Mar 31, 2013

More on Virtues In Augustine's Free Choice of the Will

A few weeks back, I started discussing Augustine's conception of the (cardinal) virtues in his work On Free Choice of the Will, promising this follow-up post where I would explore and explain certain of the themes set aside for the time being in the earlier post.  Now also having shot a video delving into the topic in the meantime, and now having some spare time on my hands over Easter Break, it's about time to make good on that pledge to tell the fuller story about virtue -- and vice -- in this classic Augustinian work.

In the first post, I stuck to book 1 -- and admittedly, there's already quite a bit going on in Augustine's examination of the virtues in that early portion of the larger work.  But really, his identification and definition of the four cardinal virtues, the connection between the virtues, the will, and eternal law, even the impediments impose upon a person by the vices opposed to virtue -- these are just starting points, or better, outlines, which will be filled in and expanded in his fuller discussions about virtue and vice in books 2 and 3


More on the Cardinal Virtues

Earlier in book 1, Augustine set out the four cardinal virtues as ways in which a person's will attains right orientation, allowing that person to choose well, providing them with the capacity to actively resist and rightly evaluate temptations, to respond correctly to loss, occasions requiring sacrifice of lesser goods for higher goods -- and to do all of this not only intellectually, but affectively, in action, volition, even in emotion and desire.

Nevertheless, each of these four virtues -- prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice -- does represent some determinate mode of right understanding.  Each virtue, while not identical with wisdom, in some way participates in it -- or better put, steers the person in possession (or possessed by?) the virtuous state towards greater participation in wisdom. We ought to ask then:  What else do his discussions in the subsequent books add to fill out this picture?

One of the most distinctive Augustinian doctrines emerging in this work occurs in book 2, where he reframes the virtues in terms of modalities of knowledge, explicitly writing about "principles and illuminations".  The idea, admittedly Platonic in provenance, of virtues themselves being fixed, unchanging forms in which human beings and the virtues which they, however dimly, provisionally, or even superlatively, have developed and deployed, merely participate -- mimetically reflecting, enacting, embodying -- this idea attains a reconfiguration under Augustine's pen which renders it irrecoverably other than its original.  With what words does he carry this out?  In the midst of a discussion about wisdom, he tells Evodius, his student:
It is enough that you see, as I do, and admit to be quite certain that those principles and illuminations, so to speak, in which the virtues appear, are true and unchangeable and, whether separately or all together, are present in common to the sight of those who can see them, each with his own reason and mind.
The virtues, in Augustine's view, are similar to other unchangeable truths which can be grasped by the rational mind.  Many of these truths represent right orderings of practical matters, which can be expressed as propositions, for example:
we ought to live justly; the better should be preferred to the worse; like should be compared with like; every man should be given his due. . . .

. . . the incorrupt is better than the corrupt, the eternal than the temporal, that which cannot be injured than that which can be injured. . .

. . .  we should turn the heart away from what is corrupt and towards what is incorrupt, that is, that we should love not what is corrupt but what is health. . .

. . .  a life is better, if no difficulty can move it from a firm, virtuous purpose, than if it is easily shaken and upset by the troubles of this life . . .
These are the sorts of truths within which the virtues find their mooring points and structure.  Each of the four virtues might best be understood as a determinate kind of knowledge, uniting the intelligibility of eternal, immutable truths about good and bad, right and wrong to the ever-changing, mutibly murky, realm of human practical action, dealing with concrete particulars. 

A bit later, Augustine again invokes the conception of "illumination" when speaking of the virtues, now explicitly framing them in relation to recognizing, acquiring, and living through wisdom. 
The more a man uses them in living his life, and the more he passes his life in conformity with them, the more wisely he lives and acts. But nothing which is done wisely can rightly be called distinct from wisdom. 
The virtues are therefore not merely habits that gradually steer our behavior with a firm and right rudder through the shoals of life.  Nor are they merely dispositions producing behavior following, even deducible, from right rules.  Developing the virtues -- a project inseparable from the arduous activity of living the virtues out in the messy midst one's own decisions and deliberations, temptations and perseverances, regretted failures and partial successes -- is one of the main modes by which we can participate more fully in wisdom.  We become wise -- if we do at all -- not only in contemplation, nor in intellectual activity, let alone by amassing unintegrated snippets and snatches of books. . .   but rather in action and affection.


A Bit More on Truth and Wisdom

Several points Augustine makes in book 2 are among my favorite passages.  He draws out a double distinction, a comparison between the ways in which goods are available and acquired for us.  The first part of this distinction has to do with exclusivity by way of possession or consumption.  The second part has to do with hiddenness, or inaccessibility.

There are a number of different goods which cannot be equally possessed, let alone enjoyed by multiple people at the same time -- or even in some cases, ever, at all.  Food provides a good example. We can share a meal, but I eat my food, and you eat yours.  If you are kind enough to offer me some of your dish so that I can taste it, what I've tasted is lost to you, gone from your plate, never to be recovered.  Augustine provides other examples, and notes that this is to some extent a matter of degrees.  We cannot both touch the same spot on an object at the same time, but after you remove your hand, I can run my hand over the same surface you earlier touched.

