Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Some Thoughts On The Merits Of Virtue

     In his short but important book, The Abolition Of Man, C. S. Lewis proposed a kind of tri-partite view of man that went like this:  At the top was the Head, the home of the intellect and rational processes, including the ability of ideation and the aquisition of rational ideals.  Lower down was the Belly, the seat of (necessary, but necessarily selfish) bodily appetites and the fulfillment of personal physical needs, such as hunger, reproduction, and the like.  Between them, and mediating between them, was the Chest, which he proposed was the seat of virtue and those other things which integrate the activities of the head and the belly and produce a healthy, whole human person.  He suggested that modern man (specifically, the man produced in the prevalent western-modern culture he was familiar with, in the first half of the twentieth century) was defective with respect to the chest, the seat of the virtues.  He called his first essay of the book, "Men Without Chests."

     He further proposed that the educational system, the one that was in place in Britain in his day, was partly to blame for this -- that it was systematically (whether consciously or unconsciously -- as I recall, he believed consciously) destroying the very possibility that the young men of his time could grow up with healthy "chests."  Modern education was, in effect, destroying virtue by denying its existence.  In Lewis' own words, "We laugh at honor, and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful."

     In his final essay he invoked the "Tao," the Way, as a possible means of recovery.  When I first read this book, as a young college student, it caught my attention.  I knew nothing whatever of the concept of the "Tao," and certainly had no idea of its relevance to someone such as myself.  I guess I had read some brief reference in a high school "World History" course -- but I had dismissed it as some antiquated notion of the always inscrutible and certainly irrelevant Chinese.

     Lewis more or less "universalized" the Tao -- if "universalized" is the right word here -- by showing that it was present, or at least implicit, in the writings and traditions of many ancient cultures -- I particularly remember references to the early Egyptian culture, as well as the later Nordic pagans.  For the purposes of his book, he roughly equated Tao with what we sometimes call "natural law" -- that "rule" that is there, that we all more or less acknowledge, that exists above, or with, our mere "selves."

     Eventually, this got me interested in Laotse, the Chinese philosopher (circa 500 BC) whose name is most closely associated with the Tao.  So I read the Tao Te Ching.

     I think that it is useful to roughly equate "natural law," in Lewis's sense, with the Tao of Laotse, as long as we remember that, to Laotse, Tao is not only all-pervasive, it is inherently mysterious and undefinable; indeed, the opening sentence of his book says, "The Tao that can be named, is not the true Tao."  It is in some sense spiritual, or at least transcendant -- or at least, it transcends language.

     Laotse proposed a kind of hierarchy of value:  the Tao, whatever it is, is the Highest.  Law and legality are the Lowest, except perhaps for anarchy and chaos.  Somewhere between them, he said, was Virtue.  Because men forget Tao, they become merely Virtuous; because they abandon Virtue, they are left with  Law.  (Yes, scholars, I know I am simplifying here; please forgive me.)

     So, we have the philosophers Laotse and Lewis somehow in rough agreement about the importance of Virtue.  And in the absence of Virtue, pace Lewis, there is the danger that the Belly will rule; or pace Laotse, mere Law (legalism) must be invoked to control it.

     What is virtue?  To the Latins the word meant something akin to "manly goodness,"  and that is the sense in which I will use it.

    The English Bible uses the word in several instances.  When the Woman With The Issue Of Blood touches the hem of Jesus' garment, He stops and says, "I perceive that virtue went forth from me."  One senses that it was a kind of energy, almost a chi.

     St. Peter, in one of his Epistles, stipulates a spiritual progression for the Christian that begins with Faith and ends, several steps later, with Love.  In his words, Faith is to proceed with Virtue, Patience, and so forth, before it culminates in Brotherly Kindness and Love.  In this case, it is more like an activity or a state of mind (or of the soul).

     Christian tradition has long emphasized the importance of the virtues, and has enumerated them.  Traditionally there are seven (of course), set in opposition to the Deadly Sins.  The lists vary.  One popular source gave the list as: Chastity, Temperance, Charity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, and Humility, which is practically a conflation of St. Peter's progression.  In this view, it is the Virtues that overcome Sin.

     And there is the other, very similar list of seven virtues, consisting of the Four Cardinal Virtues of Temperance, Wisdom, Justice, and Courage, along with the Three Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity.  The emphasis here seems to be, aspects of character.

     Manly goodness, in the best sense then, seems to be possessed of an energy, an activity, and a state of being.  It mediates between -- or gathers within itself -- rationality and mere appetite, the ideal and the physical, mind and matter.  It actualizes the Good.  It aspires to rise above Law to acknowledge the mysterious Way.

     If we have lost it, or are in danger of losing it, as Lewis suggests we are, then we must anticipate conflict between rational mind and mere appetites, and a drift toward Law -- that is, mere legalism -- in a vain expectation of controlling ourselves, or being controlled.  I fear that this is, in effect, a Falling from Grace.



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