11 Novembre 2016

Challenges and Possibilities in the History of Virtue: Framework and Research Problems of the Project “Teaching Virtue”


Iconocrazia 10/2016 - "Arts & Politics. Rhetorical Quests in Cultural Imaging", Saggi

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Now, if a king may be either mean or prodigal, then prodigality is better than meanness […]


In these words, the medieval Swedish mirror for princes, Om Konnunga styrilse och höfdinga (henceforth Konungastyrelsen), elaborates on the qualities of an ideal king when it comes to the virtue of liberality (gr. eleutheriotes, lat. liberalitas). If the king does not fully live up to the ideal of true liberality, the question becomes which form of deviation from this ideal is worse, and which is better. In choosing between two vices, it is to be preferred that a good king be wasteful because at least his subjects may then at least try to benefit from his generosity, no matter how he then wastes them, the mid 14th century text argues. The theme is not developed at any great length, but it is made sufficiently clear that meanness is simply shameful in a king: “It is not to be tolerated that a king or prince is mean, because it is a vice and very dishonorable.”[1]

In 1669 Johannes Schefferus’ edition of this medieval text was published. The publication was dedicated to the then teenaged king Charles XI of Sweden. The elegant edition includes a Latin translation as well as extensive commentary in the footnotes, Schefferus being part of a movement of continental late Renaissance humanist scholars imported to Sweden during the culturally rich period following the Swedish triumphs in the 30-years war earlier in the century. Schefferus used his Classical humanist training in analyzing medieval Swedish texts, drawing from them political wisdom, just as he would have from a text by a Roman historian.[2]

Schefferus’ footnote to the passage on liberality is considerably longer than the original text. The Strassburg-born humanist apparently considers it to be vitally important for the young king to receive a more modern opinion on the problem. Thus it highlights changing views on ideal royal virtues in a quick snapshot. Schefferus notes that Konungastyrelsen follows Aristotle. He is also well aware that the author is heavily dependent on the De regimine principum by Giles of Rome – the text can in fact be considered a loose and partial translation of this work – and uses Giles as a comparison in the footnotes. Schefferus’ philological skills should not be underestimated – in the late Renaissance humanism which he represents, the study of history was of paramount importance.

In book four of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle claims that the prodigal man is much better than the mean man, because the prodigal man’s actions at least benefit others, while the mean man does not benefit anyone, not even himself. This is of course the basis of the discussion found in Konungastyrelsen. Schefferus points this out, and adds: “But there Aristotle does not concern himself with a king or a prince, whose condition is different.”[3] In other words, Aristotle, arguing with the context of a self-governing republic of aristocratic citizens in mind, is not relevant to modern times. In short, Schefferus’ main point is that a king’s first consideration must be the utility of the state. This is representative for the most significant change within the mirror for princes’ genre between the Middle Ages and the early modern period: the king’s virtues become conditional on public utility or reason of state. Among the many modern and Classical authors Schefferus brings to bear in his argument is Machiavelli, who in The Prince writes that “Therefore, in order no to rob his subjects, in order to defend himself, in order not to grow poor and contemptible, in order not to be forced to become extortionate, a wise prince judges it of little importance to incur the name of a stingy man, for this is one of those vices that make him reign.”[4] Schefferus also recommends that his young king read the whole of chapter 16 of The Prince for a fuller and more up to date discussion of the subject.[5]

This short example clearly shows how a lively moral-philosophical discussion on man’s ideal character has been ongoing over the centuries. Despite differences in specific positions, the general frame of reference for this discussion was more or less the same over a long period. The works of Aristotle were foundational for Late Classical neo-platonist writers as well as medieval mirrors for princes and 17th century university professors. Consequently, the assumption that character was the subject matter of moral philosophy was also generally agreed upon: pre-modern ethical systems were, to a large part, systems of virtue ethics. But, the example given above perhaps also points to another aspect worthy of consideration: this is not our way of discussing ethical problems, it is alien to us. When we speak about moral issues, we may refer to laws or principles, even civic duties or human rights, but we seldom speak of generosity, chastity or fortitude. Virtue ethics seems to be a tradition which has not survived modernity – perhaps Machiavelli’s critical views, mentioned above, can be seen as the beginning of the end.

