Saturday, November 26, 2011

Can Virtue be Taught?

... he makes me admit that my political career is a waste of time, while all that matters is just what I neglect: my personal shortcomings which cry out for the closest attention. So I refuse to listen to him; I stop my ears and tear myself away from him, for, like the Sirens he could make me stay by his side till I die.

Professing ignorance of virtue's nature, Socrates does not answer Meno's question, “Can virtue be taught?” Rather, they begin to seek its nature: for, knowing this, they will know whether it is teachable. Finding this tedious, Meno insists upon his original question. Socrates, unwilling to make a definitive statement in the circumstances, agrees to proceed hypothetically and produces two contradictory arguments. On the one hand, if virtue were knowledge, it would be teachable. It is reasonable to think this; for people act well by virtue and the one who acts with circumspection, acts well. On the other hand, if virtue were teachable, the children of virtuous men would unfailingly be virtuous – their fathers, after all, precisely because they are virtuous, could and would teach them. Yet virtuous men, such as Pericles, have children who are failures.

A diligent search for the nature and properties of virtue will resolve this dilemma. It will become clear that virtue is neither simply teachable, because it is not simply knowledge; not is it unteachable, for it is not wholly separate from knowledge.

To begin with a consideration of what people have thought about virtue seems appropriate: for the common conceptions about something help make its nature known. All moral philosophers, including those as different as Aristotle and Kant, agree that virtue is intrinsically connected to action. Moreover, all agree that we act well by virtue. Thus, when what makes a man act well is found, we shall have discovered what virtue is.

Now, every action has a corresponding power; for example, thinking has intellect, seeing has sight. Unlike these powers, an active power with many different activities is not, and cannot be, a sufficient principle of action: when it acts, it must act in a particular way but it is not naturally apt to choose one way without some other principle. For example, the hand is capable of many things: playing the violin or writing. Without some other principle, one cannot choose to do one of these because its natural power is not determined to either. Virtue must be a principle which determines such a power, because it makes a man to act well.

These principles are of two kinds: feelings and habits. Feelings cause transitory actions while habits cause characteristic ones. To illustrate this distinction, one can look to the arts: sometimes an otherwise inconsequential artist produces a masterpiece, the hymn of Tynnichus mentioned in Plato's Ion, for example; but sometimes artists, such as Mozart or Beethoven, consistently produce masterpieces.

Of these principles, virtue cannot be a feeling as it causes a person to excel. Now it is not because someone has angry or joyful feelings that he is excellent, but because he has these feelings for the right reasons. So, feelings are not causes of excellence, but are well managed by the excellent person. Thus, it is clear that virtue is not a feeling. It is, then a habit.

This conclusion is illustrated by experience. All think that virtues characterize the person: for people call the man virtuous who is known for either frequent good actions or great ones. Similarly, people call vicious someone notorious for frequent or great evil acts. This evidence suggests that virtue characterizes the excellent man. Habits are principles of characteristic actions; consequently, virtue is a habit of excellence.

Since virtue is a habit, clarifying what a habit is will reveal the nature and properties of virtue. A professional violinist is someone excellent because he has the habit of playing the violin. A novice, who lacks this habit, has considerable difficulty producing a beautiful tone. Even when told what to do, he cannot produce the action correctly. With practice, however, his arms and fingers become habituated to the actions of playing the violin: now it is easy to do reliably what was once difficult and intermittent. Thus we see that habit makes an indeterminate active power act a certain way easily and reliably.

Now, since virtuous action is habitual action, it must be done knowingly and for its own sake. For, in either case, the person will not act in a reliable way. If someone fights well in battle for the sake of praise, he will not act courageously when his action will go unnoticed. Similarly, someone who underestimates his enemy is confident until he realizes his mistake. Unlike these cases, since the courageous man knows the danger and acts because the action is good, he acts reliably in the face of danger.

