27 April 2009

More on Ancient Virtue Ethics

I’ve had quite a few visitors to my Josef Pieper post, owing, it seems, to this little nod from the Ochlophobist. As I’ve already mentioned in a response to the first and so far the only comment, I actually feel rather badly now for not providing more commentary or referring to other authors (apart from the brief name-dropping) on the subject of the doctrine of virtue. As much as I’d like to do a follow-up today covering some of the points I want to touch on regarding the doctrine of virtue and virtue ethics in general, I’m afraid that shall have to wait a bit longer yet. But those who are interested in a little more of Pieper himself can find a small passage from him here, in my post on the meaning of St Sophronius’s name. Furthermore, it is this post that I’d like to add to today.

Julia Annas is a scholar of ancient Greek philosophy, specialising in Platonic ethics. I first became acquainted with her through her published Townsend Lectures (1997) at Cornell University, Platonic Ethics, Old and New (Ithaca, NY: Cornell U, 1999), a brilliant and fascinating analysis of Plato’s ethics through the interpretive lens of the Middle Platonists (looking thus to the Hellenistic period, she brushes aside Benjamin Jowett’s approach to the Republic and points out that the ‘crude reaction’ of such as Karl Popper ‘accepts Jowett’s picture and simplistically reverses the value given to it’ [p. 95]). But although her work seems to be primarily historical, she has also contributed to contemporary philosophy as a proponent of what is often called ‘virtue ethics’ (I mentioned this in the Pieper post), in many respects a revival of the Greeks’ approach to morality. In this regard, I encourage everyone to read Annas's forthcoming article, ‘Virtue Ethics’, from The Oxford Companion to Ethical Theory, here at her U of Arizona homepage.

But the work I’d like to quote today is Annas's earlier An Introduction to Plato’s Republic (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981), p. 115. There, by way of discussing Republic 430d-432b, she gives an overview of the virtue of σωφροσύνη that I wish I’d remembered to quote in the post on St Sophronius.

‘Moderation’ translates sōphrosunē [that is, in G.M.A. Grube’s translation, rev. C.D.C. Reeve, which Annas uses for the most part—Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper and D.S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), pp. 971-1223; the section on moderation is on pp. 1062-64], often translated ‘temperance’. Neither English word is satisfactory, since sōphrosunē does not answer well to any one virtue that we recognize. It is discussed in the earlier dialogue Charmides [see the translation by Rosamond Kent Sprague in Plato, pp. 640-663], where the variety of characterizations offered (none of them satisfactory) show how hard it was even for the Greeks to pin down this virtue adequately. Suggestions offered there are that moderation is doing things in a slow and orderly way, or having a sense of shame, or minding your own business, or having self-knowledge, or ‘doing one’s own’ (the definition of justice offered in the Republic). On the one hand moderation is connected with the avoidance of excess and vulgarity, and with polite and deferential behaviour. (It is sometimes thought of as the characteristic women’s virtue, Greek women having to be deferential whereas men were brought up to be self-assertive). On the other hand, moderation is also connected to the more intellectual idea of self-knowledge; it is thought of as knowing one’s place, having a correct idea of who you are and what is due to and appropriate for your position. In earlier dialogues Plato stresses this element so much that moderation looks like the intellectual basis of all the virtues (Charmides 164d ff., First Alcibiades 131b, 133c ff., Lovers 138a ff.). But in the Republic he tries to deal with both these elements, that of deferential and self-controlled behaviour and that of self-knowledge.


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I won't spoil the fun with the ready-made section on the four cardinal virtues (plus Faith, Hope, and Love!) in the Cavarnos Orthodoxy and Philosophy book, which I just finished. I wish it (the book) were longer, and more detailed, but perhaps that's to be found in The Christian-Hellenic Tradition, next on the list.

Andrea Elizabeth said...

Kevin, another book to order!

Aaron, seeking the virtues is a new slant for me with my sola Scriptura background, which probably should not be the case. I had heard of the seven deadly sins and all, which the Catholics also enumerate, but studying the virtues... it is interesting that they are personified as women.

Listing moderation as foundational in that it makes us conscious of ourselves and how we should take care, differs from the Evangelical stance on God alone, which is a more outward focus. This solely outward focus can cause people to be careless about how they may unknowingly be disrupting things, so to speak.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Happy to oblige, Andrea Elizabeth!

They're personified as women because the words are grammatically feminine in Greek and Latin. Quite convenient!

I think an additional way to translate sōphrosunē might be "consideration." It describes consideration of one's interior life, behavior, and effect and influence upon others: "being considerate," so as always to be good and treat others well.

What is very interesting, as Aaron brings up, is that these four virtues were discovered through observation by the early pre-Christian philosophers. The addition of the three "revealed" (in Christ) virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love, fulfills and completes the collection. Those seven virtues, and all that they connote, are as much a summary of the Christian Way as is "Love God...love your neighbor...."

Aaron Taylor said...

Sorry guys, I do plan to comment soon. Maybe tomorrow!