Love of All Wisdom

Virtuous and vicious means

by on Sep.22, 2010, under Epics, External Goods, Greek and Roman Tradition, Mahāyāna, Psychology, Shame and Guilt, Virtue

I generally agree with Aristotle that virtue is a mean between two vices – even in cases like justice, which are often taken as counterexamples. If one goes too far in one direction (say, cowardice or sense of entitlement), one misses the best way to be; the same applies in the other direction (foolhardiness or submissiveness), though it may sometimes be harder to see.

It’s easy, though, to misinterpret the idea of virtue as a mean. Virtue is not merely the middle ground. It is not a combination or a compromise between two vices. Virtue requires that the middle ground one occupy be specifically a good middle ground. It needs, essentially, to preserve what is best in each vice – to be a synthesis rather than a compromise.

On the virtue of justice, for example, a lack of justice may be expressed in a greedy sense of entitlement, claiming things that are not one’s own. As I expressed before, against the criticisms of Grotius, there may also be an excess with respect to justice, of not feeling entitled to things that really are one’s own (an unhealthy submissiveness that is often taught to women). But it is possible to combine these two in an unhealthy way, and I think this is the pattern among narcissistic personalities. Contemporary psychoanalyst Andrew Morrison claims that “shame and narcissism inform each other”: a narcissist can veer between experiencing himself as matching a false and overinflated ideal, and as contemptibly vile for falling short of that ideal; between believing himself entitled to everything and believing herself deserving nothing. Submissiveness and sense of overentitlement, the excess and the lack, can coexist in the same person, both getting in the way of justice. This is a middle ground between simple submissiveness and simple overentitlement, but it is vicious, not virtuous.

I noted the point briefly in the final chapter of my dissertation. I had presented an earlier part of the dissertation at the AAR conference, examining the questions at issue between Śāntideva and Martha Nussbaum on external goods: Śāntideva telling us that having possessions or close relationships will produce dangerous attachments, and Nussbaum saying that they are essential to a flourishing life.

As a respondent to my presentation, Mark Berkson had suggested a middle ground between their two views: one could live with the outward form of Nussbaumian flourishing — living in the world with property, human relationships, political participation — while inwardly renouncing all attachment to them, as is advocated in the Bhagavad Gītā. But I responded: this is indeed a middle ground, a compromise, but it is not a synthesis. Without further justification, at least, the Gītā approach does not answer the concerns of either Śāntideva or Nussbaum. As I said in the dissertation:

Nussbaum sees not merely one’s outward relationships, but one’s inner engagement and attachment, as central to the good life. Something fundamentally human is lost if one goes through those relationships like a play-actor, as surely as if one renounced them entirely for the monastic life. So too, Śāntideva’s ethical revaluation warns us of the dangers posed by external objects themselves, at least if we are not sufficiently advanced. If we did try to go through the trappings of a worldly life in this way, it would affect our minds, bringing us back into the attachment and anger we tried to escape.

One could argue, then, that the life promoted by the Gītā satisfies neither concern: one does not experience the joys of a Nussbaumian life passionately tied to attachments, but also doesn’t get Śāntidevan serenity because the attachments creep back in when one doesn’t want them to. It is the worst of both worlds, and not the best. I’m not arguing here that the Gītā’s proposed life actually is this bad (although I do find that view plausible), merely noting why a compromise is not good enough without being synthesis: one must make sure that the mean is virtuous and not vicious.

Whether one is putting together different worldviews or trying to navigate between the vices that prevent one from being a better person, one must constantly be aware that merely putting two things together or inhabiting two worlds is not enough. If one does not make sure to get the best of both worlds, one may easily end up with the worst. I am reminded of the (possibly apocryphal) exchange between an aged George Bernard Shaw and a beautiful young dancer. The dancer told him they should have children together: “Imagine a child with my body and your brain!” “Yes,” Shaw demurred, “but what if it had my body and your brain?”

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20 Comments for this entry

  • Thill

    “Śāntideva telling us that having possessions or close relationships will produce dangerous attachments..”

    I asked in a post a few weeks ago why Santideva prays in Bodhicaryavatara that everyone should have “unrestricted wealth” if he indeed believes that external goods are bad.

    • Amod Lele

      Thill, which chapter/verse (and which translation) are you finding this in? It’s been a while since I’ve given the text a very close reading.