Truth and wisdom are more like sight and hearing in that multiple people can participate in and possess the same perspective, without this activity in any way diminishing or even hindering the activity of others who choose to partake.  If I learn some truth, that takes nothing away from you, or from your capacity to learn and contemplate -- even to apply -- that selfsame truth.  In fact, the perception of truth through the mind enjoys yet other advantages even over senses like sight and hearing, which of course, require a good vantage point, and only last so long as the object -- the sight, the sound -- perdures and we turn our attention to it.  There is a timelessness to certain truths.

There is another important difference emerging from the side of the human subject, rather than the object.  Objects which we consume in the process of getting to know them, for example, by eating them become unavailable to others, and so does our very sensation itself.  You quite literally cannot taste what I taste, just something like it, from the same or a similar dish.  Likewise, you cannot see what I see -- at least not through my own eyes, and with my senses.  You can look at the same object, but the perception is mine alone, locked away within my own interority.

As Augustine tells us, this privacy applies even to our thoughts.  We each have our own minds, and I cannot know what you are thinking unless you tell me -- or betray your thoughts in some manner.  I can't know with your mind -- but interestingly, I can know that if your mind is grasping a truth, it grasps the same truth as does my own.  There is a sort of publicity, a universality, to truth, and even more to wisdom -- the latter of which is actually one, participated within by all who are in any way wise.  Augustine writes of us sharing in truths, of being unable to deprive another of those truths even when wanting to do so.  They remain available and attainable, for one who desires and seeks them.

He also recognizes a great and at times puzzling diversity in the conceptions which people of different moral orientations and varied walks of life form about the nature of wisdom, and about its principal object, namely the happiness to which it is to lead -- the supreme good, the one around which all other goods ought to be oriented, for which any other good ought to be sacrificed or foregone. Augustine even entertains the possibility that there could be multiple supreme goods, each of them indexed to a person or persons for whom that good is the highest -- but argues that even if this were the case (and it isn't, wisdom could remain one and the same for all of the people attempting to seek, find, and use it.
I should like no one to doubt about the supreme good, just as no one doubts that, whatever it is, no man can become happy unless he gains it. Since, however, this is a large question, and may demand a long discussion, let us by all means suppose that there are as many supreme goods as there are different objects sought as supreme goods by different men. Surely it does not follow that wisdom itself is not the same, shared in common by all men, because those goods which they distinguish through it and choose, are many different goods?

If this is your opinion, you may doubt that the light of the sun is one, because we see in it many different things. Of these many things each chooses what to enjoy with his sense of sight. One man likes to look at a high mountain and enjoy its view, another a fiat plain, another a curving valley, another green woods, another the level, restless sea. Another takes together all or several of these beautiful things for the joy of looking at them.

The objects are many and varied which men see in the light of the sun and which they choose for their enjoyment, yet the light of the sun is itself one in which the gaze of each beholder sees and grasps an object to enjoy. So too the goods are many and varied from which each man chooses what he wants, and, seeing and grasping his choice, constitutes it rightly and truly the supreme good for his enjoyment. Yet the very light of wisdom, in which these things can be seen and grasped, may be one light shared in common by all wise men.
To bring this back to the virtues, these are means and manners by which we rightly order our lives, not only in our conduct, but in how we estimate and order the variety of goods.  The virtues, at least as Augustine has delineated them, are not going to be compatible with, let alone able to assure the person's enjoyment of, just any ordering of goods, or any given assignation of the highest rank.  They thereby -- the better and better one gets to know them, precisely by developing them -- become indexes for determining whether one actually has got matters right with respect to one's own conception of wisdom.

They also become our own, attracting us into their patterning and shaping of the human soul, orienting it to and through reason, to a truth and wisdom which we all share in common and potentially in community.  It is nevertheless up to each person to work out his or her own relation to truth and wisdom.
It is through clinging to truth and wisdom, which is common to all, that all become wise and happy. One man does not become happy through the happiness of another man. When one man imitates another in order to become happy, he seeks to become happy by the same means by which he sees the other has become happy, that is, by means of the unchangeable truth which is common to all.

Nor is one man prudent through another's prudence, nor brave through another's bravery, nor temperate through another's temperance, nor is a man made just through another's justice. But he becomes such by conforming his soul to the unchangeable principles and illuminations of the virtues, which have incorruptible life in truth itself and wisdom which is common to all. The model this man has set up for himself, is endowed with these virtues, and he has conformed and attached his soul to their principles.