If acting virtuously is acting well, it follows that one who acts well, acts according to knowledge. For an action is done well when it is neither extravagant nor stingy but is proportioned to the task at hand. But, if the object to be acheived is unknown, one cannot so proportion the action. Thus, a virtuous action presupposes knowledge of the object.

If a virtuous action is done according to one's knowledge, it is done for its own sake. As Aristotle says in the first book of the Ethics, happiness is activity in accordance with virtue. Thus, virtuous action is not an means to happiness, but happiness itself. Consequently, it must be done for its own sake.

Since virtuous action must be done for its own sake, it seems impossible to acquire virtue. For since a habit is formed by repeated action, it seems like virtue would be formed by repeated virtuous action. If this were so, virtue would be unteachable because a virtuous action seems to suppose that one has the virtue.

This argument, however, does not take into account how one acquires habit. Before one acts well, one acts. Paying attention to the budding violinist shows this quite clearly: the beginner does not become an expert over night. Rather, through practice and the instruction of his teacher he acquires the art one step at a time. This is the key to the solution: one must act before one acts well; a paralyzed man is completely unable to play.

Practice, then, is necessary for all virtuous action. There are two aspects of practice without which it is useful: one must act frequently and one must know when one makes a mistake. If the first is missing, the action will not become habitual since habits are formed by repetition. If one does not know when one acts badly, then practice may form bad habits rather than good ones.

In one way, a child can be informed of right and wrong through reward and punishment. Since people naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain, one can cause a child to act appropriately by appropriate rewards and punishments. Although this is teaching, it is only so qualifiedly and should rather be called training. For, although the child acts rightly, it cannot explain why one action is preferable to another; to be taught, however, is to be shown why something is so.

Pleasure and pain, however, are more than instruments of reward and punishment: they are also good and evil to sense. For, pleasure (all other things being equal) is generally sought by all animals; thus, since the good is what all desire, pleasure is a good. Pain is the opposite of pleasure and the opposite of a good is an evil; thus, pain is an evil. Consequently, reward and punishment are not extrinsic to the practice of virtue: rather, they cause the child to discover virtuous and vicious actions in a manner analogous to the discovery of principles: through experience of good and evil, they arrive at what is universally so.

As princples relate to conclusions so is teaching virtue by reward and punishment to moral instruction. For, through the experience of pleasure and pain, the child begins to see basic principle such as “the good is what all desire.” Building on these, one could point out that a well-governed society is good and that such a society requires that its citizens respect the authorities. Seeing this, the learner could begin could put his knowledge into practice and thereby acquire the habit of justice. This mode of acquisition is more worthy of being called teaching: for, the person who becomes virtuous in this way sees why he should act.

The last way, and in some ways the most perfect way, virtue can be taught is by example. Someone can learn to act in a certain way through the example of those around him or by a poetic imitation of the action of a great man. Through seeing the actions in their context of circumstances and consequences, a feeling can be aroused in the onlooker's soul. If this feeling is appropriate it will attract him to a virtuous action or repulse him from a vicious one. Then, by acting according to this inclination, one can begin to acquire the habit of vice. There is a certain perfection in this: virtue subordinates one's desires to reason; example accomplishes this by aligning one's desires with reason. Moreover, this method avoids the revulsion associated with hypocrisy: since the teacher “practices what he preaches,” the student does not feel manipulated for the other's gain. Nevertheless, this mode is not precisely teaching: for teaching usually implies going from premises to conclusions, while one simply sees someone's example. It is, however, more like teaching than reward and punishment, because the motivation for the action is the action itself.

Although all of these ways can inform someone of how he should act, none of them can make a person virtuous: for, none of these compel one to act. Unlike geometry which may be sought for its own sake, knowledge about virtue is useless unless it is put into practice. One can do evil knowingly as Alcibiades points out in the passage from the Symposium quoted at the beginning. Recognizing this, Aristotle argues for several appetites whose desires can be opposed: most broadly, the sensitive appetite which is concerned with sensible goods and the intellectual appetite which is concerned with all goods insofar as they are good. Since some things seem to be good, but are not so, it happens that one does evil due to one's desire for pleasure. Not only is this true of sensitive appetites, but sometimes the will chooses some apparent good over a real good (one example is the sophist, presenting a position as true which he knows to be false). From this, the role of virtue in human life is clear: just as a great violinist plays beatiful music effortlessly, so the virtuous man does noble actions. This is because his virtues manage his desires and aid him in the execution of virtuous actions.