In this article, I will argue for the broad relevance of this theme for research on the history of pre-modern societies. This will also lead me to consider virtue ethics as a system of thought, which may perhaps contribute to the definition of what is pre-modern. Are there any reasons to believe, that virtue ethics was somehow characteristic of a pre-modern form of thinking, and if so, why?

The modern discussion of virtue ethics is to a large part the result of After Virtue by the philosopher Alisdair Macintyre, published in 1981. Since Macintyre specifically claims that that modern moral philosophy of which he himself is a part has lost touch with a pre-modern, in essence Aristotelian, tradition of virtue ethics, it is reasonable to start with him when trying to answer the question posed above. To simplify things somewhat one might say that Macintyre does indeed consider virtue ethics to be characteristic of pre-modernity, while arguing that modernity has tried to replace it with duty- or consequence-based systems, after having abandoned an Aristotelian teleological conception of man. However Macintyre is hardly representative of the developments in moral philosophy in recent years. Therefore it will be necessary to consider some alternative points of view, as well as certain problems in Macintyre regarding the relevance of his claims for historical research.

As the very first example of the return of virtue ethics within 20th century moral philosophy it is not Macintyre, but G. E. M. Anscombe (1919–2001) who is usually given. Anscombe was an English philosopher and disciple of Wittgenstein, who made important contributions to central problems in philosophy regarding human action, intention and cause and effect. In an article entitled “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958) she criticized modern moral philosophy for lacking a proper foundation and pointed out the need for a new direction. In particular, she argued that modern forms of ethics based on duty or rules (deontological ethics) has outlived itself. Interestingly for us, she claimed that the reasons for this were to a large part historical. The concept of a divine lawgiver has been abandoned, with far-reaching and inescapable consequences: “[…] if such a conception is dominant for many centuries, and then is given up, it is a natural result that the concepts of ‘obligation’, of being bound or required by a law, should remain though they had lost their root […]”. Without the metaphysical foundation (most often a Christian one) which ethics had historically had, but now had lost, it had become hollow. We live, she argued, with the superstructure of a moral philosophy without the base of metaphysics that made it a defensible system: “The situation, if I am right, was the interesting one of the survival of a concept outside the framework of thought that made it a really intelligible one.”[6] However, she also claimed that this does not mean that (modern) moral philosophy is an impossible undertaking without the conception of a God-given law: the virtue ethics of Aristotle does not need it, yet can provide the necessary foundation. It is important to point out that Anscombe made a sharp distinction between Aristotelian virtue ethics on the one hand and Judeo-Christian law-based ethics on the other. According to Anscombe, it is in fact because of the great dominance of the latter that we have lost contact with the former.[7]

Scottish-born philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who spent most of his academic career in the USA, published in After Virtue what is still the single most important work in the revival of virtue ethics (and its history) in our time. MacIntyre maintained, very much as Anscombe had done, that modern moral philosophy finds itself in a highly lamentable state of confusion. We cling to terms and concepts from an age long passed, the meaning and real content of which has been lost to us. Primarily this is a crisis for MacIntyre’s own academic subject, but it also has a wider societal significance: there is no rational way of reaching consensus on moral issues in our culture, so MacIntyre claims, and thus philosophical arguments are reducible to basic premises which are simply not compatible or even in obvious conflict. Freedom stands against equality, justice against self-preservation, and there our discussion ends. Philosophers may claim that there are generally valid principles to fall back on, such as obligation or public utility. However, in fact, these have long since been written off as respectable philosophical premises. If it were not for the historical dimension the discussion would be entirely unintelligible. But the values we have lost still haunt us, and we still wish ethical argumentation to be rational, even though we know this to be impossible. In elaborating on his argument, MacIntyre severely criticizes most modern attempts in the field. Nietzsche and Sartre are rejected as belonging in a philosophical “bestiary”, while Rawls and Nozick are honored with a slightly lengthier refutation: he considers them both to be examples of the deficiencies inherent in modern liberal individualism. MacIntyre describes their positions as constructed around the assumption that human beings as members of society have been stranded on a deserted island together with a group of total strangers, and he describes modern politics as a war fought by non-violent means.[8]

