Monday, September 30, 2013

The Verecundia Problem

Aquinas's ethics is, and has always been, something of a famous tour de force, and even if nothing else of his work had survived, there is no question but that he would still be regarded as one of the most important medieval philosophers because of it. When Greeks like George Scholarios or Bessarion started looking at Latin theologians for the Council of Florence, they were utterly floored by the Secunda Secundae (Second Part of the Second Part of the Summa Theologiae), in which Aquinas takes almost the entire Western moral tradition, from Plato and Aristotle through the Latin (and sometimes Greek) Church Fathers and makes it make sense in 170 questions that put practically every virtue ever talked about in its place. Aquinas's achievement didn't occur in a void -- it was prepared for by the major work of Philip the Chancellor, Alexander of Hales, Albert the Great, and Raymond of Penyafort -- but there's no question that he took it to a new level. If you ever want proof that ethics as a philosophical field makes progress, you only have to compare the materials on which the Secunda Secundae is based with the Secunda Secundae itself.

It only becomes a more significant achievement when you look at the problems Aquinas had to deal with in handling specific virtues. Aquinas's first major way of organizing the discussion is to do it by what he calls principal virtues, which are the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope, Love) and the four cardinal virtues (Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance). That was not uncommon, but it is by no means enough. For, as Aquinas (following Philip the Chancellor, although here and there Aristotle says things that suggest he anticipated the point at least for Justice) notes, we talk about the latter four in two different ways: in one way we take them as general properties of all virtues, and in another we take them as distinct virtues in their own right. So when looking at what people say about virtue, we're constantly having to distinguish between these two ways of talking about them. Aristotle's Andreia, for instance, is courage as exemplified most perfectly by the soldier; it is a specific virtue. When the Roman Stoics and Cicero talk about Fortitudo, they are sometimes talking about a more general version of this, and sometimes they are talking about a sort of stick-to-it-iveness every virtue needs; when Jane Austen, much later, will talk about Constancy, she is quite clearly talking about a general property required for having virtue at all -- it is exactly what Aquinas would call Fortitude as a general property. Since the specific virtues are the virtues that most clearly show the general property they are associated with by name, there are lots of places, though, where it's not possible to say without careful thought which is in view.

As if that weren't enough, names aren't always consistent over time. (To take two examples: the virtue of honestas is not at all the virtue of honesty, despite the fact that we get the latter name from the former, and modestia, while obviously related to modesty in the sense of 'modesty in dress and demeanor', doesn't work exactly like what we usually call 'modesty' in that context, and is very different from modesty in the sense of 'modesty about one's achievements'.) Part of it is just confusion, part of it is just change of words over time, and part of it is something noted by Aristotle, namely, that with a very small number of assumptions you can prove that there are virtues and vices for which a given language has no words at all, or even sometimes that the virtue and one of its corresponding vices is called by exactly the same name. The doctrine of mean, which is what led Aristotle to the discovery, is another of Aquinas's organizing principles.

Another of Aquinas's organizing principles is his mereology of virtues. There are three kinds of 'parts of virtue'. There are quasi-integral parts: these are smaller virtues out of which more important virtues are 'built'. There are subjective parts: these are all the same virtue, but in such different circumstances that it makes sense to distinguish them (they are modalities of the same virtue), as with Temperance in food and Temperance in sex, which are both fully Temperance in the strict sense, but necessarily have some very different expressions and problems. And there are potential parts, which are satellite virtues that can stand on their own but also follow from a larger virtue; the potential parts of justice, for instance, are all 'justice in a broad sense'. With this mereology we start seeing that different virtues sometimes raise very different problems.

