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The Decay of Words, Part 1:
Virtue & Vice

virtvtis4001,767 words

Part 1 of 3

Trans. G. A. Malvicini from L’Arco e la Clava [The Bow and the Club] (Milan: Scheiwiller, 1968)

One of the signs of the fact that the course of history has, outside of the purely material plane, been anything but one of progress, is the poverty of modern languages ​​compared to many ancient languages. Not a single one of the Western so-called “living languages” can compare, in terms of organic, articulated structure and plasticity, with, for example, classical Latin or Sanskrit. Among the European languages, perhaps only German has preserved something of its archaic structure (and this is why German has a reputation for being “difficult”), while the English language and those of the Scandinavian peoples have suffered a process of erosion and flattening. In general, one might say that ancient languages ​​were three-dimensional, while modern languages ​​are two-dimensional. Here, too, time has had a corrosive effect; it has made languages “practical” and ​​”fluid” at the expense, precisely, of their organic structure. This is only a reflection of what has occurred in many other domains of culture and existence.

Words, too, have their history, and changes in their meaning are often an interesting indicator of corresponding changes in general sensibility and worldview. In particular, it would be interesting to compare the meaning of certain Latin words with that of terms that have remained virtually identical in Italian, and often in other Romance languages as well. In general, one notices a lowering in level. The earliest meaning is either lost, or survives in a residual form in certain special meanings or phrases, without any longer corresponding to the current sense of the term, or else, appears completely distorted and trivialized. We will provide some examples.

Paolo Veronese, Prudence and Manly Virtue, between 1560 and 1561, Villa Barbaro, Maser, Veneto

Paolo Veronese, Prudence and Manly Virtue, between 1560 and 1561, Villa Barbaro, Maser, Veneto

1. The most typical and best known case is perhaps the word virtus. “Virtue” in the modern sense has almost nothing to do with virtus in the ancient sense. Virtus meant strength of character, courage, valor, virile firmness. The word was connected to vir, a term that designated a man who was truly a man, not “man” in the generic and naturalistic sense. The word has taken on an essentially a moralistic meaning, very often associated with sexual prejudices, to the point that Vilfredo Pareto coined the term “virtuismo” to refer to the puritanical and sexophobic morality of the bourgeois. Generally, when speaking of a “virtuous person” today, we think of something far different from what was referred to, through an effective use of reiteration, by phrases like vir virtute praeditus. And it is not uncommon that the difference in meaning turns into a veritable antithesis. Indeed, a firm soul, proud, fearless and heroic, is the opposite of a “virtuous” person in the modern, moralistic and conformist sense.

The meaning of virtus as an efficacious force has only been preserved in certain specific modern phrases: the “virtues” of a plant or a drug, “by virtue“ of this or that.

2. Honestus. Linked to the idea of honos, in antiquity this term mainly meant “deserving honor,” “noble,” “of noble rank.” What, of this, is conserved in the corresponding modern term? An “honest” person now means a “decent” member of bourgeois society, someone who does not do anything really bad. The phrase “born of honest parents” [“nato da onesti genitori”] has today taken on an almost ironic nuance, while in ancient Rome it was used specifically to designate nobility of birth, which often also corresponded to biological nobility. Vir honesta facie meant, indeed, a man of fine appearance, just as the Sanskrit term Aryan referred both to a person worthy of honor, as well as to a nobility that was as much of the mind, as it was of the body.

3. Gentilis, gentilitas. Today, when speaking of a “gentleman,” everyone thinks of someone who is courteous, charming, well-mannered. The ancient terms, however, referred to the notion of gens, of clan, race, caste or lineage. For the Romans, gentilis was applied to one who possessed qualities deriving from a lineage and from differentiated blood, which could, perhaps, but only as a reflection, determine a demeanor of detached courtesy, something very different from “good manners,” which even a parvenu can acquire by studying etiquette — and different, also, from the vague modern notion of “kindness.” Few people today are able to grasp the deeper meaning of expressions such as “a gentle spirit” and the like, which are isolated extensions of the original meaning in the language of writers of other times.

4. Genialitas. Who is a “genius” today? A predominantly individualistic man, brilliant and full of original discoveries. At the extreme, there is the artistic “genius,” to whom, as we know, bourgeois and humanist civilization has dedicated a fetishistic cult, to the point that the “genius” — more so than the hero, the ascetic or aristocrat — was often seen, in that civilization, as the highest type of man. The Latin term genialis, however, alludes to something that has little to do with individualism and “humanism.” It comes from the word genius, which originally designated the formative and generative, inner, spiritual and mystical force of a given blood lineage or race. One could therefore say that the qualities of genialitas in the ancient sense had a certain relationship with qualities that are “racial” in the highest sense of the word. In direct opposition to the modern sense of the word, the element of “genius” was distinct from everything individualistic and arbitrary; it was connected with a deep root, obeying an inner necessity through fidelity to the already supra-personal forces of blood and race, forces that, as we know, in any patrician lineage were connected to a sacred tradition.

