Incremental Progress Leads to Sudden Transformation

Plutarch, How One Becomes Aware of Progress in Virtue 75c

“For neither in music nor in grammar could someone understand that he is gaining any ground in learning if he does not chip away at ignorance in these matters but instead senses the presence of an ever constant level of ignorance; nor for a sick man, should treatment fail to effect an easing or lightening  and provide no perception of the affliction yielding and harming until the opposite state unfolds when the body has regained its health in every way.

No, but just as in these categories people make no progress unless they progress by the lightening of their burden, as if on a scale they are raised in the opposite direction, they do not recognize the change.

So too in the pursuit of philosophy no change nor even the perception of change must be supposed unless the soul can cast aside and cleanse itself of stupidity—up to the acquisition of the unmixed and perfect good, it clutches to an equally unmixed evil. For in one part of time or a season, the wise person transforms from a previous abject baseness to a nearly unobtainable excess of virtue, and they suddenly depart completely from a share of wickedness which was unshakeable for so great a length of time.”

οὐδὲ γὰρ ἐν μουσικοῖς τις ἢ γραμματικοῖς ἐπιδιδοὺς ἂν γνοίη μηδὲν ἐν τῷ μανθάνειν ἀπαρύτων τῆς περὶ ταῦτα ἀμαθίας ἀλλ᾿ ἴσης ἀεὶ τῆς ἀτεχνίας αὐτῷ παρούσης, οὐδὲ κάμνοντι θεραπεία μὴ ποιοῦσα ῥᾳστώνην μηδὲ κουφισμὸν ἁμωσγέπως τοῦ νοσήματος ὑπείκοντος καὶ χαλῶντος αἴσθησιν ἂν παρέχοι διαφορᾶς, πρὶν εἰλικρινῆ τὴν ἐναντίαν ἕξιν ἐγγενέσθαι παντάπασιν ἀναρρωσθέντος τοῦ σώματος. ἀλλ᾿ ὥσπερ ἐν τούτοις οὐ προκόπτουσιν, ἂν προκόπτοντες ἀνέσει τοῦ βαρύνοντος οἷον ἐπὶ ζυγοῦ πρὸς τοὐναντίον ἀναφερόμενοι μὴ γιγνώσκωσι τὴν μεταβολήν, οὕτως ἐν τῷ φιλοσοφεῖν οὔτε προκοπὴν οὔτε τινὰ προκοπῆς αἴσθησιν ὑποληπτέον, εἰ μηδὲν ἡ ψυχὴ μεθίησι μηδ᾿ ἀποκαθαίρεται τῆς ἀβελτερίας, ἄχρι δὲ τοῦ λαβεῖν ἄκρατον τὸ ἀγαθὸν καὶ τέλειον ἀκράτῳ τῷ κακῷ χρῆται. καὶ γὰρ ἀκαρεὶ χρόνου καὶ ὥρας ἐκ τῆς ὡς ἔνι μάλιστα φαυλότητος εἰς οὐκ ἔχουσαν ὑπερβολὴν ἀρετῆς διάθεσιν μεταβαλὼν ὁ σοφός, ἧς οὐδ᾿ ἐν χρόνῳ πολλῷ μέρος ἀφεῖλε κακίας ἅμα πᾶσαν ἐξαίφνης ἐκπέφευγε.

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Book of Hours, ca. 1325-1330
MS M.700 fol. 2r

Virtue and the Arts: Some Aristotle to Start Your Day

Before I got ready to shovel the snow from my driveway, I read some Aristotle this morning. I don’t think I actually believe the third point–because I suspect that insisting that human character is constant and consistent is actually (1) wrong and (2) impacts mental health negatively. But I like the beginning and the emphasis on that Aristotelian notion that doing something makes you something...

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 2.2-4

“Or is this also true in the arts? For spelling a word accidentally or with someone else guiding you is possible. Then, one will be a scholar if he spells something the way a scholar does, by which I mean according to the scholarly art itself. In addition, there is no real similarity between the arts and virtue. For the products of art are good in themselves—it suffices if they develop while having their own quality.

