You have been reading and talking about virtue for quite a while now; therefore, that is what your teachers asked me to talk about to you. So I drew a hot bath (since the mind is freest when the body is floating) and thought what might be most to the point, most helpful to you.
Should I review some theories about virtue, perhaps give you my interpretation of Socrates’s or Aristotle’s notions of virtue, perhaps dwell on whether from reading Platonic dialogues we can tell if Socrates and Plato thought the same and if Aristotle responds to either of them? Or, should I introduce you to Kantian morality, a world apart from the ancients? Should I distinguish for you a vision of virtue that looks to an ideal heaven beyond and longs for perfection from one that pays regard to the world right here and goes for moderation? Should I explain to you that the Greek philosophers tend toward ethics, toward developing personal qualities of excellence, while the Judeo-Christian tradition tends toward morality, willingness to obey the laws of God and nature? Should I list for you different doctrines of doing right, such as eudaemonism, the teaching that happiness is the aim of virtue; or deontology, the account of virtue as duty and the obligation to obey commands, of which Immanuel Kant is the most extreme representative? For while Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, whatever their differences, think that ethics involves some sort of rightness in our feelings, emotions, and passions, Kant is clear that morality at its purest is a matter of reason alone. Reason is in its essence universal: To think rationally is to think unexceptionably, comprehensively. So to obey the commands of reason is to suppress all merely natural inclinations, all purely idiosyncratic desires, and to intend only such actions as we would want to be intended by everyone—or even to be seen as commanded by a law of nature. This is the notorious “categorical imperative”: “Imperative” means “command” and “categorical” means “without ifs and buts” (as when someone says to you “that is a categorical no!”). You will see in a moment why I have brought Kantian morality into this talk.
One last thing I might be speaking about, and which in fact I will talk of in a moment, is the word “virtue.” I will argue that this translation of the word the Greeks use, aretē, has its virtues, but we should probably give it up, or at least use it with raised eyebrows.
I now want to say why none of the above, except the last, appealed to me. I will tell you what seems to me the biggest trouble with academic study, and so with most of our education. I call it the problem of lost immediacy. This is what I mean: There are books—and if your teachers chose well, they will be great ones— that are full of substance. Then there are books and articles and lectures about books. The great books (or texts of any sort) contain opinions. The next level of books and articles also contain opinions, but they are opinions about the original opinions, because whoever interprets a primary text adds a perspective to it. Then here we are, your teachers, and we have absorbed some of these original opinions, as well as some of the opinions about them— and we have acquired some opinions of our own on top of that. All those levels of learning on our part can smother and drown out your immediate relation to the book. But even a powerful, first-rate book—perhaps especially such a book—can also stand between you and yourself. It intervenes in your thinking and can capture it, so that you are content to think its thoughts and co-feel its feelings, rather than being immediately present to yourself. Or worse, it can put you off its possibly life-changing content because you see no direct entrance to it.
Now I hasten to say that I pity people who have never been taken over by a book or even by a teacher in that way—if, that is, the being-taken-over is the beginning of an effort, a struggle, that issues in a gradual emergence or a tumultuous bursting out of a discovery that is truly your own. I pity even more students who have been turned off by a life-enhancing text because no one helped them to make a direct connection with it.
A witty outside observer of my college used to tell the world that our students arrive knowing nothing and leave knowing that they know nothing. I hope it is true, provided you keep in mind that to know that you know nothing is knowing a lot. What he meant, though, was that they had absorbed so many contradictory opinions from reading so many deep books that they were in a state of ultimate and utter confusion. But in that he was surely mistaken. Such riches may be oppressive and discombobulating for a while, but that is a state you work yourself out of into some clarity—clarity about “who you are,” which is a formulaic way of saying “what your thinking can accept and your feelings can embrace.”
Therefore, I think that the second-best thing we teachers can do for our students is to show how books can be, in a fancy term, “appropriated,” made one’s own—and not just a few books of the same sort, but many books of different sorts—different in genre, different in opinion. The very best thing we can do, of course, is to get students to read them well and talk about them to each other.
