Virtue of the Mind and Virtues of the Body (Part Two) - Adina Covaci

The Four Cardinal Virtues -  Temperance, Prudence, Fortitude & Justice
In the second of two posts, Doctoral Researcher Adina Covaci (University of Leeds) discusses a perceived asymmetry between the cultivation of virtue as it pertains to the mind and what she calls "virtues of the body".

In my last post, I wondered why there appears to be an asymmetry between the degree to which we value virtues of the mind in comparison to virtues of the body (for example, cultivating beauty). I have yet to do a thorough research on the topic yet, but some possible explanations do come to mind. First of all, it is likely that all this is an unfortunate consequence of living in a society that has been sexist for too long. The category of outer beauty has been separated as something which exists on its own, unconnected with any other kind of virtue, because it has been thought that it is virtually impossible that a woman could be beautiful AND intelligent, creative, talented etc. Physical beauty has become this unsubstantiated quality, and anyone who spends one’s time cultivating it is doing it because they just cannot do anything else, there is nothing more to them, as it were. This is obviously wrong, of course. But maybe this underlying thought hasn't completely disappeared from the collective mind.

A second and related explanation might be the thought that people who are preoccupied with their physical beauty and even go through medically unnecessary procedures are not doing it out of their own desires. We are just starting to see how pervasive sexism was and continues to be, and we are still living in a world where beauty norms are being homogenised. Thus, the fear is that we might not always be able to distinguish our autonomous desires from the expectations of others, and how they are being forced on us. Sometimes it is difficult to see whom we are trying to be beautiful for: ourselves or others. We don’t want someone undergoing surgery and being in pain just to conform to some ludicrous unrealistic and plainly invalid beauty norms which society wrongly imposes.

A third explanation for the asymmetry might come from the history of philosophy. Plato thought that the body is a prison for the soul (which included reason as one of its parts), just like the whole earthly world was, in fact. The body and the human world in general are inferior to the world of the Forms, the real and desirable realm to which only the soul has access. Socrates also ridiculed the body because he was probably alluding to the pleasures and pains of the body and of the intellect when he said that it is better to be an unsatisfied human being rather than a satisfied big (it is interesting to note that although bodily pleasures were seen as inferior in Ancient Greek, taking care of one’s body was not; physical training was as important as philosophy. However, the prevalent reasons for that were constituted by a preoccupation with health and strength rather than physical beauty per se). The body was simply inferior to the soul. Much later, John Stuart Mill continued this tradition, and thought that it’s better to be Socrates unsatisfied than a fool satisfied, when he distinguished between lower pleasures and higher pleasures. The former are mainly the sensual ones, those of the body, while the latter are intellectual ones. The higher pleasures are intrinsically valuable and thus superior and preferable to the lower pleasures. In the meantime, however, we have come to realize that the world of the Forms doesn’t exist and many philosophers have shown flaws in Mill’s arguments as well. However, the distinction in the value of the mind and the body seems to be deeply entrenched in the history of ideas and maybe it is more difficult to get rid of than we would have thought.

A similar explanation might be fuelled the fact that people tend to think that intellectual characteristics are more related to our identity than those of the body. Intelligence, creativity, our moral and social self – all these define us more than our body. The body is just the thing that holds them, where ‘thing’ is the key word because, as Cartesian dualism tells us, we are res cogitans. Favouring the intellect in defining personal identity can probably be traced back to the Platonic dualism I have mentioned, but its peak might have been reached with Cartesian dualism. The separation of the mind from the body, the view that one represents the subject and the other the object, made it seem that the latter is inferior and unimportant. For example, — and this is a strange little thought experiment that can be criticized in many, many ways, but all I want is to bring to light a certain intuition, so please go with it — if my mind would be transferred to another body, most people would probably think that this human would still be me. Presumably, my friends and family would recognize my self despite that it would be inhabiting another body (although the way The Other perceives my self as both body and mind, and how much each counts in how they see who I am, is another aspect, which I think matters as well).

However, both dualism and this intuition cease to be so plausible in the context of French phenomenology. Merleau-Ponty is the one who reminds us that we don’t just have a body, but we are our bodies, we are embodied, the body is lived and felt and, thus, I think we can say that it becomes part of our identity. The mental gets shaped and is conditioned, in many ways, by the body. So maybe transferring my mind to another body might not result in the same self, but rather a whole different one. Thus, if the body is part of our identity, maybe cultivating its virtues should not be seen as an inferior endeavour. However, French phenomenology doesn’t have the popularity of Plato and Descartes, so it’s no wonder that their views on body and mind shape most people’s intuitions.

Finally, another possibility that comes to mind stems from Aristotle and his account of well-being. Eudaimonia, which can be translated as well-being, is, according to Aristotle the life lived in accordance to reason. Roughly put, living well is about more than fleeting happiness; because of the kind of creatures that we are, i.e. rational, a meaningful worthy life is constituted by virtuous and intellectual activities. So the pursuit of physical perfection might make one happy, just as counting grass could. However, that is not enough; the virtues of the mind are those who will help us achieve eudaimonia.

As mentioned, a lot more research into the problem is needed. I have briefly suggested a few possible explanations, but they can certainly be criticized and maybe even dismissed. However, although it may seem obvious to others, for me the question still remains: what does really explain our attitudes regarding the virtues of the mind and the virtues of the body? And are we in any way right in holding them?

Adina Covaci earned her bachelor’s degree from the West University of Timișoara in Romania and then did an MA at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary (both in philosophy). Her main interest is in moral philosophy, but she also likes to work at the intersection of this field and others, such as aesthetics or epistemology. She has a background in continental ethics, with a focus on Jean Paul Sartre’s philosophy, but her recent research took an analytical turn and has dealt with the problem of moral deference and the question of its permissibility. She is currently studying for a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Leeds.


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