Prudence, for instance, is internally quite complicated -- Aquinas, in order to do justice both to what Prudence is about (moral reasoning) and to what people had said about it previously, has to give it eight distinct parts. Justice in comparison is internally very, very simple -- it's basically just seek equal good and don't harm others; but since it has to do with relationships with other people, which have an infinite diversity of circumstances, trying to give an exhaustive account of its important and notable subjective parts is probably impossible. And Justice also has the peculiarity that the easiest way to discuss its subjective parts is by talking about its jillion different vices. An example I've used before is that in trying to put the subjective parts of Justice in order, Aquinas at one point breaks it down to the category of extrajudicial verbal commutative particular injustices against the will of another, and he still has to assign that category five different vices. Prudence has a vast number of internal parts because moral reasoning has a vast number of parts; Justice has a vast number of modalities because our relationships with other people have a vast number of modalities. Fortitude has a completely different set of problems that have to be solved, due to the fact that, despite its being more important than Temperance, there is very little said about it, and our vocabulary for talking about is correspondingly very impoverished. We simply don't have the words, and keep using the same words for talking about fortitude itself, its integral parts, and its potential parts; and, what is more, much of what we do have treats the soldier as the exemplar of Fortitude, whereas Aquinas as a Catholic wants to say it is the martyr who shows the highest and purest form of Fortitude. (Aquinas also argues that close analysis shows it to have the peculiarity of have no subjective parts or modalities at all: Fortitude shows exactly the same face in all circumstances, which is an oddity, and not at all what you would expect.)

All of this is a long introduction (but the background is all necessary) to the the problems of Temperance, which is self-control in the face of the temptation of great pleasures. If there is any virtue that defeats Aquinas's best efforts to put it into order, Temperance is it. What Aquinas inherited on the subject of Temperance is all over the map. The vocabulary is not very standardized at all, for instance, and the words seem to change so quickly and easily in meaning that it's hard to get fix on them. And this has never stopped being true. Trying to translate the questions on Temperance (140-170) into English is a nightmare. It's like trying to translate something that consists entirely of false cognates into a language that has no words that adequately cover what the original words mean. Transliterate, and you are suddenly fifteen miles away from where you should be; try to translate, and you find no words ever fit quite as well as you'd like.

And the verbal confusion is connected with another issue, which is that Temperance and its associated virtues are remarkably sensitive to culture. In every society you can find people who dress modestly, which is a potential part of Temperance; there's no question that there's such a virtue in that sense. Put all these modest people from different societies into one room, however, and they will all be shocked at the immodesty of what the other people are wearing. The virtue is identifiably the same; what is done to express it can be radically different. And yet it seems we still can make cross-cultural evaluations that make sense, and you can find surprising agreements across very different cultures.

In addition, the sins associated with Temperance are, with a few exceptions, embarrassing in a greater measure than they are harmful, and ironically this makes it far harder to talk about them. So instead we talk about them in sloppy ways, avoiding precision, and we are constantly using euphemisms and deliberately conflating the vices with things that are more like medical conditions (and while we take it to an art, this was true in Aquinas's day, and probably always has been). The whole thing is a crazy mess, and while here and there you can make it less crazy, you still have a mess. And I think we still get a mess when we look at Aquinas on the subject -- much, much less of a mess than what he inherited, but still something riddled with unsolved -- and in some cases, due to the sheer confusion we wreak on our vocabulary for even formulating the problems -- and unsolvable problems. Aquinas, of course, has at least partial solutions to many of these, even beyond his organizing principles -- it is very noticeable, for instance, that whenever he can, he talks about the vices associated with Temperance in terms of how they are related to other virtues, especially Justice. Justice is the most orderly of the virtues, in a sense, because of its close connection with law, and so it makes sense to borrow from it to sort out the messiest of the virtues. But problems still remain.

