Saturday, October 23, 2021

Heaven's Delicious Breath

 Sonnet -- October
by William Cullen Bryant

Ay, thou art welcome, heaven's delicious breath!
When woods begin to wear the crimson leaf,
And suns grow meek, and the meek suns grow brief,
And the year smiles as it draws near its death.
Wind of the sunny south! oh, still delay
In the gay woods and in the golden air,
Like to a good old age released from care,
Journeying, in long serenity, away.
In such a bright, late quiet, would that I
Might wear out life like thee, 'mid bowers and brooks,
And dearer yet, the sunshine of kind looks,
And music of kind voices ever nigh;
And when my last sand twinkled in the glass,
Pass silently from men, as thou dost pass.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Four Cardinal Virtues and Aristotle's Definition of Virtue

 I've always been really taken with Thomas Aquinas's account of the four cardinal virtues, which I think is actually quite brilliant, but the way he develops it, I think, obscures a bit what he is doing. In effect, Aquinas is having to deal with a peculiar set of problems. First, there are vast numbers of lists of virtues, constructed on all sorts of different principles, and, for that matter, there is necessarily a huge number of virtues to be expected. So we need some kind of way to keep track of them. We need reference-point virtues so that we can stay oriented in Virtue Country. Second, you might expect a very strong Aristotelian like Aquinas to favor Aristotle's own preferred set of reference-point virtues, but there's a practical problem. Aristotle's preferred set makes sense, but it's not particularly obvious or straightforward. Essentially, Aristotle picked out the virtues that were most important for life in a Greek city-state. This means that for a lot of other contexts, the selection has an odd flavor, including as it does things like magnanimity (originally linked to how one relates to social status in a Greek city-state), magnificence (originally linked to Greek taxation practices), eutrapelia (the virtue of playfulness and witty banter, originally linked to Greek customs of relaxation). The problem is not the virtues themselves -- they're all good candidates, they all have some importance somewhere, and St. Thomas certainly takes them all to be virtues, although occasionally with modification -- but while it's a great reference-point list for Greek city-states, picking out some of these virtues as the primary reference points is arguably something you'd only do for a Greek city-state. Third, the list of phronesis, dikaiosyne, andreia, and sophrosyne, or, to use the Latin, prudentia, iustitia, fortitudo, temperantia, is both much easier to use and far more widespread, due to the fact that it was favored by Platonists, Stoics, and (also important for St. Thomas) is specifically referred to in the Biblical book, the Wisdom of Solomon.

So what St. Thomas really needs is an Aristotelian reason to favor the more common list. If you are an Aristotelian and you had that, you wouldn't have to change much in Aristotle's ethics to adapt it to the common list. While Aristotle does not treat the four cardinal virtues as a list as particularly important, all four of the cardinal virtues are in Aristotle's list of virtues; what is more, all four of them are virtues which he discusses extensively. This isn't surprising; he was a student of Plato, who uses the list occasionally, and lived in Ancient Greek, where it was apparently a fairly common list, since Plato doesn't seem to have invented it. So this is what we want to find out: Is there a specifically Aristotelian reason why we might take the four cardinal virtues as our primary reference-point list for virtues? And St. Thomas solves this problem, conclusively, and indeed in such a way that it explains why the list of the four cardinal virtues is so extremely popular and practically useful.  As I said, the way he sets it up in some ways obscures the brilliance of what he is doing, so what follows is a re-organizing of it to bring it out.

There is no more Aristotelian place to start than with Aristotle's definition of virtue. Aristotle tells us that a virtue is:

(1) a kind of second nature (hexis/habitus)
(2) concerned with choice
(3) consisting in a mean relative to us
(4) as determined by reason in the way a prudent person would determine it.

So, to fit this definition, a virtue is going to have to have certain qualities. You have something as a kind of second nature when you can easily and consistently perform the relevant actions in a wide variety of circumstances. So what is second nature is durable, enduring, consistent. From this we learn that a virtue needs to be STABLE. Virtues are concerned with choices, and choice is the structuring principle of deliberate human action, so from this we learn that virtues need to be concerned with action or ACTIVE. A mean is literally a middle between extremes, but Aristotle is clear that it's a matter of balancing requirements so as to avoid what is too much or too little, and thus not necessarily exactly in the middle. So from this we know that every virtue must in some way find a harmonious balance, that is, every virtue must be MODERATE. And, of course, the last portion of the definition tells us directly that every virtue must in some way be RATIONAL.