Does that not broad appropriation, you might ask, imply eclecticism, which is a sort of intellectual cherry-picking that disregards the generality of a well thought-out theory, and—especially if it is an ethical or moral theory—its integration into a comprehensive view of the ways things are? Well, yes, if eclecticism means indiscriminately collecting low-hanging fruit from here and there, it will be cherry-picking, extracting now contextless bits and pieces. But no, if eclecticism has a basis in the very nature of things. In a moment I will explain this oracular pronouncement.
But first, there is the word “virtue,” the supposed subject of my talk. Let everyone talk as they wish, as long as they know what they are saying; but I wish we would not use “virtue” as a translation of that Greek word aretē—or at least that we would use it mostly with raised eyebrows. To be sure, it has a nice argument in its favor: “Virtue” is related both to the Latin vis, force, and vir, man. Virtue is the energy of a being that holds it together, and gives it power, as when they say in stories: “All the virtue went out of him.” Now as it happens, aretē is related to a Greek prefix ari-, meaning “very much, forcefully so”; thus aretē is the potency in a person or thing to be what it is supposed to be. (Some Greeks seem to have seen a relation between aretē and Ares, the powerful warrior-god.) Moreover, the moral virtue most highly regarded by Aristotle, courage, is literally called “manliness” (andreia) in Greek. It all fits together. On the other hand, “virtue,” in a use that goes back to Shakespearean times and into the Nineteenth Century, was a woman’s particular kind of manliness, namely, well-girded chastity, her bodily and psychic inviolability. We have nothing left but a smile for such passionless purity. More recently, the adjective “virtual,” in its meaning of “inactual,” has come front-and-center as an attribute of cyberspace: “virtual reality,” that is to say, “unreal reality.” We ought to have a background awareness of the sphere of connotations of our words, including their history. But, as far as the contemporary connotations of the adjectival form of “virtue” is concerned, I do not think we want to go there.
This means, however, that for the moment I am left without a word for my subject. This lack raises two really interesting questions: Can we have a thought without a name? and Can we think without words? Powerful contemporary writers claim that it is impossible for two reasons: There can be no external proof that thinking is going on without someone saying something thoughtful; a furrowed brow is no evidence. In fact even our claim to be thinking does not prove that we are thinking. More importantly, to think is really to marshall meanings, and meanings are drifting vapours unless they are attached to a word or given structure in a sentence.
Here, I beg to differ with these contemporary writers. I think we all experience that sense of a disembodied meaning, of pre-verbal thinking, that moves in our mind, sometimes like a gentle aromatic breeze over the mental plain, sometimes like a powerful push of air pressure against a mental wall, rousing us to seek the right term to catch it, the accurate language to describe it, the suitable words to embody it.
So then, what is this mental presence that is called virtue, effectiveness, excellence, dutifulness, goodness? I am supposing here that to have too many words is equivalent to having no cogent idea. But that may be a mistake. The reason why there are numerous translations for the Greek word you have thought about under the term “virtue” may be that in fact it encompasses a number of ways of being what is called broadly, and so a little bluntly, “good;” there are many terms because there really are different ways of being humanly good. This possibility of earthly variety kicks the meaning they share, “goodness,” way upstairs, so to speak—up into the highest reaches of thought. In the Republic, Socrates says to the two very intelligent young men he is speaking with that he cannot explain this Good to them in the brief space of one evening. So I feel excused from even trying in this short hour.
