13 June 2006

Virtutis Splendor

Another theme in De Officiis worth considering is 'splendor': Cicero speaks of virtue itself, and virtuous actions, as having splendor and claritas.

A virtue is brilliant (praeclarus); it shows itself (cernitur) and shines forth (lucet). What does this mean? Is this a mere figure of speech, a rhetorician's emphasis? Or does does this theme have some technical, substantive, or deep significance? (If it doesn't, why does Cicero keep adverting to it?)

Here are some examples which show this; I could give dozens of others:

  • The virtue of justice has splendor, and, by implication, all the other virtues have it as well: virtutis splendor maximus (I 20).
  • According to Cicero, the more difficult an action that shows greatness of spirit, the more brilliant it is: Sed quo difficilius, hoc praeclarius (I 64).
  • Greatness of spirit is something that one wants to declare or express: nec enim aliter aut regi civitas aut declarari animi magnitudo potest (I 72).
  • When what we deliberate about becomes murky, then we should suspect that we have strayed from an equitable and just course, since this simply shines out: Aequitas enim lucet ipsa per se, dubitatio cogitationem significat iniuriae. (I 31)
  • The virtue of decorum expresses, in the body, an ordering of the soul, which implies a subjection to reason: …ex quo elucebit omnis constantia omnisque moderatio (I 102).
Now there are at least three interesting questions here:
1. What does this talk of 'brilliance' mean? What does it mean for a virtuous action to be expressive, and how does this contribute to its quality of being an honorable good (honestum)? (Is there a link here, perhaps, to recent 'expressive' theories of practical reason--as e.g. Liz Anderson's work?)
2. Why does Cicero regard this as so important--what role does this notion play in his understanding of ethics?
3. What are its antecedents?


Eric Brown said...

These are interesting questions. Even if these are merely Cicero's rhetorical flourishes, one wonders why these particular flourishes struck him as appropriate. I would draw two connections, to the aesthetic side of to kalon and to Cicero's obsession with gloria. The latter is perhaps more interesting. One can imagine Cicero thinking that without observable greatness, virtue and virtuous action would not reliably receive fame. But this thought does not originate in De Officiis, either.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Eric,

You caught me! I had left gloria out on purpose. Why? As you intimate, that invites a too easy dismissal of Cicero's concern with splendor. Also, Cicero's official position is that the desire for glory (cupiditas gloriae) is to be avoided (I 68), and he insists that glory needs to be sacrificed to the honestum in action, when these conflict (I 84)--so that presumably splendor is something prior to gloria.

It seems right that the kalon is an antecedent. And yet Plato and Aristotle, at least, seem not to place special emphasis on this being the manifestation or showing forth of something otherwise hidden.

Another interesting point: one finds elsewhere in Cicero as in the Stoics a kind of 'reversion to Socrates' as a teacher and model in ethics, and yet the absence of any analogue for splendor in Socratic doctrine is, if anything, even more striking--don't you think?

Eric Brown said...

Cicero's position is that cupiditas gloriae needs to be avoided, but this hardly undermines glory as an important end. Book Two is pretty clear about the right and wrong ways to pursue glory, and indeed, about the different kinds of glory.

I am not sure I see the contrast with the precedents, either. What is the evidence that Cicero takes splendor to be a "manifestation or showing forth of something otherwise hidden?" Leave off the 'otherwise hidden' bit, and there's no contrast with the precedents. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the early Stoics happily talk as though virtue and virtuous actions have a special aesthetic quality, a beautiful appearance.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Eric,

I take splendor to exist in the action, gloria to exist in human opinion; and splendor should be the basis for gloria.

It seems to me that in this 'otherwise hidden' is located what distinguishes Cicero from the others you mention. For Cicero, I think, moral beauty is not (as it were) structural or static, but in some way revelatory.

It's interesting that in book II Cicero precisely takes himself, in his discussion of glory, to be reverting to Socrates: Quamquam praeclare Socrates hanc viam ad gloriam proximam et quasi compendiariam dicebat esse, si quis id ageret, ut, qualis haberi vellet, talis esset. (II 39) Yet in the passage in Xenophon he is apparently referring to, Socrates is discussing friendship; he says nothing about glory (doxa); and his point is simply that we best win the affection of others by genuine virtue-- 'if you want to be thought good in something, strive to be good at it' (II.6.39).