But acts of virtue don’t have their own intrinsic quality and are performed wisely or justly, but if the person who does them acts in a certain way. First, he must understand what he does. Second, he must choose to do it and for its own nature. And, third, he must act from a fixed and constant character. None of these conditions are necessary for the other arts apart from understanding the act. But knowledge is of little or no importance for the virtues while the other conditions are not minor but rather everything, if truly [virtue] emerges from repeatedly doing just and wise things.”

ἢ οὐδ᾿ ἐπὶ τῶν τεχνῶν οὕτως ἔχει; ἐνδέχεται γὰρ γραμματικόν τι ποιῆσαι καὶ ἀπὸ τύχης καὶ ἄλλου ὑποθεμένου· τότε οὖν ἔσται γραμματικός, ἐὰν καὶ γραμματικόν τι ποιήσῃ καὶ γραμματικῶς, τοῦτο δ᾿ ἐστὶ [τὸ] κατὰ τὴν ἐν αὑτῷ γραμματικήν. ἔτι οὐδ᾿ ὅμοιόν ἐστιν ἐπὶ τῶν τεχνῶν καὶ τῶν ἀρετῶν· τὰ μὲν γὰρ ὑπὸ τῶν τεχνῶν γινόμενα τὸ εὖ ἔχει ἐν αὑτοῖς, ἀρκεῖ οὖν αὐτά πως ἔχοντα γενέσθαι· τὰ δὲ κατὰ τὰς ἀρετὰς γινόμενα οὐκ ἐὰν αὐτά πως ἔχῃ, δικαίως ἢ σωφρόνως πράττεται, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐὰν ὁ πράττων πως ἔχων πράττῃ, πρῶτον μὲν ἐὰν εἰδώς, ἔπειτ᾿ ἐὰν προαιρούμενος, καὶ προαιρούμενος δι᾿ αὐτά, τὸ δὲ τρίτον καὶ ἐὰν βεβαίως καὶ ἀμετακινήτως ἔχων πράττῃ. ταῦτα δὲ πρὸς μὲν τὸ τὰς ἄλλας τέχνας ἔχειν οὐ συναριθμεῖται, πλὴν αὐτὸ τὸ εἰδέναι· πρὸς δὲ τὸ τὰς ἀρετὰς τὸ μὲν εἰδέναι μικρὸν ἢ οὐδὲν ἰσχύει, τὰ δ᾿ ἄλλα οὐ μικρὸν ἀλλὰ τὸ πᾶν δύναται, εἴπερ ἐκ τοῦ πολλάκις πράττειν τὰ δίκαια καὶ σώφρονα περιγίνεται.

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Brtitish Library, Constitution of the Athenians

Nobility and the Property of the Rich

Euripides, Fragment 462

“I both know and have experienced the hard way
that all people are the friends of men who have.
No one slinks about where there is no food,
But they go where there is wealth and a gathering.
To be ‘well-born’ is also the property of the rich;
But the poor man does well if he dies.”

᾿Επίσταμαι δὲ καὶ πεπείραμαι λίαν,
ὡς τῶν ἐχόντων πάντες ἄνθρωποι φίλοι.
οὐδεὶς γὰρ ἕρπει πρὸς τὸ μὴ τροφὴν ἔχον,
ἀλλ᾿ εἰς τὸ πλοῦτον καὶ συνουσίαν ἔχον.
καὶ τῶν ἐχόντων ηὑγένεια κρίνεται.
ἀνὴρ δ᾿ ἀχρήμων εἰ θάνοι πράσσει καλῶς.

Euripides, obviously, might disagree with Tibullus (1.1-6):

“Let someone else pile up gleaming gold
And hold as many lots of well-plowed land,
Let constant labor frighten him when an enemy’s near
As war’s clarion blasts send his sleep to flight.
But may my poverty guide me through a settled life
as long as my hearth shines with a tireless light.”

Divitias alius fulvo sibi congerat auro
Et teneat culti iugera multa soli,
Quem labor adsiduus vicino terreat hoste,
Martia cui somnos classica pulsa fugent:
Me mea paupertas vita traducat inerti, 5
Dum meus adsiduo luceat igne focus.

Although, in a different fragment, Euripides notes the corrupting force of wealth:

Euripides, fr. 54 (Alexander): On the Educational Merits of Poverty?

“Wealth and too much luxury
Are the wrong lessons for manly men.
Poverty is wretched but at least it raises up
Children better at working and getting things done.”

