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Virtues and Knowledge

Virtues have a weird relationship to knowledge.

The courageous person does not know that he will win.  He knows the reasons he might die but fights anyway.  If he secretly had a piece of knowledge — say that the opponents bullets looked like lead but were actually made of marshmallows — he might fight fiercely but would not be courageous.

The hopeful person, similarly, does not know it will turn out well.  He knows the reasons it might turn out poorly but starts new projects, works hard at existing projects anyway.  If he had secret knowledge that things would turn out well — say a lawyer going into trial who gets inside knowledge that the judge is in his pocket — he would not need to hope.  The humble person does not know that he is bad, and if he knows for example that he is ugly he has no opportunity to be humble about his appearance.

The loving person does not know that the person he loves is good.  He knows the beloved is a human being and thus a mixture of good and bad, but loves anyway.

The person of faith does not know that what he has faith is true.  He knows there is evidence that it is not true but affirms his belief anyway.

In each of these cases the person of virtue needs the knowledge in order to go against it or move forward in spite of it.

The person with the absence of knowledge of danger cannot be courageous.

The person with the absence of knowledge of possibie bad outcomes cannot be hopeful.

The person with the absence of knowledge of the beloved’s imperfections cannot love.

The person with the absence of knowledge of the lack of evidence cannot have faith.

Kierkegaard writes that faith is the “absolute crucifixion” of the understanding.  He does not say it is the absolute vaporization of the understanding, or the replacement of the understanding with an un-crucifiable, bullet-proof Superman.  He is not a Docetist.

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5 thoughts on “Virtues and Knowledge

  1. This is insightful and interesting. I’d quibble with “The person with the absence of knowledge of the beloved’s imperfections cannot love.” We all love others with no knowledge of what we’d consider to be the other’s imperfections. Otherwise love couldn’t happen until we knew absolutely everything about our beloved, which is impossible.

  2. Mikey says:

    I would have come to the opposite conclusion, that knowledge stops virtue rather than makes it possible. Your conclusions all seem to be double negatives. The person with the absence of knowledge of danger cannot be brave – that should read: The person with the knowledge of safety cannot be brave. The person with knowledge of good or bad outcomes cannot be hopeful. The person with knowledge of fact cannot have faith. And I agree with Seth about love.

    But your first sentence is right – the whole thing is a bit weird.

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