A wonderful book which anyone who has ever wondered, ‘How ought I to live in order to be happy’ should read. I have, at least once! Oh yes, and read it also if you are interested in how our ancient ancestors thought about the most central questions of life and themselves and cultivated excellence of character before Christianity, a system of ethics that is once again flourishing in our world today. Accessible to everyone, philosophers and nonphilosophers alike.
I loved this book, it’s one I cheerfully recommend. I’m very happy today to be sharing an excerpt.
Overture to The Other Side of Virtue (O Books, 2008) by Brendan Myers
The story of Christian virtue begins with the story of Moses, the holy man who climbed the holy mountain to receive the Law. Like any system of ethics based on law, it was intended to separate right from wrong as clearly as possible. This is why most of them begin with ‘thou shall not’. Of course, the law forbids things that nearly everyone would agree do not belong in a civil society: thievery and murder, for instance. So on the face of it, there can be no objection. But we should be very cautious about taking up such a gift and accepting it without question. Such pre-packaged gifts are sometimes like the Trojan Horse. They often conceal all sorts…
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4 thoughts on “The Other Side of Virtue”
Hmmm. I love to believe that some (not all) ancient societies had it right, and Christianity has led us up the garden path, but really, it does all come down to obeying the rules of society and not stepping out of line. A woman had more freedom to express herself in Celtic Britain than in Ancient Greece or the Christian Middle Ages, but if she decided her true vocation in life was to be a goldsmith or shipwright, tough, it wasn’t going to happen. In every society you can think of, people have known their place and stuck to it. Some systems of rules and ethics were kinder and more humane than others, but if some lucky souls were able to find fulfillment following the rules, that’s what they were—lucky.
Hi Jane, The claim being made in virtue ethics books like this one is certainly not that ancient societies got it right. Aristotle, the most prominent ancient proponent of virtue ethics, thought slavery was grand and that women didn’t have the same virtues as men, and his sentiments were shared by almost everyone. Women in Greece had no rights. And you are right, an ancient Irish woman might be able to be a warrior but probably not something else, like a shipright. Societies are flawed and broken and never, ever live up to their theories about good and bad, right and wrong, honor or disgrace, and so on.
That’s an important point when discussing a theory of virtue rooted in such cultures which were as flawed as flourishing. A theory of virtue asks the question, how ought I to live? The choice to live with courage, honesty, generosity, and a sense of justice and so on is a choice about how to respond to the circumstances of life. Ancient people were restricted in functional roles and through social rules, we in our societies today aren’t different. Unless, in either case, you value following your own truth above what society says, that is a personal choice, again. Many life circumstances cannot be changed. Unlike a lot of rule based ethical theories in our times which prescribe principles and rules (Christian ethics is an example, but by far not the only one, there are secular examples as well), virtue ethics as a theory isn’t into the business of telling you what to do. The virtues are dispositions of character which you develop within yourself over time, in part through experience in living, in part from role models, learning from others what wisdom they might have. The thing is, you can live a virtuous life (choose with excellence your responses to life’s circumstances in a way that is wise and emotionally balanced) regardless of the historical and social conditions in which the theory was produced. In fact, there are many varieties of virtue ethics both based on ancient philosophy and developing now, ethics, like all ideals and ideas and ways to be, evolves. There are still new things to discover about how to live well, I know first hand, as I have done this myself, and am writing about it as my thesis. I would not be able to write about what I could not live, and expect to have a grasp on what I’m talking about. And that is part of why I find virtue ethics so meaningful. It’s not just an abstract theory about ideal people, it’s a dynamic ongoing conversation with life, so even when life really sucks, to put it bluntly, there is still the joy that you are aligned with the wisdom of your character. In terrible circumstances it isn’t possible really to have happiness based on positive feelings. But the happiness experienced in living well is, I think richer than any mere feeling. Youcan live with integrity, courage, honor and honesty, still be open to relating to others, be compassionate… that is a much more intricate whole experience kind of joy, it is what is meant by flourishing. External things going your way is wonderful, but you are the author of your responses to life, and that shapes you projects and goals, your values and priorities, what you accept and what you accept and then change, how ou live, basically. And that is what ancient people saw in life and described in a theory which they rarely completely lived themselves, which has gotten lost in our duty bound, law-based, rule-following, commanding prescriptive forms of morality which don’t have the best rapport with integral human freedom.
