Classical Literature and the System Fetish

John Ruskin, Stones of Venice (8.50):

Plato, indeed, studied alone, would have done no one any harm. He is profoundly spiritual and capacious in all his views, and embraces the small systems of Aristotle and Cicero, as the solar system does the Earth. He seems to me especially remarkable for the sense of the great Christian virtue of Holiness, or sanctification; and for the sense of the presence of the Deity in all things, great or small, which always runs in a solemn undercurrent beneath his exquisite playfulness and irony; while all the merely moral virtues may be found in his writings defined in the most noble manner, as a great painter defines his figures, without outlines. But the imperfect scholarship of later ages seems to have gone to Plato, only to find in him the system of Cicero; which indeed was very definitely expressed by him. For it having been quickly felt by all men who strove, unhelped by Christian faith, to enter at the strait gate into the paths of virtue, that there were four characters of mind which were protective or preservative of all that was best in man, namely, Prudence, Justice, Courage, and Temperance, these were afterwards, with most illogical inaccuracy, called cardinal virtues, Prudence being evidently no virtue, but an intellectual gift: but this inaccuracy arose partly from the ambiguous sense of the Latin word “virtutes,” which sometimes, in mediæval language, signifies virtues, sometimes powers (being occasionally used in the Vulgate for the word “hosts,” as in Psalm ciii. 21, cxlviii. 2, &c., while “fortitudines” and “exercitus” are used for the same word in other places), so that Prudence might properly be styled a power, though not properly a virtue; and partly from the confusion of Prudence with Heavenly Wisdom.

The real rank of these four virtues, if so they are to be called, is however properly expressed by the term “cardinal.” They are virtues of the compass, those by which all others are directed and strengthened; they are not the greatest virtues, but the restraining or modifying virtues, thus Prudence restrains zeal, Justice restrains mercy, Fortitude and Temperance guide the entire system of the passions; and, thus understood, these virtues properly assumed their peculiar leading or guiding position in the system of Christian ethics. But in Pagan ethics, they were not only guiding, but comprehensive. They meant a great deal more on the lips of the ancients, than they now express to the Christian mind. Cicero’s Justice includes charity, beneficence, and benignity, truth, and faith in the sense of trustworthiness. His Fortitude includes courage, self-command, the scorn of fortune and of all temporary felicities. His Temperance includes courtesy and modesty. So also, in Plato, these four virtues constitute the sum of education. I do not remember any more simple or perfect expression of the idea, than in the account given by Socrates, in the “Alcibiades I.,” of the education of the Persian kings, for whom, in their youth, there are chosen, he says, four tutors from among the Persian nobles; namely, the Wisest, the most Just, the most Temperate, and the most Brave of them. Then each has a distinct duty: “The Wisest teaches the young king the worship of the gods, and the duties of a king (something more here, observe, than our ‘Prudence!’); the most Just teaches him to speak all truth, and to act out all truth, through the whole course of his life; the most Temperate teaches him to allow no pleasure to have the mastery of him, so that he may be truly free, and indeed a king; and the most Brave makes him fearless of all things, showing him that the moment he fears anything, he becomes a slave.”

All this is exceedingly beautiful, so far as it reaches; but the Christian divines were grievously led astray by their endeavors to reconcile this system with the nobler law of love. At first, as in the passage I am just going to quote from St. Ambrose, they tried to graft the Christian system on the four branches of the Pagan one; but finding that the tree would not grow, they planted the Pagan and Christian branches side by side; adding, to the four cardinal virtues, the three called by the schoolmen theological, namely, Faith, Hope, and Charity: the one series considered as attainable by the Heathen, but the other by the Christian only. Thus Virgil to Sordello:

“Loco e laggiù, non tristo da martiri

Ma di tenebre solo, ove i lamenti

Non suonan come guai, ma son sospiri:


Quivi sto io, con quei che le tre sante

Virtù non si vestiro, e senza vizio

Conobbei l’ altre, e seguir, tutte quante.”

 . . . . . “There I with those abide

Who the Three Holy Virtues put not on,

But understood the rest, and without blame

Followed them all.”


This arrangement of the virtues was, however, productive of infinite confusion and error: in the first place, because Faith is classed with its own fruits,—the gift of God, which is the root of the virtues, classed simply as one of them; in the second, because the words used by the ancients to express the several virtues had always a different meaning from the same expressions in the Bible, sometimes a more extended, sometimes a more limited one. Imagine, for instance, the confusion which must have been introduced into the ideas of a student who read St. Paul and Aristotle alternately; considering that the word which the Greek writer uses for Justice, means, with St. Paul, Righteousness. And lastly, it is impossible to overrate the mischief produced in former days, as well as in our own, by the mere habit of reading Aristotle, whose system is so false, so forced, and so confused, that the study of it at our universities is quite enough to occasion the utter want of accurate habits of thought which so often disgraces men otherwise well-educated. In a word, Aristotle mistakes the Prudence or Temperance which must regulate the operation of the virtues, for the essence of the virtues themselves; and, striving to show that all virtues are means between two opposite vices, torments his wit to discover and distinguish as many pairs of vices as are necessary to the completion of his system, not disdaining to employ sophistry where invention fails him.

And, indeed, the study of classical literature, in general, not only fostered in the Christian writers the unfortunate love of systematizing, which gradually degenerated into every species of contemptible formulism, but it accustomed them to work out their systems by the help of any logical quibble, or verbal subtlety, which could be made available for their purpose, and this not with any dishonest intention, but in a sincere desire to arrange their ideas in systematical groups, while yet their powers of thought were not accurate enough, nor their common sense stern enough, to detect the fallacy, or disdain the finesse, by which these arrangements were frequently accomplished.



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