November 28, 2004



It is not possible to improve either our personal lives or our society apart from acquiring virtue. We are reluctant to do this, however, because we believe that our sole moral responsibility is to eliminate vice, which we think we can accomplish with a minimum of effort. Yet we lull ourselves into a dangerous moral complacency when we assume that vice is no more formidable a foe than a draft of cold air that we can keep out by slamming the door in its face. It is equally perilous to maintain that slogans are sufficiently powerful to keep the devil at bay. Just saying “no” to drugs, racism, prejudice, and all forms of sexual aggression does not transform them into gentle lambs that will obediently go away even if our “no” does mean “no”. Vices therefore invade and inhabit our lives. And while we fail to discern their lingering presence, we do remain outraged by crime. Yet crime is nothing less than the unseemly dividend that vice had always promised.

Saying “no” to vice and voicing indignation at crime logically presupposes the presence in us of positive and protecting virtues. But we often take these virtues for granted even when we have done nothing to understand, acquire, or develop them. Trying to become virtuous merely by excluding vice, however, is as unrealistic as trying to cultivate roses solely by eliminating weeds. After clearing the garden of weeds, one must still plant seeds or cuttings and nurture their growth; otherwise, the weeds simply return. The best way to exclude vices is to crowd them out with the presence of strong virtue. If we oppose crime, we must oppose vice, and if we oppose vice, we must promote virtue. Clifton Fadiman's maxim is worth repeating: “The formula for Utopia on earth remains always the same: to make a necessity of virtue.”

Where strong virtues are lacking, the vices that rush in to fill the void often assume the mask of virtue. Dorothy Sayers has her own list of such counterfeit virtues, which she calls the “Seven Deadly Virtues:. They are: Respectability, Childishness, Mental Timidity, Dullness, Sentimentality, Censoriousness, and Depression of Spirits. Sayers is mindful of how easy it has been for human beings throughout the ages to pervert the seven foundational virtues into seven hapless imitations. The seven virtues that are the cornerstone of the moral life consist of three theological virtues — Faith, Hope, and Love — along with the four cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. The first three, sometimes called “supernatural virtues”, are infused at baptism and correspond to the life of grace; while the cardinal virtues, although not entirely removed from sources of grace, are their more naturalistic counterparts. The theological virtues give us a focus that transcends us without excluding us. In this way they are the perfect antidotes to self-centeredness and its consequent vice, pride. The cardinal virtues, sometimes called “the Human Virtues”, give us a focus within ourselves that does not exclude others — a self-mastery for the purpose of self-giving.

Folk wonder why the religious Right fights so hard against rationalist/materialist/secularist philosophies like Marxism, Darwinism, Libertarianism, etc.--it is because they are incapable of providing a foundation, indeed work to undermine the existing one, for such essentially other-directed virtue.

Light sources - Paris, Washington, London: departure points for the modern world: a review of The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments by Gertrude Himmelfarb (Jonathan Clark, Tiles Literary Supplement)

Postmodernists dislike grand narratives; and here is a grand modernist narrative indeed, wearing its wide learning with a deceptive grace. For Gertrude Himmelfarb, a distinguished American historian of Victorian Britain, this book is an attempt to "reclaim the Enlightenment. . . from postmodernists who deny its existence and historians who belittle or disparage it". It seeks to do this by reinterpreting the Enlightenment in Britain, America and France to create a scenario for Western history.

The Enlightenment begins the book in the singular but soon divides into three national examples, linked because "the three Enlightenments ushered in modernity", a modernity of which the French Revolution was "one of the most dramatic events". Whatever the claims of the postmodernists, for Himmelfarb the achievements of the people she writes about are still current: "We are, in fact, still floundering in the verities and fallacies, the assumptions and convictions, about human nature, society, and the polity that exercised the British moral philosophers, the French philosophes, and the American Founders". To establish this scheme, the French must be disabused of the idea that they alone had an Enlightenment. The "British" had it first, handed it to colonial Americans (Henry Steele Commager's The Empire of Reason: How Europeans Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment lurks in the footnotes), but later lost it. Recent Scots claims to have had an Enlightenment while England did not are gently deflected: the Scottish Enlightenment "was not as parochially or exclusively Scottish as might be thought".

To bring the British Enlightenment "center stage" is "to redefine the very idea of Enlightenment", for in Britain, virtue (especially compassion, benevolence and sympathy) rather than reason topped society's list of ideals. This vindicates Britain's unrevolutionary track record from the charge of being "a species of counter-Enlightenment"; in turn, it allows Himmelfarb to rescue 1776 from being "a prelude to or a minor version of" 1789, and to make the American Revolution a moderate, pragmatic, limited event. Indeed, the French Revolution, like the French Enlightenment, threatens to become the odd man out: clearly on the correct side in the clash between pre-modernity and modernity, but hinting at sensationally unacceptable causes. So the American Revolution comes last, not second, in her analysis. Colonial Americans drew the right lesson from Britain; the French Revolutionaries failed to do so.

Sadly, as the Brits lost their faith they too turned inward and elevated self above virtue.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 28, 2004 7:01 AM
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