Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Giotto: The Virtues and Vices ~ Foolishness

The shrewd always act prudently but the foolish parade folly.Proverbs 13:16
The tongue of the wise pours out knowledge, but the mouth of fools spews folly. Proverbs 15:2
A wise heart accepts commands, but a babbling fool will be overthrown.Proverbs 10:8
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” Their deeds are loathsome and corrupt; not one does what is good. Psalm 14:1

What, you may ask, is this all about? At first glance this fool looks almost like a parody of an American Indian, but that would be impossible in the 14th century. Bearing a large club, he (she?) is crowned with feathers and bells. There are bells? tied around his waist; the sleeves of his tunic look like little wings; and the hem of his tunic resembles a bird's tail. He looks almost as if he might drop that club on his own head. This would make sense because the fool is his own worst enemy. The opposite of Prudence in Giotto's estimation, he never counts the cost or prepares for the future. I see in Strong's Concordance that the Greek word for folly or foolishness is  ἄνοια, literally, without a mind.

As you can see, all of the quotes are from Proverbs and Psalms. Most of the discussion about foolishness in scripture and in the Fathers is about how the wisdom of Christ seems like foolishness to the world, so isn't quite applicable here.

So that wraps up the cardinal virtues. They are excellent and necessary, but even when practiced perfectly, they can result in a cold, loveless world without faith, hope and charity. You can see that at work in ancient civilizations, and you can see it in some areas of modern life, although our current culture seems to be abandoning even the cardinal virtues--prudence most assuredly. 


Monday, April 20, 2015

Giotto: The Virtues and Vices ~ Prudence

Home and possessions are an inheritance from parents, but a prudent wife is from the LORD. Proverbs 19:14
I, Wisdom, dwell with prudence, and useful knowledge I have. Proberbs 8:12
[Prudence is] an intellectual habit enabling us to see in any given juncture of human affairs what is virtuous and what is not, and how to come at the one and avoid the other. It is to be observed that prudence, whilst possessing in some sort an empire over all the moral virtues, itself aims to perfect not the will but the intellect in its practical decisions. Its function is to point out which course of action is to be taken in any round of concrete circumstances. It indicates which, here and now, is the golden mean wherein the essence of all virtue lies. It has nothing to do with directly willing the good it discerns. That is done by the particular moral virtue within whose province it falls. Prudence, therefore, has a directive capacity with regard to the other virtues. It lights the way and measures the arena for their exercise. The insight it confers makes one distinguish successfully between their mere semblance and their reality. It must preside over the eliciting of all acts proper to any one of them at least if they be taken in their formal sense. Catholic Encyclopedia
[P]rudence is love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it...prudence is love making a right distinction between what helps it towards God and what might hinder it. On the Morals of the Catholic Church, Chapter 15, St. Augustine

Seated at her desk, Prudence resembles nothing so much as the head clerk in an accounting house. She has a very no-nonsense look about her. Pen in hand, she notes all the facts, all the details and takes them into consideration. She looks in a mirror, even perhaps taking her own motivation into account. 

Prudence is the moderator over all the other virtues. She judges the positive and negative aspects of all situations and decides whether or not any given action is wise at any given time. She doesn't provide the will to accomplish these actions, but she uses the intellect to make the best decision. I wrote in the post on temperance that even our virtues can become disordered. It's temperance that strengthens our will against this disorder, but it's prudence that informs the will that it is disorder.

So far, I have written about Justice, Temperance, Fortitude and Prudence, the four cardinal virtues. These are all virtues that would have been recognized and commended by the pagans. After the post about Prudence's opposite number, we will move on to the theological virtues.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Reception, Not the Intent

In which I wander far afield of my usual posts.