    • Amod Lele

      Thill, I found your earlier quote and realized you provided a reference there. This is BCA verse X.28. The Padmākara version which you cite is a translation of the Tibetan, which looks a little different in this verse – and everyone in Tibet acknowledges that the original work of Śāntideva was in Sanskrit. The original Sanskrit says bhavantv akṣayakośāś ca yāvad gaganagañjavat – “may they be endless treasuries, like Gaganagañja.” They would, on this account, possess great wealth so that they could give it away, as a treasury (the word kośa could also mean “storehouse”) does. Gaganagañja (“Sky-treasure”) is itself the name of a bodhisattva, who would give endlessly. For advanced celestial bodhisattvas (or buddhas) like Gaganagañja, the “possession” of wealth in this sense may be something of a misnomer in that they do not view the wealth as being theirs, they have no sense of possessing it.

      • thill

        I have another translation of the “Bodhicaryavatara”by Marion L. Matics which renders the line in question as follows:
        “May they have boundless treasures like Gaganaganja.” (X. Parinamana, 28)

        So, here it is “treasures” instead of “treasuries”.

        • Amod Lele

          That’s simply a mistranslation, or perhaps just a typo – kośa does not mean “treasure.” (The Matics translation is terribly unreliable; although it is from the Sanskrit, I’d go with the Padmākara version over it any day.)

          Now, I suppose theoretically one could read akṣayakośa as a bahuvrīhi (possessive compound), so that it means “May they be ones possessing endless treasuries” rather than “May they be endless treasuries”; that might be where the “have” translations come from. But I think “May they be endless treasuries” makes far more sense in the context of everything else Śāntideva says about wealth.

  • michael reidy

    Post hoc analysis may reveal a mean in the way that we can discover that anywhere we are at is halfway between two points. Even then as Aristotle points out there are moral assessments which are negative per se e.g. shameful, unjust, unfair etc. They do not require analysis to show that we ought not to be there. How does this go with Aristotle’s thesis about connaturality namely that what the good man takes to be good is good and Aquinas’ idea that to do good without thinking is more meritorious that to take thought. The Zen folk and Taoists have similar intuitions. The question remains: how do you get to that point?

  • Thill

    “As a respondent to my presentation, Mark Berkson had suggested a middle ground between their two views: one could live with the outward form of Nussbaumian flourishing — living in the world with property, human relationships, political participation — while inwardly renouncing all attachment to them, as is advocated in the Bhagavad Gītā. But I responded: this is indeed a middle ground, a compromise, but it is not a synthesis.”

    What does “synthesis” mean here? If you mean some form of integration or harmonization, then it should be clear it is logically impossible to integrate or harmonize opposites, e.g., detachment and attachment, desire and aversion, love and hate, etc. Of course, one can swing like a pendulum from one to the other, but that’s not integration or harmonization.

    So, if Santideva’s prescription is to eschew external goods and Aristotle’s prescription is to embrace or acquire external goods, it is logically impossible to integrate or harmonize these conflicting prescriptions.

    But I suppose there is nothing incoherent in the notion that one can acquire, enjoy, and use external goods without becoming addicted or “co-dependent” on them. And to have this sort of relation to external goods is a virtue. I don’t know what to call this attitude. It is not detachment since that suggests an ascetic abstention or abstemiousness. And it is also not the typical sort of “worldly” dependence and attachment to external goods.

    • Thill

      Perhaps, I can improvise on the old story about two monks about to cross a stream and one of them has the opportunity to carry a beautiful woman across, etc., to illustrate the attitude I described in the previous post.

      In my version, one of them is not a monk and the other is. So, after the non-monk carries the beautiful woman across the stream fully enjoying the contact, the fragrance of her hair, etc., leaves her on the bank, gives her a passionate parting kiss on her lips, and moves on, the monk starts venting his envy-and-resentment laden virtuous anger on the non-monk for carrying and enjoying the woman who is but a skeleton covered with flesh which will become food for worms at death, etc (the standard Buddhist lines!).

      And the non-monk quietly replies “I let go of her on the bank an hour ago, but you are still clinging to her in your mind!” LOL

      • Thill

        But then the monk shoots back: What do you mean you left her on the bank an hour ago? Are you kidding yourself and me? Don’t you miss her? Don’t you wish you had gone off with her if only to consummate your incomplete enjoyment? Haven’t you been fantasizing about her ever since you left her behind?