5. Pietas. There is no real need to state what “pity” means today. One thinks of a more or less humanitarian, sentimental attitude  — “pity” is almost synonymous with compassion. In Latin, pietas belonged, instead, to the realm of the sacred, signifying firstly the special relationship that the Roman had with the the gods, secondly with other realities in the world of Tradition, including the State itself. Before the gods, it meant an attitude of calm, dignified veneration: a sense of belonging and, at the same time, of respect, of grateful recognition, of duty and loyalty, the intensified form of the feeling elicited by the stern figure of the pater familias (hence pietas filialis). Pietas could also manifest itself in the political domain: pietas in patriam meant loyalty and duty to the State and to the fatherland. In some cases, the term also connotes the meaning of iustitia. He who does not know pietas is also unjust, almost impious, he is the one who does not recognize his place, the place he must hold in a higher order, which is at once human and divine.

6. Innocentia. This word, too, evoked ideas of clarity and strength; its prevalent meaning in antiquity was purity of soul, integrity, disinterestedness, righteousness. It did not just have the purely negative sense of “not guilty,” and had nothing of the connotation of banality found in the phrase “innocent mind” today, which has become almost synonymous with “simpleton.” In other Romance languages, such as French, for example, the same term, innocent, even designates idiots, congenital mental deficients, the feeble-minded and dazed.

7. Patientia. The modern sense, with respect to the old sense, is once again dulled and weakened. Someone “patient,” today, is someone who does not get angry, does not get irritated, someone tolerant. In Latin, patientia designated one of the primary “virtues” of the Roman: it connotes the idea of an inner strength, an unshakable firmness, it referred to the capacity to stand one’s ground, to have a soul that remains composed in the face any setback and any adversity. This is why it was said of the race of Rome, that it possessed the power to accomplish great things as well as to endure [patire] equally great adversity (cf.  Livy’s famous saying: et facere et pati fortia romanum est). The modern sense is, relative to the other, completely watered down. Today, the donkey is considered an example of a typically “patient” nature.

8. Humilitas. With the religion that came to prevail in the West, “humility” became a “virtue” (in an un-Roman sense) and was glorified as the opposite of the style of dignity, of strength, and of calm awareness that we described above. In ancient Rome, humilitas signified the very opposite of all virtus. It meant a baseness deserving contempt, lowliness, abjection, cowardice, dishonor — so that death or exile were considered preferable to “humility”: humilitati vel exilium vel mortem anteponenda esse. Associations of ideas such as mens humilis et prava, “a low and evil spirit.” were common. The expression humilitas causam dicentium refers to the inferior and guilty condition of those being taken before a court. Here, too, we find an interference with the idea of ​​race or caste: humilis natus parentis meant born of the people, in the pejorative, plebeian sense, in contrast to noble birth, and hence diverging significantly from the modern sense of the phrase “of humble origins,” especially considering that the sole criterion of social position today is economic. Anyway, never would a Roman of ancient times have dreamed of making a virtue of humilitas, let alone boast of it and preach it to others. As for a certain “morality of humility,” one might recall the remark of a Roman emperor, that nothing is more despicable than the pride of those who say they are humble — which does not mean that arrogance and presumptuousness are to be encouraged.

9. Ingenium. The old sense of the term has survived only in part, and, again, in its least interesting aspect. In Latin, ingenium also signified perspicacity, sharpness of mind, sagacity, foresight — but at the same time, it referred to character, to that which is, in each person, organic, innate, really one’s own. Vana ingenia could therefore refer to persons without character; redire ad ingenium could mean to return to one’s own nature, a lifestyle consistent with what one really is. This more important meaning has been lost in the modern word, the meaning of which has almost been inverted. Indeed, if “ingeniousness” has a sense of intellectualism and cleverness, this is obviously the opposed to the second meaning of the ancient term, which refers to character, to a style that is in conformity with one’s own nature; intelligence is then what is superficial, as opposed to what is organic; a restless, brilliant and inventive mobility of the mind, rather than a rigorous style of thinking that adheres perfectly to one’s own character.


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  1. Arindam
    Posted March 15, 2016 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    If I’m not mistaken, the Roman concept of ‘Libertas’ had a very different meaning from ‘liberty’ as it is generally understood nowadays. For the Roman, a free man was one who spoke his mind…

  2. Jarl A. Nicholl
    Posted March 14, 2016 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    Just finished reading Duchesne’s Uniqueness of Western Culture and had his discussion of virtue in mind reading this. I like the idea that rather than declining from the primordial meaning it’s meaning augmented to include not only thumos but also sophrosyne: not just spirited pride but also composure and moderation as exemplified in the progress from Mycenean to classical Greece.

  3. c
    Posted March 14, 2016 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    Much appreciated. More on Pietas:

    “Why did we ever lose for English the meaning of this noble word? To convey the full flavour of it we have to define it. It means the reciprocal fulfilment of all obligations arising from the ties of Nature, – those between the Creator and His creatures, between the citizen and his country, between man and wife, between parent and child, between friend and friend, between feudal lord and vassal, between employer and employed. It was good to have one word Pietas to show that all these ties are akin. A special emphasis is found for the word when pathos intervenes.”

    From Shakespeare’s Way, by F.C. Kolbe, a very underestimated little book

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