Thus, the root causes of these shortcomings of modernity are historical. Admittedly, MacIntyre does question whether we may ever be able to recover what we have lost, but he still seems to view the sort of unproblematic collective identity shared by all, which he considers to have been characteristic of pre-modern societies, to represent a possible alternative. This collective identity included a shared belief in the good life for man within the bounds of communities of the village, family and kin, but above all it was grounded in the metaphysical foundation of a conception of human nature. According to it, human beings were created for a specific purpose. This is of course where virtue ethics enters the discussion. MacIntyre considers Aristotelian ethics to be the strongest pre-modern system of moral philosophy. In contrast to Anscombe, MacIntyre does not perceive any decisive conflict between virtue ethics and Christianity. The central point that they shared was the quest for the good and a corresponding rejection of self-interest. The break with this tradition occurred with Luther and Hobbes. What is sketched is certainly a drawn-out process: last to figure in MacIntyre’s exposé is Jane Austen, who, he claims, defended a classical conception of virtue, even though she did so within the framework of the bourgeois family.[9]

Much could be said about this view of history. It is worth stressing that MacIntyre was not a professional historian. In fact he is very critical of modern social science, pointing to Max Weber in particular as complicit in the failings of modernity, even though from the point of view of intellectual history, MacIntyre and Weber seem to share a simplified and idealized view of pre-modern “traditional” societies, in strong contrast to a rational but demystified modernity. Be that as it may, I believe that MacIntyre and other modern moral philosophers can contribute greatly to clarifying the concepts and problems which historians use, particularly when studying pre-modern societies or the long transition to modernity. To be able to speak about virtue as a concept characteristic of pre-modernity, we must first of all establish what it is that we are actually speaking of.

MacIntyre’s description of virtue in pre-modern systems of ethics above all centers around the conception of virtue as standing in an internal ends-means relationship to an overarching purpose (happiness, summum bonum). This means that the virtues are part of the end itself, and that they are their own motivation. Aristotle does not (explicitly) use the internal/external distinction himself, but Aquinas does, and it seems that this distinction describes many virtue ethical systems in a useful way. Thus, MacIntyre defines virtue in the following way: “A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving such goods.”[10]

As I have already indicated, MacIntyre claims that this conception of virtue as internal in relation to its end was not exclusive to Ancient Greek or Roman philosophers, but formed a part of the Christian tradition as well. It did, however, conflict with the views of many Enlightenment philosophers, such as the utilitarians (Benjamin Franklin being Macintyre’s example). For them, the relation was clearly external. The end may be achieved in different ways, but the means has no intrinsic value. Thus, while for such thinkers virtue may well be a means to an end (such as general or individual happiness), it is only one means among many. As long as these means contribute equally well to the end, they are interchangeable. Thus the value of virtue is only instrumental.[11]

This is also were an historian encounters significant problems in MacIntyre. Contrasting, as he does, a modern, rationalized but meaningless existence to a pre-modern society in which virtue ethics provided a set of stabile values is an unwarranted simplification of complex historical processes. The tensions between the “classical tradition” (of which MacIntyre writes) and Christianity were considerable from St. Paul and Augustine onwards. Furthermore, beside the Aristotelian tradition there were strong Platonic influences classical, medieval as well as early modern systems of virtue ethics. Luther was not the first to reject the pagan “sour dough”, while somewhat paradoxically, the thought of Aristotle also saw a strong revival in the 16th and 17th centuries within Lutheranism.[12]

Above all, there are many instances in pre-modern historical periods of philosophical systems in which virtue plays an important role, without this having very much to do with Aristotle or even having a similar function as virtue has in Aristotelianism. The stoics, of both the classical and early modern varieties, are among the most important examples of this.[13] The same is true of those new systems of thought, based on various versions of materialism, rationalism and natural law, which were so important in the early modern period. They would most often not fit MacIntyre’s definition of virtue. Stretching this definition, we might label Machiavelli and Lipsius virtue ethicists, but Hobbes and Pufendorf could hardly be so described, no matter how much virtue is lauded by them. In fact, it may well be the case that constructing a historically useful definition of virtue or virtue ethics is strictly speaking impossible. This may not be a bad thing, however: rather, the problems we encounter can perhaps clarify the terms and concepts historians use when speaking of an “Aristotelian tradition” or even “pre-modern” society and its norms and values.

