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Virtue in the Middle Ages - University of South Florida

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A quick, and yet somehow still exhausting, tour of a Thousand Years
Virtue in theMiddle Ages
One Thought Per Thinker
Augustine: The pagan idea of virtue is pride and delusion.Anselm : It’s all about obedience.Peter Abelard : Intentions are all that matters.Thomas Aquinas: Virtue perfects human nature.John DunsScotus: It’s all about the will.William Ockham : The language of virtue falls apart.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)Virtue Perfects human nature
From natural law to virtueThe standing analogy between speculative and practical reasoning
From natural law to virtue (ctd)
The first precept of the natural law is that good is to be done and evil avoided.The most general precepts of the natural law are more substantive principles that point out specific goods to be pursued.Aquinas identifies these goods by appealing to a general metaphysical theory of goodness and a philosophical anthropology.These goods are arrangedhierarchicallyandinclusively.Aquinas posits appetites corresponding to each level of good.
And so we arrive at virtue
Virtues are dispositions by which we achieve our specific good effectively.We need them because our specific good is rational activity, and our appetites alone do not suffice for fully rational choice.Sensory appetite needs virtue in order to follow reason.Intellectual appetite needs virtue in order to be directed toward the common good.Reason needs virtue in order to judge well.
Thus the fourcardinal virtues
There are two virtues perfecting the sensory appetite:Temperance (temperantia) perfects theconcupiscibleappetiteFortitude (fortitudo) perfects the irascible appetite.Justice (iustitia) perfects the intellectual appetite (will).Practical wisdom (prudentia) perfects reason.
Analyzing particular virtues
We’ll take temperance as our example, just because I have a handy chart.The basic rule of temperance: natural law at workThe psychological complexity of temperance
The Linchpin:Practical wisdom
In deliberate actionWe apprehend the endWe deliberate about how that end can be achieved here and nowWe judge what is to be doneWe command the external bodily members to do itPractical wisdom in the broadest sense is the virtue by which we deliberate well, judge well, and command well.
The linchpin:Practical Wisdom
There are corresponding vices in each caseFoolish haste or “precipitation” is a failure in deliberation: you don’t stop and think.Thoughtless is a failure in the act of judgment: you can’t be bothered to pay attention to the relevant considerations.Inconstancy is a failure in the act of command: you don’t follow through.Since moral defects cause these defects in practical reason, practical wisdom is impossible without moral virtue.
Natural & supernatural goods(or, howaquinasout-book-tens book ten)
The specifically human activity that constitutes our good is not theoretical but practical reason.The life of practical reason – the life of the activity of the moral virtues – is “proportionate to human beings.”The life of theoretical reason is in an important sensesuperhuman.But as a Christian Aquinas believes that God intends human beings for a life that surpasses their nature.
Natural & supernatural goods(or, howaquinasout-book-tens book ten)
But note: grace does not destroy nature; it brings nature to fulfillment. (Gratia nontollitnaturamsedperficit.)Heavenfulfills our nature, though in a way beyondnature’spower; and our supernatural life begins not with death but with baptism.We need virtues that dispose us toward that supernatural happiness: faith, hope, charity.These virtues have a parallel structure to the moral virtues.
John dunsscotus(1265/66-1308)It’s all about the will
All virtues of character are in the will.Possession of a virtue is neither necessary nor sufficient for right action.The virtues are not necessarily connected; they arepartialperfections.
William Ockham (c. 1287-1347)The Language of Virtue falls apart
Ockham agrees withScotusthatVirtues exist only in the will.The virtues are not necessarily connected.The intellect’s judgment never determines the will.No innate inclination or acquired habit in the will – not even a virtue – causally determines the will’s actions.But he’s more radical thanScotusin his view of the neutrality of the will.
William Ockham (c. 1287-1347)The Language of Virtue falls apart
The most characteristic feature of Ockham’s discussion of the virtues is that he uses the language of virtue and vice to talk about particular actions rather than dispositions.This tendency aligns Ockham with the approach that is commonly said to be characteristic of modern moral philosophy.
Organizing Questions for the Grand Tour
1. What is the role of virtue in each thinker’s ethics as a whole?2. How does each thinker arrive at a characterization ofparticularvirtues?3. What’s more important: humannatureor the humancondition?4. Does psychological analysis play a crucial role?5. How are knowledge, love, and virtue related?
Organizing Questions for theGrand Tour
6. What is the connection between virtue andhappiness?7. What is will?8. How trainable are the appetites?9. What about the unity of the virtues?





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Virtue in the Middle Ages - University of South Florida