Monday, January 28, 2013

Patience: How Far Can We Go?

Here's a draft of a paper that, as it were, wraps around the paper on patience I took on tour (ha ha) last fall. (The idea is that ultimately these two will be combined into a larger study.) In this new paper, I try at the end to do battle with the temptation to cliché. In case you don't want (or need--you know my spiel) to read the whole paper, perhaps you might have some thoughts about what I try to do at the end? There is really more to say than this, and I hope to press hard in this direction in the last chapter of the book I'm working on.

From the end of the paper:

I began by asking how far we could go in accepting Gregory’s claim that, “patience is the root and guardian of all the virtues,” if we do not share Gregory’s theological orientation. MacIntyre notes that the value of patience in the context of particular practices will be clear enough—parents, teachers, athletes, etc., will benefit in their practices from an ability to act (and wait) patiently. MacIntyre then asks:
But what if the material is just too refractory, the pupil too slow, the negotiations too frustrating? Ought we always at a certain point just to give up in the interests of the practice itself? The medieval exponents of the virtue of patience claimed that there are certain types of situation in which the virtue of patience requires that I do not ever give up on some person or task, situations in which, as they would have put it, I am required to embody in my attitude to that person or task something of the patient attitude of God towards his creation. But this could only be so if patience served some overriding good, some telos which warranted putting other goods in a subordinate place. (After Virtue, 188-9)
For Gregory, as well as al-Ghazālī and Justus Lipsius, patience is tied to faith in a well-ordered universe, in which everything happens for a divinely sanctioned reason, and thus can fruitfully be borne with patience (and constancy). Faith enables the hope that one’s patience will not turn out to have been pointless.

How far can we go in patience without that divine hope? Patience will remain instrumentally valuable across many practices and domains, and may retain its connection to other virtues. But there will seem to be limits to patience that are not present in the theistic traditions. For example, suicide perhaps can no longer be universally forbidden, or regarded always as a failure of patience. (Consider even ancient Stoic attitudes about suicide, in contrast with the Christian tradition.) Even so, I suspect that MacIntyre’s remark above is a red herring.

Eamonn Callan writes 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” ("Patience and Courage," Philosophy 68, 1993, p. 526). Callan suggests that where the possibility of a good life remains, patience makes it possible to persevere in the “moral task” of “re-creat[ing] a good life,” when various forms of adversity have derailed the life we have lived up to that point. But again, it seems that patience itself must be supported by some kind of hope. It might be hopelessly cliché, and thus insufficiently serious, to suggest that, “where there is life there is hope.” Perhaps instead: in general, we cannot say in advance when hope must run out. In patience, we make room (and time) for the attention and imagination necessary for envisioning how we might go on or begin things anew. Such patient—and perhaps also humble—activity thus serves as a “root and guardian” of the other virtues by enabling us to adapt to the changing circumstances of our lives, relationships, and world. Of course, such adaptations may also require courage, or be guided by love, but we have seen already how these virtues themselves rely upon patience.


  1. Well, here are some quick thoughts after just reading this last part of the paper:

    "Even so, I suspect that MacIntyre’s remark above is a red herring." Can you expand on this? That is, say why you think that MacIntyre's remark was worth quoting but is nonetheless not right, or not the last word on the subject. Perhaps you feel that you have already made that clear, but I think it could usefully be made more explicit.

    You say "it seems that patience itself must be supported by some kind of hope." It does seem that way, but is this a conceptual point or something more empirical? If it's empirical, do you have examples of people losing patience because they have no hope (I'm thinking of material from autobiographies, for instance)? Maybe you talk about this elsewhere. I'm trying to imagine someone being patient without hope, and it's hard to do. But is it necessarily impossible? If so, why? What if someone really did live in the present? Perhaps then they would not count as patient.

    These are the only critical comments that come to mind. If they are irrelevant or misconceived then I see no room at all for possible improvement.

  2. These all seem like the right questions to me. In terms of the paper, I mention MacIntyre earlier, and so it might be clearer in the whole why I say that. (But I agree I could say more than 3000 words, of course.) I think there's a red herring in that perhaps we can talk of patience without hope (see below), or perhaps as patience (understood in a particular way) as generating its own kind of telos (or: that patience involves, or perhaps enables, a kind of openness to seeing other meaningful ends or of ways to revise our understanding of the ends we take ourselves to have). I.e. I think MacIntyre is setting up a possibly false need/requirement here.

    I think Leibniz described Stoicism as the philosophy of "patience without hope," and that's an idea I want to pursue. I'm hoping (!) that it's clear that I'm raising questions at the end of the paper that will be worth discussing in Q&A. Here's a totally silly example (a serious autobiography might be better--in the paper I allude in a final note to Lear's "Radical Hope" which hints in a similar direction insofar as the hope involved is bereft of the usual conceptual resources): I watched "Semi-Pro" (Will Ferrell) last night, and the team plays its final game without any hope that winning will get their team absorbed into the NBA. The game is, as it were, "meaningless" or pointless. But they play it the best they can. This is cheesy (and the movie is pretty terrible--again, I'm battling cliches here). But whatever patience would look like here, my suspicion is that it had better not look like Camus' defiance and revolt (not exactly) or Stoicism understood--perhaps unfairly--as a withdrawal from the world. Patience has to involve, I think, continued engagement with, and attention to, the world (and others).

  3. That sounds right. I like Leibniz's description of Stoicism too--thanks.