BMCR 2021.08.23

Les philosophes face au vice, de Socrate à Augustin

, , , Les philosophes face au vice, de Socrate à Augustin. Philosophia antiqua, volume 154. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2020. Pp. vi, 314. ISBN 9789004432383 €143,00.

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[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Did ancient philosophers have theories of vice? Certainly they used words we translate as “vice” (kakia, vitium) to name the contrary of virtue. They developed lists of virtues and opposing vices, sometimes even positing multiple vices for every virtue. In their protreptic mode, they warned their audiences against foolish and debased ways of life and urged them to instead practice philosophy and cultivate virtue. Yet we rarely find in ancient philosophy sustained discourse devoted to vice per se comparable with, for example, the stand-alone catalogue of sins Aquinas gives in De Malo. The reason is not far to seek: it reflects the deep connection, running through ancient thought, between goodness and intelligibility. If ancient philosophers tend to organize their discourse around virtue rather than vice, it is because they think of virtue as unified, finite, and intelligible, whereas the vices are many, infinite, and obscure. Socrates sets the tone for much of the tradition when he warns in the Republic that “hen men einai eidos tēs aretēs, apeira de tēs kakias” (445c6). In speaking of the forms of vice as apeira, Socrates declares vice a paradox: insofar as its forms are unbounded, it really has no form at all.

Despite these warnings, current scholarship exhibits a growing urge to approach the study of ancient philosophy through the lens of vice. T. H. Irwin’s 2001 article “Vice and Reason” ignited what has become one of the most lively debates among Aristotle scholars in recent years, about whether his treatments of vice in the NE are internally consistent. Two edited volumes have recently been devoted to surveys of vice and evil in antiquity: Ineke Sluiter and Ralph M. Rosen, eds., Kakos: Badness and Anti-Value in Classical Antiquity (2008) and Tom Angier, ed., The History of Evil in Antiquity, 2000 BCE-450 CE (2019). Now comes a third, Les philosophes face au vice, de Socrate à Augustin, largely based on conferences held in Paris in 2015 and 2016. Like its predecessors, this volume argues that, perhaps contrary to their expectations or intentions, we can fruitfully study ancient philosophers by following the thread of their treatments of vice. Unlike the Sluiter and Rosen volume, this collection has a narrower disciplinary focus and deals exclusively with philosophy rather than ancient literature or history. It does, however, cast an admirably broad net within philosophy, including articles not only on Plato and Aristotle but also on the early Socratics, the Hippocratic corpus, the Epicureans, Stoics, Imperial Platonists, and Augustine. By contrast with the Angier collection, it focuses only on Greco-Roman antiquity, and it contains consistently scholarly contributions that are more appropriate for researchers than for students. It also has the advantage over either of the two previous volumes of addressing a wider scholarly community. The study of vice in ancient thought has until now been largely an Anglophone phenomenon, but this volume puts Anglophone work productively into conversation with contemporary scholarship in French and Italian.

What happens when we situate les philosophes “face au vice”? To speak of philosophers “face au vice” is different from simply announcing that the volume will concern “philosophers on vice” or “vice in philosophy.” To be face à something is to be confronted with it, to struggle with it, perhaps to be defeated in the face of it; this idiom carries connotations of disquiet, difficulty, and risk. Who or what is at risk here? On the evidence of this volume, I would suggest that the risk is not so much to the ancient philosophers themselves – after all, they warned us – as to our images of them. When we press the question of vice in their writings, the result is to expose a gap between what we expect or assume about them and the reality of what they offer. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; to find oneself in such a gap can be a humbling, troubling, and even rewarding experience. But it is a reason to proceed with caution.

The contributors to this volume expose this sort of gap in several ways. First, many of them highlight neglected philosophical possibilities and alternative systems of value that fall outside the dominant intellectual strands represented by Plato, Aristotle, and their successors. We see examples of this in contributions by Aldo Brancacci (“Vertus royales et vices tyranniques chez les Socratiques”) and Pierre Pontier (“Remarques sur la mollesse (malakia) chez Platon et Xénophon”). Both chapters uncover a provocative and neglected history of debate in the fifth century BCE about the value of truphē. While some Socratic thinkers, notably Antisthenes and Xenophon, put the rejection of truphē at the center of their vision of philosophical self-discipline, other thinkers give it a positive valuation, including the heterodox Socratic Aristippus.

