Questions about Ranking the Virtues
July 12, 2006 — 11:59

Author: Kevin Timpe  Category: Virtue  Comments: 12

One of my projects for this summer is to prepare a new (for me) course: Virtues and Vices. I’m taking a largely historical approach to the course. The three major texts that I’m using are Aquinas’ The Cardinal Virtues, Stephen Pope (ed.) The Ethics of Aquinas and Dante’s Purgatorio. I have found reading this material and preparing for the course to be fascinating and stimulating. It has raised a number of questions. For instance, why would Aquinas say “since human beings cannot use reason apart from sense powers, which need bodily organs, human beings need to sustain their bodies in order to use their reason”? This seems to contradict what he says elsewhere about the possibltiy of disembodied human intellect and will. But the question I want to ask about today concerns how Aquinas and Dante rank the virtues and their corresponding vices.
More below the fold.

In the Purgatorio, Dante gives an intentional ordering to the vices that he considers here. Individuals in purgatory must first purge themselves of a particular vice before they can progress to purging themselves of the other, less bad, vices. His ordering, from the worst to the least bad, is as follows:

  • pride
  • envy
  • wrath
  • sloth
  • avarice
  • gluttony
  • lust

Lust, for example, is the least bad of these vices because it is “most tied” with nessary and inherently good bodily desires. Sloth is also intentionally placed in the middle for a number of reasons. And pride’s place at the bottom of Mount Purgatory parallels his discussion of Satan’s sin in the Inferno.
Today, I came across Aquinas’ ranking of the cardinal virtues (and he ranks the theological virtues as higher than the cardinal virtues). Prudence is the most excellent of the cardinal virtues, both because it is an intellectual virtue and an act of intellect must precede every act of will, and because prudent is required directs the agent to the end of the other cardinal virtues. Temperance is less excellent than justice and fortitude, because justice and fortitude are primarily concerned with the common good, and temperance concerns both the common and individual good. I’m not aware if Aquinas gives a ranking between justice and fortitude.
There are all kinds of interesting questions here, but I’m wondering if there is a relationship between Dante’s ranking and Aquinas’. This wouldn’t surprise me given the general degree to which Dante’s views follow Aquinas’. And Dante’s ranking of lust and gluttony, both vices opposed to the virtue of temperance, as the least bad parallels Aquinas saying that temperance is the least excellent of the cardinal virtues. Furthermore, I can see some parallel between pride and a lack of prudence. But it isn’t clear to me that the whole of Dante’s ordering can be mapped onto Aquinas’ in this way. Any thoughts on this, or suggestions to treatments of this issue, would be greatly appreciated.

Technorati Tags: purgatorio dante, cardinal virtues, aquinas, vices, human beings need, human intellect, bodily organs, stephen pope, reason, sustain, ethics

Technorati Tags: purgatorio dante, cardinal virtues, aquinas, vices, human beings need, human intellect, bodily organs, stephen pope, reason, sustain, ethics

  • James

    As you pointed out Kevin, there are clear links between some of the cardinal virtues and Dante’s vices (lust and gluttony are clearly opposed to temperance). However, as I move from bad to worse vices, the mapping seems to break down, not because there is no connection, but because there seem to be too many. I can see connections between, for example, wrath and all four virtues, none of which seem to stand out as *the* obvious mapping between the two lists.
    I’m curious as to whether you can elaborate a little about the relationship you see between prudence and pride. Personally, I’m finding pride to be the most difficult to relate to any of the four cardinal virtues. If anything, it seems to me to be a corruption of love, one of the theological virtues.

    July 12, 2006 — 14:08
  • Kevin Timpe

    You are certainly correct that all of the 7 cardinal vices can be understood as corruptions of charity/love. Dante, for examples, sometimes desribes pride, envy and wrath as bad forms of love; sloth as too little love; and avarice, gluttony and lust as immoderate love.
    Here is what I was thinking about the link between prudence and pride. Prudence is good counsel about matters regarding to a human person’s entire life and the end of human life. Pride, in essence, is the vice associated with the excessive love of one’s own excellence. The proud, through love of his own self, essentially attempts to set his own end, rather than accepting the end given by God. One who is proud, therefore, cannot be prudent insofar as his intellect is in error about the proper end of his life.
    This connection, however, may simple be due to the fact that Aquinas thinks that all of the vices, in some way or other, participate in the absence of prudence, and not any particular mapping of the sort that I’m trying to investigate here.