You don’t think that to a great extent our lives in a complex modern society are so far removed from the very simple way of life of ancient peoples that it’s almost impossible for us to imagine how they saw the world never mind to be able to emulate it? We are cynical where they were naive, we have certitudes where they had fairy stories. At an individual level it’s maybe possible to grasp the same ideas, but at a societal level, I find it impossible to fit hospitals, motorways, the internet, supermarkets, fridge freezers, industrial agriculture and abattoirs, into a positive, virtuous, ethical mindset.
Well, yes, I really do think we are not so different, fundamentally, from our ancient ancestors. I understand where you’re coming from, the particulars of our time would surely baffle, appall, sometimes terrify people who never grew up in a modern culture, even leave them in wonder. Actually, I think I’d have the same response being, say, a modern person dropped into Aristotle’s Athens. We wouldn’t know each other’s social customs, laws, traditions, we’d be strangers in a strange land. Many of us would have fierce, potentially brutal disagreements. I see the patterns of human life and human structures occur and reoccur, over and over, the details and expectations and rules and forms of government and political dealings and functional roles are extremely different, of course. But when you look into someone’s eyes, see who they really are, does all that detail matter? You’d understand each other, even if you disagreed. No matter the time period, we laugh, we live moments of profound joy, we fail, we take pride in what we achieve and make and stand behind, anyone who has had to bury their children not yet having left the world before them grieve terribly, we celebrate life’s wonders, we crave belonging, we so want to be loved, we’re terrified of rejection, abandonment and pain, we yearn to be acknowledged, hope to be respected, value friendships, are driven to protect those we care about, mourn the loss of our friends, cherish our partners, easily succumb to hurting others to get what we want, to survive, to compete, we have all had too much power at one time and been powerless at another, feared uncertainty, felt the adventure of the unknown, turned too soon from someone who hurt us, acted with compassion. We all are children, then grow up, then live to we are old, then die, if we are lucky. If not we will die certainly, somewhere along that continuum, but the pattern is the same for all, even if not all live it out to its completion. So yes, I really do think that our ancient ancestors are not that different from us. Many lived at a time where for instance violence was necessary to survive. We’ve got a huge advantage over that survival culture, we’ve made progress. Were they naÃ¯ve? I think, hardly. Most responded the best they could to the circumstances in and out of their control, just like we do. The circumstances are drastically different, our human condition is not. Our need to form communities, societies, cultures, families, that’s not different either. I don’t for a second think ancient people were somehow better than us for living in their time. Those times weren’t simpler, just different. I’m reminded of the saying, every generation believes the world can’t possibly go on and it could all fall apart. We’ve made great improvements in technology and in values and acceptance of our fellow human beings, but many of the problems in our societies today–extreme poverty, complacency, corporate greed, selfishness, consumerism, isolation, much more– would appear primative in the eyes of our ancestors. We’ve been human the whole time.
I totally agree with you, much of modern technology, modern consumerism, corporate power, damage to our environment, disfunctional institutions, have nothing to do with virtue. We can always do what we can to change the circumstances we’re in, when that’s possible. I think we should. It’s hard to fully develop virtues in an oppressive or prejudiced or marginalizing or abundantly materialistic society. Is that a reason to stop trying? I’ve never thought so, myself. Society itself might never be fully virtuous. That situation sounds too much a eutopia. But certainly it is better to raise our children to be kind and compassionate, courageous and honorable, just and benevolent, than to teach them the opposite? And surely it is better to live with as much integrity and authenticity that we can, rather than be swayed unreflectively by social and cultural functional roles and values and ways of doing things that have more of the vices about them than the good? If you asked yourself, how do I want to live in order to flourish as much as possible in a world that is, in many ways, out of control, I submit you very likely will quickly begin to think about your character, the truth within you, the kind of person you want to be in the world, the kind of values and goals you are passionate about having, and then you would be asking yourself the questions found in virtue ethics, realizing you could live well or badly, and at the very least, cultivating a sound character and wisdom within yourself is a good start toward the former and away from the latter. 🙂