Thursday, December 08, 2005

A Nameless Vice

Aristotle tends to identify virtue with moderate activity, activity that finds & establishes a mean between vices of excess and of deficiency. Thus generosity is a tendency to give moderately and appropriately, avoiding both the imprudent extreme of prodigality and also the vice of meanness or miserliness. Courage is a virtue that avoids both cowardice but also the reckless extreme of utter fearlessness.

Greed—pleonexia in Greek, avaritia in Latin—is the vice associated with an excessive devotion to acquiring wealth and money making. The Aristotelian virtue associated with wealth & money is plainly a moderate and appropriate concern with one’s financial health. What then is the vice of deficiency associated with wealth & money-making? It is nameless vice , as far as I know, but Aristotle says vices are often nameless if it is rare that people fall into them. It isn’t miserliness, which refuses to part with money, or injustice, which makes and uses money in bad ways. It is the vice of being deficient or derelict in pursuing one’s financial interests.

“There is no such vice!” Can you hear the Stoic saying that? “There is no vice of being insufficient attentive to externals. On the contrary, that is the road to virtue.”

But can the Stoic afford to say that, I wish to ask. Suppose I utterly neglect gainful employment and fall into poverty. Never mind the quality of life I inflict upon myself. Consider the kind of life I am now capable of if as an indigent in society. Can I function in and fulfill any of the responsibilities of a spouse or a parent or a neighbor or a teacher or a citizen? No. I survive ( if I do ) only as some kind or parasite or homeless street person. Can I fulfill any of the “natural” roles Epictetus so often recommends? How can I function as a parent or teacher or citizen living the life of a street person? Lack of externals like money and a job and a home consigns me to a worthless life. Is it not shameful to fail to struggle to avoid such a life?

“All our difficulties and problems arise in connection with externals,” says Epictetus at the beginning of Discourses IV. 10. I agree. If we either overpursue them, neglecting our inner life, or underpursue them, inflicting a worthless parasitic life upon ourselves.


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