On the other hand, I do want to make use of the notion that there might be more than one way of being good—an idea that will probably underwhelm you. It would not even have shocked people who lived before the First World War, such as your great-great-grand parents—though for different reasons. Nowadays many people, certainly among them the most articulate ones, believe that as long as we are socially right-minded and we do not discriminate among our fellow humans for being what nature made them, we can be fairly forgiving of a loose personal morality. Consequently, there is public and private morality, one rigorous, the other relaxed. (Of course, these are generalizations, which are never true of those in whose hearing they are made.) Your ancestors, on the other hand, would have tended to believe what Socrates sets out in the Republic, namely, that members of different castes or classes belonging to one political community have different characteristic excellences. Moreover, they knew quite well that, even within their class, people—especially well-off men—lived quite comfortably within a double moral framework. For example, men could maintain a respectable but loveless marriage to one, woman whom they publicly honored, while at the same time engaging in a passionate but disreputable attachment to a mistress, who had only private privileges. My own uncle lived that way: when he and his wife fled Germany from the Nazis in 1939, his mistress was on the same train in a separate compartment.
Here is what I want to do now, killing two birds with one stone (though I am not so much for killing birds, especially not en masse). My first aim is to take off on my own, so that my primary point will not be so much to explain a theory found in a book—though, as you will see, I will have to do that too in order to achieve my second purpose. That second purpose is to show how one might be eclectic without being incoherent, how we might engage in picking-out parts of theories of goodness without producing a mere self-pleasing miscellany, a tasty thought-goulash.
This second purpose might be of real use to you if you are feeling a little snowed by all the deep and sometimes difficult theories you have studied this year. I mean to show that you can fashion an opinion to live by through combining the most disparate conceptions. My first aim, however, is to think out something for myself and articulate it before a sympathetic audience.
So now to it. One human being may indeed live with two moralities, one public, one private, and this duplicity is not always hypocritical; it may simply make life livable and prevent it from becoming worse. Or, looking at it another way, there is a saying that hypocrisy is the respect vice pays to virtue: I think it is better all around that there should be such respect, once humanly understandable and inevitable wrong-doing is on the scene. Again, coming to our day, some people quite comfortably cheat on their taxes and tell you that it is a form of civic virtue to short-change a wasteful government, but they observe strict correctness when it comes to matters of social justice. They too live in a dual moral frame.
But I want to introduce another, I think more fundamental, duality: the pacing of time, or, more accurately, of psychic motion. If you watch the stream of cars coming toward you on the opposite side of a highway, and there is a good deal of traffic, you will notice that the cars bunch up; they practically tailgate each other until the density dissolves into long stretches of lighter flow. The world is like that, and so are our lives; it and we are in sync. There is an earthquake, a tsunami, a storm, an eruption all at once after years of nothing. A dreary winter has lasted for ever, suddenly it is spring, the forsythia is in bloom, the trees are bursting into leaf, and it is time for outdoor-idling, but there are summer jobs to be lined up, final exams, parties, last-moment bonding, packing, all at once. That is outside, but it is similar inside: There are undistinguished times marked, very unremarkably, by routine and repetition; life flows away and is canceled, collapses into one-and-any-day’s schedule. Then suddenly time develops densities; all the momentous moments happen together, for better or for worse. When it rains, it pours, as the saying goes.
I should remind you here that the exhilarating heights and tearful depths of time, or rather of eventfulness, separated by expanses of flat dailiness—these closings-up and drawings-apart of happenings—are a Western way of seeing the world and living in it. There are teachings of the East that make a virtue of unbunching time, of letting life flow evenly—every moment as charged with presence as any other. Thus when I called this talk “Momentary Morality and Extended Ethics,” I was thinking only of our half of the world.