Thus Plato's dilemma has been resolved: virtue is not simply teachable because it is not simply knowledge; yet, it is not unteachable because it arises from actions in accordance eith reason. Considering the interaction between various faculties of the soul brings out several ways of teaching virtue: reward and punishment, moral instruction, and example. None of these, however, can make someone virtuous: ultimately, he must choose it for himself.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

All knowledge is of sensible things. The good is known. Therefore the knowable good is a sensible thing. But the good of sense is pleasure. Therefore, the knowable good is pleasure. Thus we would see that the only known good would be the pleasant. Consequently, it would be irrational hold something else to be good. Thus, there would be no reasonable basis to be virtuous, unless virtue enabled one to live more pleasantly.
Inspired by this post, among others

Friday, June 4, 2010

Sensation and Suffering

All things are hard:

man cannot explain them by word.

The eye is not filled with seeing,

neither is the ear filled with

Sensation, on the part of its object, is the most known power of the soul; since all knowledge has its origin in the imagination which in turn is derived from sense. Yet, considered as a power of the soul, it offers many puzzles. In solving a puzzle, one begins with what is most known and deduces what is less known from it. Thus, in discovering how sensation is like motion, it is necessary to consider motion, and then see how the parts of motion correspond to the parts of sensation.

The first thing one notices about motion, is that there is a thing moved and something which moves it. Considering this, Aristotle proposes a definition of motion: it is the actuality of what exists in potency as such2 Thus we see that every motion involves an actuality and a potency. We also see that the actuality in motion is imperfect, since while it occurs, it is in potency in some respect. Finally, we see that the actuality is in what is potential, since that is what comes into actuality. In sensation there is both a mover and a moved, but which part is called sensitive and which sensible is ambiguous. In addition to this puzzle, if we are to see how it is similar to and different from motion, it will be necessary to show how it involves act and potency, whether the act involved is imperfect, and where the actuality is. Let us go through the difficulties to show that sensation is composed of two motions: one proceeding from the sensible on the sensitive, and one which begins and ends in the sensitive insofar as it has been perfected through the reception of a form.

Perhaps the first notion of what is actual and what is potential is found in the names given to the principles of sensation: sensitive, and sensible. From these names, it seems that the sensitive is the agent, and the sensible the potential. If we should consider them this way, we would say that sensation is the actuality of the sensible as sensible. From this we would conclude that the sense is the agent, and the sensible what exists in potency, and that the actuality is in the sensible.

But if this were the case, it would seem that the sense itself would be sensed. For, the sensitive soul would be complete with respect to its act. That is, just as the locomotive soul, exterior impediments aside, can move the body whenever it wishes, so also the sensitive soul should be able to sense whenever it wishes; for organs of sense are themselves sensible. But it is manifest that we do not sense the organs by which we sense, but something exterior. Therefore the sensitive soul cannot be complete in itself regarding its own act.

From the preceding we can see that the sensitive is a power of the animal which requires something external to complete it. Thus, the sense-power is seen to be a certain potency to the sensible form. Considered this way, the potency is in the sensitive, the actuality in the sensible, and the sensible moves the sensitive. From this it follows that the actuality of the sensible is in the sensitive.

However, in order to understand this, potency must be understood as having a twofold signification. Thus, in one way it signifies the ability to receive a form as if it were a quality in a subject. Visible bodies have a potency to colored in this way. For example, the green apple has a potency to red insofar as it can become a red apple. It is clear, then, that the sense cannot be potential in this way. For if it were, the organ would receive the sensible form as a quality, and the color could not be sensed since that which is applied to the organ is not sensed. Thus, the sense must be potential in a different way.