κακόν τι παίδευμ’ ἦν ἄρ’ εἰς εὐανδρίαν
ὁ πλοῦτος ἀνθρώποισιν αἵ τ’ ἄγαν τρυφαί·
πενία δὲ δύστηνον μέν, ἀλλ’ ὅμως τρέφει
μοχθεῖν τ’ ἀμείνω τέκνα καὶ δραστήρια.

The fabulously wealthy Seneca might agree:

Seneca, Epistulae ad Lucilium 17.3

“For many, riches have stood in the way of philosophizing; poverty is unimpeded, free from care.”

multis ad philosophandum obstitere divitiae; paupertas expedita est, secura est.

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A Sweet Evil: Schadenfreude in Ancient Greek

From the Suda

Epikhairekakía: is pleasure at someone else’s troubles”

ἐπιχαιρεκακία δὲ ἡδονὴ ἐπ’ ἀλλοτρίοις κακοῖς

Diogenes Laertius, Vita Philosophorum 7. 114

“Pleasure is irrational excitement at gaining what seems to be needed. As a subset of pleasure, are elation, pleasure at someone else’s pain (epikhairekakía) and delight, which is similar to turning (trepsis), a mind’s inclination to weakness. The embrace of pleasure is the surrender of virtue.”

῾Ηδονὴ δέ ἐστιν ἄλογος ἔπαρσις ἐφ’ αἱρετῷ δοκοῦντι ὑπάρχειν, ὑφ’ ἣν τάττεται κήλησις, ἐπιχαιρεκακία, τέρψις, διάχυσις. κήλησις μὲν οὖν ἐστιν ἡδονὴ δι’ ὤτων κατακηλοῦσα· ἐπιχαιρεκακία δὲ ἡδονὴ ἐπ’ ἀλλοτρίοις κακοῖς· τέρψις δέ, οἷον τρέψις, προτροπή τις ψυχῆς ἐπὶ τὸ ἀνειμένον· διάχυσις δ’ ἀνάλυσις ἀρετῆς.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1107a 8-11

“There are some vices whose names are cloaked with evil, for instance, pleasure at evils [epikhairekakía], shamelessness, and envy; and there are deeds too: adultery, theft, and manslaughter. All these things and those of this sort are called evil on their own, it is not an indulgence in them or an improper use that is wrong.”

ἔνια γὰρ εὐθὺς ὠνόμασται συνειλημμένα μετὰ τῆς φαυλότητος, οἷον ἐπιχαιρεκακία
ἀναισχυντία φθόνος, καὶ ἐπὶ τῶν πράξεων μοιχεία κλοπὴ ἀνδροφονία· πάντα γὰρ ταῦτα καὶ τὰ τοιαῦτα λέγεται τῷ αὐτὰ φαῦλα εἶναι, ἀλλ’ οὐχ αἱ ὑπερβολαὶ αὐτῶν οὐδ’ αἱ ἐλλείψεις.

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Twitter correspondents have been providing examples from other languages:

Plato, Apology 30b: Socrates’ Words on Virtue and Wealth

“Virtue doesn’t come from money, but money and all other good things come from virtue to men both in private and in public.”

‘Οὐκ ἐκ χρημάτων ἀρετὴ γίγνεται, ἀλλ’ ἐξ ἀρετῆς χρήματα καὶ τὰ ἄλλα ἀγαθὰ τοῖς ἀνθρώποις ἅπαντα καὶ ἰδίᾳ καὶ δημοσίᾳ.’

Socrates says that this is one of the things he went around saying, which made him annoying to people and resulted in his capitol charges. Unfortunately, this seems to be one area in which Socrates assertion runs against our current reality (certainly, virtue still doesn’t come from money, but that doesn’t mean the converse is true…)

Plutarch, Perikles 1.4 2-4


“For those who search them out virtuous deeds inspire envy and a desire for emulation”


ταῦτα δ’ ἔστιν ἐν τοῖς ἀπ’ ἀρετῆς ἔργοις, ἃ καὶ ζῆλόν τινα καὶ προθυμίαν ἀγωγὸν εἰς μίμησιν ἐμποιεῖ τοῖς ἱστορήσασιν·

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