Saturday, May 1, 2010

(25) Ideal Agency

Years back I took a graduate course in Moral Theology and I
learned that ethics are generated by the community (of a given
people or culture). There's seemingly an innate recognition
that there is a need for rules of conduct if a given society is to
survive and thrive. In archaic societies more than often these
rules of conduct were mythologized into their religious creeds.
The rules were endowed with "divine authority," thus propa-
gating their adherence amongst the populace.

In Stoicism, however, there is this idea of the "Perfection of
Agency" or "Ideal Agency." What this means is as follows:
the means to the optimal integration and realization of our
ends. It is about virtuosity, that of "an ability developed to
the limit of human capability, and not merely to the limit of a
given agent's capability."
[Lawrence C. Becker, A NEW STOCISM, Princeton University
Press, 1998, pp. 107, 133-134.]

As Professor Becker puts it: "Virtuoso agents are made, not born,
and they are made by having to learn to cope with passion, fear,
pain, loss, depression, disappointment, malevolence, failure, and
so on as well as the opposites." And "they must know as much as
is humanly possible about things relevant to integrating all of the
endeavors that they themselves might have, and optimizing their
success in the entire range of circumstances they might possibly
face." [Ibid, p. 108.]

The ancient Stoics were well-known for their stable character
traits. And they stressed benevolence, persistently so! And though
cooperative, they remained "committed to their own agendas,
principled but not rigoristic." [Ibid, 110.]

So what we are talking about above is the highest Virtue for the
Stoic, the perfection of that *ideal* one holds of oneself. Coming
to know what that ideal might be for yourself must be the single
focus around which all other, more communal forms of virtue
must circulate. These other virtues are the foundational edifice
for making the "ideal" in you "real."

These ancient Stoics, however, believed that we simply did not
approach this foundational edifice from a base utilitarian perspective.
These other virtues were not to be used just only as props, but they
were to become *traits* of Ideal Agency.

As for their foundational edifice, the ancient Stoics fell back on an
even older ethical set of virtues called traditionally the "Cardinal

The ancient Cardinal Virtues are as follows: Justice, Wisdom,
Bravery, and Moderation. And there are also the "Three Treasures"
that undergird the Cardinal Virtues: Beauty, Truth, and Love.

Once I did a dictionary hunt into the finer meaning of the Cardinal
Virtues, and I found this effort quite helpful. So if I may, I'll present

JUSTICE: the Quality of being Righteous; Impartiality; Fairness;
Sound Reason; Reasonableness; Rightfulness; Validity; and Lawful.
WISDOM: the Quality of being Wise--sound judgment, judging rightly
and following the soundest course of action, based on knowledge,
experience, and understanding; Discretion--careful about what one
says or does; Sagacity--penetrating intelligence, perceptive;
Erudition--having wide knowledge, learned, scholarly; and Wise
Discourse or Teaching.
BRAVERY: Gallantry--nobility of behavior or spirit; Brave--
Fearlessness in meeting danger or difficulty; Courage--stout-
hearted; and Valor--a heroic quality in the courage or fortitude
MODERATION: Moderate--within reasonable limits, avoiding
extremes; Mild, calm, gentle; and Temperate-- deliberate

Besides the Cardinal Virtues, the later Stoics of the Roman Period
surely also concentrated on the practice of what is commonly
called the "Roman Virtues."

The "Roman Virtues" were those qualities of life to which every
Roman citizen should aspire. They are the heart of the Via
Romana--the Roman Way. They are rods, standards by which
we can measure our own behavior and character.
AUCTORITAS; "Spiritual Authority," the sense of one's social
standing, built up through experience, Pietas, and Industria.
COMITAS: "Humor;" ease of manner, courtesy, openness, and
CLEMENTIA: "Mercy," mildness and gentleness.
DIGNITAS: "Dignity." a sense of self-worth, personal pride.
FIRMITAS: "Tenacity," strength of mind, the ability to stick to
one's purpose.
FRUGALITAS: "Frugalness," economy and simplicity of style,
but not to be miserly.
GRAVITAS: "Gravity," a sense of the importance of the matter
at hand, responsibility and earnestness.
HONESTAS: "Respectability," the image that one presents as a
respectable member of society.
HUMANITAS: "Humanity," refinement, civilization, learning.
and being cultured.
INDUSTRIA: "Industriousness," hard work.
PIETAS: "Dutifulness," more than religious piety: a respect for
the natural order socially, politically, and religiously. Includes
the ideas of patriotism and devotion to others.
PRUDENTIA: "Prudence," foresight, wisdom, and personal
SALUBRITAS: "Wholesomeness," health and cleanliness.
SEVERITAS: "Sternness," gravity, self-control.
VERITAS: "Truthfulness," honesty in dealing with others.

So--perhaps old, ancient--the combination of the Stoic's "Ideal
Agency" along with the Cardinal Virtues and the Roman Virtues
might serve today as an acceptable ethical system for not only
the evolution of the community but for the personal development
of the individual.

And none of these perspectives of Virtue/virtues have ever been
mythically clouded. They are innately universal-- presented as
such in the Hellenistic World, and just as easily could be employed
in the Modern World.

In the end, however, it's all a matter as to whether we truly believe
in and honor the Virtuous Life.
[This essay was originally posted in my "Stoa del Sol" website.]