Thus every virtue, without exception, needs to be stable, active, moderate, and rational; moral life is to live according to a character that harmoniously blends these four qualities. But specific virtues concern different aspects of life and have different content. Honesty is very different from chastity or patience, despite the fact that each of these is in some way stable, in some way active, in some way moderate, and in some way rational. And when you look at specific virtues, it becomes clear that, while they all have these qualities, they do not all equally display these qualities. Compare modesty and patience. Both have all four qualities because both are virtues. But it's much more obvious that patience involves stability than that modesty does. Modesty, the virtue concerned with how you present yourself in public, is much more adaptable to different details in different situations; its stability is more abstract. If you are trying to be patient, you end up having to focus on remaining stable a lot; if you are trying to be modest, on the other hand, you will focus much more on finding a good balance. Patience involves balance or moderation, but it's not so obviously a balancing act as modesty is. This generally the case. All virtues have all four qualities, but different virtues will more clearly manifest one of the qualities than the others.

The implication is that virtues fall into four different families, depending on which of the four qualities they more obviously express. Some virtues more obviously involve rationality, others action, others stability, others moderation. Every virtue is related to every other virtue, but the natural grouping of virtues is by these families. So what we want for our reference-point list -- for the North, South, East, and West of our map of Virtue Country* -- is to pick out the virtue from each family that is most usable as a reference point. In practice, this means we need to pick out virtues that both (1) directly deal with very pervasive or common features of human life and (2) cover the most important cases in which a given quality of virtue needs to be manifested.

So let's start with the RATIONALITY FAMILY, the family of virtues that very obviously have to do with thinking and reasoning and being reasonable. It's the easiest, because the central virtue of the family falls directly into our lap from Aristotle's definition: PRUDENCE. And this makes sense. A lot of the virtues in this family obviously concern things that make it easier to make good decisions -- caution or carefulness, for instance, or reasonable estimation (good guessing), or teachableness (docility). But prudence is the virtue of actually making good decisions -- prudence pays attention to the circumstances and makes a decision appropriate to them -- and there's nothing else that is more properly characterized as pervasive and important for living as a human being than making decisions. All virtues in the Rationality family will be prudence-like in some ways, because prudence is, of all the virtues in the Rationality family, the one most commonly and completely expressive of the rationality of good character.

Now let's turn to the ACTIVITY FAMILY of virtue, the family that is most obviously expressive of the active nature of virtue. Every virtue is active, but the arena of human life in which we are obviously going to most clearly see moral action is the social arena -- an arena in which we face constant demands to act toward other people, with other people, and on behalf of other people. All of society is coordination of action. So while the Activity family of virtue is not exclusively social in its expression, every member of the family has a very obvious social side. So we need a virtue in this society-building family that concerns action-situations that are extremely common and also very important. There are several candidates (human social life is a vast field, so it covers a lot of very important things). But an extremely good candidate is the virtue that has as its particular province the preserving of goodness in human action. There are many ways in which I can act that would benefit me but only at a cost to you, and many ways in which you can act for your own benefit but only by leaving me worse off. If these actions are all we have, society collapses entirely into a struggle to exploit and coerce -- if you don't exploit others, you will lose everything for their benefit. In good social interactions, however, all parties should benefit, at least to the extent we can guarantee this by deliberate action. My benefit and your benefit do not have to be the same, but we need to come away with them being in some way even. The virtue that guarantees this is JUSTICE. Justice renders what is due so that we benefit evenly. There are lots of other virtues in the family, but we can easily understand them better by relating them to justice. For instance, some of the virtues of the family -- filial piety, religious devotion, gratitude -- handle situations where it's impossible to give an appropriate return to make things even (you will never be even with your parents or God, and those who give you gifts often do so in situations in which trying to make it even would be inappropriate); others, like everyday respect or honesty, deal with a different kind of equality or evennness, or else help make it easier to act justly.

The STABILITY FAMILY handles matters that most obviously require consistency, an ability not to be pushed around by circumstances. Thus, while they don't only deal with difficulties, they do obviously handle difficulties. So to find the best reference-point virtue, we need to consider a difficulty that is extremely common and has a huge amount of power to affect our choices. And there is one difficulty all human beings face, without exception, in one way or another, that affects our choices like nothing else: our own mortality. Death, and things that could kill us, and things that could people we care about -- these are universal and have an immense power to influence our choices. There are times when we face difficulties that we would regard as more difficult to face even than death -- but those are rare. There are difficulties that are as universal as death -- but none more devastating. So the central virtue of the Stability family, the virtue that most perfectly expresses moral strength and endurance, is FORTITUDE, endurance even in the face of death. To face even death and not be broken by it -- this is a test of the stability of your character, and one that we all at some point have to face. Other virtues in the Stability family, like patience, are obviously important, and they obviously have a lot in common with fortitude, revolving around it like planets around a sun, or like stars around an even bigger star. But there is no question which virtue has the greatest gravity.