        • Thill

          This “story” ends with the non-monk’s reply to the monk’s attack:
          I did leave her physically on the bank an hour ago. And, yes, all that you mention passed through my mind shortly after I physically left that woman, but I have ended all that too based on the simple fact that given our travel plans I will not see her again. Where there is no likelihood of fulfillment, it is foolish to cultivate craving or desire.

  • Thill

    But we really need to ask a fundamental question here: Is attachment to external goods and persons bad? Why?
    It won’t do to say that they lead to pain and suffering. They also give pleasure, comfort, and joy.

  • Akshay

    The chArvAka would here say that ascetics are fools who reject roses because of the thorns. Although it would seem from the gItA’s doctrine that one should give up all attachment to particular experiences, and therefore also to the positively-joyful sensuous pleasures, the notion that life is futile because attachments eventually or often bring about grief is not shared by all streams of Indic thought. Consider, for example, the nirAlamba upaniShad in which it is stated that sukha is essentially identity with or experience of the brahman (which we can, by extension, take to mean mokSha). On the other hand, duHkha is stated to be attachment or engagement in worldly affairs.

    • Amod Lele

      Thanks, Akshay, and welcome. I agree that the Gītā’s perspective is not shared everywhere in Indic thought. But the examples you cite seem more or less in accord with the Gītā: there is the possibility for a better, happier state of being, but it comes by rejecting attachment. The difference would seem to be in the equation between attachment and engagement in worldly affairs; the Gītā separates the two.

  • Thill

    These remarks do not provide an answer to my question.
    I would also like to add an objection to the essentially ascetic ideal of detachment: it results in a loss of vital, living contact with the world, objects, and people. One is essentially seeking, by means of detachment, to insulate oneself against the waves of life, and in the process one loses or renders dull one’s sensitivity, openness, and vulnerability to life.

  • michael reidy

    Thill, Akshay,
    A great furniture maker James Krenov recently deceased wrote in one of his books that when the job is done he usually carves his initials on an unobtrusive spot. ‘Sometimes I pleasantly forget’. And yet all along he has been giving such attention to each detail. In a curious way he has become lost in the work. There is no ego left outside to enjoy and to possess what he has done. ‘ I hate the ego’ said Gustave Flaubert. Nishkama karma is a perfectly intelligible concept that is available to anyone that has pushed themselves to the edge where there is no purchase for the observing super-ego to cling and declare ‘what a good boy I am’. Because there is no place, there is boundlessness (anantam).

  • Thill

    MR: “And yet all along he has been giving such attention to each detail. In a curious way he has become lost in the work.”

    MR, this is not a case of deadening detachment, but one of passionate absorption in the object of work. I also recall some lines of T.S. Eliot in which mention the same kind of absorption in a piece of music such that only the music seems to exist.

    Again, these examples run counter to anything pertaining to detachment.

  • michael reidy

    Going in for the practice of detachment is like entering humility contests, you can’t win or if you lose you win. Yes you can decide to forego whatever pleasure however licit it be but you can still be attached to your achievement of this renunciation. Dispassion is something else perhaps in Platonic terms the eidos of which detachment is the wavering and uncertain simulacrum.

    • JimWilton

      I agree.

      Abandoning attachment has everything to do with awareness of motivation and nothing to do with abandoning enjoyment or appreciation of the world.

  • Thill

    Attachment has its useful functions. Otherwise, and humans are not unique in this respect, there wouldn’t be an evolved biological propensity for attachment.

  • Thill

    The great ethologist Konrad Lorenz’s work on imprinting describes the modus operandi of biological attachment in other species. I think it is also true of humans in early childhood and even in many contexts later on.

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  • Perennial questions? | Love of All Wisdom

    […] What I’m getting at is this: the question of ascent and descent – of whether we should ascetically seek a perfect world beyond, or embrace the world of the senses with all its flaws – strikes me as a perennial one, widespread throughout the history of philosophy. But it is the question that is perennial, rather than the answer – or at least, the perennial answers are multiple. Human beings, when they have started to think about questions beyond their immediate survival, have tended to think about the kind of questions that I refer to as ascent and descent – and they have answered these questions both ways. I strongly suspect that whatever truth is out there to be found is going to be somewhere in the middle; and it is by identifying these ideal-typical answers that we can more successfully locate where that middle will be. As many difficulties as I have with Ken Wilber’s thought, this is a reason I keep coming back to him: I think he gets this point, and really tries to harmonize ascent and descent. (The big danger in doing so, one I’m not sure Wilber avoids, is reaching merely a compromise and not a synthesis.) […]

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