Saturday, October 27, 2012

Patience, Unity of the Virtues, and Ideals

[Below is an excerpt from a concluding line of thought. Up to this point, I have considered the relationship between patience and a few other virtues--such as justice, love, courage, and wisdom--in order to illustrate the implicit role of patience in the development of these other virtues. Here, I consider a few issues that arise from those explorations. NB: I realize that the unity of the virtues thesis is controversial, but I am not concerned here to deal with objections, or what to say about the place of patience amongst the non-unified virtues; perhaps some other time.]

If either version of the unity of the virtues thesis is true, then an analysis of any virtue—say, courage—might take the same form I have adopted in this chapter with regard to patience: one could show how courage is necessary for the realization of virtues such as justice, love, wisdom, and so forth. In the case of courage, we would simply need to be reminded of the circumstances in which exercising these virtues may involve overcoming and facing down dangers and fears.

This might raise some questions about the starting point of this chapter—Gregory’s claim that “patience is the root and safeguard of all the virtues.” For if the unity of the virtues thesis is true, then there will be a sense in which every virtue is a “root and safeguard” of the others: no virtue has special priority and each one bears a crucial amount of weight in supporting a virtuous life: remove one virtue, and the whole structure collapses.

It is not essential to my project that patience have special priority in this sense. But then what of my rejoinder to Aquinas at the beginning of this chapter that perhaps we should hold that patience is “the greatest of virtues”? One possible explanation is that the aspect of patience characterized as constancy or steadfastness of commitment should be understood as constancy in one’s commitment to virtue in general. On this line of thought, patience is what enables a person to maintain a clear-headed sense of the significance of striving to live virtuously, even in one’s darkest hour. This fits with Gregory’s conception of Job as a paradigm of patience.

However, it may seem peculiar, and perhaps artificial, to suggest in this way that patience is a virtuous disposition to remain committed to the virtues come what may. On the one hand, even if there is such a virtue, it seems unclear why it should be called patience. On the other hand, if we conceive of the virtues as consistent, settled dispositions to feel and act in the right way at the right time, and so forth, then one might think that these dispositions will, as it were, take care of themselves. That is, a commitment to virtue for those who possess the other virtues is unnecessary.

In response to this criticism, it may be helpful to mark a distinction between ideal virtue and (for lack of a better term) non-ideal virtue. Dispositions are not binary; they can be more or less settled, more or less consistent. Aristotle, for example, appears to allow that occasional, slight deviations from the virtuous mean do not necessarily give us a reason to withdraw our characterization of a person as possessing a particular virtue. That person might not possess the virtue in its ideal, perfected state, but in characterizing people as courageous, just, loving, and so forth, we do not only measure them against an absolute, ideal standard, but also against the degree to which that virtue is reflected in others. A person might not be perfectly courageous, but he or she may well be much more courageous than most people. If we suppose that all, or even simply most, virtuous agents are not ideally virtuous, but rather approximate the ideal to some high degree, then circumstances will remain in which acting in accord with the (ideal) virtues is immensely difficult even for the most virtuous amongst us. (Here, Christians might consider the point that even Jesus experienced temptation—and perhaps this is essential to the idea that Jesus was fully human, even while also being fully Divine.) We could then interpret Gregory’s remark as indicating that patience (as constancy) is the final line of defense in such circumstances. This also aligns with Aquinas’ conception of patience as a bulwark against those provocations that might prompt us to react in non-virtuous ways. Given the assumption that none of us achieves ideal virtue, the significance of patience would then be that it provides some protection against the degree to which we are, as it were, imperfectly excellent.

Of course, if ideal virtue is just that—an ideal—then perhaps no one is ideally patient either. But in the present context, this would only mean that no one is absolutely immune to corruption, despair, or resignation, each understood as an abandonment of a commitment to virtuous living. This may be an unsettling thought, but perhaps it is better to be unsettled, to be reminded that we are not ideal agents. To summarize the considerations above: patience enables us to abide our own (often quite normal) imperfections and limitations, and to persevere nonetheless. Some may be uncomfortable with the perfectionist tone of these considerations, on the grounds that if our imperfections and limitations are in many ways normal, then there is something misplaced about holding ourselves to an ideal standard—that it implicitly demands something of us that we cannot give. I would suggest that this is to misunderstand the purpose of an ideal.

No comments:

Post a Comment