Saturday, October 28, 2017

No Ends in It Is Found

The Squaring of the Circle
by Margaret Cavendish


Within the Head of Man's a Circle Round
Of Honesty, no Ends in it is found.
To Square this Circle many think it fit,
But Sides to take without Ends, hard is it.
Prudence and Temperance, as two Lines take;
With Fortitude and Justice, foure will make.
If th Line of Temperance doth prove too short,
Then add a Figure of a discreet Thought;
Let Wisedomes Point draw up Discretions Figure,
That make two equall Lines joyn'd both together.
Betwixt the Line Temperance and Justice, Truth must point,
Justice's Line draw downe to Fortitude, that Corner joynt;
Then Fortitude must draw in equall length,
To Prudence Line, Temperance must give the breadth.
And Temperance with Justice Line must run, yet stand
Betwixt Prudence and Fortitude, of either hand.
At every corner must a Point be layd,
Where every Line that meets, an Angle's made;
And when the Points too high, or low do fall,
Then must the Lines be stretch'd, to mak't even all.
And thus the Circle Round you'l find,
Is Squar'd with the foure Virtues of the Mind.

She has a further prose explanation in which she elaborates on this conceit. Vices are points at the end of lines, so that Justice is between Severity and Facility, Prudence is between Sloth and Stupidity, Fortitude is between Rashness and Timorosity, and Temperance between Prodigality and Covetousness. Each line, as a side of the square, divides an outside from the inside. Justice outside is Distributive (justice; she also just calls it Distribution) and inside is Communicative (justice; she also calls it Community); Fortitude outside is Despair (presumably what one faces) and inside is Love (what one has within in the face of the desperate); Prudence outside is Experience and inside is Industry; Temperance outside is Observation and inside is Ease. Then this is used to construct more virtues. From Distribution we get the line of Charity, from Observation, Discretion, and together these make an angle, Hope. From Community we get the line Clemency, from Ease, Comfort; together these make an angle, Peace. From Despair is drawn a line of Hope, and from Industry a line of fruition, and they angle as Tranquillity. From Love is drawn Faith, and from Ease, Pleasure, and these angle as Joy. The points of this square are then labeled Obedience, Humility, Respect, and Reverence, and if the lines are drawn true virtues Square the circle of Honesty. (Honesty quite clearly still has its connection with the Latin, honestas, and here means the totality of noble character.)

The conceit is a nice one, as metaphysical conceits go, but the execution seems lacking in some ways. It's a bit awkward that the corners of the square of the cardinal virtues are vices, for instance. It does identify a legitimate ethical problem, though, the fact that virtues are talked about as discrete (they are for various particular purposes) but truly moral life is an integral whole (honestas is for the sake of honestas) -- and thus the question of how you square, using the lines of virtue, the perfect circle of moral life is a very good candidate for a metaphysical conceit.

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