Thursday, January 10, 2019

Speaking of Virtue

Q:“What makes you philosophers so smart? Aren't the people who yammer on about morality and ethics usually the very ones who prove to be the worst kind of hypocrites?”
A:"I am not a wise man, nor, to feed your spite, shall I ever be. So require from me not that I should be equal to the best, but that I should be better than the wicked. It is enough for me if every day I reduce the number of my vices and recognize my mistakes.... I have not attained to perfect health, nor indeed shall I attain it; I contrive to alleviate my gout rather than to cure, content if it comes more rarely and gives less pain. It is of virtue, not of myself, that I am speaking, and my quarrel is against all vices, more especially against my own."

-Lucius Annaeus Seneca, circa 58 AD, De Vita Beata (On the Happy Life)

This is a slippery business. Moralists are notoriously easy targets. And when they fall, which they do with dismaying frequency, they do it with such graceless, comic clamor, usually tripping over one of their own precepts like a loose skate at the top of the stairs and hurtling downward, out of control, hitting every newel post and finial on their way to the bottom. But it is a mistake to nitpick the lives of these famous old moral philosophers, who, like any of us, had their share of character flaws and personal failings. In ancient philosophy, the sage—the philosopher who had attained perfect virtue and wisdom—was an aspirational, even semi-mythical figure. For the rest of us, progress in the philosophical life was understood to be incremental and imperfect—a vital pursuit to be sure, but one fraught with difficulties and dismaying setbacks. Try as we might, none of us fully lives up to his highest aspirations. In that spirit, we should resist the temptation to dismiss the ideas of these old thinkers simply because the whole of their lives didn't comport with their philosophies. The charge of hypocrisy can also be a convenient dodge, a too-easy deflection, saving us the trouble of giving their often-uncomfortable ideas a fair hearing.

Seneca had it right: the discussion is not about him, it's about virtue—about the attempt, at least, to become better versions of ourselves. And if we can't even discuss the possibility of living virtuously, where does that leave us? If we're reluctant to envision and describe the goal we're aiming at, how can we ever hope to hit the target? Wouldn't it be wiser, safer, certainly easier, to avoid entirely any talk of goals, aims, or virtues? Of course not. There are worse fates than being accused of hypocrisy—for example, facing life with no hope of ever becoming a better person than I am right now. We are none of us sages, but we aim to stay on the path and improve, understanding the philosophical life as an orientation and a commitment, not an accomplishment. No, the question is not how well the moralizing philosophers lived out their own maxims. The question is whether their ideas about the pursuit of virtue and wisdom make sense to us. If they do, our business then is simply to do our best to put those ideas to good use.