In addition, there are other points of view to be found among modern moral philosophers which may prove highly relevant to historical research. American liberal feminist philosopher Martha Nussbaum considers virtue ethics from a different angle. Nussbaum does not lack a historical perspective; on the contrary, her consciousness of the intellectual and social context in which the Greek and Roman philosophers lived and wrote is always a part of her discussion of their arguments. What she does lack is nostalgia over a lost heritage or tradition. She is very critical of MacIntyre, whom she sorts among “[…] thinkers who are both antitheory and antireason and appeal to ancient Greek ethics with that agenda.”[14] For Nussbaum, then, the philosophers of Antiquity are relevant to the modern day in a more direct and less problematic way, even when they express positions we would never share. It would seem that to her, it would not be true to the spirit of Socrates if we did not scrutinize Socrates’ views, criticizing them were appropriate. Nussbaum has famously argued for the continued relevance of studies of the canonical Western classics in higher education, where she claims that such studies can aim at a fruitful discussion of the questions of our age: religious and cultural pluralism, social and economic justice, gender equality, and so on.[15]

More directly relevant to historical research, in my view, is Nussbaum’s discussion of virtue ethics in her earlier, and perhaps even more well-known work, The Fragility of Goodness (1986). Here, Nussbaum makes to important points. First, that the virtue ethics of Aristotle considers human happiness as dependent on circumstances beyond our control: “luck”, “fortune”, “tyche”. Second, that for Aristotle, emotions make up an indispensable part of practicing the virtues: “Aristotle’s final point […] is that […] [the] virtuous condition is not, itself, something hard and invulnerable. Its yielding and open posture towards the world gives it the fragility, as well as the beauty, of a plant.”[16]

Nussbaum has a certain preference for organic metaphors when describing human virtue and happiness (or “flourishing”), as did many pre-modern philosophers. A flower requires care, watering and nourishment to grow and it is to a high degree dependent on its environment. The flower can be contrasted by another common metaphor, the hard gemstone, which, being perfect, needs nothing. But neither is it dynamic – it does not grow and can not be improved. Thus, although precious stones were historically often used as metaphors for virtue[17], Nussbaum would argue that man is a living being, not an unfeeling, sterile and passive rock. Autonomy may well be a respectable ideal in moral philosophy, but if we were to eliminate all those elements of our existence, which we cannot control – friends, family, community – we would be left with an impoverished life.[18]

Furthermore, Nussbaum argues that emotions must be considered an integral part of the virtues. She prefers to speak of “the rationality of the passions”, strongly opposing the traditional dichotomy between reason and passion. They are, in her view, compatible, and both indispensible to a good human life. Clearly, this perspective is also feminist: the hard, reductionist point of view, according to which the good life becomes synonymous with the elimination of everything beyond human control, is also a male point of view. On a general level, Nussbaum characterizes Aristotle’s ethics as anthropocentric, a term which encapsulates much of what distinguishes his views from other systems of virtue ethics. In this way, Nussbaum delineates a set of problems, including not only those forms of the history of emotions, which is at present a growing field[19], but also such aspects as the conception of man and his nature, gender, body, and man’s dependence on and interplay with society and the environment, aspects which must always be at the forefront of the historical study of conceptions of virtue and virtue ethics.

The main purpose of the research project “Teaching Virtue”, which has been active since the beginning of 2013 at the department of History, Stockholm University, is to bring together under- and postgraduate students and faculty members in a cross-disciplinary research environment. This is done through the organizing of seminars, workshops, courses and conferences. The primary aim is thus to facilitate cooperation, interaction and personal contacts. However this is also done with a specific common research focus in mind. The participants are united by their interest in the study of the educational history of virtue ethics. The question we all try to answer within our respective fields is: how was the teaching and learning of virtue envisioned and represented in pre-modern Europe? From this basic question then follows a number of secondary issues, and the individual participants provide answers from widely different perspectives, using different methods and primary sources. The cross-disciplinary approach makes comparative studies a natural part of the activities within the project. While the project as such is not situated within the subject of the history of philosophy, the moral philosophical problems outlined above make up the foundation of the projects and the issues under discussion.

But where does the debates within modern moral philosophy lead us? It would have been a simple task if it were possible to provide an ideal type definition of the concept of virtue (probably very much like the Aristotelian view), which could then be followed through the centuries. However, this is hardly meaningful, even if one were only interested in the Aristotelian tradition (if there is such a thing). This method would most likely lead only to an evaluation of different systems of thought, resulting in some being deemed closer to the ideal type, others less. It is much more interesting if we instead, just like moral philosophers of recent years, also explore those systems of virtue ethics which do not originate in the Aristotelian strain.