Many, probably most, of you have heard that the Friends School of Baltimore, after originally posting a link to a Washington Post article featuring alumnus Ryan T. Anderson, removed the link because readers were offended by Mr. Anderson's opposition to same-sex marriage.  In explaining his reasons for his decision to remove the link, Matt Micciche, head of the school, said:
By far, the most important factor in my decision to remove this post were the voices of students and alumni who felt that by posting this article, we were, as a school, validating (if not tacitly endorsing) the views that Mr. Anderson put forth in the article as he described his work opposing same-sex marriage. While that was not our intent, as we often point out to students, it is the reception, rather than the intent, that matters [emphasis mine].
It's this last line that pulled me up short. So we are teaching children that it doesn't matter how innocent a person's intent may have been, if you receive their words or actions as being offensive, they are guilty of an offense. This is absolute death to any desire to have a rational, polite discussion on any topic on which we disagree. If I placed all my hope in the belief that people who disagree can calmly and rationally discuss their differences, I would now be in complete despair. Fortunately, that is not where I place my hope, but it still looks really bad on the toleration front.

A bit later I came across this article which begins:
A California college has apologized for its “insensitivity” after serving Mexican food at an official school night party whose theme, “Intergalactic,” included decorations featuring aliens from outer space.
I thought it had to be a spoof. I kept looking for the Onion's logo, but to no avail.

According to the article, these students have had other themed events. For Midnight in Paris night, they had French food. For Harry Potter night, they had turkey, potatoes and stew. I would have preferred chocolate frogs, but there's no accounting for taste. And when it came time for the space alien event, "students landed on Mexican food because they weren't sure what food would work with the intergalactic theme." Ah, perfidy indeed.

So, despite the fact that the students had the commendable intent to feed hungry scholars (always a monumental and thankless task) and foster fellowship on campus, they are guilty by reason of reception, and will now be subjected to Orwellian reprogramming, or, as it is now known, cultural competence training.

This whole scenario is ridiculous, but the underlying message that one can determine the moral validity of a person's words or action by the way one chooses to receive them is terribly dangerous. There is no way to ever know when you have overstepped some invisible line that you did not know existed. But even more, it is an impossible obstacle to charity. If we are going to love our fellow man, we must do the exact opposite of what this educator is saying. We must be willing to put the best possible interpretation on the words and actions of those around us. This puts us in a very vulnerable position. It's a real risk. But it's the true school of friendship in Baltimore or anywhere else.


Saturday, April 18, 2015

Giotto: The Virtues and Vices ~ Inconstancy

But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea, which is moved and carried about by the wind. Therefore let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. A double minded man is inconstant in all his ways James 1:6-8
Inconstancy denotes withdrawal from a definite good purpose. Now the origin of this withdrawal is in the appetite, for a man does not withdraw from a previous good purpose, except on account of something being inordinately pleasing to him: nor is this withdrawal completed except through a defect of reason, which is deceived in rejecting what before it had rightly accepted. Thomas Aquinas, Summa, ii-ii, q. 53, a. 5

This image of Inconstancy beautifully portrays the one that is "moved and carried about the wind." She is completely unbalanced. It makes me a bit queasy to look at her. The garment around her waist is blown up into the air. She perches precariously on some sort of wheel and even the floor beneath her is rolling like a wave of the sea. 

I'm wondering if that wheel represents the Wheel of Fortune, that medieval concept in which Fortune blindly spins her wheel, and he that is king today becomes a slave tomorrow, and vice versa.

The faith of the inconstant man reels under the vicissitudes of life. When things are going well, he makes resolutions and keeps them, but when troubles come he loses his balance, his resolution fails.

As you can see, I had a very difficult time finding any references to inconstancy. There were plenty of passages that used the word as an adjective, but nothing much that described what inconstancy is. The only exception is the above answer to a question in the Summa where Thomas argues that Inconstancy is not a vice that opposes Fortitude, (as in this series from Giotto) but one which opposes Prudence. 