One of the problems has to do with the quasi-integral parts of Temperance. Integral parts, remember, are parts in something like our usual sense of the word: the integral parts of a house are walls, floor, ceiling, etc., that is, the things that make it up as a whole (hence the word 'integral'). It's a little bit baffling to make sense of what Aquinas is trying to convey when he discusses the quasi-integral parts of Temperance. When he discusses the integral parts of Temperance in general, he very clearly states that Temperance has two integral parts: verecundia and honestas. Each of these suffers all the problems I've mentioned: they were not used consistently in Aquinas's day, and the words we might translate them by are not used consistently in ours. None of the words we might use to translate them fits them perfectly, and the differences can make for very different readings of what Aquinas is saying. And Aquinas's discussion is already quite difficult. Set aside honestas, which has its own problems, and let's look at the problem of verecundia.

How do we translate it? If you look at most translations, they use 'shame'; the Dominican Fathers translation linked above uses 'shamefacedness'. It fits, sort of. It's one way you can translate it. But it can cover mere bashfulness, too. You can also use it to mean 'respect' or 'deference'. In fact, this is not an uncommon use of it: when people accuse other people of arguing ad verecundiam because they read it in a book of fallacies somewhere, they are accusing them of simply appealing to authority without having any other foundation. And the sense of 'respect' here could either be respect in the positive sense of involving a kind of admiration, or it could be respect in the sense that a good hiker will respect the danger represented by a rattlesnake. It makes a huge difference to the discussion whether you emphasize the shame aspect or the respect aspect of the word. Aquinas when he first talks about it says it involves fleeing from the disgraceful (turpitudem, another word that's hard to get right in translation, since our cognate word, turpitude, seems to be much too strong). That makes it sound like shame. But the pairing with honestas should make us cautious, because honestas seems to be a respect-word here, associated with honoring beauty. So it would make sense of everything Aquinas says if we took Temperance to be a kind of overall respect: its two key features would be to respect, i.e., honor, the beauty of moderation, and to respect, i.e., treat with appropriate seriousness, the danger of the dishonorably immoderate. That gives us a different picture than if we translate the words (as we could) by 'shame' and 'honor'. You can to an extent see how they might be related -- but they are different pictures.

It gets worse. Verecundia is an integral part of Temperance. In every other case in which Aquinas talks about integral parts, integral parts of a virtue are virtues. And it doesn't seem that an integral part of a virtue could be anything other than a virtue in its own right. And Aquinas very clearly states that verecundia is an integral part of Temperance. Having that clear, we turn to the next question and discover that it is not a virtue. That would make sense on its own, since Aristotle says that verecundia (or rather the Greek word that was translated into Latin in this way) is not a virtue, but simply something associated with it.

So, wait, is it possible for an integral part of virtue not to be a virtue? In every single other case it seems to be that an integral part of a virtue is a virtue, and fits all the definitions of a virtue. Whenever Aquinas talks about integral parts elsewhere, the integral parts of virtues would pretty obviously have to be virtues. To sharpen the matter further, the other integral part, honestas, is definitely a virtue. The two are very obviously some kind of pair. But somehow one is a virtue and the other is not -- Aquinas explicitly responds to this point and says that verecundia facilitates honestas but not so as to be as complete a good as honestas. But this is not an explanation of the difference -- virtues can be of unequal completeness and perfection -- but rather a reason why one might not automatically assume that they were both virtues. The actual argument he gives is difficult: a virtue has to be consistent with complete good, so that something intrinsically incompletely good is not a virtue even if it is very good; verecundia cannot be complete because it is fear of the disgraceful, but if we had complete virtue we would not fear the disgraceful, because we wouldn't do it or regard it as an option. It's difficult to see quite how this argument is intended to work -- maybe it does, but it's difficult to see what the nerve of the issue is. It's perhaps true that the completely virtuous would not consider the disgraceful an option, but surely if anyone proposed it they would repudiate it as inappropriate, and why wouldn't that count?