To give but one example, Confucianism has been the subject of excellent work, showing it to share many general points of view with ancient Greek ethics, without there being any reason to suspect that the one system has been influenced by the other.[20] The history of the reception of Confucian thought in the early modern West is likewise an important example of how virtue ethics, historically speaking, has been much more than just Aristotle. It also shows that conceptions of virtue, perhaps because they were so entrenched in the societies in which they were formed, could be amalgams of ideas of very different origins. German 18th century philosopher Christian Wolff, who was fascinated by Confucianism, claimed that the Chinese had been ruled by philosopher emperors (who were also models of virtue for their subjects) long before Confucius himself appeared: Confucius was “not the founder, but the restorer of Chinese wisdom.” Thus, Wolff created an ideal representation of the ancient Chinese in accordance with his own political ideal: a modern version of Plato’s philosopher king. From his starting point Wolff goes on to show how classical Chinese philosophy was in perfect harmony with the modern, rationalist system of natural law, which he himself propounded. Not surprisingly, he considered the Chinese to have held that the perfection of oneself and one’s fellow men was the finis ultimus of moral philosophy. This is Wolff’s own position, of course, and he even admits that the Chinese have a somewhat “confused” point of view on the matter.[21]

It seems then, as it would be wiser to study the various uses to which the concept of virtue has been put, instead of trying to reach a universally valid definition. This seems more appropriate for historical studies, as it enables us to understand changes over time and compare differences across different parts of Europe. For this purpose it may suffice to state that we by ‘virtue’ will understand an acquired and stable moral stance or disposition. This must then be submitted to various reservations: virtue can be more or less constant; it can be more or less similar to a practical skill and more or less a specifically moral disposition; it can to a greater or lesser extent be regarded as both a state and as an activity, etc.

This approach also leads to further questions. How were these virtues acquired? Were they considered to be achieved through practical exercise, intellectual study or imitation of examples? How important were innate talents and gifts and other natural predispositions perceived to be? Were emotions, passions and affectations considered a hindrance or a prerequisite for virtue? Which role did ideas about acquired or inherited virtue play in legitimating segregation based on gender, profession, class or estate? To what extent was human nature itself considered to be an impediment in the acquisition of virtue? And to what extent was virtue deemed to be dependent on social and material preconditions?

Such questions are best answered empirically. Therefore the “Teaching Virtue”-project includes nine relatively independent research projects. Erik Eliasson (Philosophy) studies Neo-platonic ideas on degrees of virtue in medieval commentaries on Aristotle. In modern philosophy there is, as has already been hinted at, a tendency to stress the anthropocentric and societal aspects of Aristotle’s ethics. His view of man as a political animal whose nature can only be perfected within the community of a city-state of the classical type becomes central in this interpretation. However, his thought has not always been interpreted in this way. In book ten of the Nichomachean Ethics, we find the argument that the contemplative life is in fact the best one, a view seemingly at odds with the work as a whole.[22] For the commentators of Late Antiquity this “Platonic” position was fundamental. They considered the ethics of Aristotle as a basic course, dealing with the “lower” virtues and preparing the students for higher levels, i. e. the study of Plato himself. In their view, the lower virtues were regarded as being accessible to everyone, while the higher virtues were reserved for an elite. Eliasson also studies how these early Neo-platonic commentaries came to influence the scholastics of the middle ages, when they endeavored to harmonize Aristotelian ethics with Christian theology.

Biörn Tjällén (History) investigates how Aristotelian ethics was used in the educational efforts of the mendicant orders of the high Middle Ages. To discipline and educate their flock the monks needed tools to understand how human character is formed and the role of morality in society. The sources studied include compendia and florilegia with a practical purpose. These texts interpreted classical literature for the priests but they also applied their wisdom to pastoral practice. In that way, Tjällén deals with virtue ethics as a professional tool, as these are handbooks of moral education and an application of school philosophy to the everyday life of parishioners. Particular focus is laid on texts the purpose of which is the education of holders of political office, such as judges, bishops, kings and aristocrats.

Mari Eyice (History) studies the interplay between gender, emotion and virtue in the religious ideals of sermons, catechisms and edificatory literature from the period of the Swedish Reformation (ca 1450–1600). Eyice’s project aims at understanding how conceptions of gender, emotion and virtue were developed during a seldom studied transition, when both religious ideals, and the forms of expression they took, experienced rapid change.