The other way something is potential, is called potency from its receptivity3, and this is the way in which the sense is potential. Thus, as Aristotle points out4, sense is a power which receives the form without the matter. This is similar to how a wax tablet can receive the shape of a seal which is impressed on it without becoming that seal. So also, some things are receptive of sensible qualities without posessing them as the matter. One such is the transparent; for if the transparent were to receive the coloreds as qualities, then the space around the visible object would be colored. And since colored between the eye and the colored object obscures the colored object, the sensation would not be of the thing but of the transparent. Further, in these conditions sight would not happen since the color would be placed on the eye5 Sense, then, is potential insofar as it receives the sensible without becoming sensible itself. Thus, we can still say that the sensible acts on the sense, that its actuality is in the sense, and that it alters the sense.

But now we have two related difficulties: first, if sense and the transparent both receive the sensible form in the same way, the effect produced should be the same; second, if the sense is passive as was just shown, it should be called “sensible” rather than “sensitive,” which would go against the common opinion expressed in speech that sensation is an action which comes from the soul as an agent. Aristotle also notices this at the very end of book two of theDe Anima where he notes:

What, therefore, is smelling except suffering something? Or is not smelling also sensing, while the air, suffering quickly, becomes sensible?6

Therefore the suffering that occurs in the sense is different from that which occurs in the medium insofar as both suffer, yet only the sense acts. Aristotle gives us a clue as to how this is when he notes that motion is an imperfect act while sensation is the act of the perfected7. If sense, then, is some action, it would seem odd to call it a passive power. Yet, this is how we speak of it and is implied in calling it the act of the perfected. Let us untie this knot and discover how sense is passive, and how active.

To begin the untying it is necessary to meditate on how Aristotle describes this receptivity. He calls it the “saving of a being in potency by a being in actuality8.” When Saint Thomas explains this passage, he calls it a perfection9. From this the distinction between active and passive powers is seen: active powers, when in potency, are sufficient in such a way that they can be used at will; passive powers, on the other hand, must be altered by something outside, before they attain this level of sufficiency, when they have been altered, their act happens simultaneously with the end of the alteration. Thus, where motion is the act of the imperfect as such, sensation is the act of the sense-power when it has been perfected. That is to say that sensation is the act of a power which cannot operate at will, but only when it has been perfected through something altering it.

Thus we see that sensation is like motion, suffering, and alteration in two ways: first, it is like them insofar as the sense is brought from potency to act by the agency of the sensible, in this way it is altered, undergoes, and is moved as has been said; secondly, it is like them insofar as it makes the sensible to be sensed, and in this way it alters and moves the sensible. Yet, this second motion is not motion univocally, but it is motion in a certain way.
1 Ecclesiastes 1:8
2 On Natural Hearing Book III, 201a11
3 St. Thomas Setentiis de Anima, Bk. II Lectio XI, n.9
4 De Anima 424b16
5 De Anima 419a13; I have a theory about why the medium is necessary, but I’m not sure how Aristotle considers it. It seems to me that the medium is necessary, because it is the instrument by which color can become immaterial.
6 Aristotle, De Anima 414b16
7 De Anima, 431a6
8 De Anima 417b3
9 De Anima 417b4; St. Thomas says this in his commentary on the passage (Sententiis De Anima III, lectio 11, n.8): Actus autem est perfectio potentiae; et ideo hoc modo dicitur passio, non secundum quod fit quaedam corruptio patientis, sed magis secundum quod fit quaedam salus et perfectio eius quod est in potentia, ab eo quod est in actu.
10 De Anima 431a7

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Epitaph to Instinct

To all those who have studied Fabre

O bug squashed and spread upon my wall
What lack of knowledge hath brought to thee thy fall
Was thy instinct's skill e'er so small
That men should kill without thought
Or question of what made the so?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

On Music

Sorrowful music cleanses the soul;
Storms of teardrops unnumbered
Over sweetness untold
When the clouds break,
And our tears flow away;
They leave behind the blossoms
Of the meadows of May.

