Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Dimensions of Patience

I've been trying to work out what an Aristotelian model of patience might look like which takes patience to be more than the virtue of wise waiting (on the grounds that constancy to a task is also a form of patience, though some might call this instead perseverance), and which can make sense of Eamonn Callan's remark in "Patience and Courage" that, “in patience anger and despair are the things to be controlled if we are to cleave to the good against the temptations of impatience or a dejected passivity.” I'm not hellbent on making an Aristotelian account (virtue as a mean) work, but I am hoping that the attempt will be instructive. (And here I will omit the reasons why I think we should take Callan's remark seriously.) What follows is something of a summary of how things are shaping up and where I think they are headed.

A feature of Aristotle's account of the moral virtues that isn't always appreciated fully is that it appears that not all moral virtues are "one-dimensional" in the sense that the mean is located at some point on a single continuum (or emotional axis). His account of courage shows this, since he claims that courage is the mean of both confidence and fear. In short, one can have too much or too little confidence, and too much or too little fear, and so there are really four quadrants of potential deviations from the mean. (Whether confidence and fear intersect at right angles is something I won't worry about here!)

This led me to suggest that perhaps we should think of patience in the same way. I begin by taking on, as one relevant axis, the virtue Aristotle calls "mildness" (or "good temper") since this is the virtue dealing with anger. This seems relevant since a patient person is slow to anger, and I, for one, think of much of the anger I experience as a kind of impatience. So, in short, that captures half of Callan's claim above.

But despair (which Callan identifies as "dejected passivity") does not seem to be a deficiency of anger. So, I suggest that despair can be understood as a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, and thus involves a diminished (or crushed) sense of personal efficacy. The judgment that one really has no hope and can do nothing will at least sometimes (often?) be incorrect (or involve a constricted understanding of one's alternatives), and a general tendency toward despair might thus be regarded as a kind of vice. (Apologies if this seems to "moralize" a psychological disorder.) I think we can oftentimes think of this kind of despair as a failure of reasonable confidence (again, pulling from Aristotle). And someone who is in the grips of despair of this sort, and is consequently passive, isn't being patient. On the other hand, an excess of confidence might be able to explain some failures of patience that take the form of getting ahead of oneself, rushing too quickly into action, or rushing through an activity. Someone in the grips of a kind of mania--thinking oneself able to do anything--will not have the restraint necessary for (or constitutive of) patience.

I'm now to the point where I suspect that this leaves out something important, which is that patience, both in waiting and in constancy (which may involve action beyond waiting), requires an understanding of oneself, others, and the world--the time it takes for certain things to develop, the limitations of oneself and others, and the ways in which the world may fail to cooperate with our plans, giving rise to delays, disruptions, and worse. To wait wisely requires some knowledge. And to do some activities well requires a kind of attention, stillness, and deliberateness which, in the face of looming distractions and interferences and our own anticipation, will often require patience. (That is, we can sum up what's needed as a need for patience.) Mildness and confidence help, but my suspicion is that I need a third dimension that squarely captures the need for attention, and I think this could be called mindfulness (which of course is a crucial part of the Eightfold Path in Buddhism). I need to read up on mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition, but in a rough attempt to frame mindfulness as a virtue in Aristotelian terms, it involves awareness and attention to details and surroundings (being "present" rather than "absent" and distracted), and so a receptivity to information. "Excessive" mindfulness would be something like losing the forest for the trees, being caught up in minutiae and mistaking minor details for important ones, etc. A deficiency of mindfulness would be a tendency toward distraction and being "absent" as one acts. (Think: students texting or whatever during class.)

Those who insist upon thinking about patience in narrow terms as waiting probably won't like any of this, but the dictionary would suggest that patience has these other meanings as well. (The OED entry is rich.) I'm not entirely happy with the application of confidence above, as it seems the most awkward, and on the surface out of line with ordinary usage. Maybe instead of emphasizing the sense of personal efficacy, I should emphasize hopefulness. But either way, the important point would be that patience is a function of "hitting the mean," as it were, along all of these dimensions, and so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that if we try to think of (or see) patience in its fullness by focusing on any particular dimension, we will only be seeing part of the story.

Once I sort this out, I'll return to the issue of anger and mildness, and Seneca's challenge to the Aristotelian view that there is ever a right amount of anger.


  1. what are you gonna do with all these virtues?

  2. j., your succinctness cracks me up (and I admire it).

    I hear two different questions: (a) the philosophical question: what is the telos toward which all these virtues are aiming? and (b) the writer's question: what is my plan for all these various analyses of virtues like patience, humility, courage, etc.?

    On (b): I have a lot of different ideas. Right now, I'm focusing on writing a few essays I'm committed to (for books), and on working on a manuscript about the place of patience in "the moral life" (as it were). That hasn't been done before, recently, (except in a work of Christian ethics), and it seems to me that it's a good place to explore some connections between some of the various "excellences"...

    On (a): I'm wary of teleology, and yet it's hard to avoid teleological thinking. If I have to specify an "end," I'd prefer to keep it simple--something like, "living well." I suppose that includes "flourishing" or "self-realization" (if you like that term), but also responsiveness to others and the natural world. I don't have a grand theory. I tell myself that this is because I am suspicious of grand theories. But maybe it's because I don't have the cast of mind necessary to think in grand terms...

  3. oh, i meant (b), i kind of gathered (a).

    i've always wondered at why there aren't more accounts of the collected virtues, given the model that aristotle sets. but i'm not well read in ethics so maybe i'm missing them.

  4. It seems like accounts of the various virtues used to be more common (e.g. Geach's book on The Virtues). Roberts and Wood have a nice recent book on intellectual virtues, and there are probably others. Certainly in the journal literature, discussions of specific virtues (as opposed to discussions of various theoretical puzzles in "virtue ethics") are less common. I'm not sure why; maybe because "theory" somehow seems more "philosophical" than "accounts of the collected virtues" (which might seem more like preaching or self-help)? But I'm not sure...