The argument makes it sound like the completely virtuous don't have verecundia. But the completely virtuous do have Temperance, and verecundia is an integral part of Temperance; so it seems you can't have Temperance without verecundia. So is verecundia not really an integral part of virtue, but something that is so important to the virtue as we usually have it that it is a little like an integral part, in that we won't usually find the virtue without this other thing? That would make verecundia a part of Temperance in something like the way 'wearing clothes' is a part of human being -- it's not strictly true, but for practical purposes we can easily consider clothing as part of a human being. But then honestas would be the only actual integral part of Temperance, which would mean that Temperance just is honestas. That would leave us the result that Temperance has no integral parts in much the same way that Fortitude has no subjective parts, which perhaps makes a little sense, but it would be quite weird -- surely we can analyze Temperance into smaller virtues? -- and doesn't seem to be in view at all when Aquinas talks about honestas.

The authority of Aristotle, of course, is why verecundia is said not to be virtue, but Aquinas is entirely capable of making a distinction between different uses of the word, and has just been doing exactly like that for a hundred and more questions, so he could have distinguished between verecundia in Aristotle's sense and some kind of virtue that could also be given that name; but all the evidence shows that he quite clearly intended not to do so. Aquinas is not immune to contradicting himself, and it would hardly be a fault to end up in a contradiction given the messiness of Temperance, but he explicitly argues the point, and so he was direclty faced with the possibility of its being a contradiction, and rejected it.

So where do we end up? These seem the possibilities. None of them are perfectly adequate in terms of the evidence.

(1) Verecundia is an integral part of Temperance, and integral parts of virtues are always virtues, and verecundia is not a virtue: This requires us to say that Aquinas contradicted himself almost immediately, very explicitly, despite having considered the question directly.

(2) Verecundia is not really an integral part of Temperance, only an integral part in a loose sense, and therefore even if integral parts of virtues are always virtues, it need not be a virtue: Why didn't St. Thomas just say that? There's no indication of this in the text, even though there's plenty of opportunity to say it. It also seems to make Temperance reduce to honestas.

(3) Verecundia is an integral part of Temperance, and it is not a virtue, so not all integral parts of virtues are virtues: But Aquinas's argument that it is not a virtue seems to cause problems for saying that it is even an integral part, and we have the question of why this seems to be the only integral part of virtue that is not a virtue.

(4) Verecundia is an integral part of Temperance, and all integral parts of virtues are virtues, but the word verecundia can mean either something that is not a virtue or something that is (e.g., the virtue of making good use of verecundia in the not-a-virtue sense), depending on the sense in which you are taking it: This would be the cleanest solution to the problem itself. But Aquinas seems to consider it and deliberately reject it.

There are possible variations on each of these. For instance, although it's not as acute as that of verecundia, we run into much the same problem with continentia, a potential part of Temperance that is not a virtue but (as Aquinas unhelpfully quotes Aristotle as saying) "some kind of mixture", being in a way a virtue but falling short of actual virtue. (And the structure of the article is very strange, too, since Aquinas is talking about two different things called continentia, which have to be treated in diametrically opposed ways.) But while this does make continentia a weird potential part, it's easier to see how a potential part -- which is really a distinguishable thing -- could be a non-virtue that nonetheless has at least most of the features of a virtue. How we can do that with an integral part is just baffling. So one possibility is that Aquinas just misclassified verecundia: it, like continentia, should be a potential part, not an integral part. But we run into the same problem of evidence; it's not as if Aquinas could have just overlooked the fact that he made verecundia an integral part, since it's not just said in passing but an essential part of the structure of the Treatise on Temperance.

So it's a puzzle what to make of verecundia. Of course, progress in philosophy, on Aquinas's own view, is by resolution of dubia or aporia, which are puzzles in exactly this sense -- it seems we are called to accept both sides of a contradiction, which is a sign for the need to think through it more. There are, in fact, good reasons for going in any possible direction with regard to the problem itself, and this perhaps is part of the reason why none of the possibilities seems to fit all the evidence: we have the puzzle, because it's a puzzle Aquinas never fully resolved. Which is not such a bad thing: what puzzles is the beginning of inquiry.

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