Tania Preste (History) investigates how early 17th century Swedish student theater was used to shape virtuous subjects out of young pupils. The period is characterized by major changes in the educational system as a result of the upheavals of the Reformation and the growth of the confessional state. At the same time the pedagogical ideas of the Jesuits were of central importance in Sweden, as they were in the rest of Europe, despite the confessional divide. Using theater for educational purposes was an old tradition, which was put to novel uses in fostering Christian virtues as well as practical skills such as rhetoric. History, both classical and Biblical, was frequently used as a source of themes and subjects.

Stefano Fogelberg Rota (Comparative Literature) studies moral education in court ballet during the reign of queen Christina of Sweden. After having been introduced to Sweden in 1638, modern French ballet de cour saw a short golden age under Christina’s patronage. As part of a larger effort to raise the cultural standing of the state which inherited Gustavus Adolphus’ position on the European stage, French maître de danse Antoine de Beaulieu was brought to the country by Oxenstierna to teach the courtiers to dance. Ballet became a privileged medium for conveying the queen’s political decisions and ambitions. The political messages are constantly communicated through the use of examples, portrayed as ideals of virtue. Virtue, not least the then immensely popular heroic virtue, was intended to educate and counsel Christina and her young aristocratic favorites. Thus, Fogelberg Rota investigates both the underlying purposes of the representations and the rhetorical strategies which were employed in creating them, as well as the audiences for which they were intended.

Kristine Kolrud (Art History) compares male and female ideals of education using the court ballet L’educatione d’Achille as a case study, with particular focus on visual representations of virtue. The ballet, performed at the court of Savoy in 1650, is a representation of an ideal princely education. Its form is based on the mythical upbringing of Achilles by his teacher the centaur Chiron, but it also portrays Achilles’ sisters the Nereids, who are educated by nymphs. Just like in the ballets performed at the court of Christina at the same time, the children of the royal house performed the main roles themselves. The source material, among which is a richly illustrated manuscript describing the performance, is exceptionally well suited to comparison between male and female ideals of princely education and upbringing and their visual representation, as well as the visual representation of virtue more generally.

Michaela Vance intends to explore aspects of socialization and family dynamics in English writer Frances Brooke (1724–1789). Her project amounts to an investigation of her oeuvre in its entirety, including novels, plays, opera, journalism, poetry and translations. By so doing, Vance will among other things uncover a consistent position on issues such as education, moral capabilities and sensibility in the portrayal of the fictional characters and their quest for independence from their parents, as well as in the treatment of the conflict between loyalties towards family and state.

Jennie Nell studies the concepts of honor, virtue and magnanimitas in panegyric poetry in late 18th century Sweden and thus examines the period in which virtue ethics was coming under increasingly strong criticism, while simultaneously a secular concept of virtue seems to have seen something of a revival in connection with strictly classical literary ideals and the heightened interest in moral philosophy and political issues of the Enlightenment. A conception of “great men” was prominent already during the early 18th century Swedish “Age of Liberty”, and came to be combined with new notions of civic virtue as viewing honor as a spur to virtue was made increasingly acceptable. Worldly honor and a cult of great men were often presented as necessary for the achievement of a well-ordered society. However, a “democratization of honor””also stressed the need for such examples of virtue for all segments of the population, even though true magnanimitas could still be considered to be reserved for an aristocratic elite.

Providing a loose framework around the project as a whole, Andreas Hellerstedt (History of Ideas) will conduct a begriffsgeschichtliches study of Scandinavian mirrors for princes from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. This includes a relatively small number of texts, especially if only original works are considered. The aim is to trace the development of a number of closely connected concepts, such as virtue, innate talent (ingenium, snille), habit, education, and so on.[23] This long-term study is meant to function as a background against which the other projects can be discussed and compared.

The project Teaching Virtue strongly argues that pre-modern societies were characterized by a search for answers to questions about in what the good life for man really consists. Perhaps this can be said of almost all human societies, throughout history. Nonetheless, the history of virtue seems, in our view, a particularly fruitful approach when studying pre-modern periods. It is hard to deny that systems of moral philosophy and more day-to-day moral ideas and practices in which virtue was central were incredibly important in pre-modern societies. Thus, we believe that the history of virtue is central to understanding these societies, and that even the criticism of virtue and virtue ethics tells us important things about how men and women thought and acted in ages long past.

