Thursday, May 19, 2005

Righteousness: "Morality" or "virtue"?

I've been doing a word study on dikaiosune (the Greek word for righteousness) and its derivatives. The actual meaning of dikaiosune is pretty clear and easy to see, but finding the best English word to use for it is not so easy.

I suggested "virtue" previously. I think it captures the meaning of dikaiosune perfectly and that no better word is possible in so far as "virtue" in English means exactly 100% what dikaiosune means in Greek.

However, there are two problems.
1) Virtue doesn't have the appropriate variants in english - ie you can't say "virtuify" or speak of "virtuification" like you can of "justify" and "justification" (the words currently being used to translate the Greek variants)
2) More importantly, a couple of people suggested to me that "virtue" is a bit of an outdated word in English, and that using it is not much better than "righteousness" in terms of the fact that it means little to modern English speakers.

It is the second point that I thought was more important (especially in light of my previous post). So I was trying to think of a better word, and I recalled comments I had read when studying Plato's Republic (written ~360BC). The Republic is all about dikaiosune, so a scholar and translator of it is in a very good position to make comments relevant to the subject. The translator of my copy (Robin Waterfield, writing in 1993) comments that after careful analysis he has decided to translate dikaiosune as "morality" throughout the work.

So there we have the practical opinion of a modern translator as to what the best modern English word is: he thinks it's "morality". I'm happy with that in terms of the fact that the first two words in the definition of "virtue" are "moral excellence". I am much happier with the word "morality" in terms of the fact that it has meaning to modern English speakers to whom the word "virtue" is meaningless.

It was suggested to me that "morality" isn't what I'm after because lots of people today will say "morality is subjective", whereas virtue has the advantage of being a bit more non-negotiable. Initially I thought that was a valid point, but now I'm not so sure. Why? Because The Republic spends time looking at what we might call subjective morality, the idea that "might makes right" is not very far from the positions analysed in book 1 of the Republic. If some people today think that morality is subjective then it is the perfect word to use, because some people in ancient Greece were thinking exactly the same thing.

So, problem solved? Maybe not. Again there are two problems:
1) Variants still aren't great... "moralify" and "moralisation"? I think not.
2) The word "morality" is just not quite grammatically correct somehow. Consider: "O Lord, we praise you for your wonderous love, morality and mercy!" It just seems strange, whereas "virtue" sounds a whole lot better. "Morality" isn't really a quality you can praise someone for... it's really their "moral excellence" that you mean, not their "morality". Perhaps just going with "moral excellence" is better? After all, the definition Aristotle (~350BC in Nichomachean Ethics 5:1) gives for dikaiosune is that it is personal excellence (arete) in all things that pertain to the benefit of others.

In other the appropriate varient of "morality" is not at all wrong-sounding. Consider: "Will you punish the moral with the wicked?" vs "Will you punish the virtuous with the wicked?" It's not clear to me which is better.

Thoughts, comments, or votes?


Blogger Katherine said...

Hm. Personally I prefer 'virtue'. I'm kinda thinking maybe the word only seems outdated because the concept is unpopular these days, so it's not in common usage. I would think the same could be said of 'morality'.

To me, 'morality' has the connotation of obeying rules, whereas 'virtue' is more to do with the state of the heart as well as the corresponding actions - which, so far as I understand it, is the concept we're trying to capture. My degree of morality is determined by the sum total of my outward actions, whereas my degree of virtue is determined by an analysis of the kind of person I am (as evidenced by my actions but not based on this alone in a scorecard sense). I dunno, maybe others don't get the same connotations from those words.

Re. the first problem: presumably the same grammatical problems occur with 'righteousness' anyway, so we just have to say 'X was made righteous' etc. Doesn't seem a particularly big problem to me. Less elegant I suppose.

What do you make of the concept of being 'made virtuous' anyway? Assuming it's in the passive as implied in the English. Presumably it's something different to just becoming virtuous by our own decisions...?

Blogger Andrew said...

I'm kinda thinking maybe the word only seems outdated because the concept is unpopular these days,

I agree.

What do you make of the concept of being 'made virtuous' anyway?

I assume you are talking about "justify". For the most part in the Bible it seems to be used to mean "considered" virtuous. The word itself, dikaioo, seems to be able to refer to either "recognising-as" right, or "setting" right. The concept of looking at a person and their actions and concluding the person is virtuous is self-explanatory. The idea of making someone virtuous is a bit less obvious, as you note. It seems to me that you make someone virtuous by teaching and training them in virtue.

Blogger Geir Truslew said...

In his excellent book "The Divine Conspiracy," Dallas Willard has a whole section on dikaiosune, and he concludes that the full meaning cannot be translated with just one word. Instead he suggests the phrase: "true inner goodness."

It's a bit unwieldy, but actually it made me think more deeply about the meaning of the word, in the context for example of the Sermon on the Mount where the word is used consistently throughout.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home