That leaves the family of virtues that most obviously show that virtue involves a balance, the MODERATION FAMILY. All situations require balancing a lot of different things, but the situations where we most often have to focus specifically on finding a balance are situations that involve powerful motivators -- things associated with strong pleasures. Nothing is more likely to result in toppling over than reaching for something very pleasant. So all members of the Moderation family, while not exclusively concerned with pleasurable situations, nonetheless have something or other to do with pleasure and the strong motivations that are tied up with it. When somebody finds a balance in the face of very tempting pleasures -- that's the situation in which you most obviously see how virtue can be and must be moderate. So what we need to do to find our reference-point virtue is find a kind of pleasure that affects our choices to a large extent and is extremely common. It doesn't take much to find it. You'll have difficulty finding pleasures that are more common than those tied directly to the needs of our biology and the most basic of these -- our individual survival needs of food and drink, the need of our species to reproduce -- involve immensely powerful motivations. Thus the reference-point virtue for the Moderation family is TEMPERANCE, the virtue of restricting the pursuit of physical pleasures in light of what is more important (or more human, as St. Thomas likes to put it). Other virtues in the family -- eutrapelia, modesty, studiousness, and so forth -- also deal with pleasures, and so are temperance-like, but they are either pleasures that are more rare or pleasures that are easier to restrict.

Thus we have our North, South, East, and West of Virtue Country: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance. Just like every direction is related to every other direction but they are not all equally related to each other, so also every virtue is related to every other virtue but not equally. Just like we pick as reference-points the directions that are easier to use for orienting ourselves in our environment (North from the north star or magnetic north, East and West from the rising and setting of the sun, and so forth), so we pick as our reference-points the virtues that are easiest for orienting ourselves (because they concern things that are very common and have a significant effect on our lives). And from Aristotle's definition of virtue, as Aquinas shows, we can prove why these four are such useful candidates for reference-points. We could pick any directions we wanted to be cardinal compass points, but we usually pick North, South, East, and West, for extremely good reasons. And likewise, since all virtues are related to all virtues in some way, you can start with any set of virtues and use them to help you understand every other virtue. But there are reasons why Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance make a list that people keep coming back to, that people repeatedly find to be easy to use and valuable, and if you are an Aristotelian, Aristotle's definition of virtue explains that.


* The adjective 'cardinal' in the name 'cardinal virtues' is derived from the Latin word for a hinge, so it's common to say (and St. Thomas does) that they are in a sense the 'hinge virtues'. But St. Ambrose, who actually came up with the name 'cardinal virtues', almost certainly intended to draw a parallel with a figurative use of the term, to indicate the cardinal directions of the compass, and doesn't seem to have had the literal sense of the term in mind at all.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Two Poem Drafts and a Poem Re-Draft

 Wave Song

I, worried, watched and wondered at the washing of the wave;
the sands were ever-changing where the children splashed and walked.
The sea itself was singing in a music without words 
and I undid my burdens and my shoes that I might wade.

The whales through waters wander on their weightless wilder-way.
They sing their songs of freedom and on tyrants do not wait.
And how can creatures flourish unenslaved by endless wants?
They sing in ancient choir far beneath the shifting waves.

The whooshing wind on waters whips the wavelets wide awake;
I find myself at peace, although I scarce can figure why
amidst the host of elements in ever-rushing war;
but I am singing softly with the wisdom of the waves.

The Greatest City

Shadows soar to breathless heights.
Down below, the city lights
brightly shine, with just a hint
of twinkle in their starry glint.
Worlds around each shining star
are spinning. On each road a car
is moving fares from place to place
slowly through deep outer space
and endless void of cosmic night
broken only by stars' light.

Texas Hymn 

The birds woke me at the sunrise hour
when grass was dewy and all was pale
beneath the light of a high white star;
it sang the message that all was well.
And I in the breeze (it trickled down
the blades of grass then quickly wound
around my legs to tickle my feet) --
I knew the light, and it was sweet. 

The thirsty drink from flowing spring
and come to life, made quick by source;
thus I, when I hear mornings sing
in bird, or wind in winding course,
then know, as rolling sun will rise,
a Spirit lives, God's very breath,
who lightens sky and human eyes
and raises sinning souls from death.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Like a Cheerful Traveller

Cheerfulness Taught by Reason
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning 

I think we are too ready with complaint
In this fair world of God's. Had we no hope
Indeed beyond the zenith and the slope
Of yon gray blank of sky, we might grow faint
To muse upon eternity's constraint
Round our aspirant souls; but since the scope
Must widen early, is it well to droop,
For a few days consumed in loss and taint?
O pusillanimous Heart, be comforted
And, like a cheerful traveller, take the road
Singing beside the hedge. What if the bread
Be bitter in thine inn, and thou unshod
To meet the flints? At least it may be said
'Because the way is short, I thank thee, God.'

