

Ymar Sakar said...

Plato came to reject democratic values precisely because the Athenian assembly's corruption killed his teacher, father figure, and mentor. It's not something humans easily forget.

Grim said...

I assume you don't mean to say that a daemon is the same as the Holy Ghost, but maybe you do. It's going to be a difficult proposition to defend, though, if you're committed to it.

Tom said...

I don't see intelligence, or "the ability to think clearly and come to deep philosophical insights," as any kind of virtue. To me, this is no different than physical strength. You can use either one for good or evil.

Just from the excerpt given, I tend to agree with Protagoras, though maybe because I don't understand. As I see his point, he is saying that justice and holiness share some aspects, but are different than others. This makes sense; if justice is completely the same as holiness, why call them different things?

When you draw out the point that "If the virtues are not in a sense the same, then justice and holiness -- or any two virtues -- are completely different", I think this is a false dilemma. It needn't be that they are completely the same OR completely different. It could be that they share some aspects and are different in some aspects. How many is "some"? Maybe most, maybe few. I don't know. But it doesn't strike me as an all or nothing proposition.

Apples and pears are both fruit, and yet, they are not completely the same.

I like your house analogy. They are all parts of one house, but different parts with different functions.

Grim said...

When you draw out the point that "If the virtues are not in a sense the same, then justice and holiness -- or any two virtues -- are completely different", I think this is a false dilemma.

This is definitely where Socrates is going with this argument, whether or not it's false as a dilemma.

It's based on a notion that contraries are important things. This comes up in Aristotle's Physics. How is motion possible? The Greeks had been worried about this forever. Some, including Zeno, argue that it's just not possible, logically, though we think we observe it all the time.

Aristotle's answer (at least, the one involving contraries) is that movement is between contraries. He is thinking of any kind of change, not just locomotion. If you move from good to evil, well, that requires three things: good, evil, and a substrate (you) that can move between them. In the case of locomotion, there are the two terminal points of the journey, and a substrate (you) that moves between them.

Socrates' point here is that if good and evil are contraries, then good and blue are not. If justice's contrary is injustice, it isn't unholiness. But then there is no necessary connection between a movement to unholiness and a movement to injustice.

If you want to extend the metaphor to locomotion, you could resolve that by saying that injustice 'lies in the same direction' as unholiness, in the same way that moving from London to Paris also brings you closer to Rome. That's one way of addressing the problem. My way is another. There may be others. But it's a problem worth thinking about.

Ymar Sakar said...

I assume you don't mean to say that a daemon is the same as the Holy Ghost, but maybe you do. It's going to be a difficult proposition to defend, though, if you're committed to it.

Socrates did not call it a daemon, not in the meaning you use it as. It's in the testimonies and legal records, the actual ones not the ones made up by philosophers while putting Socrates into their fiction as fact.

The Holy Ghost was said by the Apostles, in the records of Peter and others, that would give out knowledge and commands, with no rational human explanation. Socrates reports the same kind of spiritual guidance. It is either the exact same thing or something very close. If Socrate's personal oracle and muse doesn't exist, neither does your divine Jesus Christ exist.

Grim said...

I don't think it's necessary to believe in the Oracle of Delphi in order to believe in the Trinity, nor to believe in daemonic beings to do so. By the same token, you could believe in both; I don't think they're mutually exclusive, though you'd have to do some work to explain how both could exist. There are very different metaphysical claims underlying them.

The Greek idea of a personal spirit that guides your life is similar to other pagan European ideas, like the fetch of Irish mythology, or even more like the fylgja of Norse mythology. These things are unlike the Holy Ghost in that they are personalized, and also in that they are god-like but not God.

Tom said...

Or guardian angels, maybe.

Tom said...

I feel like I need to get a better grasp on some of the basic concepts here, so I'm going to ask some questions.

"movement is between contraries"

What does that mean, exactly? It would seem to imply that here and not-here are contraries, i.e., Athens and Troy are contraries, but so are Athens and Sparta, and Athens and Macedonia, and Athens and Dallas; so basically everywhere that is not Athens is a contrary of Athens.

In that case, why can't we say that blue is a contrary of good? Blue is not-good in a way that seems similar to the way that Dallas is not-Athens. Is it just that they don't exist in the same broader category (as Athens and Dallas are both geographical points)?

Does not-good imply bad? Let's take 'tasty' as an example. Tasty is not-good, and we can even posit that there are tasty things that are bad for us. But that doesn't mean "tasty = bad," does it?

Similarly, let's take justice and holiness. If we think justice is establishing proper relationships between men and holiness is establishing proper relationships between men and gods, then what exactly is the problem? Couldn't it be possible to do one and not the other?

To some extent, that would depend on what the gods have commanded regarding our relationships with other people, and so the question might well be answered differently depending on the religion in question. Or at least it seems so.

Grim said...

These are good questions. You're showing the proper attitude for a philosopher.

