Pagan Virtue: An Essay in Ethics

By John Casey | Go to book overview

PREFACE

THE study of the virtues was for centuries the central tradition in moral philosophy. The virtues were those dispositions of character that enabled men to live good and happy lives. Courage, temperance, prudence (or practical wisdom), and justice in particular were taken to be central, or 'cardinal': a good and happy man had to have all of these virtues. At the same time, many other dispositions -- wisdom in the use of money, wit, pride, magnificence, friendship, truthfulness, shame -- were also thought to be useful or necessary. Some writers, of whom Aristotle is the most important, thought that the virtues were not simply means to an end -- such as happiness -- but were also to be valued in themselves. In addition, other qualities and gifts of fortune were often thought to be relevant, not only to happiness, but also to goodness: cleverness, wealth, good birth, beauty, fame, children and descendants who would keep alive the memory of their ancestors. Aristotle himself held that although a man could not be considered truly happy unless he were also virtuous, his virtues would not in themselves guarantee happiness without the assistance of material prosperity. An element of contingency, the limits of which cannot easily be defined, enters into the good life for man.

This book is not a historical study of the cardinal virtues, but a contribution, by means of reflection upon them, to modern moral thought. For some this will seem an impossible enterprise. How can a study of the 'pagan' virtues be other than merely archaeological in a world, the moral sensibilities of which bear the ineradicable imprint of Christianity? For Christianity rejects the worldliness implicit in the ethic of the virtues, and abhors the values that go with such worldliness. Pride, the desire for honour, and still more wealth and beauty, have nothing to do with Christian goodness. Even those active virtues (so admired by Hume and Gibbon) which make a man formidable, great, a valuable member of a city state, have always met with an equivocal response from the Christian tradition. Meekness, humility, a conviction that human corruption cannot be overcome by human effort, a rejection of the world and

-v-

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Pagan Virtue: An Essay in Ethics
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS *
  • Contents *
  • I - PERSONS 1
  • 2 - COURAGE 51
  • 3 - TEMPERANCE 104
  • 4 - PRACTICAL WISDOM 144
  • 5 - JUSTICE 172
  • 6 - PAGAN VIRTUES? 199
  • 7 - POSTSCRIPT: HOMER, SHAKESPEARE, AND THE CONFLICT OF VALUES 211
  • BIBLOGRAPHY 227
  • Index 233
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