Monday, October 18, 2021

On Levine on Abortion

 I found this article by Judith Levine arguing for reconceiving abortion as a public good interesting. The quality of the argument is not particularly good, as you can see from paragraphs like this:

Feminists fight for pregnant people’s and fetuses’ health too—for universal, affordable, accessible reproductive healthcare. But we have not boldly made an opposite, equally powerful case: The right and ability to terminate a pregnancy safely and without cost, bias, or stigma is a guarantor (if not the only one) of the existential equality and human flourishing of all uterus-bearing people.

I love how "without cost" and "without stigma" -- things that are not guaranteed for other contributors of equality and flourishing -- are just slipped in there. And there's really no particular excuse for abstract euphemisms like "pregnant people" and "uterus-bearing people" when you can just say "women" and then add "trans men" or whatever other group you are wishing to add because you don't think they are countable as women for even first-approximation purposes; reduction of people to their bodily functions is not the path to supporting human flourishing in medical matters, or any matter. Levine at one point argues that just as communities are safer without police, pregnancy can be healthier without doctors, an analogical argument that I think would startle most people and shows that she's making the common mistake of assuming that the case you can make for a relatively small number of people who agree almost entirely with your assumptions is the case you can make when you are trying to convince an entire nation of people with different assumptions, particularly to provide collective support for something that large numbers of people currently think violates human rights.

But in any case, the thing that is interesting is not this, but the attempt to argue that abortion is a public good, which I suspect we'll be seeing more of. Levine's particular argument requires confusing two different senses of the term, a portion of the commonweal and a good supported collectively by taxes; there are lots of goods in the former sense that are not goods in the latter sense (including the 'individualistic' rights that Levine disparages). But the fundamental thrust despite the confusion is given by Levine's proposals for treating abortion as a public good:

* Replace privacy with bodily autonomy. Understand the policing of abortion as a chapter in the racist history of the carceral state.
* Link abortion and bodily autonomy to sexual freedom.
* Replace choice with universal access to reproductive health care. Reject medical paternalism while holding the state responsible for public health and robust support for parents and children.
* Adopt the framework of reproductive justice. Recognize reproductive justice as intrinsic to democracy, economic security, equity, and peace.

Levine does not do a very good job at arguing for the value of any of these things, even on the principles she assumes, in part because she does a lot of handwaving that could not be done in practical use in the larger community, in part because her actual arguments for these would require us to see abortion as a minor secondary issue that primarily serves as a compensating band-aid for problems that Levine treats as more fundamental, like high lead levels and inadequate nutrition, and in part because she does not face squarely the questions that would have to be answered immediately in facing actual pro-life resistance, such as why the baby in the womb is being denied bodily autonomy and justice, or why Levine, if so interested in "racist history" avoids considering the long history of supporting abortion in minority populations as a eugenic measure. But it's worth noting because, again, I think it very likely that we will see a lot more attempts to argue along these lines in the future.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Fortnightly Book, October 17

 October is a good month for reading ghost stories, and this year I am reading a lot of Scandinavian literature, so let's combine the two, and that means Eyrbyggja Saga, a thirteenth-century saga famous for its ghosts, draugs, hauntings, omens, visits from drowned men, burial places that kill every bird that lands on them, and corpses rising from the grave, as well as all the ordinary good Icelandic saga tropes: vikings, berserkers, roving gangs of bandits, complicated family feuds arising from extremely trivial origins, enthusiastic love for the law as such, lots of law-breaking nonetheless, lawsuits over property, and elaborate genealogies. In addition, we get both the Christianization of Iceland and the discovery of Greenland. Truly, if there is a saga of sagas, it is the Eyrbyggja Saga, the saga that has almost everything and anything that is saga-like.

The saga's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach has not always resulted in devotees, and there is a long history of comparing it very unfavorably to more tightly plotted and less sensationalistic sagas. But it has occasionally had fans, and its fictionalizations have probably contributed more to the popular idea of medieval Scandinavia than almost anything else. Modern interest in the saga largely began with the Scots; Sir Walter Scott read it enthusiastically, and contributed an "Abstract of the Erbyggia-Saga" to a work called Illustrations of Northern Antiquities. (The Abstract has a reputation for a mix of insightfulness and looseness in telling the story.) Some people have suggested that he got the idea for his own historical fictions from the saga's free interweaving of historical and imaginative elements. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a short story called "The Waif Woman" based on some events in the saga; Stevenson doesn't seem to have found a way to get it into a shape he regarded as fully satisfactory, so it was only published posthumously. Both of these highlight the uncanny aspects of the saga, and I will also be reading both of them.

The saga itself I will be reading in the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards.