Monday, August 6, 2012

Patience, Despair

Patience, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.
–Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

So we're happily rocking in our moral hammock, supported by the saving threads of Aquinas when someone sidles up and serves us one of those devilishly perspicacious aphorisms any philosopher would kill to have written. In just a handful of words Bitter Bierce cuts to the heart of the matter: is patience a virtue or merely a mild degree of cowardice or despair?

Bierce clearly has in mind the Christian meaning of patience, best articulated by Augustine as that by which we "bear evils with equanimity." Patience as such certainly seems a dour virtue. Why would one prefer to bear evils to overcoming them? Such a virtue seems characteristic of the enervating Christianity Gibbon thought had taught the old Romans to roll over instead of strive. Yet this truncated quote robs Augustine of his nuanced argument which in full reads:
It is by patience that we bear evils with equanimity, lest by loss of equanimity we abandon the goods whereby we arrive at better goods. [De patientia, 2]
Augustine's point here is less the bearing of evil than the loss of equanimity, that is, self-composure, (aequus, level.) Patience then, as Aquinas goes on to say [Summa Theologica, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 136] is not a virtue which itself produces good but rather one which safeguards other virtues. Safeguards them from what? Sorrow. Yes, sorrow. Rather than being a form of despair, a dead end of misery, patience allows one to forebear sorrow rather than allow one's sorrow to overwhelm reason and perhaps, without the aid of reason, cause one to act in such a way as to abandon other virtues just to relieve himself from his sorrow.

While Aristotle makes no mention of patience itself we would do well here to observe his discussion of the virtues in the Ethics. Most importantly we should note that a virtuous man chooses the mean and not the extreme. For example, courage is a mean with respect to things that inspire confidence or fear. Thus we praise neither the reckless man nor the coward, but rather he who faces and who fears the right things, from the right motive, in the right way, and at the right time. [Ethics, 1115b] Even courage driven by passion is only courage when choice and motive are added. [Ethics, 1117a]

Though he does not discuss patience Aristotle does manage to teach us about it. First, patience indiscriminate is no virtue. Second, though it does not fit perfectly into Aristotle's framework of virtues, we see that patience still seeks the mean in attempting to moderate between virtues.

Bierce might have slighted patience but he makes a point: patience can be a mask for cowardice, indecision, and lack of passion. Patience ought to preserve virtue, which is a good litmus test to apply while one waits.

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