Douglas Cairns (“Aristotle on Hybris and Injustice”) and David Konstan (“When Vice is Not the Opposite of Virtue: Aristotle on Ingratitude and Shamelessness”) explore neglected possibilities in another way. Both challenge standard approaches to Aristotle by taking as their focus aspects of human character that Aristotle attended to but did not quite succeed in integrating into his official scheme of virtues and vices. Not coincidentally, both authors insist on the importance of enriching our reading of Aristotle by moving beyond his ethical treatises and reckoning with the ways his other writings, especially the Rhetoric and Politics, often stand in a complex relation with his official ethical teaching.

In a similar vein, many contributions make trouble for standard narratives of biographical or historical development. A good example of this is Christopher Rowe’s essay, “Plato on Kakia in Some Later Dialogues.” Rowe questions the standard narrative of Plato, according to which Plato advanced from his early, naïve idea that vice is ignorance (as in Protagoras) to the more sophisticated psychology of the Republic and Phaedrus, where vice is understood in terms of conflict between psychic parts. Rowe points out that this narrative fails to take account of developments in the later dialogues, such as Sophist or Timaeus, in which Plato reasserts the identification of vice with ignorance and abandons the model of intrapsychic conflict.

A second example of troubling standard narratives comes from Francesco Verde’s chapter “Il saggio epicureo e il controllo dei passioni.” On a familiar view, the central debate in moral psychology after Plato is between the Stoics, who adopt a monistic conception of the soul and argue that all motives are either correct or incorrect judgments, and the Peripatetics, who adopt a multi-part psychology according to which non-rational motives have a natural place, even in a virtuous psyche. According to Verde, this narrative fails to take account of the Epicureans, who adopt neither view. Instead, they formulate a third position, according to which passions such as anger are appropriate to us only insofar as they are inevitable. They are not, as in the Stoic view, to be wholly extirpated, but neither are they, as in the Peripatetic view, to be treated as a legitimate source of motivation. They belong to the humanity of the sage, but contribute nothing to his virtue or happiness.

At a deeper level, reading ancient philosophy through vice can lead one to doubt the coherence of a given text or school. I alluded above to the recent controversy along these lines about Aristotle. This controversy is the subject of an excellent chapter by Laetitia Monteils-Laeng (“L’excès sans la passion – Le problème du vice chez Aristote”). She at once skillfully summarizes the recent debate while also making a compelling case that it has in fact missed the deepest worry about Aristotle’s treatment of vice. Scholars following Irwin have wondered whether NE VII (= EE VI) is consistent with NEIX. But Monteils-Laeng argues that in fact there are reasons to worry about the coherence of the NE VII account on its own, insofar as Aristotle there affirms both that vice is acquired by indulging the appetites and that the vicious person acts without excessive appetite.

Doubts about coherence are also raised by Teun Tieleman in his chapter “Stoic Vices.” He takes up the problem of Stoic theodicy, i.e., how Stoic belief in all-powerful providence is consistent with the existence of evil. Tieleman notes that the Stoics struggled to reconcile providence with the existence of vice in particular, insofar as the latter makes trouble not only for the general notion of providence but also for their idea that human moral development follows a natural orientation toward virtue. Having surveyed their attempts, he notes dryly that “It is hard to distill a coherent theodicy from arguments such as these” (192), and he concludes that confronting their inadequacy may even lead us to question the coherence of the Stoic “system.”

