Thursday, February 9, 2012

Reflections on Virtue

The nature of virtue is the subject of a rather large fraction of the dialogues of Plato -- probably some of the best parts, if you ask me. The interesting thing is that for all of this wonderful discussion and argument, as far as I can tell, Plato never seems to have been able to say precisely what virtue is. Admittedly, I haven't finished all of the dialogues yet, but from what I can tell he seems to have been running around in circles, like a dog snuffling about the base of a tree where some varmint is holed up. He's figured out the general region, but hasn't quite made the final leap.

I must confess that I don't know what virtue is either, though I think that I thought I did before I started reading. But I don't think I could have defended those opinions against the wily Socrates.

Reading Plato has inspired a few useful ideas on the matter, however, which I thought worthwhile. Unfortunately, I can't put them through the Socratic wringer, he being long dead, so I thought I'd share them here.


Though I can't say exactly what virtue is, I do think I can clarify a quality that seems to have thoroughly befuddled the characters of the dialogues. They seem to have confused and conflated virtuous acts with the inward quality of character which leads a man to act in a virtuous manner. Temperance, for example, was taken to be the act of abstaining, not the capacity to abstain. It is the inward quality, I think, which is the virtue, and not the act itself. This confusion led them to several erroneous conclusions and much further confusion.

For example, in Laches, Socrates stumps one of the other participants by saying that it might be prudent (wise) to flee a battle in a particular situation, and since the virtues cannot conflict, courage could not be defined as the act of standing to fight in battle if wisdom sometimes advises one to run away. But if they had taken virtue to be the inward quality -- the capacity to stand and fight and not the act itself, or the capacity to clearly see the truth -- there is no such conflict. In a few places, Socrates appears to make just the argument I am making, but later goes back into the habit of arguing as if the virtues are acts again, as if he understood the idea intellectually, but never really internalized it. I suppose we all do that, to some extent.

This may seem rather an obvious and trivial thing, but I think a significant trace of this error still survives in modern thinking. Most people, I think, do consider virtues to be qualities and not acts. But when asked about virtue's opposite -- vice -- thought immediately turns to acts and habits, not qualities. Thus, 'virtue' immediately calls to mind honesty or courage, but drinking to excess or biting one's nails is generally the first thing one thinks of when prompted by the word 'vice.'  That doesn't really make sense.

If vice is habit or action rather than quality -- like cowardice or injustice -- then virtue's opposite must be a rather nonspecific term, like evil. I think this is rather unsatisfactory philosophy, or at least terminology or language. But since it seems that the language is clear for virtue, I am not very sure whence the confusion comes.

Perhaps it is derived from the admonition to 'hate the sin, not the sinner?' Perhaps associating vice with the inward person rather than the outward act comes too near to running afoul of this mantra? Of course, logically, this isn't sound, but whatever the case, it is a somewhat unhelpful confusion. To anyone really trying to deal with a vice or otherwise pursue virtue, I should think that thinking clearly about the problem would be an important starting point for finding a solution.


According to Plato, Socrates believed that 'the virtues,' like courage, temperance, prudence, and justice, were not in fact several different things, but really only one thing, with perhaps different faces. In this, he disagreed with most of his contemporaries. However, he never really made his case all that well, at least that I have seen so far, but rather cut his opponents to pieces in his usual style for taking the opposite view.

I am not sure whether 'virtue' is one thing, or a name which we have devised for a conglomerate of separate things. I do think that, for example, a man can be both courageous and a fool, which I think Socrates did not. This may perhaps be only a difference of points of view of the same thing. A single jewel, after all, might have one polished face and a rough one. I am not entirely resolved as to what I think. But since Plato mentions it, I do think I detect a sort of common thread to them, and in that I believe Socrates may have had a point.

If I had to pick only one virtue as representative of the rest (to illustrate my point, anyway) I would choose temperance. C.S. Lewis may have his druthers about courage being the principle virtue; temperance is my choice for the title, though I do not say it is the most important, just the most fundamental. The reason is that temperance seems to me the thing that most purely illustrates the commonality which holds the group together -- self-control.

