Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Brief Note on the Unity of the Virtues

One of the positions that some of the ancient Stoics took was that Virtue was a single thing and that what we call 'virtues' were this one thing in different situations. The word for Virtue was αρετή (arete) which is better translated as 'excellence.' Being Virtuous meant (and means) acting in a way that displays moral excellence. When this excellence was displayed in the context of the fair distribution of resources or execution of laws, it is called Justice. When this same excellence is revealed in the face of challenging or overwhelming odds, it is called Courage. All virtue is the same virtue, just applied appropriately in various situations.

By the same token, one could not be Courageous, without also being Just, for the first without the second is not courage, but recklessness. One cannot be Generous (liberal in giving or sharing) without being Moderate (keeping within reasonable or proper limits) and Just (equitable, even, fair). Without the measure of appropriate bounds that moderation offers, the person who gives too much in a certain situation is prodigal and wanton, whereas without the requirement of justice, the person who gives too little is miserly and parsimonious. Even Justice must be meted with wisdom, compassion, moderation and courage, or it may become simple tyranny. Hence, there is only one virtue, one moral excellence for each person to individually strive for, choosing the best possible behaviour in varying circumstances.