So now I will explain what I mean by momentary morality. I have been describing an experience of time and events that includes moments of crisis, either imposed on us by nature or manufactured by us from sheer cussed, willful Westernness. Although krisis is a Greek word meaning “separation” or “decision,” and so might just betoken any branching in the flow of events, we generally do not mean something good by it. A crisis, as we use the word, is not so much a branching as a stanching of the flow of events that makes its elements pile up and then burst out, often in a kind of relieving demolition of the status quo. Certainly the living pace we share, consisting of stretches of eventless, quiet desperation or contentment, as the case may be, which are interspersed with somewhat frantic eventfulness, practically guarantees that every high will be at the expense of a low, as a hill is paid for by a hollow. I think that I have told things the way they really are, but that I have left two questions (at least) quite unanswered: Are the highs higher than the lows are low; that is, are there more great moments than sorry ones? and What is the logic, or better, the ontology of these event-pairings of high and low? Why is natural and human life subject to these oppositions? By “ontology,” which signifies an “account of being,” I mean the most fundamental explanation we can find for the way things are, including psychology in the non-medical sense: an account of the human soul.
But I want to use this notion of bunched time, of high moments we may hope for and low ones we can expect, of events shaped in time like wave packets connected by a flat line—unexamined though the image be—to speak about the type of morality which I call “momentary morality.” I mean those critical moments when you are up against the wall, when it is too late to think things out, when you need to be ready with an inner command to tell you what to do—what you must do—at that very moment. The human condition being what it is, what you must do will tend to be something you do not want to do, or rather, something you will want with every fiber of your feelings not to do. If at that moment you waffle about what you ought to do, or if you fail to do as you ought, you will never forget that you were unprepared in a moral emergency or unsteadfast in doing your duty. You will be diminished in your self-respect.
I have seen it written and heard it said that such moments of extremity reveal who a person really is. I do not believe it. I think what you do day-by-blessedly-ordinary-day is more apt to reveal, even while it is shaping, who you are. But I do know that moral failure in a crisis sticks with you: I know it from myself, I know it from a tale one day told me, almost in passing, by a man I admired, and I know it from fiction, especially Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim and Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
There is a theory of morality that seems to me tailored for moments of crisis and, consequently, inept in daily use. It is the Kantian theory of the categorical imperative I mentioned earlier on. It is, in the compass of my reading, the most powerful, coherent, ingenious and, not incidentally, the most earnestly extremist theory of human goodness ever devised. Like all great specific theory it is embedded in a grand grounding of human consciousness. Kant would turn, nay, whirl in his grave to hear me assign it to so particular a use, so momentary an occasion. But since I am convinced that it is not possible to live well through the flats of life on Kantian morality (though I lack time in this talk to explain why) and find that even his own applications sometimes have repellent results, I feel less abashed at saving the pieces, so to speak. Let me explain as simply and briefly as I can how this morality might work in an emergency, and that explanation itself will go a little ways toward showing why one cannot live that way through extended time.
We have, Kant says, a faculty for freedom; namely, our will, our free will. To be free means to take orders from no one but oneself. Thus the free will commands itself. It gives itself its own law. There must be law, Kant thinks, because if the will were lawless it would be the opposite of free—call it capricious, wanton. Now the will, Kant also thinks, is an aspect of reason, which has two sides. One side is theoretical reason. This reason gives nature its laws and then recognizes them as necessary. I will set this activity of reason aside here—it is what I mean by ripping his moral theory out of the grand whole. The other side is practical reason: it gives itself its laws and so knows itself as free. You can see that it is identical with the free will. The will—really myself as a free person— should, of course, obey the command of its self-given law, its imperative. As I said earlier, this imperative permits no ifs and buts, admits no special cases, allows no individual exceptions, because it is addressed to reason, and reason does not contradict its own universal judgment, for then it would be self-contradictory. Above all, it avoids the necessities, the unfree determinism, of lawful nature. We human beings are in part natural, namely, in our inclinations and desires. Our free will, our practical reason, has no truck with the emotions and feelings that drive us. It chooses a course entirely because it is right and not in the least because we feel good about it; in fact, the more it hurts the better we know we are doing our duty, doing purely as we ought. And we have a test to tell us whether our decision is right, a test that expresses the essence of reason: If I can universalize my particular motive for choosing an action so as to turn it into a general law of human action or a conceivable law of nature, then I am choosing as I ought. I am preserving the purity of reason; namely, its universality and its avoidance of self-contradiction by exception-making.
