virtue and vice

Odyssey (Book III)

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Timon of Athens: Generous or Intemperate?

It is tempting to view the eponymous main character of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens as a good man gone bad. Shakespeare seemingly presents Timon as a generous man who finds that others are not as generous as he when he, his resources exhausted from his spree of giving, finds himself in a time of need. As a result of the hardhearted behavior of his ostensible friends, from perspective, Timon turns his philanthropy into misanthropy, retreating into the wildness to nurse his newfound hatred of mankind. It is possible, however, to see the play, rather than as a movement from love to hatred or generosity to miserliness, instead as a commentary on two different but related types of intemperance.

Immediately upon entering the stage in the first scene of the play, Timon’s first actions are to begin giving away money to those around him. He hears that someone he knows has been imprisoned because of a debt he owes and, without another question, offer the money to pay for his release and to continue supporting him even after he has been released. “‘Tis not enough to help the feeble up, but to support him after,” claims Timon. Timon then turns to offer more money to help his servant marry the woman with whom he desires to build a household.

Each of these cases appears to be an act of charity performed by Timon out of kindness. Each of them is also, however, an example of intemperate dealings in money. The man whom Timon helps to pay his way out of prison is clearly a man who has not well managed his wealth and so cannot be expected to deal honestly with Timon’s money either. Similarly, the servant Lucilius to whom Timon provides the money to marry is almost certain to end up in debt once again by marrying a woman and beginning a family it is clearly beyond his means to support.

Timon’s intemperance continues into the second scene of the play as he hosts a sumptuous banquet for the men of Athens. The exorbitance of Timon’s banquet is proclaimed by the god Cupid himself, who announces to Timon that “the five best senses / Acknowledge thee their patron; and come freely / To gratulate thy plenteous bosom.”

It is this intemperance, rather than any sort of generosity, that presents a contrast with the sort of person Timon becomes in the second half of the play. After he is denied help by his friends once he himself falls into financial need, Timon leaves civilization behind, going to live a cave. There, he discovers a large reserve of gold which he provides to Alcibiades and two prostitutes with him to help them bring on the destruction of the city of Athens, proclaiming “I am Misanthropos, and hate mankind.”

Just as Timon’s seemingly generous behavior early in the play was an example of excess, so now is Timon’s reaction to having been slighted by those he believed were his friends. He turns from a philanthropism that lacked temperance to a misanthropism equally lacking in temperance. What has not changed, however, is that deeper aspect of Timon’s personality that has motivated both his love and his hatred, namely, his intemperance.

Ethics (Great Books Reading Project)

I have found when reading Aristotle with young people that his emphasis on virtue is one of the most difficult things for them to understand. Perhaps most difficult for them to fathom is the idea that virtue and happiness are intimately linked. They have in large part been so thoroughly trained in some form of “enlightened self-interest,” so to speak, that they are unable to comprehend the idea there is are eternal and immutable truths about goodness and about human nature. Happiness is most readily identified today with intense but momentary physical pleasures of various sorts.

This has perhaps been the understanding of happiness among the majority of the youth of any generation, including, no doubt, that of Aristotle. Yet, it is an understanding that is supposed to pass away with age and wisdom. The cult of youth which predominates in modern popular culture, however, prevents the notion from passing. Rather, the aging cling to it with a perverted tenacity that defies reason.

Aristotle is certainly a philosopher from whom the modern age has much to learn.

The passion to punish

But thus I counsel you, my friends: Mistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful. They are people of a low sort and stock; the hangman and the bloodhound look out of their faces. Mistrust all who talk much of their justice! Verily, their souls lack more than honey. And when they call themselves the good and the just, do not forget that they would be pharisees, if only they had — power.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part 2, “On the Tarantulas”

Book Review: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The anonymous fourteenth century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tells the story of a member of Arthur’s Round Table who is faced with certain death at the hands of an incredibly large and diabolical Green Knight. As the knights are celebrating the Feast of Christmas one New Year’s Day, the Green Knight enters the castle with a challenge: he will allow one of the knights to strike him with a battle axe, but the knight must allow himself to be struck with it by the Green Knight in return. After some hesitation, Gawain rises to the challenge. He takes up the axe and, with one strong swing, decapitates the Green Knight. The Green Knight, however, promptly picks up his head, mounts his horse, and rides way. Gawain, to keep his end of the bargain, must come to the Green Knight’s chapel on New Year’s Day the following year to receive his blow.

A year later, on his way to the Green Knight’s chapel, Gawain is taken in by “another” knight who lives in the woods near the chapel. The knight agrees to host him for the week from Christmas to New Year’s and, on New Year’s Day, to lead him to the Green Knight’s chapel. At the castle, however, Gawain undergoes a series of temptations from his host’s wife and plays a game of exchanging gifts with his host, all of which eventually leads Gawain to sin in an attempt to save his own life from the Green Knight.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight combines a great many elements that make for an outstanding story: there is an element of mystery and fear, an element of action and courage, an element of sex and love. Perhaps most importantly the story is a human one. It is not, as some may be tempted to believe, merely a story of chivalry. If virtue and sin are things that really do exist and so really apply in all ages and places, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as a story that is, at heart, about virtue and about sin, has a perennial quality about it. As a story of man (not justa) facing inevitable and ineluctable death, it is a story for and even about each of us. In his attempt to escape from death, Gawain falls into sin, demonstrating the truth of St. Paul’s words in Romans 5:12. The lesson being taught is not merely for the chivalrous knight of the fourteenth century; it is also for the man who desires to live a virtuous Christian life in the 21st century.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in a great story with an inexhaustible wealth of timeless wisdom to be derived from it.