Furthermore, our perspective can provide the benefits of long-term historical study. Through comparison of the development of concepts and by contrasting them with competing views, systems of thought and patterns of human action, they will stand out more clearly to us. In that sense, Teaching Virtue is perhaps part of a larger turn back towards a history of the longue durée. It may be that historians in recent years have in fact regained some faith in the capacity of their subject to contribute something to our understanding of what it means to be human, more than any purported contribution to short-term political utility. Swedish historian David Larsson has argued that in particular cultural history with a breadth in terms of method and a depth in terms of time frames will indeed be forced to confront larger issues, such as distinguishing between what is universally human and what is in fact period- or context-specific.[24] It will be sufficiently clear from what has already been said that this is more than relevant for the long history of virtue. It has however also been claimed that our interest in history has “existential” aspects, that we have a “need” of history, and so on.[25] Surely this is a consequence of the fact that scholars within the humanities at present are experiencing increasing difficulties in countering demands of short-sighted public utility: history, like all forms of education, it is claimed, must make itself useful. To me a golden mean is good enough; a long-term utility, if you will. In fact, I believe this to be something we can actually learn from history itself, that is, that we can actually learn from history. And I am not talking of any moral lessons or the fulfillment of existential needs. I would simply claim that history is a story of human action. This was a fact defended with great force in pre-modern societies: “Thus, if someone wishes to be successful in their endeavors, he should employ the same means, with which others have sought the same goal. For it seems to be no reason, why that should fail to happen, which has happened before, and why the same cause should not have the same effect, ceteris paribus”[26] a professor at Uppsala stated in 1743. His grandfather, also a professor at the same university, wrote some 60 years previously, that “to the means, with which those who are best equipped to govern the state take up their office, is history, the witness of truth, and the best works of the best writers.”[27] Why should the same not be applicable today? English archaeologist Richard Miles seems to thinks so, and in his simple expression echoes the same idea: “it [i. e. history] is the story of us, then.”[28] This perspective, however, may, to a certain degree, entail us abandoning notions of the past as “a foreign country” and realizing, with Miles, that history is indeed a mirror.



[1] “Nu um kunungr kan warda antiggia nidingr älla urgytia, swa är urgytia bätre än nidingr […]”; “Än thet är otvlande at kunungr älla höfdinge se nidingr/ ty at thet last är och blygd och mykil ofrägd.” Kununga ok Höfdinga Styrilse Hoc est Regum Principumque Institutio Ab incerto Auctore Gentis Sueticae ante saecula nonulla patrio sermone conscripta, Stockholm, 1669, p. 90.

[2] For Schefferus as political humanist, see Nils Runeby, Monarchia Mixta: Maktfördelningsdebatt i Sverige under den tidigare stormaktstiden, diss., Uppsala University, Uppsala, 1962, pp. 456–466, and Nils Ekedahl’s excellent “Att skriva sig till klokhet: Johannes Schefferus, progymnasmata och politisk humanism i 1600-talets Sverige”, in Progymnasmata: Retorikens bortglömda text- och tankeform, Rhetor förlag, Åstorp, 2003 (ed. Stina Hansson), pp. 138–172.

[3] “Sed ibi Aristoteles non agit de Rege Principeve, cujus alia est conditio”, Kununga ok Höfdinga Styrilse, p. 90. Compare Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Cambridge, 1934, IV:1, pp. 31–32.

[4] “Princeps ne suos spoliet, atq sese tueri ac sustinere possit, in pauperiem item & contemptum ne recidat, aut ad rapinas ne adigatur, avaritia nomen parvi faciundum ducat, quia hoc unum vitiorum est, quod ipsum facit regnare.” Kununga ok Höfdinga Styrilse, p. 90, footnote x. I have used the English translation of Machiavelli: The Chief Works and Others, vol 1 (ed. and transl. Allan Gilbert) Duke University Press, Durham (North Carolina), 1999, p. 60.

[5] In fact, Schefferus claims that the quote is from chapter 15, which is a mistake: chapter 16 deals with parsimony and wastefulness, while chapter 15 is the infamous section on the reasons for praise and blame, in which the central view that a prince must learn not to be good in order to preserve his state is presented. In the commentaries on Konungastyrelsen Schefferus returns to Machiavelli’s views several times, and he often criticizes him, instead generally following Lipsius.