    July 12, 2006 — 16:54
  • Kevin,
    Will this course be available anywhere after you teach it? Also, believe it or not this might be a nice supplemental read:
    Treatise on Happiness
    Thomas Aquinas Translated by John A. Oesterle
    Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press
    ISBN: 0-268-01849-9
    Book Binding: Paperback
    Dimensions: 8.5″(h) 5.5″(w) 8.5″(d)
    Weight: 0.75 lbs.,P00470

    July 13, 2006 — 9:30
  • Matthew

    If you haven’t already you might check out the SEP entry on Dante for some leads. I’d think that Dante’s Convivio would be a good place to look for information on Dante’s relationship to Aquinas.
    Doesn’t Aquinas argue for the possibility of a disembodied intellect in regards to some future state of the soul, but the present fact of the matter is that we are bodily beings whose intellect depends on the mediation of the bodily organs. I guess I don’t see the contradiction, but I’m not an Aquinas scholar so I’m not overly familiar with the literature.

    July 13, 2006 — 9:59
  • Kevin Timpe

    Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll take a look at it. As the course schedule currently stands, we’re only dedicating two class periods to eudimonia.
    I’m not sure that you mean by “Will this course be available anywhere after you teach it?” The course will not be web-cast or recorded or anything, but will hopefully be taught again. I would also be willing to share the syllabus and some of the course materials with those that are interested (but probably not my actual lecture notes).
    Thanks for the recommendation too. I wasn’t aware that the SEP had a Dante entry.
    And you are correct that there isn’t a contradiction in Aquinas’ view here, but I think there is a tension. One of the frequent criticisms of Aquinas’ view of the human person is that the person is a soul body composite, but the disembodied soul can think. Eric Olson raises a version of this, which he calls “the Problem of Two Many Thinkers”, and Kevin Corcoran raises a similar criticism in his new book on human nature.

    July 13, 2006 — 11:30
  • Kevin Timpe

    In the intial part of this post above, I said: “I’m not aware if Aquinas gives a ranking between justice and fortitude.”
    He does: “Prudence is the most important of the cardinal virtues, justice the second most important, fortitude the third most important, and temperance the fourth most important. And the other virtues rank after the cardinal virtues” (ST IIaIIae 123.12–I’m also guessing by ‘other virtues’ he does not mean the theological virtues, since he ranks those as higher than the cardinal virtues).
    Now that I think about it, this shouldn’t be surprising. Aquinas thinks that each of the cardinal virtues is especially connected with a type of human capacity:
    This seems to parallel, then, his general ranking of these capacities. It also seems to confirm (though this might be contentious) that Aquinas is significantly more an intellectualist than a voluntarist. I suspect, for example, that Aquinas must ultimately appeal to the intellect as the explanation for primal sin. But that’s probably a topic for another post.

    July 14, 2006 — 18:41
  • Shawn Floyd

    Hey fellers. Mind if I cut in?
    James raises a good question: “Personally, I’m finding pride to be the most difficult to relate to any of the four cardinal virtues. If anything, it seems to me to be a corruption of love, one of the theological virtues.”
    Maybe this will help. It’s natural for most people to construe pride as being most opposed to humility, as Aquinas does (See ST IIaIIae 162.1 ad 3). What is interesting, however, is that Aquinas takes humility to be a subsidiary virtue of *temperance*. Initially this may sound strange. After all, humility denotes a restrained desire for what lies beyond one’s abilities, whereas temperance denotes a restrained desire for physical pleasures. But Aquinas places humility under temperance because it constitutes a *kind* of appetitive restraint:
    “[I]n assigning parts to a virtue, we primarily consider the likeness that results from the mode of the virtue. Now the mode of temperance … is the restraint or suppression of the impetuosity of a passion. Hence whatever virtues restrain or suppress, and the actions which moderate the impetuosity of the passions, are considered parts of temperance” (ST IIaIIae 161.4).
    Because humility (as Aquinas understands it) consists in a restrained desire for great things, it more closely resembles temperance than some other virtue. This account would also explain why Aquinas thinks meekness and clemency are parts of temperance. They, too, restrain certain appetitive drives, namely anger and the inclination to punish, respectively.
    This might be an interesting way of relating (or contrasting) pride with the cardinal virtues. And while pride is a corruption of love, so is any capital vice.

    July 18, 2006 — 21:06
  • Kevin Timpe

    Thanks for joining us and the interesting post. Let me ask a follow-up question. Is humility a sub-species of the general virtue of temperance, or the special virtue of temperance? If the latter (which is what I’m guessing you meant), then this really spoils my attempt to map the ledges of purgatory onto Aquinas’ hierarchy of the 4 cardinal virtues in any principled way (as the lowest of the 4 cardinal virtues would correlate witht both the highest and the lowest ledge of purgatory). If Aquinas means the former (i.e., that humility is a sub-species of general humility), then there is still hope, as the 4 cardinal virtues understood generally are co-extensive.

