Hellenic ethics are largely different than those of the modern day. Modern theories of ethics merely focus on duty and what we ought to do. In contrast, the virtue ethics of Hellenism focus on how we ought to be. In Hellenism, what you are determines how and why you act, not the other way around.
Plato’s Protagoras teaches us that virtue is ultimately something that can be learned, however not in the empirical sense of “writing on a blank slate.” For Plato, the virtues are very real, and are innate parts of the soul, so in theory, we don’t need to be taught them. Instead, because of the soul’s state in materiality that weighs its memory down, we need to be reminded of them (as for Plato, all true learning – which is learning of Real things, like the Forms- is merely remembering), which, more or less, takes the shape of being taught by someone who has already remembered, or at least remembered more; such as your parents or teachers. As such, it is like a language, and like language, it can’t be something that’s merely put in the hands and understood by a few specialists. Even if it’s taught, it must be something that’s widely distributed.
However attaining to virtue, especially its higher levels, is hardly a simple manner. One’s intellect must be free from the influences from the Realm of Generation usually described as “passions.” The passions are things that tie us to the physical world at the cost of the spiritual and thus weigh down the soul. As such, virtue, according to Iamblichus in his letter to his chief student Sopater, is nothing less than the “perfection of the soul,” and with that become more like the divine and let go of the inclinations of materiality & generation. Virtuous acts are the best acts, and Iamblichus sings lots of praise for such actions.
Attaining virtue can be a difficult matter since striving for the Good may bring pain, as the Good is not synonymous with pleasure. There are pleasures that are bad and should be avoided, and pains that are good that you should accept.
- Example of a Good pain: The pain that is given by a doctor when one goes into surgery. It’s a pain, but it’s a good pain. In the long run, you’ll have more pleasure and less pain. You’re better off going through the pain. If you don’t, the pain will get worse and worse.
- Example of a bad pleasure: Doing hard drugs, such as cocaine, or deliberately harming yourself, such as the case with masochists.
If “Good” and “Pleasure” were the same thing, and “Badness” and “Painfulness” were the same thing, then with this sentence, “someone does something bad knowing it to be bad because they’re overcome by pleasure,” can be changed by substituting “Good” instead of “Pleasure.” For example:
- “Someone does something bad knowing it to be bad because they’re overcome by good.”
However, this lacks sense, as moving closer to the good would further remove you from the bad. We can thus conclude that “pain” is not synonymous with “bad”, and “pleasure” is not the same thing as Good.
Virtue is derived from the divine realm as a higher aspect of the Form of Beauty, and as such it has no beginning or end; existing outside of time. Although the ways beings participate and express virtue in the world may vary, virtue itself remains the same and is unchanging. As such, virtue isn’t merely gained through practice, which exists on the level of the Realm of Generation, but also through contemplation, and at its highest levels, Theourgia. And to reach Beauty, or virtue, one must engage in Eros, the desire for Beauty.
Plato presents four virtues in the Republic, and in the Protagoras, Socrates argues that these different virtues are, in truth, different names for one absolute or interconnected thing; virtue itself. Iamblichus comments and expands upon each of these four virtues:
- Wisdom, which belongs to the reasoning faculty
- Courage, which conducts the emotional and passionate nature
- Temperance, which consists in a certain pact, in a concord between the passionate faculty and the reason
- Justice, which is the due application of all the other virtues as each in turn should command or obey.
To better understand the virtues, our rational soul is metaphorically divided into three parts:
Our Reasonable part thinks; and when it does this well, it has Wisdom. Iamblichus describes wisdom as an “eye of intellect,” which reflects imagery from the metaphor of the sun in the Republic. Just as the eye needs light to see what is around us; we need wisdom, which flows from a spiritual light, to see the proper ordering of the virtues. Through the light of wisdom we can see, and through being able to see we can turn our gaze upwards towards the source of illumination, the eye of intellect, which is also the ultimate source of wisdom. Wisdom is sight, and this wisdom is the highest of the virtues.
Julian the Philosopher tells us something about wisdom in his Hymn to King Helios. Here Julian relates wisdom to Athene, the virgin Goddess of wisdom and war. Julian interprets the myth of Athene springing from the head of Zeus, writing that She “was sent forth from [Zeus-]Helios whole from the whole of Him, being contained within Him.” Athene is Zeus-Helios’, who is Nous, perfect intelligence; the mind of the divine Mind, as it were. For this, Athene is responsible for “unifying the Gods in [Zeus-]Helios”. She also serves to order the Gods represented by the seven planets and all the stars in the heavens, known as the Visible Gods, and to fill them all with practical wisdom, all the way to the moon Selene. She also gives to humanity the blessing of wisdom. With that, Athene’s role is identical to the function of wisdom in Plato’s Republic and Iamblichus’ letter to Asphalius. However, though wisdom is associated with Athene, it is distinct from her. The Gods, in their perfection and participation in the Good, have no need of virtue. Rather, it is humanity that benefits from participating in the virtues emanating from the divine realm.
