The Neo-Platonistic System Of the Virtues

‘Begegnung Im Lich’, by Bo Yin Ra


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is freshly translated into English from Pierre Hadot’s ‘Apprendre à philosopher dans l’Antiquité’, French 2004 Edition, Le Livre de Poche, pages 80 to 84.


Now, let’s come back to the Neo-Platonistic doctrines concerning the virtues. Porphyry describes the ‘civilian’ (or political) virtues in the following manner:

‘The virtues of the political lie upon the ‘metriopatheia’; they consist in following the rational principles of duty in the activities. This is why they are called ‘political’ from the fact they are related to life in common and in communities because they aim to shared life that does not harm others. And in this case, prudence lies in the part of the soul that reasons, courage in the ‘irascible’ part of the soul, temperance in a concord and harmony between the ‘concupiscible’ (lustful) and the rational part of the soul, justice finally in the fact that all these parts accomplish their proper part….’

…’The fundamental disposition that correspond to these virtues has for goal to live as human according to nature.

We see that the degree of the political virtues includes the canon of the four cardinal virtues: Prudence, courage, temperance and justice. These four virtues will be found in each of the upper three levels to the political virtues under an adapted form to each of these degrees. The reciprocal involvement  of the virtues, fundamental doctrine of the Stoics, is also attested by Porphyry for all virtues that are inside a same degree.

The political virtues prepare to the next upper level: The cathartic virtues. I here again quote Porphyry:

‘We can define them by the abstention of the activities that are done with the body, and the affections that are linked with it.’

‘…This is why in the cardinal virtues, the fact to not comply to the body in its judgements, but to exercise alone its proper activity characterizes prudence that is achieved by the fact of thinking in a pure manner; the fact to not associate with the passions of the body characterizes temperance; the fact to not fear falling in a sort of void and nothingness, for the soul separated from the body, characterizes courage; And as for justice she is achieved when reason and intellect rule and nothing stands in opposition.’

‘…The fundamental disposition that corresponds to these virtues is seen in the ‘apatheia’, which end is the likeliness with God’.

So, the Stoic apatheia characterizes the second level of the virtues, but as they are only the fruit of long philosophical studies, it remains unreachable to the novice.

The third degree is composed by the theoretical virtues:

‘There is again another, a third kind of virtues, that follow the ‘cathartic’ and ‘political’ virtues, when the soul has a purely intellectual activity. Wisdom and prudence are characterized by contemplating the beings the intellect possesses, justice arises when each part accomplishes its proper task in following the Intellect, courage finally manifests in impassibility that imitates the impassibility of the one we look up, the Intellect, that is naturally impassible. And these virtues are reciprocally involved, in the same manner of the others.’

The fourth kind of virtues, Porphyry tells us further, ‘are the paradigmatic virtues, that are found inside the Intellect, superior to the virtues of the soul and model of these, of which the virtues of the soul are just imitations. Because the Intellect is that in which all things are found in the state of models; in it, prudence becomes science, wisdom, the knowing Intellect; temperance is actualized by a conversion of the Intellect towards itself; justice emulated by the realization of proper activity,  courage is a clear identity and sustained thriving in its state of purity due to the overflowing of its might.’

So, as we can see, we have four levels of virtues, and at each of these levels the same four virtues constantly reappear in various degrees of perfection: prudence, temperance, courage, justice. However, in the interpretation and development of the definitions of these virtues, starting at the third degree of virtue, prudence is completed and replaced by wisdom, and in an analog manner, justice is reduced more and more to the accomplishment of the proper work. The four degrees of perfection of the four virtues are the fruits of four distinct field of action of the groups of virtues: The paradigmatic virtues correspond to the ontological level of the Intellect, the three other groups to the soul, but these three last groups, in turn, correspond to psychical attitudes or fundamentally different forms of life.

The inferior level, of the political virtues, it is said, Epictetus’s ‘Manual’ helps to acquire, correspond in a state of the soul when it is still alienated from its real being, because it is turned to corporeal and sensible reality that is inferior to it and to which it communicates life. In itself, such a conversion towards the body is an ailment for the soul but the very first stages of the arising of the virtues show that the soul cannot lose itself completely in the corporeal world, that is to say it does not allow itself to be dominated by the passion and uses the body only as an instrument. This idea has its source on the definition of Man, as we find it in Plato’s ‘First Alcibiades’, and that according to Simplicius, Epictetus makes it his own too. Simplicius will come back on this definition in quite a lengthy manner after the text we have quoted and will hence finish his foreword (to his commentary on Epictetus’s ‘Manual’).

The leaning of the soul towards what is corporeal, even if it is limited and restrained, does not allow to acquire  the virtues only on the basis of the ‘metriopatheia’ and  only allow to practice them in the limits of social life, narrowly connected to the material world; this is what is explained by the calling of these virtues by the word ‘civilian’ or ‘political’ or ‘pragmatical’.

Simplicius’ foreword to his commentary upon Epictetus’s ‘Manual’ answers perfectly to the demands of the introductions to the commentaries upon the writings of Aristotle and Plato: In developing the principles of interpretation of the ‘Manual’, it prepares the reader to approach this  Stoic work with the eyes of a Neo-Platonist.

More about Bo Yin Ra’s Art:
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