Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Shakespeare and Prudential Psychology: Ambition and Akrasia in Macbeth

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Shakespeare and Prudential Psychology: Ambition and Akrasia in Macbeth

Article excerpt

VIRTUE WAS CENTRAL to Renaissance discourse of ethical action; the Latin term translates classical Greek arete, the fullest realization of human potential. In its aspiration to virtue, the pre-Cartesian world viewed human passions and actions as seamless interactivity between the body and the soul through the operation of humors and spirits. Like their ancient forebears, early moderns viewed moral philosophy as closely linked to psychology of the classical tradition. To them, psychology, as its etymology indicates, referred to the philosophical study of the soul, located midway between natural philosophy, or "physics" in the broad sense of phenomena in the natural world, and divine philosophy, or metaphysics. What the Renaissance thinkers called "organic soul," despite its spiritual aspect, functioned by sense-perception in the material world. (1) Renaissance psychology was grounded on Aristotle's De Anima (On the Soul), which defined the soul as "the life principle of the individual body--that which differentiated living from non-living things"--in other words, that which is animate with emotion and locomotion.

When we moderns use the phrase, "lose one's temper," we usually mean temper in the sense of "mental balance or composure" (OED 3). For an early modern, the word meant a person's well-balanced humoral constitution as linked to his moral character in a complexio of physiological, emotional, intellectual, and moral parts and faculties. (2) Consequently the expression " 'to lose one's temper' in 1600 meant something more serious and potentially less localized than simply a temporary loss of poise; it meant a loss of 'proportionate constitution,' a kind of insanity and/or an attack on bodily health not easily remedied." (3) Maintaining a "perfectly and exactly temperate" body, moreover, was precisely "the pattern of virtue." (4)

Stemming from Platonic mistrust of appetites as well as the Stoic ideal of apatheia, virtue was conceived by early moderns as a rational governing of unruly passions. Opposing this anti-passional view was the Augustinian idea that postlapsarian reason was deficient for the attainment of the virtuous life. The German reformer Philipp Melanchthon affirms, "the heart and its affections must be the highest and most powerful part of man." (5) In Aristotle, we see an integrative approach regarding the soul as a life force seated at the heart, intrinsically linked to the nutritive, perceptive, cognitive activities through the operations of humors and spirits. Virtue is practiced by executing just action at the best time, in the best way, and for the best end within the contingent world. The knowledge by which to enact virtue is referred to as practical wisdom, or prudence, "the rule and measure of all the moral virtues concerning our actions and affects." (6)

In Aristotle's famous illustration of moderation as the action of a skilled archer aiming at his target, the mean and the extreme converge literally in the bull's eye. (7) As Aristotle suggests, aiming for the target in real life is much more complex than in archery in that the just mean is a moving target varying by person, by circumstance, by emotion. Despite the difficulty of this ongoing project of human perfectibility, moderation is a demanding but forgiving taskmaster (at least in comedy), requiring in the case of failure that we aim better the next time. As Shakespeare so richly shows, this perfective prudence, in harmonizing passion and reason, fuses effective strategy with virtue. The virtuous mean comprehends rather than eschews the sometimes extreme measures required of prudence; moderation might entail the release, suppression, or sublimation of passion as the situation demands.

Aristotelian prudential psychology examines moral action as the confluence of prudence and rational will, or virtuous desire. Grounded on the just mean, prudence, through deliberation, has "the capacity to 'excite and temper' our passions," yielding the rational will to act towards a virtuous end. …

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