Let me give a famous example by Kant himself. Suppose a persecutor comes to my door and asks if his intended victim is within. All my inclination is to deny it, to protect the fugitive. But if I generalize my motive it assumes this form: Under humanitarian pressure anyone may tell a lie; then all trust in anyone’s declarations collapses, for anyone can construe an exception. So you must tell the truth, and you will have done your duty, come hell or high-water or the murder of a fugitive. I have told this example because it seems to me to show how Kantian purity can turn into moral catastrophe when life is fraught with daily danger. Just imagine that you are harboring a fugitive dissident in some totalitarian state, and, as you well know they might, the secret police come knocking at your door. Will you tell them the truth for the sake of the self-consistency of reason? No, you will have recourse—if you think you need it—to the very paralogical, paradoxical principle of the white lie. In general, I think that this absolutist morality is not only too inhumane, but also too joyless to be livable day by day.
But let there be that one life-changing moment when, torn from the usually peaceful flux of ordinary life, you suddenly must decide. The occasion might be a temptation to commit a minor transgression in the world’s eyes, but one weighing heavily on your conscience. Or it could be an unexpected call on your courage, unwelcome but unavoidable, perhaps never patent to the world but well enough known to yourself.
These are, I think, Kantian moments, spots of time when a morality is wanted that disparages our inclinations and prompts us to duty, that provides an effective on-the-spot test of what ought to be done, to wit: What if everyone did what it has just crossed my mind to do? That decisive moment’s morality is the kind which commands without hedging.
But for most of us in this country these excruciating moments that, when they do come, tend, to be sure, to come in multiples, are blessedly sparse. The rational points on a mathematical line are said to be dense, meaning that they leave no empty interval and yet do not form a continuum (since the irrational points are missing). Such is the incident-line, the event-time of our ordinary daily life, in which every little station has its happening; but though they are all discrete, they are so closely packed together that they are scarcely discernible. Our day has 86,400 seconds and our week 604,800 seconds, and we can calculate the number of seconds in our month, our year, our decade, our lifetime. This flattish life-line of instants, with the peaks and troughs it occasionally develops, surely requires a different notion of goodness from the one that is marked by excruciating, disruptive moments. As I called the latter “momentary morality,” so I will call the former “extended ethics.”
Morality, remember, requires command-issuing universal law; ethics, on the other hand, demands natural and acquired personal qualities. Of the possible English alternatives to the term “virtue,” I think that “excellence” best expresses the connotations the ancient users of the word aretē seem to have had in mind, even before the philosophers got to discerning a comprehensive meaning.
Let me list those connotations of aretē, understood as excellence, that I can think of: 1. effectiveness; 2. competition; 3. happiness; 4. enumerability; 5. habituation. They all have to do with the long runs of life, the flat stretches that may buckle into peaks and valleys of glory and misery; they have little or nothing to do with the up-against-the-wall decisions of a life fractured by a moral emergency.
I have spoken of the notion of aretē as an effective, potent way of being that betokens a soul honed to a fine edge, just as a well-sharpened pruning knife is an efficient and perhaps somewhat dangerous object. There is a competitive tone to aretē, just as to be excellent means literally “to rise above,” as we say, “to be outstanding.” The possessor of aretē glories in it, vaunts and flaunts it, as do the Homeric heroes. A hero is high in self-esteem, in current language. Furthermore, the aretai, the excellences that everyone recognizes, can be counted off. Socrates regularly refers to four cardinal ones: wisdom, justice, courage, and sound-mindedness. These excellences require the right sort of body and soul—physical and psychic talent, as we would say—but also practice, habituation. It is in this last element that the difference between Kantian morality and ethics, as I have delineated it, shows up most. Personal qualities are confirmed in habituation, in being habitually practiced, but the free will, the self-legislation of morality is essentially at odds with habituation. For habit puts the natural laws of psychology to work, and these are deterministic mechanisms. In fact, habit, as a mechanism is an inhibition on spontaneousness, on freedom. What is more, for Kant the will’s intention trumps practical execution.