Friday, July 11, 2008


Where stands the last noble man,
Who still has heart to sing?
Where reigns the virtuous warrior,
The long-awaited King?

Nowhere may a Christian man
His distinguished valor show,
Nowhere may a knight-at-arms
Beat down insidious foes.

Awaiting him the night grows old,
And clouds obscure the moon,
And blood staining green earth red
For vengeance heaven moves.

Not a song have we to sing,
Nor wine to cheer our heart,
And tyrants strive our brow to brand
With Hades' baleful mark.

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Modern Tragedy

If every child is wanted,
Why was I left to die?
If every man is born free,
Why wasn't I freely born?

And yet I see my mother,
In a dark and dreary room,
Sitting by a window gazing out
On children playing in the street
And when she weeps to think of me
I wipe her tears away.

At night I see her dreaming
Of sad and dreadful things,
Then walks she unto the bed,
Where would I have lain,
And there she sits quietly
Weeping out her pain.

Now I stand beside her
And wipe away her tears
And now I know I'm wanted,
When I see my mother cry.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The March of Time

Who hath used what I have used?
Whose will they be when I am gone?
In the opera of this World,
I live, I die, a passing song.

What others have owned, now do I own;
What I do own will from me pass;
And I will fade, and pass away—
A fleeting shadow of the past.

Such is life, such is fame:
Each of us another name
That comes on stage, plays a part,
And quickly from this world departs.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A Sonnet to the Savior

When e'er I look upon the sky,
Or gaze upon the azure sea
Beauty may I in these descry—
Beauty reflected all from thee.
Of beauties all, more beauteous far
For beauty do they from thee reflect
As light is from an aery tarn
Perched atop a mountains crest.
When thou doth leave, their beauty fades
Its source being gone, its signs make haste
To where thou art, and there they stay;
Enlightening this barren waste.
And if thou wilt, will I thy servant be;
Whatever thou dost wish will I do for thee.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Birth and Death

There was a night long ago
In which a babe was born,
And laid into a manger bare
A stable with the beasts to share,
And as he lay there, weak and frail--
A helpless child seemed he.

There shone a star in that sky
As radiant as the Sun,
A sentinel, an angel bright,
Which stood on high to guard that night
A baby weak and young.

On a hillside close at hand he saw
A shady grove of trees:
From one he saw an acorn drop,
He saw it die, like the grain of wheat
That dies and brings forth life.

He joined the celestial song of praise,
Looked abroad and saw
Three old men he with face upturned
Wondering what this might portend,
This star, this midnight sun.

These men he saw journey forth
Over many weary miles;
Till they reached a palace cold
And set aflame a jealous fool
Who called himself a king.

The hours grew old and passed away,
Passing years took rest,
In age and stature grew the twain––
The oak stretched to the sky,
The child became a man.

But here begins the seeming end,
The child is bound with chains,
The tree cut down with a blade of steel,
Stripped of its bark, of limbs shorn,
From its flesh two beams were born,
To satisfy man's scorn.

The man was bound by fetters strong
And dragged before a throng.
He was judged by hate, doomed to die;
Upon a tree crucified
By men that very day.

The beams were joined and on him laid
And thus began the march of pain
To Calvary's hill and bitter shame.

When they reached the fateful place
They nailed him to the tree
And hung him high as a disgrace,
A blot upon this sad world's face
From noon till stroke of three.

'It is finished.' He cried in a loud voice
In thunderous crash the earth replied
And marked the moment our Savior died.

And at that moment, from gloomy Hell
A horde of souls went free,
Free to roam the hallowed earth,
Hallowed by a new life's birth
Amid death's misery.

Let us remember this Christmastide
The man who for us died,
And spread these words far and wide,
Words of truth: God has died.

But where'er these words are sprung
Let others added be:
From death comes life, like risen grain
His death is our greatest gain.
Although within a grave he's lain,
Now he's risen free.