Higher Goods and the Middle Good of the Will

Another interesting discussion that takes place in book 2 concerns three types or levels of goods.  At the lowest level are goods which are, after all good, but without which we can can live rightly and well.  Possessing two eyes, for example -- it would be quite stupid to deny that it is better to have two eyes than to be deprived of one or both of them.  But, you can live a right life, even a good life without one or both of your eyes -- if you understand what the good life really consists in.  Likewise, it is better to have money than to be destitute, since money is a good -- but it's not the sort of good that by itself is going to contribute much, if at all, to living the good life.
You see how much good the body lacks when it has no hands; nevertheless a man uses his hands wrongly if he does cruel or shameful acts with them. If you saw someone without feet, you would agree that an important good was lacking to bodily perfection, and yet you would not deny that a man used his feet wrongly if he used them to harm someone or to dishonour himself. We see the light with our eyes, and with them we distinguish bodily forms. This is the element of greatest beauty in the body, and hence the eyes are given the highest position, the position of honour, and their use serves to guard the health and to assist life in many other ways. Yet men often act shamefully through their eyes and make their eyes minister to their lust.
These are the lowest kinds of goods.  At the other end are the highest sort of goods, different from these lower goods in two important respects.  For one, the higher goods bear an essential relation to the good life in which one will enjoy the supreme good -- a life not only lived rightly, but a life of living rightly.  Simply put, these are goods lacking which we cannot live rightly -- if lacking entirely, then we are entirely cut off, and if only partially, the goodness of our life remains marred, diminished, merely potential until we acquire a greater degree of those goods.  There is an important second difference, namely that unlike the lesser goods, we cannot go wrong with them.  So, what falls into this category?
Take justice, which no one uses wrongly. This is counted among the highest goods proper to man, and among all the soul's virtues which go to make up a right and worthy life. No one uses wrongly either prudence or fortitude or temperance. In all these, as in justice itself which you mentioned, right reason reigns, without which no virtues can exist. And no one can use right reason wrongly.
Of course, as Augustine points out, even these goods remain dependent upon other goods of this sort as well -- truth, wisdom, and ultimately God.  But, they possess by their very nature a right ordering, directness, an effect upon the one who uses them.
The virtues, then, by which we live rightly, are great goods . . . .No one uses the virtues wrongly, but anyone can use the other goods, the middle and the least, wrongly as well as rightly. No one uses virtue wrongly, because the work of virtue is the good use of those things which we are capable of using wrongly. No one makes a bad use when he makes a good use.
One might even imagine -- though Augustine does not discuss this possibility here -- an influence of the virtues exactly opposite to the corrupting effect of the vices, whereby even the person who would acquire or use them for untoward ends finds him or herself unable to do so by the very nature of the instruments they attempt to acquire, gradually finding their own will more and more bent (or rather straightened!) to the virtues and their inner purposes, rather than the virtues bent crookedlyto the dictates and desires of their will.

The will provides the linchpin, the locus of crisis -- it is the middle good par excellence.  It shares in common with the higher goods the status of being needed in order to live rightly -- one cannot live rightly without choosing, committing to, making progress in, determining oneself to living rightly, and that is the business of the will.  It shares in common with the lower goods the susceptibility to being used wrongly just as much as being used rightly.  In fact, the will's reflexivity makes it all the more vulnerable to wrong use, wrong use willed by itself.
[Y]ou agreed that reason itself is known by reason? Do not be surprised, therefore, if we use other things by means of free will, that we can also use free will itself by means of itself. The will, which uses other things, in a certain way uses itself, just as the reason, which knows other things, knows itself. 
What then determines whether the will is good or bad, rightly or wrongly using itself and everything else placed within its purview?
The will, then, if it clings to the unchangeable good which is common to all, obtains the principal and important human goods, though the will itself is a middle good. But the will sins, if it turns away from the unchangeable good which is common to all, and turns towards a private good, whether outside or below it. 
The virtues are among those "principal and important human goods", both product and productive of right use of the will.  What would be examples of turning to a private good, at the expense of common unchangeable goods?  Augustine tells us:
It turns towards a private good when it wishes to be its own master outside, when it is anxious to know the private affairs of someone else, or whatever is not its own concern, and below it, when it loves bodily pleasure. Thus a man who becomes proud, curious, and self-indulgent, is caught up in another life, which compared to the higher life is death. 
He also reminds us:
those goods which are sought by sinners are by no means evil, nor is free will evil, which we have found must be counted among certain middle goods. 
It is up to the will of the individual person what he or she will do with, make of, this middle good, their own will.  A choice is unavoidable -- indeed not simply a choice made once and for all, but choices, all of them bound together through a complex, concrete logic of the will.  The virtues  -- whether we understand them as the forms of the virtue gradually developed within the will of the human being, or as the vaster, more general, eternal and perfect patterns intelligible to all of us as "principles and illuminations" -- the higher goods which they comprise, are what the will requires, and must choose on its own, to reliably do good, and to be well.

There are a number of other enticing and connected topics yet to be explored in Augustine's account of the virtues, the vices, and the will.  I have to beg off once again examining them in this post, deferring them to yet another post, where I will finally delve into book 3.

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