Indeed, all the points of the ethics of individual qualities are contrasted with law-morality. The categorical imperative has, to be sure, several forms, but it is basically one, a super-commandment that the free will issues and obeys, while the human excellences are enumerably multiple. For although excellence as excellence may be one super-quality, it needs to assume various specifications, and these may even be at odds with each other. For instance, courage and sound-mindedness (whose Greek term, sophrosyne, is often translated as “moderation”) may pull in opposite directions. Certainly the competitive glorying of excellence is unthinkable in a dutiful moralist, and the sharp-set potency and effectiveness which goes with any excellence is absolutely out of play for the moral mode. Once more, in Kant’s great works of moral philosophy, the issue of execution, of how the passage from decision to effective action is accomplished, which is so crucial a juncture in ethics, is almost completely suppressed. Ethics is a way of being objectively good in the world; the doing is almost everything. Kantian morality is primarily concerned with being right with oneself, subjectively good; the intention is everything, though hard actions may, indeed should, follow. As Kant famously says: “There is nothing unqualifiedly good except a good will.” Note that he does not say “a good deed.”
It is with respect to my middle point, happiness, that the difference is greatest and that ethics seems to me a far more livable, day-by-day useful theory. It is essential to moral intention that no hint of nature-bound desire should taint the purity of duty done for its own sake, meaning for the sake of self-rule. No psychic pleasure-seeking mechanism should confuse the clarity of a command obeyed for the sake of one’s rational integrity, one’s rational consistency. Ethics, on the other hand, cooperates with nature; although it distinguishes between sound and corrupt pleasure, between excess and moderation, it nevertheless regards pleasure, in Aristotle’s words, as the bloom on our activity; and it considers happiness, whatever its definition, as the proper, indeed self-evident, human aim.
Recall that I have spoken about “extended ethics” as opposed to “momentary morality” and distinguished the two theories of human goodness by their relation to time, or rather, to eventuation. Morality was for intense, abrupt, exigent, emergent moments of up-against-the-wall decision-making; ethics was for a looser, smoother, less urgent, more subdued tenor of life. Indeed, everything I have observed about ethics seems to me to fit this latter temporal mode better: our natural longing for accessible daily pleasure and sustainable long-term happiness in the world; our innocent, or not-so-innocent, human-all-too-human eagerness for admiration; our comfort in a being buoyed up by a tradition of recognizably articulated excellencies; our time-consuming growth into profitable habits and productive routines.
Above I calculated our line of life in myriads of instants almost too brief for detection (as distinct from discernible moments). Yet each had to be occupied and vacated, lived in and through, for better or for worse. It seemed to me that this analogy of life to a line, at once dense and pointillistic, recommended to us a theory of goodness which allowed us to be all there as natural beings, driven at every point of temporal existence by desire, fastening on some moments for fulfillment, developing excellence and glorying in it, engaging with the world in action and with ourselves in thinking. But it also seemed that there were moments of heightened urgency when we must oppose our pleasure-seeking and happiness-enjoying nature and forget all the flourishing excellence promotes in order to obey the harsh self-command of “you ought”—no ifs and buts.
My overarching purpose, however, was to persuade you that your studies of ways to be humanly good can be appropriated by you to fashion a way of your own, that they need not add up to mutual canceling-out of theories and all-round confusion of soul. In fact, I am paying you a major compliment: I am supposing that you are taking your learning seriously, not just, as the phrase goes, “academically”—that you take your studies to heart as life-shaping.
Republished from The St. John’s Review (Volume 56, No. 1, 2014) by gracious permission of the author. This lecture was delivered at the “Windows on the Good Life” Course at Carlton College on 16 April 2014.
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The featured image is “Triumph of the Virtues over the Vices” (c. 1592) by Paolo Fiammingo (c. 1540–1596) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.