08 October 2005

A Fifth Cardinal Virtue?

Wisdom, temperance, courage, justice, and piety--are these five names for the same thing, or is there underlying each of these names a unique thing, a thing with its own power or function, each one unlike any of the other?

sofi/a kai\ swfrosu/nh kai\ a)ndrei/a kai\ dikaiosu/nh kai\ o(sio/thj, po/teron tau=ta, pe/nte o)/nta o)no/mata, e)pi\ e(ni\ pra/gmati/ e)stin, h)\ e(ka/stw| tw=n o)noma/twn tou/twn u(po/keitai/ tij i)/dioj ou)si/a kai\ pra=gma e)/xon e(autou= du/namin e(/kaston, ou)k o)\n oi(=on to\ e(/teron au)tw=n to\ e(/teron;
It's the question asked by Socrates of Protagoras (349b), of course. What strikes me as especially interesting, however, is the addition of 'piety' to Plato's usual list of four chief virtues.

Why is this interesting? In the Protagoras, Plato is clearly testing the idea that all virtues are forms of 'wisdom' or 'knowledge' (332a-333b), and that all are forms of justice (329d-332a). One might even take the hedonic calculus at the dialogue's end to be expressing the view that all virtuous action is a matter of appropriately discounting present pains ('courage') or pleasures ('temperance'). So, then, is Plato's view, similarly, that all the virtues are forms of piety? That would seem to be the view of the dialogue: it seems presumed, for instance, in the way Socrates refers to piety at 330e.

But, then, is this Plato's view, also, outside of the Protagoras, and, if so, what are the implications of this for his understanding of virtue? I've done no careful study. I would simply note that one finds evidence in the Crito that he construes other virtues as forms of piety. There Socrates explains that standing firm at one's post in battle, even if this means giving up one's life, is a high expression of piety towards one's country:
You must persuade your country or obey its orders, and endure in silence whatever it instructs you to endure, whether blows or bonds, and if it leads you into war to be killed, you must obey. To do so is right, and one must not give way or retreat or leave one's post, but both in war and in courts and everywhere else, one must obey the commands of one's city and country, or persuade it as to the nature of justice (51b, and cp. Phaedo 62b, Apology 28d).
Of course remaining at one's post, even to the point of death, was the paradigm of courage.

What would the implications of this be? Roughly, it would follow that it is misguided to construe virtue, for Plato, as an expression of autonomous human reason (as Vlastos does, in "Socratic Piety", in fact). Piety is the relationship of undischargable debt, and therefore obedience, to superior authorities, such as parents, ancestors, the city, and the gods, who have bestowed upon us the highest goods (life, sustenance, education). Xenophon reports that Socrates viewed human life as under the providential care of the gods; in the Phaedo, Socrates explains that he was attracted to Anaxagoras precisely because he was hoping to find corroboration for the idea that a divine power orders everything to the best end; Plato in Laws 10 regards recognition of the beneficial superintendence of the gods as the indispensable basis for an orderly and virtuous society.

But virtue cannot be the autonomous exercise of human reason, if a fundamental moral attitude, or the most fundamental attitude, is a willingness to subordinate oneself to the authority of a higher intelligence.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Let us accept that pious Socrates believes the gods superintend human affairs with our good in mind, so that in seeking to do what is right we are not seeking anything different from what the gods will for us. What then is Socrates’ purpose in the Crito, and what is the point of his discussion with Crito?
Socrates is trying to discover by reason what moral course the gods intend for him. Arete in any arena of human endeavor is first of all the resolve to persist in inquiry until one has found out what it is right for us to do ( = what the gods wish us to do). Socrates seems to believe that there is objectively a Right Thing for him to do. Piously & virtuously he is persisting in his inquiries with Crito until he is sure what it is he must do.
Why isn’t virtue, so construed, an autonomous exercise of human reason?

Sam Rickless said...

I don't think it's correct to say that, for Socrates, all the virtues are forms of piety. As I've argued ("Socrates' Moral Intellectualism", PPQ 1998), Socrates' position in the *Protagoras* is that courage (C), justice (J), piety (P), and temperance (T) are forms of wisdom (or knowledge), specifically that C is knowledge of what is good and bad in the future, that J is knowledge of what is good and bad for others, that T is knowledge of what is good and bad for oneself, and that P is knowledge of what is good and bad for the gods. Virtue itself is simply knowledge of good and bad, and all the virtues (C, J, P, and T) are numerically distinct parts of virtue. On this conception, P is part of J (but C and T are not parts of J). (I don't see where in 330e you find Socrates committing to the claim that all the virtues are forms of piety.)

If this interpretation of the *Protagoras* is correct, then, according to Socrates, piety is not a relationship of obedience to superior authorities. It may be that once you know what is good and bad for the gods, you will choose to obey their injunctions. But it does not follow that to be pious IS to obey the gods (or one's superiors generally). To think that piety is a form of obedience is to accept a commonly held belief that Socrates takes pains to disavow (just as Socrates disavows the claim that piety is the god-loved in the *Euthyphro*.

As to Vlastos's claim that (for Socrates) virtue is the autonomous exercise of human reason... If Socrates accepts that virtue is knowledge of good and bad, I suppose it would not be unreasonable to say that virtue is the OUTCOME of the autonomous exercise of human reason (assuming, of course, that reason is the way to obtain knowledge). But I don't think it will do to IDENTIFY virtue with the autonomous use of reason, since such use is not itself a form of knowledge (of good and bad).

bat said...

This isn't another of those Christian readings of Plato, is it?

Anonymous said...

A naïve question. Is virtue for Socrates just knowledge of what is good & bad, right & wrong, or is the earnest pursuit of moral knowledge also virtue?
Are Socrates’ professions of ignorance at once confessions of virtuelessness?
In the case at hand, does Socrates’ exchange with Crito show courage and perhaps piety, as Socrates calmly debates what he should do as his execution looms, or is the only excellence in evidence a degree of dialectical skill? I fancy that for Socrates the truly difficult & frightening part of his decision to stay was becoming certain that this was the right course. Once he had resolved that, then the actual execution was something he could bring off well.

Sam Rickless said...

As Plato emphasizes in several places, including the *Apology* and *Crito*, Socrates has all the virtues (C, J, T, and P) apart from wisdom. That is, as Plato sees it, Socrates is courageous, just, temperate, and pious, without in fact having knowledge of what is good and bad. This makes Socrates a counterexample to his own moral intellectualism. I am persuaded that Plato was aware of this, even as he was writing the early "Socratic" dialogues, and that this is even part of the message of the early dialogues. It is only late in the early period (and in the middle period) that we actually find philosophical arguments against moral intellectualism (I am thinking primarily of the end of the *Laches* and of the *Republic*).

Anonymous said...

What a remarkable paradox we've arrived at! Socrates is virtuous. Virtue is knowledge. But Socrates does not know.
I regret I don't have easy access to the article Prof Rickless references, but I take he does not offer us a solution there. Can we accept the idea that "Socrates is a counterexample to his own moral [theory]"?

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