    July 19, 2006 — 10:22
  • Shawn Floyd

    Aquinas does say that humility–considered as a special virtue–is primarily concerned with one’s subjection to God. Yet one can also consider humility as a part of temperance because it concerns a specific manifestation of appetite. Of course, Aquinas is not always clear about these distinctions. I’m not sure how this would undermine your efforts to correlate Dante’s Purgatory with Aquinas’s hierarchy of the virtues. But that’s only because I have not looked at Dante in a long time.
    As for your question about disembodied intellects, I’m not so sure Aquinas contradicts himself here. As you know, Aquinas is the king of creative ad hocery; and here is a good example of it. While the intellect is not itself a bodily organ, it nevertheless needs the body in order to function properly. So there can be disembodied human intellects. It’s just that they don’t work very well without the mediating power of the senses. This is why existing as a hylomorphic union is a preferable mode of existence for human beings.

    July 19, 2006 — 13:22
  • It might be useful to point out that Aquinas classifies virtues by ‘parts’, and there are three very different ways something may be a ‘part’ of a virtue.
    If it is an integral part, it is a condition necessary for that virtue. So he says the integral parts of temperance are shamefacedness and ‘honestas’ — roughly, recoiling from the intemperate and being pleased by the temperate. If it is a subjective part, it is a sub-species of that virtue; so that chastity, for instance, is a subjective part of virtue. And if it is a potential part, it is a secondary virtue that has the same ‘mode’ as the virtue, but in a different matter. So humility is, as it were, temperance in a different field of affairs. These parts are actually just virtues annexed to other virtues due to similarity (in this case, moderation).
    So I’m not sure much hangs on the classification of humility with temperance; it’s just put there because humility is temperance-like in the way it works.
    It seems to me that Dante’s Purgatorio is organized on a rather different principle. First, and least deadly, are the sins of excess, which come from enjoying good things too much. Then, and more deadly, are the sins of defect, which involving not enjoying good things for what they are. And then, finally, comes the perversions, which are neither merely excessive nor merely defective, but twisted: treating good as evil and evil as good. (Except, of course, in Purgatory you purge the sins in reverse order, starting with pride.) The Inferno is organized differently yet again; I’m not quite sure what the principle is, but one that seems plausible to me is to see it as a classification in terms of violence or harm done — we start with lust, which can be seen as a sort of carnal violence largely against one’s own good due to lack of restraint, and rise from there through other sins of incontinence, into sins involving increasingly deliberate harming of others (or attempts at it) — property, physical harm, spiritual harm — to treachery, spiritual violence requiring deliberate planning against one’s friends. It would make sense that hell would be structured according to the type of harm, while purgatory would be structured on principles of the seriousness of the sin itself.

    July 19, 2006 — 15:28
  • Shawn Floyd

    Hi Brandon. Describing humility as “temperance in a different field of affairs” is a helpful way of putting the point (certainly more helpful than my clumsy description). I simply called attention to Aquinas’s interesting categorization in order to suggest how a virtue such as temperance might have some role in expelling pride.
    By the bye, I really like your blog.

    July 19, 2006 — 16:01
  • Thanks. I didn’t intend to imply that I thought you were on the wrong track, since I think your idea’s a good one; it’s just that when we clarify the sort of part of temperance humility is, it’s only loosely connected to it due to similarity — so another classification that doesn’t focus on similarity of operation might not consider the humility-temperance link very important.
    Thinking about ranking itself, it’s interesting that Aquinas ranks humility as the greatest virtue after the theological virtues and justice (ST 2-2.161.5), and in doing so provides an interesting explanation for why humility doesn’t seem to rank so high as a virtue as we might expect from the opposite of such a terrible vice as pride: humility is important as a disposing us to receiving spiritual goods; but more important than what disposes us to receiving spiritual goods is what actually perfects us in them. So (with regard to Kevin’s original post) that gives us a way in which the importance of vices and the importance of virtues are not parallel rankings: vices are the worst the more thoroughly they impede the reception of good (make virtue impossible), but virtues are not ranked according to whether they remove these impediments, but according to their own scale (what excellence they actually impart). So the two need not match up — the opposite of a very horrendous vice might be a relatively minor virtue, and the opposites of a very important virtue might be relatively minor vices.

    July 19, 2006 — 16:24