Last week I ended my tirade against ABC Classic FM by intimating that I found their championing of bad music was part of a wider pattern in our society in shutting ourselves off to real living.
Another symptom of this is the lack of virtue in our society. Virtue, in the sense I am using it here, must not be confused with the Christian concept of virtue, which is adherence to Christian moral principles. The problem with these that the way they are usually framed means that virtue in the Christian sense is often seen as simply avoidance of certain things (‘staying away from strong drink and bad women’ as they used to say in non-conformist circles), and this easily transfers into Christian-based campaigns to stop other people (most of whom are not Christian) doing things that Christians find ‘offensive’. There is also a lack of active virtues in Christianity, because, as I have argued already Christianity is focussed on the next world, not this, and so it can’t be very interested in the immediate ecological concerns that people have at the moment, and it fails to condemn, even in its own terms, the enormous immoralities going on at the moment in the world of finance and government.
However, most non-Christian societies have had a useful concept of akin to the sense of virtue that I am talking about. For example mana (Polynesia), de (China, as in the Dao De Ching), baraka (Arabic), ‘divine possession’ (Homeric Greek, Iron-age Irish, classical Hindu), and ‘medicine’ (Native North American). And of course this concept is related to the well-known phenomenon of shamanism in the traditional cultures of the many of the world’s peoples.
All these concepts are united in the idea of there being a kind of order of existence into which the person exercising virtue taps in order to complete their tasks. This is most clearly seen in the Dao De Ching, where, a section on ‘the Way’ is followed by a section on the practical application of knowledge of the Way, De or ‘Virtue’.
Virtue is the capacity to carry out extraordinary actions. Its characteristics are:
- sure capacity
- knowledge (but not conventional knowledge, one of the most marked features of virtue is its ability to discard conventional knowledge and embrace new, but requisite knowledge)
- influence and suasion, so that its capacity can be seen as extraordinary, even by people who do not have virtue
Examples of extraordinary actions permitted by virtue are: feats of physical prowess, acts of heroism, or extreme persistence in some noble end, artistic creativity, handicrafts and artisanship, inspired political leadership or statecraft, and so forth.
Virtue is not a state that can be continuously inhabited, but it sheds a lustre over the life of the person who is, at times, virtuous, and those around them.
Modern life fatally erodes virtue by erecting rigid career paths and organised and well-defined bodies of knowledge which govern all aspects of life, and which do not allow unorthodox or unauthorised exercise of independent action. Modern life is also cut off from the fount of all useful knowledge, namely the daily life of the natural world, and simple, natural lives lead close to nature.
What disappears in modernity is not the occasional act of heroism or prowess, but the quieter aspects of virtue, the calm activity of creativity, the wise channels of inspired leadership, which are supplanted by authorised official arts and literature and a democratically elected rogues’ gallery, respectively.
The other difficult that virtue has in modernity is that when it does occur it often cannot be seen as virtue, because the capacity to recognise it in others is eroded by modern life—instead it is usually seen as eccentricity.
The really vital function of virtue in previous ages was to maintain personal health, mental and physical. In the antiseptic world of modernity too many people are kept artificially alive without virtue, but their existence is suboptimal at best, and is not virtuous health.
Next week: Lack of good literature