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:
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.