replacing virtue
May 21, 2011, 10:06 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: ,

Our image of virtue is the Amish girl selling organic vegetables, the helper suburban wife, the social worker who cares, the religiously convicted, the saint who runs orphanages, the hardworking labourer, the dutiful husband, the family that saves, the company man, the disciplined mortgagor.

However, if you look in the dictionary, virtue is described quite differently.  It is a learned moral excellence, an exceptional person who has developed essential qualities needed to live an excellent life.  There’s an enormous difference between this definition and our own milquetoast, passive, whiny vision.

In this excerpt from T. Eagleton’s essay Ideas for modern living: virtue, the author describes this difference.  He says the proper definition of virtue is energy, exhuberance, prospering, exhiliration, and excitement.

And he says it was the grubby middle classes that usurped this clear and useful, vaulted and coveted quality and swapped it out for a new paltry set of characteristics.  And so we got prudence, thrift, meekness, chastity, temperance, industriousness, duty, obligation and responsibility.  He makes it very clear that virtue used to be fun, and is now a bore – a basic reversal.

Most interestingly in this account, the new boring qualities that have usurped the rightful meaning of virtue – thrift, obligation etc. – are useful but secondary or peripheral ideas for living.  They are small ideas and logically would not be allowed to occupy a critical central role.  But they accomplished this takeover and, if this assessment is correct, we have to live with the consequences:  reduced clarity, vision, energy, excellence and fun.

From the article:

For Aristotle, goodness is a kind of prospering in the precarious affair of being human. Virtue is something you have to get good at, like playing the trombone or tolerating bores at parties. Being a virtuous human being takes practice; and those who are brilliant at being human (what Christians call the saints) are the virtuosi of the moral sphere – the Pavarottis and Maradonas of virtue.

Whatever happened, then, to this ancient notion of goodness as exciting, energetic and exhilarating, and evil as empty, boring and banal? Why do people now see things the other way round? One answer is the gradual rise of the middle classes, whose clammy grip on western civilisation brought with it a gradual re-definition of virtue. Virtue came to mean not energy and exuberance but prudence, thrift, meekness, chastity, temperance, industriousness and so on. No wonder people prefer vampires.

From there we move towards that perversion of moral thought (identified above all with the greatest of all modern philosophers, Immanuel Kant) for which virtue was about duty, obligation, responsibility. Of course, these have their place in human life. What is disastrous is to place them at the centre of one’s moral vision. I say that virtue is really all about enjoying yourself, living fully; but of course it is far from obvious what living fully actually means.

Ideas for modern living: virtue, Terry Eagleton, Guardian

1 Comment so far
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This is great. Good stuff.
Living actively not merely passively.

Comment by blackwatertown

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