Self-control is the capacity to assert one's own rationally chosen will over animal instinct. Without it, one has in a sense lost his power to choose his own behavior and is in a state of reduced liberty and being, a ready victim of evil and of little use for good. This capacity to assert choice against instinct is evident in all the principle virtues. Courage is the ability to overcome fear, temperance, bodily appetite. Justice is the demonstrated ability to resist craven self-interest, pride, favoritism, and the like in dealings with others, and prudence to a large extent is the self-discipline to be willing to see the evident truth of things rather than giving in to wishful thinking that is driven by cravings and emotion, i.e. it is the opposite of folly and foolishness.

It is true that some instincts are naturally good, and that some behaviors of rationally asserted will are evils which override good instincts. Nevertheless, even if that which is true, beautiful and good is known to a man, it does him no good if he has no capacity to order himself and his life according to their direction. A man who is widely regarded as virtuous almost always has acquired an unusual capacity to decide the ordering of values in his life because he has overcome the tyrannies of the appetites, of fear, etc., which in others overwhelms them. And, having acquired wisdom and good reason via this self-control, in the long run he orders them well.


Socrates was conflicted as to whether virtue could be taught. As a Greek, and no less as a philosopher, he placed his faith in wisdom, and therefore in education, as the source of virtue in men. He was, however, somewhat tentative in this assertion, and acknowledged that he might easily be mistaken. The question was an important one, as it frequently came up with regards to the raising of children. Many a father wanted to know how best to bring up a virtuous son, and sought out Socrates for help on this question.

It is difficult to know whether or not virtue can be taught if one can't be sure of just what virtue is. That was always Socrates's difficulty. However, if one accepts that it is a quality rather than an act (or an art), and in general that it springs from the root of of self-control directed by wisdom and right-reason, then a few suggestions come to mind on his topic.

First is that if virtue can be 'taught,' or in some way 'conferred,' it is not likely to be accomplished in the same way as knowledge is through education. Rather, virtue is probably more a capacity to be trained in -- or disciplined to -- through practice. And as self-control is the common root of virtue, then it stands to reason that the clearest method of 'teaching virtue,' at least at its earliest stages, is through simple discipline. 'Spare the rod and spoil the child,' as they say. In a way, what discipline does is to provide a sort of strength -- the strength to assert will over impulse -- and it is the developing of this strength which is the beginnings of virtue.

I have a theory about this. For most people, if the acting out of some impulse results in an immediate negative consequence, this provides an incentive for the person to develop the strength to overcome the impulse whenever it next presents itself. So, in a way, the world passively provides its own source of discipline by presenting people with fascinating things, like hot coals for them to touch or delicious looking berries to make them sick, which help to develop this strength.

On the other hand, there are many other behaviors one really ought not to do and many other unhealthy appetites and cravings to be tamed which often do not come with immediate negative consequences. These might include, for example, hurting others, especially the weak, or the use of narcotics. For these things, it is important that the parent 'aid' the child in gaining the strength to overcome these impulses as well -- by artificially supplying the negative sanction, until such time as the strength of will and reason is sufficient for the child to begin doing this for himself. In this way, the child gains the strength to choose the path of virtue when the time comes and the choice presents itself.

It should be immediately made clear, however, that this discipline is for self-control, to give a person the ability to override his impulses when it is necessary and important, and perhaps secondarily to communicate the direction of this path before other, better means of communication become available.  It is not to simply bludgeon him into conformity to some arbitrary mold. In that case, what is achieved is not a setting on a path to virtue, but merely a breaking of the spirit. The goal of simple discipline, I think, is not to hobble a person and to attempt to make the path into a furrow from which he cannot escape, but merely to build up the strength to make that path more navigable and to provide hints as to its general course and direction.

The second rudimentary part of virtue is the use of this strength of self-control to order one's spirit according to truth and right-reason. This is wisdom, which is acquired through disciplined reflection on experience.  I think.

