Hello all. In the spirit of more spontaneous posts on PEA Soup, I'd like to share some thoughts and ask some questions about virtue ethics, an area in which I have little expertise but which I've been wanting to get to know better, and ancient philosophy, also not an area of specialization but one which I've just now dabbled in (but not in the way or in the area most would expect).
I recently published an article in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy called "Embodying Justice in Ancient Egypt: The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant as a Classic of Political Philosophy." I had not expected to be writing and publishing on ancient Egyptian thought (it's certainly not a topic in my dissertation, for example) but I had long loved the text I study in the article and had long found it unfortunate how little curiosity most professional philosophers have about the intellectual traditions of Kemet, as the ancient Egyptians themselves called their land. Then I was invited to present a paper in a seminar series run by the Classics department at my university, which gave me the idea to write the now-published paper.
This connects to my interest in thinking more about virtue because I now feel like it would be a shame if I did not some day follow up the piece just published with more work on ancient Egyptian philosophical thought. A friend from the aforementioned Classics department has even given me his copy of this and, while I don't expect to make much progress very fast, it'd be nice to gain some level of capacity with the original texts (I have relied thus far on careful comparisons of multiple translations). Anyway, one thing that has been intriguing me as a possible next stop, so to speak, is the way the ethical tradition in ancient Egyptian thought made much out of the importance of silence.
I want to share a striking example from The Instruction of Ptahhotep, a work I discuss briefly in "Embodying Justice." The passage makes an argument for seeing silence as a key virtue by attempting to show that silence makes one a better person and helps one better attain one's ends no matter which of a finite set of sharply divergent circumstances one happens to find oneself in. Specifically, whatever social rank one holds in relation to another with whom one finds oneself in a dispute, silence is the best approach to dealing with the situation:
"If you meet a disputant in action,
A powerful man, superior to you,
Fold your arms, bend your back,
To flout him will not make him agree with you.
Make little of the evil speech
By not opposing him while he’s in action;
He will be called an ignoramus,
Your self-control will match his pile (of words).*
If you meet a disputant in action
Who is your equal, on your level,
You will make your worth exceed his by silence,
While he is speaking evilly,
There will be much talk by the hearers,
Your name will be good in the mind of the magistrates.
If you meet a disputant in action,
A poor man, not your equal,
Do not attack him because he is weak,
Let him alone, he will confute himself.
Do not answer him to relieve your heart,
Do not vent yourself against your opponent,
Wretched is he who injures a poor man,
One will wish to do what you desire,**
You will beat him through the magistrates’ reproof."
(from Miriam Lichtheim's Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 1)
*alt trans. "your self-restraint having matched his riches" (Parkinson)
**alt trans. "Things will turn out in accordance with your will" (Tobin)
Here are some of the things I'm pondering or wondering:
1. What might consideration of the idea of silence as a virtue bring to discussions of the virtues?
I wonder, for example, whether there is already discussion of the possibility of a distinctive class of virtues based on non-action* rather than action. I picked up Julia Driver's Uneasy Virtue recently and plan to look at her controversial conception of modesty as a virtue that requires ignorance… Could it be that whatever is plausible in her view can be drawn on to make sense out of the general idea of virtues that require that we refrain from using our faculties well because they require that we do not use those faculties at all? Or is it wrong to approach silence as a matter of not using the faculty of speech?
*I can imagine, by the way, such a discussion making interesting to connections to the Daoist notion of wuwei, although I don't know what those connections would look like.
2. Does the presupposition of hierarchy in a passage like this necessarily diminish the usefulness of the text from the point of view of contemporary virtue theorizing?
I wonder, for example, how those invested in particularly Aristotelian approaches to virtue ethics address this issue, given the forms of ancient Greek hierarchy in the background of his account of the virtuous person. I think here of Amy Gutmann's criticism of Alasdair MacIntyre, according to which the dependence of the virtues on social context in his theory means that liberals need not feel threatened by his critiques of liberalism… the social context of Western liberal democracy makes holding liberal values make good sense, while it correspondingly makes it weird to think about pursuing the good through inheriting social roles in a pre-modern way as MacIntyre seems to want us to do. On the other hand, as those who read my piece on the Eloquent Peasant will know, I'm very interested in the ways that ancient Egyptian texts grapple with and sometimes subtly subvert social hierarchy. I think this passage from The Instruction of Ptahhotep may in its own way be doing just that (i.e., by suggesting that the virtue of silence is in fact a great equalizer), and I can't help but think that there might therefore be interesting lessons here for thinking about the connection between virtue and the navigation of social hierarchy today.