At its most extreme, pressing the question of vice leads scholars to probe the boundaries of ancient philosophy itself. This probing is especially characteristic of the final four chapters of the volume, concerned with Plotinus and Augustine. Mauro Bonazzi describes one way that vice can fall outside the boundaries of ancient thought in his essay “Il vizio nel medioplatonici e in Plotino.” Middle Platonists such as Apuleius, as part of their project to synthesize the arguments in Plato’s dialogues into a system, undertook to inherit two key Platonic ideas: the tripartite soul and the involuntariness of vice. Yet their attempt to combine these two ideas in fact revealed a profound tension between them. In a note of resignation reminiscent of Tieleman, Bonazzi concludes that “i medioplatonici hano faticato a trovare una soluzione unitaria al loro problemi” (233). According to Bonazzi’s reading, Plotinus offers a radical solution to this problem, based on his notoriously obscure conception of the undescended soul. But this resolution comes at a cost: insofar as our true self is identified with the undescended soul, vice becomes strictly speaking impossible. Conversely, Laurent Lavaud argues in his chapter (“Mal en soi et vice total dans le Traité 51 de Plotin”) that Plotinus was able to theorize vice, but only by positing matter as a causal principle in its own right, a move that pushes against another deep conceptual boundary of ancient thought.

The two chapters on Augustine, by Isabelle Koch and Dominique Demange, read his treatment of vice as pressing questions that his pagan predecessors tended to evade and thus as laying the groundwork for what Demange calls “la fin de la morale antique.” Koch’s essay, “Le vice comme imitatio perversa chez Augustin,” argues that Augustine rejected the tendency in the tradition of Plato and Aristotle to distinguish between true and false goods, instead insisting that all action is directed at a true good. The problem for Augustine then becomes to explain how human action can ever go wrong. His solution to this problem requires a theory of the will and its perversion that leads him far away from the standard framework of ancient pagan thought. In the same vein, Demange’s essay (“Faux Virtues et Vrai Vices”) argues that Augustine mounts an effective critique of the entire ancient ethical apparatus of virtues and vices, understood as complex habits of thought, feeling, and action, in favor of an emphasis on the will alone as the decisive factor in moral judgment.

To rephrase my opening question: should we read ancient philosophers looking for theories of vice? On the evidence of this volume, the enterprise is risky, and we should be prepared to be surprised, disappointed, frustrated, and confused by the results. The forms of vice are, as Socrates warned us, indeed apeira. And yet as the essays in this volume also attest, facing these difficulties is well worth the trouble.

Authors and titles

IntroductionChristelle VeillardOlivier Renaut, and Dimitri El Murr
Chapitre 1 Vertus royales et vices tyranniques chez les Socratiques, Aldo Brancacci
Chapitre 2 Remarques sur la mollesse (malakia) chez Platon et Xénophon, Pierre Pontier
Chapitre 3 Ἀκρασίη : [Hippocrate], Humeurs 9 (V 488.15-490.8 Littré, 168, 3-13 Overwien), Paul Demont and Robert Alessi
Chapitre 4 Une théorie des vices dans la République de Platon, Olivier Renaut
Chapitre 5 Plato on Kakia in Some Later Dialogues, Christopher Rowe
Chapitre 6 Les limites de la condamnation du mensonge par Platon, Jérôme Laurent
Chapitre 7 L’excès sans la passion – Le problème du vice chez Aristote, Laetitia Monteils-Laeng
Chapitre 8 Aristotle on Hybris and Injustice, Douglas Cairns
Chapitre 9 When Vice Is Not the Opposite of Virtue: Aristotle on Ingratitude and Shamelessness, David Konstan
Chapitre 10 Stoic Vices, Teun Tieleman
Chapitre 11 Il saggio epicureo e il controllo delle passioni, Francesco Verde
Chapitre 12 Il vizio nei medioplatonici e in Plotino, Mauro Bonazzi
Chapitre 13 Mal en soi et vice total dans le Traité 51 de Plotin, Laurent Lavaud
Chapitre 14 Le vice comme imitatio perversa chez Augustin, Isabelle Koch
Chapitre 15 Fausses vertus et vrais vices : Augustin et la fin de la morale antique, Dominique Demange

Works Cited

Angier, T., ed. 2019. The History of Evil in Antiquity, 2000BCE-450CE. London: Routledge.
Irwin, T. H. 2001. “Vice and Reason.” The Journal of Ethics 5, 73-97.
I. Sluiter and R. Rosen, eds. 2008. Kakos: Badness and Anti-Value in Classical Antiquity. Leiden: Brill.