Thursday, January 12, 2006

Virtue alone saves us from going wrong

Here is another selection from our friend Musonius, admittedly sounding more Stoical than Cynical in this excerpt. I have referred to this essay in a previous post under the rubric of Stoic optimism.

From Musonius' [ That man is born with a disposition to virtue]
[ This selection is untitled in the manuscripts. The editors have supplied the title above based on lines 18 and 19 of the text. It is plausible. Equally plausible, or perhaps a little more plausible, is the caption THAT EVERY MAN CAN LIVE FREE FROM ERROR AND VIRTUOUSLY. Stobaeus’ selection has omitted the standard first line of the essay, which I assume must have gone something like this: “Once when someone asked him whether all men or only some were born with a chance to live a life that is free of error and virtuous, he answered emphatically in this fashion.” ]

All of us, he said, are formed by nature in such a way that we can live without error and virtuously. Not some of us and not others, but all of us.
One important indication of this is that lawgivers make laws that apply to everyone equally, prescribing what should be done and proscribing what may not be done. They exempt none who disobey or do wrong from dishonor, not the young or the old, not the strong or the weak, not anyone at all. Yet they should if virtue as a whole were something unnatural to us, and we had no claim upon it by nature. Just as no one is required to be flawless in performing actions that pertain to any of the other arts if he has not studied those arts, so no one is required to be flawless in matters pertaining to living if he has not made a thorough study of virtue, since virtue alone saves us from making errors in life. Now in the case of the sick, no one is required to be unerring except the doctor; and in playing the lyre, no one but the musician; and in manning the rudder, no one but the pilot. Yet in the case of living, we no longer demand only the philosopher to be unerring, though supposedly he alone is attentive to virtue. We demand it of all men alike, even those who have given it no attention. Clearly, then, there is no other explanation for this than the fact that man is born with a disposition to virtue.
There is also another important indication that we partake of virtue by nature. This is the fact that all men talk about themselves as having virtue and being good. No man off the street, if he is asked whether he happens to be dim-witted or intelligent, allows that he is dim-witted. No man, if he is asked whether he is just or unjust, says that he is unjust. Every man, if someone asks him whether he is in control of his appetites or utterly ruled by them, replies at once to such a question that he is in control. And should he be asked simply whether he is good or bad, he would say that he is good, though he would not be able to name his teacher of complete goodness, nor his studies in virtue, nor any training he happened to have had.
What is this an indication of, then, but the fact that there is in the soul of man a natural propensity to complete goodness, and that a seed of virtue lies in each of us? Because it is appropriate for us to be completely good, some of us delude ourselves that we really are good, while others are ashamed to admit that they are not. Why is it, by the gods, that we don’t see someone who has not learned writing or music or gymnastics claiming to know these matters? Or someone pretending to have these skills, though he can’t even name a teacher with whom he studied? Why nevertheless does everyone profess virtue? The reason is that none of these arts belongs to man by nature, and no one has come into this life having a natural propensity toward them.


Post a Comment

<< Home