It is the act of reflection, as it seems to me, which begins to reveal the moral order of things and develop a curiosity and a desire to inquire into the eternal and the divine. These activities elucidate the path of virtue. Here, I think Socrates was much closer to the mark in his thoughts on education, however, what he missed was again an important aspect of the character of the thing he was after. Education of itself cannot impart what he was looking for; it can only concern itself directly with knowledge. What is necessary is an active propensity, a living character, not a static thing like knowledge. Wisdom, which as a virtue I may not be able to define completely, I can be sure is not the mere possession of knowledge. It is a quality of character which confers a certain attitude and a propensity towards behaviors like reflection.  It is not merely knowing; it is a strength to find and accept truth.

The second 'ingredient' then, after the strengthening of self-control over impulse, is to encourage and develop a habit of reflection. On this, however, I think I am less able to provide much practical guidance. How does one help another to become thoughtful and curious? To be sure, the world itself again provides many wonders to stimulate these faculties, but they only encourage, not demand. It is easier to stay blind to these things than to a hot coal sizzling in the palm of one's hand.

I suppose the first thing is to be very cautious not to discourage the very behaviors one is after, for example, by surrounding a child with the most tedious and undemanding material available, such as presently fill the schools, or by removing him from the invitation of objects of curiosity by placing him in a deliberately dull, torpid environment. Denigrating inquisitiveness and the expression of other such similar attitudes is also obviously not a good idea. That must surely be the last thing one would want to do. On the other hand, a child can sniff out phony enthusiasm like a bloodhound, and is not likely to be fooled by overly-digested-and-pedantic-, or 'self-esteem'-building- type exercises, either.

On the basis of doing one's best not to do the above, and guided by the types of materials which have produced and interested virtuous men in times past, probably a good guess for a place to start would be with the so-called 'classics,' which I find are really nothing more than really good books. But if one is not quite up to that, books in general will probably do until one can handle 'the best.' What more reasonable place to look for inspiration to kindle one's own reflections than with another's? If nothing else, maybe it will instigate the argumentative instinct.

On the other hand, as they say, a man can lead a horse to water, but he can't make it drink. At a very fundamental level, at least as it seems to me, one of the qualifiers of virtue is that it must be freely chosen. Coerced virtue is nothing of the sort, so at least at some point in the process, the acquisition of virtue must become a self-starting affair.

That blasted free-will...


As a final speculation on the nature of virtue, I would like to take a look at what is generally meant by, and what is true of, what one would call an 'ideal,' a perfection in virtue. I will use the example of beauty, for which there is already a great deal of interest and expressed opinion, but I think the idea would apply more broadly.

Many people have come to the conclusion that 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder,' which is to say, that beauty is subjective or a matter of opinion. Others, whom I think more correct, have disagreed, saying that beauty is an objective thing, which humans instinctively recognize. It is for this reason that the same sorts of women will cause practically any man's head to turn quite reliably, rather than in a totally random fashion.

According to this theory, the men are all measuring by the same 'ruler' the observed object of beauty according to its degree of conformity to a supposed ideal. This is how they tend to come up with similar answers, with some allowance made for differences in estimation, quirks of taste, and defects of judgment. I think that this is generally true, but I would like to take a little bit closer look at the nature of the ideal.

Given this model, the mind instinctively jumps into a mathematical sort of frame of reference, I suppose at the suggestion of the idea of measurement. While I don't think this is necessarily a mathematical discussion, the mathematical idiom does seem useful here. Suppose that this model is true, that the beauty of an object is taken to be its relative proximity to an ideal of perfection measured through space of some number of dimensions. In fact, let's go whole hog and make this a vector problem like the one Fran used for human nature. But remember, it's just an analogy.

Most people instinctively take this ideal to be a point. The point corresponds to some defined and absolute set of coordinates, at least for any given category up for consideration. So, the appearance of a beautiful woman, for example, could be described by a set of vector coordinates corresponding to every conceivable variant of physical appearance, and this vector would point to her position in 'beauty space.' Her 'beauty' is taken to be the smallness of the distance between the two points, the point given by her position vector and the point corresponding to the ideal.

