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We have heard of this virtue, but we know not what it is. --Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I have spent a lot of time thinking about something that we don't hear much about anymore, virtue. I have settled on a definition: to be virtuous is “to do what should be done,” which brings with it the corollary, “to refrain from what should not be done.”

The present meditation was triggered by Theodore Darlrymple's discussion of Shakespeare's “Coriolanus” in the March 25-26, 2006 issue of the Wall Street Journal. “Inflexible virtue becomes its opposite, vice,” he wrote. “The subtlety of [Shakespeare's] understanding of the human predicament is incomparable. We pride ourselves, perhaps rightly, on our vast accumulation of scientific and other knowledge; but when it comes to self-knowledge, self-understanding, I doubt that we shall ever progress beyond him.”

Self-knowledge is an important concept, and an ancient one. Many people do not realize that it is embedded into our notion of “conscience.” The ancient Greeks used the word syneidesis to express the idea; the word literally means co-knowledge, i.e., self-knowledge. Only by knowing ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses can we hope to assess ourselves and to train ourselves to do what we should and to avoid what we should not: to be virtuous.

Instead of taking the trouble to get to know ourselves and to endeavor to follow a life course that we will be able to reflect upon with satisfaction when we have reached its end, many of us have taken to adopting meaningless platitudes or feelgood soundbytes. “Pride is bad,” we often hear, for example. Yet, in Aristotle's Ethics, he showed pride has a proper place, to form a sound foundation for self-esteem, which in turn leads to regulation of oneself. Hundreds of generations later, Jane Austen visited the question in Pride & Prejudice. At an early stage of the story where Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett are engaged in a bit of verbal sparring, Darcy observes that “vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride—where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will always be under good regulation.” Proper pride serves a useful purpose in supporting self-control, in refraining from doing what ought not be done. In other words, pride can be a virtue.

A sense of community can also help to advance the virtue of self-restraint. Consider the salons (clubs) formed for the purpose of conversation from the eighteenth century. In Stephen Miller's book, Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, we find helpful clues. We learn that conversation is more than just talking: it's controversy, multiple competing views, complete with wit, and always without “enthusiasm” (a synonym for “fanaticism” in the writings of Hume and the like). People could debate and even rail against competing ideas, yet they would not be likely to demonize one another because they debated in the clubs of which all participants were members.

Lack of self-restraint has taken its toll. I believe that this present condition that the politicos call “polarization” has much to do with why we hear so little useful debate now. Differing views simply are not allowed (or go unacknowledged) at one extreme. On the other extreme, all conversation degenerates into a shouting match a la Jerry Springer Show. These matters are the same that plague society more broadly: a lack of civility that itself stems from a lack of restraint, itself a symptom of an even bigger problem, a lack of respect. Respect for oneself and for others must be present for any useful interaction among people and what is society but the interaction of people in the abstract?

In the end virtue is a means by which we demonstrate our character to the world. We each are assessed by our course of life, the history that we have created through what we do and don't do, say, and write. How much better for us to decide what that course will be and to lead life deliberately than simply letting it happen to us, asking at the end, “What happened?”

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2007-08-18 07:58 PM

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