Friday, April 17, 2015

Giotto: The Virtues and Vices ~ Fortitudo

The glory of fortitude, therefore, does not rest only on the strength of one's body or of one's arms, but rather on the courage of the mind....And in very truth, rightly is that called fortitude, when a man conquers himself, restrains his anger, yields and gives way to no allurements, is not put out by misfortunes, nor gets elated by good success, and does not get carried away by every varying change as by some chance wind. But what is more noble and splendid than to train the mind, keep down the flesh, and reduce it to subjection, so that it may obey commands, listen to reason, and in undergoing labours readily carry out the intention and wish of the mind?      St. Ambrose On the Duties of the Clergy, Chapter XXXVI
Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause. "The Lord is my strength and my song." "In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1808
But if, on the one hand, we are enduring affliction, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if, on the other hand, we are receiving comfort, it is for your comfort which is produced within you through your patient fortitude under the same sufferings as those which we also are enduring. 2 Corinthians 1:6

This is one of my favorite pictures of the virtues. There is so much to see. Fortitude is shown standing steadfastly in the breech. I've read descriptions of her face that I don't really agree with. What I see is someone who doesn't know for sure if she will be able to survive the onslaught, but who is willing to hold out until her last breath. She stands behind her shield which bears the form of a lion, the symbol of courage--the Lion of Judah? The shield already bears the points of at least three broken spears, one of which is lodged in the neck of the lion. Not only is she shielded by a lion, she wears a lion's pelt with the head as a hood and the paws tied around her neck and waist. She also is wearing a breastplate. In her left hand she holds a weapon that confused me at first. I could not imagine why a weapon would be shaped that way, and I spent some time looking at pictures of 14th century weapons to see if I could find anything like it. A few minutes ago, it dawned on me that it is probably a broken sword.

The Church Fathers talk about the virtue of fortitude both as a physical virtue--fortitude in battle--and as a spiritual virtue--fortitude in fighting temptation. In his fresco, Giotto seems to capture both aspects of the virtue. The figure certainly has real concrete enemies. Then again, her battle garb reminds me forcibly of Ephesians 6.
Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all [the] flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Giotto: The Virtues and Vices ~ Wrath

Does anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the LORD? Can one refuse mercy to a sinner like oneself, yet seek pardon for one’s own sins? If a mere mortal cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins? Remember your last days and set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin! Sirach 28:3-6
Know this, my dear brothers: everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath, for the wrath of a man does not accomplish the righteousness of God. James 1:19-20
If we chance to be among heathens, let us thus stop their mouths. without wrath, without harshness. For if we do it with wrath, it no longer seems to be the boldness (of one who is confident of his cause,) but passion: but if with gentleness, this is boldness indeed. For in one and the same thing success and failure cannot possibly go together. The boldness is a success: the anger is a failure. Therefore, if we are to have boldness, we must be clean from wrath that none may impute our words to that. . . . Let us then be clean from wrath. The Holy Spirit dwells not where wrath is: cursed is the wrathful. It cannot be that anything wholesome should approach, where wrath goes forth. For as in a storm at sea, great is the tumult, loud the clamor, and then would be no time for lessons of wisdom: so neither in wrath. John Chrysostom, Homily 17 on Acts of the Apostles

We've seen this bared chest before. But while Caiaphas was smug and the angel was anguished, this woman is just angry. Head thrown back, hair let down, a kind of maniacal gleam in her eyes, she is out of control. Unlike her opposite number, Temperance, she is unbridled. 


In the list of capital sins that is commonly used today, we use the word anger  instead of wrath, but wrath is not quite the same as anger. It is anger multiplied and it wants to exact punishment. 

It was hard to find scriptures and quotes about wrath as a vice. In the scripture, the word wrath is used almost exclusively for the wrath of God; most of the Church Fathers, when they discuss wrath, are talking about the wrath of God; and the wrath of God is always a response to sin or evil. The wrath of man is, in a way, its own punishment. The wrathful man, says St. John Chrysostom is cursed--nothing wholesome will approach him.