Friday, May 23, 2014

Two Senses of Patience in the Greek of the New Testament

Up to know, I'd been working with the assumption that the term patience had roots that come later than the ancient Greek thinkers (which is in some sense right), in part because although Aristotle, for example, discusses virtues related to patience, like mildness, there is no obvious term in his ethic that captures quite what patience came to mean in Christian thought or in its (watered down) modern sense of calm waiting. This article points out that there are two Greek terms (not commonly used by the ancients) that occur in the New Testament, both of which have been translated as patience, although their meanings differ slightly.

I found a copy of Barclay's New Testament Words (one of the sources for the article above) at Berea College Library today (just down the road), and it's an interesting little book. Barclay calls hupomonē "The Manly Virtue" and a kind of "masculine constancy," which suggests that it's a form of patience that Aristotle would have regarded as a virtue (given it's meaning of endurance and perseverance, and so its connection with courage), even as makrothumia (the patience of tolerance and forbearance, that connects with the Christian virtue of meekness) appears ultimately at odds with his conception of mildness (which allows for some justified anger and payback, even as one is slow to anger) and magnanimity (megalopsuchia). [I keep thinking about those odd commercials for the low-calorie soda Dr. Pepper 10 that exclaim, "It's not for women!" and how to turn that into a joke about hupomonē, given Barclay's gloss.]

I haven't done as much principled and chronological mapping of these various terms as I might have, and I find myself now wondering how we got from hupomonē (and to some extent, makrothumia, too)--which is close enough to courage that Aquinas classifies patience as he understood it as a form of fortitude--to patience as calm waiting. My main hunch is simply that endurance, perseverance, and tolerance/forbearance all involve, in part, waiting (for the pain to end, for the goal to be achieved, for anger and the thirst for revenge to pass, so that one can act justly and wisely). (A quick survey of the French terms patience and l'attente suggests the same thing in French, just for another point of comparison in a contemporary Western language.)



  2. Aquinas treats the martyr, and not the soldier, as the paradigmatic case of fortitude. There's useful stuff on this in the section on fortitude in Josef Pieper's *Four Cardinal Virtues*.

    The sense of fortitude here is the one missing (as Pascal sees it) in most lives: "All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone."

  3. Thanks, Kelly. One of my colleagues has that Pascal quote on his door!

    DMF: I haven't yet found time to watch more than the start of that video, but thanks for the link. I am not familiar with Hauerwas' work.