[6] G. E. M. Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy”, Philosophy: The Journal of the Royal institute of Philosophy, 33:124, (1958), p. 6.

[7] Anscombe, op. cit, pp. 8, 14–19. This is how the article has often been read, but there are alternative interpretations. Some have claimed that Anscombe in fact tried to put forward an indirect argument for a religiously founded ethics: Julia Driver, “Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2014 Edition, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/anscombe/ §5.1 for an extended treatment of this topic.

[8] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame (Indiana), 2007 [1981], pp. 11–22, 244–255.

[9] MacIntyre, op. cit, pp. 238–243.

[10] MacIntyre, op. cit., p. 191; Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2001 [1986], pp. 100–106.

[11] MacIntyre, op. cit, pp. 197–199.

[12] E. g. Jean Porter, “Virtue ethics in the medieval period”, in Daniel C. Russell (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2013; Erland Sellberg, Kyrkan och den tidigmoderna staten: En konflikt om Aristoteles, utbildning och makt, Carlssons, Stockholm, 2010. An excellent study of the application of Aristotelian virtue ethics on economic thought in 17th century Northern Europe is Leif Runefelt, Hushållningens dygder: Affektlära, hushållslära och ekonomiskt tänkande under svensk stormaktstid, diss., Stockholm University, Stockholm, 2001, (in particular chapter 2); Runefelt has also claimed that this continued to play an important part in the 18th century, when it was “re-dressed in Wolffian languague”, Leif Runefelt, Dygden som välståndets grund: Dygd, nytta och egennytta i frihetstidens ekonomiska tänkande, Stockholm University, Stockholm 2005, quote at p. 21.

[13] Bo Lindberg, Seneca: Människosläktets lärare, Atlantis, Stockholm 2010, pp. 31–50, and Bo Lindberg, Stoicism och stat: Justus Lipsius och den politiska humanismen, Atlantis, Stockholm, 2001, in particular pp. 46–56, 73–85, 105–115.

[14] Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, p. xxvii.

[15] Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass), 1998.

[16] Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, p. 340.

[17] E. g. Maurizio Viroli, From Politics to Reason of State: The Acquisition of the language of Politics 1250-1600, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992, p. 21.

[18] Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, pp. 7, 55–63, 67, 80, 103, 238, 327–330, 336–340, 347–350, 366, 397, 415–418, 420–421; an excellent example of how this problem has been studied historically using early modern sources is Kristiina Savin, Fortunas klädnader: Lycka, olycka och risk i det tidigmoderna Sverige, Sekel, Lund 2011.

[19] Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, pp. 41–47; Barbara Rosenwein has long argued for a history of emotions, but it seems that the approach of William Reddy is particularly suited to the aims of the “Teaching Virtue”-project; see, for instance, William M. Reddy, “The Logic of Action: Indeterminacy, Emotion, and Historical Narrative”, History and Theory, 40:4 (Dec. 2001).

[20] E. g. Russell, op. cit, chapter 3.

[21] Christian Wolff, Oratio de sinarum philosophia practica […], Frankfurt am Main, 1726, pp. 6–7, 15–17, 29–30, 74, 88–91; quote. p. 17.

[22] Cfr. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, pp. 373–377.

[23] It is worth noting that the word “Tugend” is not subject to an article in the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe.

[24] David Larsson [Heidenblad], “Vilka tidsrymder angår oss? L’extrême longue durée och den samtida svenska historievetenskapen”, Historisk tidskrift, 130:4 (2010), pp. 758–759; Eva Österberg, “Den omoderna människan – ständigt i våra tankar”, Eva Österberg & Mohammad Fazlhashemi (eds.), Omodernt: Människor och tankar i förmodern tid, Nordic Academic Press, Stockholm 2009.

[25] E. g. Österberg, op. cit.

[26] Johan Ihre (praeses)/Pehr Wilhelm Wargentin (respondens), De politica Machiavelli […], Uppsala 1743, p. 4.

[27] Matthias Steuchius, epistle dedicatory, in Andreas Norcopensis [Nordenhielm]/Hemming Forelius, Gubernacula Imperii Togati […], Stockholm 1681. Both Ihre and Steuchius based their arguments on Niccolò Machiavelli, Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio, Rizzoli, Milano 2010 [1531], III:43, pp. 564–566.

[28] Richard Miles, Ancient Worlds: The Search for the Origins of Western Civilization, Penguin books, London 2010, p. xxv.

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