On philosophy and philology


Our modern conception of virtue is predicated on the Greco-Roman period of antiquity, but we find ourselves in an interesting position in relating to the vocabulary that we use to talk about these ideas. There are two main versions of the four cardinal virtues of which I am aware. They are “Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence, and Justice” and “Temperance, Courage, Prudence, and Justice.” These translations are interesting, and I’ll discuss them each in turn.

Temperance: σωφροσύνη (sōphrosynē): In English, temperance is generally understood to mean “moderation” esp. in the case of alcohol, but more truly in respect to all the passions or emotions. It is “the middle path.” However, in the Greek, sōphrosynē means something different. When translated to Latin, the word they used was ‘decorum,’ which the Romans graciously passed to us via the Normans in 1066 when they concurred England.

A better English translation would be “fittingness,” meaning that state of a critter fitted and suited to it appropriate functions in its particular context. When meeting your spouse’s boss, extra politeness would be fitting. When celebrating a birthday, the consumption of a moderate amount of alcohol would be fitting. When reprimanding a child in your care, a certain amount of firmness tempered by mercy and concern for his or her well-being is fitting.

Fortitude/Courage: ἀνδρεία (andreia): Fortitude and courage are related, but not directly interchangeable. Taking aside the social construction of gender, the Greek word here better translates as “manliness.” Courage can relate to physical and also to moral courage, the same can be said of fortitude. The difference here tends to be one of the school of thought of the translators and philosophers, but it is interesting to note what each much have thought “manliness” most entailed.

Prudence: φρόνησις (phronēsis): also comes to us from the Latin, prudentia. Meaning, in the native Greek wisdom, but having added to it knowledge. Not a whole lot of issues here.

Justice: δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosynē): sometimes Justice, Fairness, and in Christian traditions, often piety or righteousness. Not much of an issue here.

Consider also, that the word Virtue is often translated from the Greek arete (ἀρετή), when a better translation might be something like “excellence” or “a thing functioning according to its truest nature.”

Whenever we are dealing with such important ideas as morality and ethics, we often detach from them the conception that they are informed by and shaped by us, ourselves. The conception of virtue is appropriate for a certain people, of a certain time, in a certain place, speaking and thinking in a certain way. Just food for thought.

Be well, and be excellent.

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