- Disguised Vices: Theories of Virtue in Early Modern French Thought
Present-day philosophy has witnessed an efflorescence of virtue ethics. Although the return to virtue has been portrayed as a rehabilitation of the notion of virtue from the neglect into which it fell in the early modern period, in his seminal article, “The Misfortunes of Virtue,” J. B. Schneewind argues that virtue’s misfortune in the early modern period was not its neglect, but rather its displacement as the central concept in ethics. In Disguised Vices, Michael Moriarty uncovers another misfortune that befell virtue in the early modern period: the suspicion of the concept of virtue, that is, of its applicability to agents, in the work of early modern French philosophers, theologians, and moralists. Moriarty suggests that the suspicion of virtue “arguably helps to shape eighteenth-century debates, the frame of reference of which is less and less closely connected with Christian theology, on the nature of society” (12).
The linchpin of Moriarty’s book is the question of whether pagans can be virtuous: discussions of individual philosophers are oriented around this question, and answers to it connect the various chapters of the book. The book is divided into three parts. The first part presents the ancient and medieval background of early modern discussions by presenting the conceptions of virtue of various pagans—Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch—who were not suspicious of virtue, and the different approaches to the question of pagan virtue given by Augustine (especially in his anti-Pelagian writings), Aquinas, and the Reformers Luther, Calvin, and Baius. The approaches of Augustine and Aquinas are crucial to succeeding chapters of the book. Augustine is read by certain of his successors—such as the Reformers—as maintaining that in the absence of true religion, agents cannot achieve virtue, and hence that pagan virtues are vices. Aquinas, by contrast, distinguishes between natural and supernatural virtue: in the absence of true religion, one may attain natural virtue—so pagans may be naturally virtuous—whereas agents may not attain supernatural virtue if they lack true religion. In the second part of the book, Moriarty focuses on the dialectic between hard-line Augustinians such as Jansen and Arnauld and the defense of pagan virtue in the work of philosophers such as Bellarmine, Suárez, Molina, Antoine Simon, and especially François de la Mothe la Vayer. Very roughly, hard-line Augustinians denied that pagans could be virtuous; those who rejected the hard-line Augustinian position defended a view closer to that of Aquinas. Disguised Vices culminates in its final part, which examines the approaches to the question of pagan virtue in Pierre Nicole’s moral psychology, and especially La Rochefoucauld, to whom Moriarty devotes nearly a third of the book, examining different interpretations of the Maxims, discussing the genesis of the work, and carefully presenting La Rochefoucauld’s analysis of moral motivation. The title of Moriarty’s work is derived from La Rochefoucauld’s maxim, “Our virtues are most often disguised vices,” and Moriarty claims that “La Rochefoucauld is indeed, the early modern writer, in France at any rate, who most obviously embodies this . . . suspicion of virtue” (4). Nicole and La Rochefoucauld provide subtle psychological analyses of the motives that might underlie apparently virtuous behavior and would prevent it from achieving true virtue. Although the work of Nicole and La Rochefoucauld is influenced by Augustinianism, their moral psychologies, according to Moriarty, do not presuppose religious commitments, and thus mark a break from the treatment of pagan virtues in the work of their predecessors. [End Page 123]
Disguised Vices introduces the reader to numerous thinkers who receive little attention from English-language historians of philosophy: the treatment of La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims should prove to be a compelling introduction to the work for English-language philosophers. Yet the book is a little thin on analysis throughout: from the overlong “descriptive” chapter on ancient accounts of virtue to the treatment of La Rochefoucauld, the book largely consists of summaries of philosophers’ views. The book is...