There's a real difference in the kinds of contraries Aristotle is talking about when he's worried about how motion can be possible, and the kinds that involve locomotion. But it's a big problem, because locomotion is going to turn out (on his model) to be necessary for all the other changes too. This is because he believes that some sort of contact is necessary for one thing to affect another, so they have to be brought into proximity to one another. Thus, you might change from not-red to red by being brought into contact with mud that is red (as you easily can, in Georgia on a rainy day).

The exception to that is motions that are caused by the things themselves, which don't require proximity to something else to change. You might change from not-red to red by getting embarrassed, for example. Now that still seems like there's a proximity concern, because something had to come into your space to provoke the movement from not-embarrassed to embarrassed. But the change comes from your own nature, rather than from your being acted on from outside.

Aristotle gives this part of the account in book seven of the Physics. Clearly, we don't think any longer that actual physical contact is necessary for change -- we know about gravity, which Aristotle didn't (although we still don't know quite what gravity is, we are aware of how to model its effects). There are other sorts of problems, too: you get dark when you go out in the sun, but you are being affected by the rays of the sun, not by contact with the sun itself. Aristotle's interested in that example, but how does it work?

It's not a long book. The whole of the Physics isn't very long, but it's well worth reading. It's one of the most important books in human history, at the back of many things we still ordinarily think because it shaped all subsequent thought.

Ymar Sakar said...

I don't think it's necessary to believe in the Oracle of Delphi in order to believe in the Trinity, nor to believe in daemonic beings to do so.

Socrate's oracle was not the oracle of delphi. He named it thus to make it easier for other people to understand, and the Greeks understood Oracles and Muses. These are supernatural entities.

Socrates, who argued that virtue was a whole (and a form of knowledge that -- somehow -- could not be taught) argued the point with the famous

You yourself, Grim, noted this. That Socrates had a strange argument that virtue, a form of knowledge that "somehow" could not be taught. Supernatural gifts and guidance, teaching Socrates not the other way around, would account for the facts and observations. A divine form of gift and knowledge, cannot be taught or given by humans, it can only be asked for and received. Or rejected. This is because human and earthly virtues, when placed in the service of evil (Hussein Obola), is not righteous, not just, and not correct. That is why Socrates may have argued that Justice = Holiness. This is the pre Christian belief that there exists a Just God, instead of the various Greek ones (fallen angels). It subordinates human virtue, to godly virtue, a rather high standard. Too high for the Greeks, and partially why Socrates was charged with corrupting the youth.

The Divine Jesus of Nazareth is also a spiritual or supernatural entity. Virgin births included. They are all, as credible as others, given our primary historical records listing witnesses to the fact. To discount the existence of one branch, automatically weakens the historical proof of the others. As for a holy spirit existing before Jesus Christ, where did all the prophets like Isaiah get their knowledge and guidance from if not the holy spirit? They weren't Christians either, since Christ wasn't on Earth yet.

There are very different metaphysical claims underlying them.

Humans confuse things, especially themselves. I prefer to cut through as Alexander did to the Gordian knot. Of course there are human metaphysical theoretical differences. None of them matter to me. All I need to know and rely upon are human records. Do they claim or prove the existence of a supernatural entity? If so, backwards engineer the characteristics of said entity. As for why other humans can't connect the dots, I have something they do not. Something Socrates and Newton both had, but Einstein did not initially. It also cannot be taught.

These things are unlike the Holy Ghost in that they are personalized, and also in that they are god-like but not God.

The Catholic Trinity, that Jesus Christ is indistinguishable from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is questionable. For the Apostles, the Holy Ghost was very personalized. And if the god of the ancient Hebrews was truly an unchanging god of miracles, then there should still be disciples and apostles with such powers today.

This is metaphysics and theology, crafted by humans. The Holy Spirit of the Apostle and New Testament records, is a very personal thing. Peter even reported that the spirit told him what to do and gave him orders, concerning dining with genteels. Something the Jewish tradition and religion forbid, as genteels were unclean.

Ymar Sakar said...

I surmise the reason why mainline churches don't teach the Holy Spirit as a personal guide and conductor, is because they seek to reserve the power of the holy authority to priests. Just as the way the Catholics did by interceding for Jesus Christ, via the Patriarch of Rome and by forbidding the reading and interpretation of the Bible by non priests and in languages other than Latin. It monopolized the conduit to the divine. The pagans have a point in their co equal worship of spirits, it is more egalitarian, although flawed in other ways. The point is that the Holy Ghost and the Trinity as taught by more recent mainline churches, is inconsistent and logically incompatible with the reports by the Apostles and disciples of 1st AD Christianity. The US currency talks about Trusting in Humans, correct, or was it Trust in God. The question then becomes, how do you trust a god if you can only hear about the gods from humans? The answer is what Socrates reported: the personal oracle and what we call the holy ghost.