Now, if one has any sense at all, he'll immediately see that this is something of an absurd picture, because the various components of the vector would have an impossibly difficult time describing such a thing. For starters, they would be impossibly complex and interrelated, with various and multitudinous interdependencies. They would also be dependent on external factors (think -- behavior, dress, environment, etc.)  Even their allowable ranges would be limited and tied up with one another, as a fifty foot tall woman might not be proper to consider a woman any longer, especially if her arms are two inches long. The 'space' we are talking about would have to be rather constrained and convoluted to make any sense.

But here I'm starting to get at my point -- we understand that the nature and definition of a thing is often tied up in relationships with other things and the relationships between qualities within itself. Not all things are necessarily definable as absolute quantities in and of themselves, but as absolute relationships between things. For example, a 'friend.' No particular person is 'a friend' all on his own, only through his relationship to another person.

Likewise, if we say that large, dark eyes are beautiful, we don't mean absolutely large eyes, the larger the better, or eyes of some exact measurement. What we mean is eyes which are somewhat larger in proportion to the rest of the face in comparison to what we find to be normal for most people. We are not looking for an exact size, a particular set of coordinates in 'eye-space,' but a particular proportion relative to other things.

In fact, this type of relationship is rather obvious and has been known for millenia. Beauty is found in relationships, in proportion, balance, symmetry, and harmony of elements. If these were to be described mathematically in 'beauty-space,' they would be regions and curves of greater than zero dimension -- and probably many-dimensional, in most cases.

This leads one to the suggestion that the ideal of beauty for any category object would simply be one which satisfies every one of these proportions -- the mathematical intersection of all of these regions and curves. But it isn't necessarily the case that the intersection will prove to be a point, and I would suggest that, in fact, for most cases it probably is not a point at all, but a region. To take a very simple example, consider the ideal circle. The notion of a circle is given by a particular geometrical definition, and necessarily tied up within this notion and derived from it are a number of geometrical proportions, such as the number pi relating the ratio of the diameter to the circumference. But, despite the fact that the definition is quite precise and perfectly well understood, there are actually an infinite number of abstract circles of different sizes which do satisfy the ideal, because no absolute size is implicit in the definition. Within the category of ideal circles, it is the proportions and relationships which define the ideal, while the size is left indeterminate.

With respect to the ideal of beauty, if I return to my vector analogy, is it necessarily the case that every single descriptor will go into the assessment of beauty? Or are some simply irrelevant, while others may vary together in tandem or in groups without having any impact on the assessment? For example, if I imagine the perfect, ideal beauty, and then increase or decrease her size perfectly proportionately by 1%, will the assessment change? Will I have moved the object outside of the ideal, and if so, by what reason? Size may be said to render something more or less beautiful, but if the object exists in total independence of any other, then who is to say why a larger or a smaller size is less ideal? Would an ideally beautiful woman become less beautiful because her observer became taller or shorter? Or is the metric being used not actually an absolute metric as one might like to think, but a relative one?

Beauty -- and most other ideals of virtue -- I suspect follow this pattern, which is why we may both 'know it when we see it' in an objective sense, and why there is still room for 'taste' independent of defect in judgment. A non-ideal object may be judged by its distance separation from the ideal, but as the ideal is likely in most cases to be a rather complex and amorphous shape, the object will be found to depart from the ideal in a somewhat complex and ambiguous way -- especially the closer it comes to the ideal. There will be many possible proximities to refer to, some 'protrusions' of 'ideal-space' coming closer to this particular proximity than others, and especially if our 'taste' already favors some region of the ideal, we may not always be clear how to appraise the distance of separation. It may be somewhat distant from the 'center of mass,' but quite proximate to some particular portion extending out from it, and near or far to a particular region of the ideal which is dear to our heart.

