The True Context of Virtue Is Not Original Sin But “Original Honesty”

I return again and again to the topic of “virtue” because I have a concept of virtue embedded in my mind from pre-Epicurean days which I need to un-learn.  Epicurus’ perspective on virtue as derived from Nature differed greatly from the common view that virtue is established by the gods or by governments.  As in introduction to the topic, here is the opening of Chapter XIV (“the New Virtue”) of DeWitt’s Epicurus and His Philosophy:

“A SYNOPTIC glance over the topic of virtue is essential for bringing to light the historical sequence and the shift from one matrix of meanings to another. Plato viewed the topic of ethics within a political context. His four cardinal virtues, Wisdom, Temperance, Courage, and Justice, were defined within the political context and they were meshed alike with the division of citizens into men of gold, silver, and iron and with the tripartite division of the soul as rational, appetitive, and passionate. Aristotle honored the political context when he discussed the Best Life under the head of Politics, but he tacitly recognized the social context when he defined virtue as the mean between two extremes in his Nicomachean Ethics.

With Epicurus there is no wavering between the political and the social contexts. He favored a minimum of government and chose to look upon men as free individuals in a society transcending local political boundaries. This shift gave rise to a new matrix of meanings and not only called for fresh definitions of recognized virtues but also demanded recognition for new virtues theretofore only conventionally interpreted.

When Epicurus rejected Reason and adopted Nature as the norm, discovering in the behavior of the newly born, “not yet perverted,” the basis for identifying pleasure as the end or telos, he created by implication a doctrine of what may be called original honesty. To preserve this natural honesty became the main objective of the new education, and thus the virtue of Honesty was raised to a status of prime importance. The Greek name is parresia; it has several facets: frankness, outspokenness, truthfulness. The chief corrupting agencies were rhetoric, dialectic, and mathematics, which were denounced either as useless or as leading to various “false opinions” about the capacity of wealth, glory, and power to render men happy.

Prominent also among the new virtues was Faith, a prerequisite of serenity of soul. It was the shift from skepticism to dogmatism that made a virtue of Faith. Dogmatism meant assertion of the possibility of knowledge and Epicurus believed his teachings to be “true philosophy.” His utterances enjoyed the status of divine oracles, and he provided his disciples with forty — unluckily not thirty-nine*** — Authorized Doctrines, which served as Articles of Faith. Memorization was required. While Plato’s doctrines possessed a dynamic quality only for the talented and privileged few and Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean, however intriguing to the intellect, was no more inspiring than the multiplication table, the new creed of Epicurus discovered a powerful stimulus to action in love of mankind, or philanthropy.

In local circles of the sect the stress laid upon good companionship or fellowship as a coefficient of the happy life bestowed new and enhanced importance upon friendship. The need of making and keeping friends, in its turn, gained specific importance for Suavity, Courtesy, and Considerateness. While the good Platonist, like the Christian, lived in contemplation of immortality, the Epicurean was taught to live in contemplation of mortality. The chance of achieving happiness was narrowly confined to the interval between birth and death. This had the effect of bestowing great urgency upon the business of living rightly; procrastination became the greater folly. Only the present is within man’s control; the future is unpredictable, and to alter the past is beyond the power of Jupiter himself.”



Peace and Safety!


*** Apparently this is a reference to 40 being an unlucky number in some cultures.

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