An eye is a part of the face, but what part of virtue is piety or justice? The problem of parts and wholes (mereology) is a central philosophical motif. When one begins to notice it, one notices it everywhere. That is because it is another way of framing the mystery of the one and the many.
Virtually every serious philosophical work is engaged in mereology, which can be described as the problem of division or participation. It turns out that mereology, generally understood (that is, not as a specialist’s ‘field’) underlies our fundamental manner of understanding the world.
In Plato’s Protagoras, for instance, a question is raised concerning piety and justice. To summarize: If a pious action is just and a just action is pious, are they not one and the same thing?
Socrates asks Protagoras, who has argued that temperance and justice are distinct parts of virtue, whether they are parts in the manner of parts of gold (different only in size) or parts of a face (such as the nose and eyes). A nose after all is not an eye and a mouth is neither a nose nor an eye, but together they are parts which compose a whole (the face). None of them individually, however, are called a face. And none of them are called by each other’s name. Yet while we do not call an eye a ‘nose’, or an eye a ‘face,’ we do in fact call every part of gold, ‘gold’, whatever its size or shape.
We might notice that insofar as a virtue is a virtue, it will indeed have the same name! It is not insofar as temperance and justice are virtues that they differ. Thus the example of gold may be able to be applied to the virtues. This is suggested in the Meno.
But Socrates takes up a more radical argument in Protagoras where he claims that they are not just one insofar as they are parts of virtue, but that they are one and the same virtue. Whether he is actually convinced of this is somewhat unclear, especially if compared to Meno. Contrary to Socrates, Protagoras argues in the dialogue that temperance, justice, piety, and wisdom are parts of virtue in the manner of the parts of a face.
Whether Socrates or Protagoras is correct, we should remember that we indeed predicate ‘virtue’ of every one of these parts. Perhaps we are speaking analogically when we use the term ‘virtue’ here. Analogical language would suggest that we can abstract (or discuss) the virtue of the part (e.g., the concupiscible part of man: temperance) or of the whole human being, that which is virtue most of all. In that case, temperance is a virtue pertaining to pleasure, while courage concerns fear. Each are equally virtues. Yet, the man (the whole human being) would not be virtuous without both, just as the whole or integral face requires several distinct parts to compose it. The problem is that while the eye is not a face, courage is both a virtue and a part of virtue.
We will leave this aside for a moment because this is not the direction which the dialogue takes. Socrates instead follows a line of reasoning which is potentially even more problematic. He notes that the relation of justice and piety seems to be that of identity! We can predicate piety of justice and also justice of piety (and perhaps all the other virtues of each other, or at least of wisdom). How can we then claim that virtue has parts or that these parts are distinct? This may remind readers of the problematic circular definitions of piety in Plato’s Euthyphro.
Words and Names
Before exploring the problem of virtue further, let’s note a methodologically similar case in St. Augustine’s On the Teacher (De Magistro). This problem I will state at the outset is solved by division or mereology.
In this dialogue between St. Augustine and his son Adeodatus, they discuss the nature of signs and teaching. They reach the following contradictory conclusions:
- All names are words (but not all words are names)
- All words are names
Protagoras and On the Teacher present parallel though not equal problems. In both dialogues, the interlocutors are confronted with the problem of dividing species and genus (parts and wholes). How can a name be a kind of word if every word names something? How can piety be part of justice if all justice is pious?
In the case of names and words, Augustine resolves this problem by attending to two senses of the term ‘name’. He divides ‘name’ into two parts!
‘Name’ (nomen in Latin) can be used generically to refer to anything signified by a word (verbum in Latin). In this respect, this is precisely what every word is or does: it signifies by being the name of something.
Nevertheless, there is another sense of ‘name’ (nomen). We might say, according to this sense, that while all words are signs, not all words are names. In this respect, ‘name’ (nomen) is equivalent to our anglicized ‘noun.’ For instance, ‘horse’ is a noun, but the word ‘and’ is not a noun (or nomen).
Augustine then compares names (the 2nd sense) and words to the relation between a horse and an animal (a species to a genus) or part to a whole. In this respect, every name in the second sense will have the form of a word (or share in what it is to be a word) as a member or part of the genus.
Next, Augustine points out that words like ‘and’, ‘if’, ‘why’ which are not nouns nevertheless also name something, insofar as they signify. In this respect, we use ‘name’ as synonymous with ‘word.’ When we do so, we no longer deal with a part/whole relation, but with identity. If this is not an identity of meaning, we name the same thing, but from a slightly different vantage point (naming vs. speaking).
Justice and Piety
The case we find in Protagoras is similar; yet as Protagoras himself warns us, though somewhat ingenuously: it is not right to call all things ‘like’ which have only some small point alike (Protagoras 331e). We will set aside his objection, for surely it is not merely by way of small likeness that we call piety just or justice piety.
Why do we call them by each other’s names? Perhaps it is because we believe that to do that which is just is to do something owed to God. And piety is truly something owed to God. In this respect, we might consider piety as a species of justice. But if all just acts are owed to God, then justice is either a species of piety or synonymous with it.