It is also entirely possible that the ideal-space is discontinuous, like perhaps an archipelago of islands in multidimensional space. This is certainly true if one considers the entirety of 'beauty space' containing all category objects, but it may also be true for any particular ideal category object. Here is a real mind-bender -- it is also possible that the various curves and regions which describe the separate ideal proportions and relationships do not even intersect. In this case, there may be a general region of space which minimizes the distance between these curves and regions, but it is impossible for any single object to actually satisfy them.

Since I have thought of all of this, it all seems rather non-controversial, if possibly completely wrong. Rather straightforward, really. But it has made me think of why I may have made the mistake in first place of assuming a 'zero-dimensional' ideal when I first thought about things like 'objective beauty.' Assuming it was a mistake, of course.

The mistake, if I think about it, is like one of those of 'thinking about thinking about something' mistakes, instead of thinking about the thing itself. I had not thought of the actual ideal which I was trying to construct, as in, what actually makes the thing virtuous and how this might appear in perfection. In other words, I was not thinking about virtue, but of ideals as abstract things disconnected from the thing they idealize. I was thinking about how we think about beauty instead of (and inappropriately, before I had actually really considered) thinking about beauty itself and what defines it, especially the form of the ideal. The 'zero-dimensional ideal' is an 'ideal ideal,' constructed without much real reflection. It is zero-dimensional because, in the absence of specific inspection, ideals are taken to be 'like that,' presumably because that is how we generally go about finding the 'best' thing.

The 'best thing' is usually taken to be one definite thing, perhaps as an artifact from the analogy of a competition. A beauty pageant wouldn't be quite the same if there were to be an indeterminate number of winners before the competition began. But if ideals really are as I am suggesting, then while it is perfectly true that one woman may be objectively more beautiful than another, it is equally true that as the ideal is approached, discrimination becomes increasingly subject to vagaries, especially of taste, and that it is entirely possible for one or more, possibly many, to equally satisfy the ideal, yet look quite different from one another.

Thus I would conclude that in a real pageant, assuming that the pool of contestants actually represent a selection of what might objectively be called 'very beautiful women,' even if they are perfectly differentiable and unique human beings the 'winner' is essentially chosen arbitrarily.

But probably everyone already knew that.


OK, one more reflection on the subject, and then I'm really done. I was led to this admittedly strange line of thought by what is probably an even stranger line. I was considering in a sort of mathematical way the possibilities of the form of Heaven.

If I take Heaven to be a place where all things are ideal -- ideally virtuous -- and if I take ideals to be zero-dimensional points, as I had originally considered, there seems to be only two rather strange possibilities for Heaven. Either Heaven itself is also 'zero-dimensional,' -- i.e. very small, because its contents are so limited -- or, if Heaven is of substantial size, it must be completely uniform. These two possibilities seemed to follow in a very straightforward fashion from the notion that everything in Heaven must be ideal. If, for example, there are mountains in Heaven, there can either be only one mountain -- the ideal mountain -- or many clones of the same mountain, presumably in some ideal arrangement which must itself be repeated over and over if there is more than one such arrangement present. If there are people there, they must all be clones of one another and have no individuality. There may be variety in terms of different category objects of Heaven, but within a category object there must be utter uniformity. Heaven begins to sound like some peculiar sort of fractal image.

To me, this does not really sound like a very 'heavenly' place. It sounds, rather ironically, like a hell. I think it would drive a person crazy to look around and see the same thing everywhere no matter where he looked, like a Chinese water torture or something like that. Cannot variety itself be natural to the notion of an ideal? If Heaven is itself an ideal, Heaven as a completely uniform place does not sound very ideal to me. So, it occurred to me that perhaps varieties of objects might satisfy the notion of an ideal, and then the C.S. Lewis quote came to mind which goes something to the effect that the tyrants and monsters of history are all the same while it is the saints which are all different and unique. From there it was off to the races.

But then, maybe it is a bad idea to be speculating about the nature of things on the basis of an idea of what Heaven is like.

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