Wisdom takes two forms:
- Theoretical wisdom (sophia): Theoretical wisdom is the chief of the virtues, utilizing them all. Iamblichus connects virtue to Nous, the divine Intellect and Celestial Demiurge, giving it the power to organize the virtues into the most useful arrangement. Wisdom derives from Nous and is perfected by it by fully participating in the divine mind. Through our participation in this virtue, we are most connected and assimilated to the Gods. Aristotle says that through sophia we’re able to grasp true “beings” or “realities whose fundamental principles do not admit of being other than they are.” In his Pythagorean work, Iamblichus relates this form of wisdom to the One “which sees what is known in a unitary way.”
- Practical deliberation/prudence (phroníseos): Through prudence, we can discern between what is good and noble and what is not. By being able to discern what is noble, we can then act nobly. Wisdom is, in short, the divine model upon which all daily activities should be based upon.
Courage (andreías), also called bravery, takes its place as the second virtue. As Seneca said, “Sometimes, even to live is an act of courage.” Courage comes in two forms:
- “Manly” courage: This first form of courage consists of daring and fortitude. Further, such courage is valorous and majestic. People with this type of courage endure pain because it is noble to do so. This is courage on its own; courage-in-itself.
- Constancy: Constancy is the second and truest form of the courage, and is typified by a courageous person whose high spirited nature, regardless of plain and pleasure, functions under the rule of reason concerning what should and should not be feared, or that which is real and that which is not. High spiritedness relates to the second part of the soul; the Spirited portion, which is led by reason. Courage is a kind of mental activity, the “self-identity of intellect” which brings about an unwavering state of mind, existing within itself. This is courage directed by wisdom. Through this combination of the two virtues, the individual not only knows what is not to be feared and what is to be feared, but is also able to discern what is for both the individual and common good. It also allows us to stand up against what should be feared; and also helps us stand up for what we believe in. Through this combination of courage and reason we can live noble lives, full of courageous actions, performed for the sake of doing what is right, regardless of common opinion. Further, courage allows us to carry out these noble activities for the sake of the common good; even through adversity and pain, with composure and balance. All this suggests a high and perhaps even spiritual kind of courage rooted in the Form of Virtue.
Typically in the modern world, people don’t think of courage as an intellectual activity; let alone the highest of intellectual activities. However, one should be reminded that thoughtless acts of “courage” are not courage; they are merely thoughtless. Any animal is capable of acting in such a way.
Rather, as a faculty of discernment, courage allows us to wholly understand when a situation is to be feared or not. Moreover, courage enables us to act in the face of opposing public opinion and danger; even to the extent of the threat of death. Acting from courage isn’t mere mindlessness, but it is rather movement from purpose. Iamblichus explains courageous activities are ones that are performed solely “for their own sake.” Courage and acts of courage are carried out because it is what courageous people do.
Temperance (sophrosýnis), also called “sound-mindedness”, is the third of the virtues. As the established pattern dictates there are two kinds of temperance:
- Harmony: Just as wisdom informs and directs courage, harmonious temperance mirrors this by moderating and ordering all the virtues. A person who is temperate works harmoniously with reason; making them reasonable, sober and fit for guidance.
- Symmetry: Symmetric temperance gives proper order and rank to the three parts of the soul so that reason always holds sway over the other two parts. This means a person in possession of Symmetric temperance is fully their own master, with the Reasonable part of the soul fully controlling their Spirited and Appetitive parts; and thus the virtue of self-control allows us to become perfect through Reasonable part of the soul’s triumph over the passions which incline us towards generation and away from the spiritual realms of above. Through temperance we partake in the the ordering nature of the cosmos by preserving a proper way of living. Through Temperance the other three virtues are harmonized and focused, and with that we become more like the form of the Gods.
Thus temperance takes the role of moderating the other virtues. It isn’t a mean that partakes in the nature of that which its moderates, but rather it’s a coordinator. A virtuous person is able to act appropriately as the situation dictates thanks to self-control. This is accomplished because of the coordination that temperance enforces over the parts of the soul. This doesn’t mean that the “worse parts,” Spiritedness and Appetitiveness, are extinguished by virtue; but rather they are employed appropriately and in moderation, rather than in excess. Similarly, the virtues are brought together through temperance’s moderation, and applied appropriately under the guidance of reason, the vehicle of wisdom.
Justice (dikaiosinis) is the fourth and last of the virtues, as only people who cultivate virtue and self-control can bring positive change to others. It is the synthesis of the virtues. As expected, there are two types of justice:
- Distributive: Distributive justice is the sum of the virtues; as when wisdom and bravery are harmonized through temperance the end result is justice. Justice consists of…
- What is proper to the feelings of community
- The observation of legal obligations
- Communally working towards the betterment of the people and not merely oneself
- Generally striving to and working towards the Good.
With that, through justice the natures of all things are not only preserved, but are also exemplified.
- Reciprocal: Iamblichus’ definition of reciprocal justice, the “reciprocity of the equal and appropriate,” is derived from the Pythagorean mathematician Nicomachus, whose own definition is derived from Aristotle in his discussion of friendship and politics in chapter eight of his work, the Nicomachean Ethics. This states that only when people are friends is there true justice.
- Friendship is the true and superior form of justice because distributive justice alone doesn’t include friendship. Reciprocal justice, which is justice in its fullest sense, always guarantees a non-diminishing and guaranteed baseline-status of people (even if the status of some increases) and always includes an element of friendship. This friendly element is important because it is only in friendship that equality and reciprocity are truly possible.
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