If a man returns a borrowed car to his neighbor, we could look at the action from two vantage points. In one respect, he renders what is owed to his neighbor. He need not bypass the neighbor (or the fact of the ‘debt’) and merely reverence God. Instead, while he renders worship or piety to God through the law, he also shows justice to his neighbor.
At this point, we might point out that it is only just because it has been commanded by God (both through the natural law and the Mosaic law). Therefore, to do justice is to do what is pious. And again, it is also just for one to be pious to God himself.
Are we in a terrible circle?
It may be helpful to note that an action is capable of being considered under a twofold respect: in relation to God and in relation to its objective conditions. This leads to the religiously significant point that an action is capable of various motives and emphases. One might return the cow because of reverence for God and his commands, because of respect for one’s neighbor and his needs, because of fear of retribution, or some admixture. One is capable of doing a deed and doing it for various reasons and attitudes.
This division allows us to think of piety as referring to the fact that it is God who one is referring one’s action or, even, the mode by which we refer such actions to God: with reverential or filial fear and love.
In such a case, an act is just insofar as we give what is owed; it is pious insofar as we reverence God to it. But of course, to reverence God is to give him what he is owed! Yet justice per se is not piety per se because justice regards simply the aspect of what is due. Insofar, as we conceive of giving what is due, we conceive of a thing under the species (or aspect) of justice. Piety can be considered under this aspect and is truly owed to God, but expresses something slightly different.
Muddying the Waters
Let us make the circle (not a vicious one), though perhaps in a new way. All just acts are potentially acts of piety (i.e., owed to God), insofar as we are conscious that they are owed because he has commanded them and thus are to be offered up with reverence! Thus, to lack a recognition of God as the source of the law and the one to whom we owe all things is to in fact fall short in justice and piety.
Again, this does not mean that piety simply means ‘justice,’ but it does mean that it somehow contains all justice even as it is just! In analyzing what is owed to God, what we discover is that we owe him all things (Matt. 22:37-40). This is perhaps why every act of justice is piety and every pious act is just. Nevertheless, there remains a more generic sense of justice per se, known by all men (albeity unclearly).
Yet what we have discovered (through mereological analysis) is that this remarkable species of piety contains all things and so does justice! Let us keep this part/whole distinction in mind because there is more going on here than just chasing our own tails.
The Face of Virtue
We can return to Plato’s options: either justice, temperance, and piety are each like gold, parts which are different only in size (not species), or they are like the parts of the face: each with a different form. Like Protagoras, we may want to distinguish various virtues, for we truly mean something distinct when we say someone is being courageous, temperate, or wise.
Yet, it seems unlikely that one can be courageous without wisdom. It seems that the virtues function together as an integral organic whole which together compose the unity of the human face. But if the human face (if the whole) when perfect is also just or pious, it seems we are closer to the image of gold. Somehow, we would have built up an integral whole (gold) out of pieces of gold, as if the whole had somehow been present all along!
As shown above, this can be addressed logically (terminologically): we can name a thing from distinct aspects, either as a part or a whole. This was Aristotle’s approach in Nicomachean Ethics (Book V) when he distinguished that justice which is a part of virtue (equity) from justice which is the whole of virtue (complete virtue and lawfulness). That approach seems to match certain Biblical uses of justice: some which express part of our duty, such as not showing partiality (Lev. 19:15), and other which express the righteousness (or justice) of the whole man (Isaiah 51:4-5; Mtt. 13:43). See also Psalm 33:5 for the complex senses of these terms.
Nevertheless, we may at the same time argue that we have approached here a real mystery of the one and many. Every righteous act (equity) is only completely just insofar as it is rendered to God and shaped by the divine ordinance and will. Thus what we behold in every act of true courage and in every truly temperate or just act, is not merely a species of virtue, but the whole thing. Though perhaps in a new way.
Ultimately, the wholeness of virtue may be both simple, like gold, and yet complex, like a human face. This is because in virtue, what we see is that which man is meant to signify. We see two things: that which is human and simultaneously that which is divine. Virtue makes luminous, gracious, and true the imago dei. And whenever we behold an image, we see two things at once.1
Every virtue and all virtue is therefore a sign of a Unity beyond human nature. This is different from the abstraction of animal from horse. For in every animal (such as a horse), we encounter the wholeness of ‘animal,’ even while we encounter a particular animal (a horse). But the horse is precisely an animal and everything which is animal can be predicated of that horse.
But in virtue, what we grasp is not just the abstraction ‘man,’ the illumination of a particular species or part. We simultaneously grasp that there is signified, however imperfectly, a Unity beyond all species and definitions, beyond all limited natures. Each virtue and all the virtues together, therefore, point to One who is beyond all comprehension, who is all and in all. The image of God is therefore a part which communicates this great mystery.
1Insofar as the Son is the eternal Image, the very image, we do not see a distinct being from the Son. To know the Father is to know the Son, but they are one. Their otherness as persons is a mystery. But insofar as we refer to human nature per se as signifying divine nature, we indeed contemplate that which is other in some manner.