26 March 2007

Thi manlynesse [L. humanitatem tuam] shewid to alle men

One might be tempted to call it a 'catfight' if it weren't a dispute over the meaning of 'manliness'.

You might have seen Myles McDonnell's reply in BMCR to Robert Kaster's review and wondered about it. My take on the exchange is that McDonnell poses an apparently good question, which Kaster, for all his small points of criticism, never really addresses. Indeed, Kaster's remarks make the question only more pressing.

The apparently good question is how virtus, a term that signifies at first 'manliness', could come to stand for excellence of character generally. As McDonnell puts it in his reply:

What is unusual is that by the late Republic virtus could be used, on the one hand, by Caesar to mean a non-ethical quality invoked to excuse an ethical failing, and, on the other hand, regularly by Cicero as a quintessentially ethical term. This is remarkable and requires explanation.
N.B. McDonnell is using 'ethical' and 'non-ethical' in a technical sense. What he means in saying that it was 'non-ethical', is that virtus did not originally mean something unconditionally or universally good. Yet he admits that it signified something admired and held up for imitation. McDonnell therefore says that virtus was a 'moral' rather than 'ethical' ideal. (This way of drawing the distinction is unfortunate, but it should not cause confusion once it is explained.)

I don't see that Kaster ever deals with this question. Indeed, he strengthens it when he says near the end of his review:
At the very beginning of his book McDonnell remarks that 'virtus is a notoriously difficult word to translate'; but I do not think that he means quite what he says. In the vast majority of the texts in which it occurs, virtus can be translated, simply yet accurately, as 'manliness'.
Yet at the beginning of the review Kaster had offered the following proxies for 'manliness': 'courage in the face of danger or adversity and self-mastery in relation to either pleasure or hardship', 'a capacity to impose one's will on one's environment, or to resist the determination of one's activities by that environment'. Okay, then, restate McDonnell's question as: How did a word that meant (say) 'a capacity to impose one's will on one's environment' come to mean moral excellence generally?

Kaster criticizes McDonnell for holding that virtus originally meant especially prowess at aggressive actions in warfare, not defensive resistance, and that in the plural it indicated acts or deeds of valor:
If the singular form virtus fundamentally denotes a 'quality or trait entailed in being a vir', one might expect that the plural form fundamentally denotes 'qualities or traits entailed in being a vir'; and that is indeed what it is found to denote countless times. But there can be no such plurality of qualities or traits for McConell: having decided that 'native Roman virtus' is always and determinately one specific thing, he must explain away the not inconsiderable number of places in early Latin where virtutes are mentioned, primarily by claiming that '"deeds of courage" is the regular meaning of virtutes in ... early Latin'
Yet I find it interesting--and a fact that tends by analogy to substantiate McDonnell's claim--that English prowess works in the way that McDonnell thinks virtus did in early Latin. The plural, 'prowesses', usually means 'acts of prowess'. (OED says: Chiefly in pl. = deeds of valour.) Also, the word 'prowess' originally meant specifically active military courage (OED meaning 1. "Valour, bravery, gallantry, martial daring; manly courage, active fortitude"). Like virtus, 'prowess' for a brief while in English comes to mean moral excellence generally. (OED cites Chaucer for this now obsolete use: "For god of his prouesse Wole that of hym we clayme oure gentillesse.") But it did not keep that meaning.

In light of all this, McDonnell's suggestion--that virtus acquired and kept that sense only from its being implicitly likened to the Greek aretē--looks exceedingly plausible.

By the way, did you notice the passage where Kaster ignores the twin distinctions, intrinsic/extrinsic and final/instrumental?
An 'ideal', however, to be an ideal, must be a final good -- a thing one strives to attain as an end in itself -- and it seems obvious that any final good requiring limit or modification cannot be a final good: if virtus just was belligerent aggression of a socially threatening sort, as McDonnell says, it cannot have been the 'ideal of Roman manliness'; if it was that ideal, it cannot have been what McDonnell says it was.
What seems obvious to Kaster is false if we accept the two distinctions. One might easily say in reply that virtus was pursued as a final good but insist (with McDonnell) that its goodness was not universal but rather conditional upon something else.

(By the way, I don't know either Kaster or McDonnell personally. And, as I said, I haven't read the book. This is simply my reflection on where the issue stands, given what I've seen in BMCR.)


Magister Leon said...

The explication of those 'twin distinctions' has given some structure to my thoughts; I have been preoccupied by the divergence between agonistic and ascetic ethics, and the distinction between final-cum-extrinsic and final-cum-intrinsic strikes me as pivotal for any understanding of the trends. I wonder, for example, if Homeric ethics posits any final-cum-intrinsic good, or if one may claim that all goods are in a way extrinsic, relating recursively in their valuation. And whence the notion of a thing chosen as absolutely final-cum-intrinsic? Does it represent the persistent normative force of absolutist moral claims, or a consequence of rational theories of causation and the summum bonum, or both?