Knights and Chivalry (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.7)

Medieval people used to say that there are three “orders,” or groups of people, in Christian society. There are, they said, “those who pray, those who work, and those who fight.” Most people, of course, were among “those who work.” The common people were all of the people who farmed, who built buildings, who made art, and did all of the other things necessary for any society to continue. The monks were “those who pray.” It was expected that they would help the rest of society by praying to God to protect them. “Those who fight” were called knights. It was the duty of knights to protect Christian kingdoms and villages from those who wanted to harm them.

Boys were chosen at a very young age to be knights, usually when they were babies. If a father wanted his son to become a knight someday, he would tell the child stories about other knights from a very young age and encourage his son to imitate the heroes of those stories. He would also teach the boy about good manners and courtesy as knights were expected to be very well-behaved. Most of the boy’s toys would be wooden swords and shields and other toy versions of things he would use as a knight.

Once the boy turned seven years old, his training as a knight began. He would be sent to a knight’s castle to be a page. As a page, the boy was expected to spend all of his time either learning or serving the other people in the castle. He was especially expected to serve the women of the castle. A page, for example, might be ordered to walk behind the lady of the castle, carrying the train of her dress, the part of the dress that would otherwise drag on the floor. A page might spent months doing this job in order to learn to treat women with respect. As a page, the boy would also study the great accomplishments of other knights and attend tournaments where knights displayed their skills by playing war games in front of crowds.

If the boy had done a good job as a page, he could be made a squire at the age of 14. As a squire, the boy dedicated more of his time to learning music, dancing, and other arts. He was also expected to perfect his etiquette by interacting with others in a courteous manner at all times. Squires also acted as assistants to knights. They carried the knights equipment around, helped the knights put their armor on, travelled with the knights, and even went into battle with them. In this way, the squire learned all about the how knights fought and the weapons they used to fight.

If the boy had done well as a squire, he would finally become a knight at about 21 years old. A great ceremony was held when a man became a knight. His armor would be placed on the altar of a church and he would stay awake all night in the church to guard it. In the morning, a worship service would be held in the church. After many prayers and blessings for the knight, he would at least kneel in front of a lord, a noble person who owned land, and would be knighted. The lord would swear to support the knight by paying for his equipment and a castle for him. The knight, in turn, pledged to serve the lord by protecting the lord’s lands from enemy invasions.

Once a man became a knight, he was expected to follow a strict code of honor called chivalry. The code of chivalry ordered that knights always observe the virtues. Knights were expected to be compassionate, temperate, diligent, and respectful. They were always to help those who were weaker than themselves and to obey those who had authority over them. The knights, “those who fight,” were expected by all people to keep Europe safe.

 

Review Questions

 1. What are the steps to becoming a knight?

2. What is chivalry?

Virtues or Values?

Central among the numerous problematic features of education in the United States today is the movement away from the idea of virtue and the embrace of the alternative but decadent notion of values. Although the difference between the two ideas may seem slight at first, the contrast becomes evident upon examination of the respective definitions of the terms. Value, on the one hand, implies an arbitrary and temporary emphasis upon a certain object or activity. The “value” of a dollar, for instance, has declined significantly over the last century. The “value” of gold, however, continues to climb. Value is the worth attributed to something by individuals or some consensus among a certain group. Virtue, on the other hand, refers to moral and ethical standards whose value never fluctuates. A virtue is as good in one place and time as it is in any other. Cowardice, for example, is never virtuous; in other words, cowardice is never the good, right, or fitting thing. Courage, on the other hand, is never not a virtue; it is, in short, always and forever the right thing in all situations in all places.

It can be seen from this contrast why the idea of virtue has been replaced by the notion of value by modern educators. The notion of value fits into the prevalent idea that morals are culturally contingent, that, contrary to logic, a thing can be good in one place and not in another. The very existence of virtue, on the other hand, implies two further theses against which the modern mind rebels. The first implied thesis is that human nature is immutable, meaning that it does not change over time nor from culture to culture. There are, therefore, certain ways of “being human” which conform more closely than others to human nature and are more fitting and right. These necessarily are also more conducive to human happiness and development. The second thesis, even more troubling for the modern mind, is that if virtue does indeed exist there must necessarily be an eternal, transcendent, and objective standard which forms the foundation for virtue and, of course, an eternal, transcendent Standard-Giver beyond this. If virtue is everywhere and always good, good is not merely a matter of taste but a matter of the Good, in what might be called the Platonic sense.

Throughout most of the history of the philosophy of education, the constantly emphasis by wise thinkers has been about the formation of the young through virtue. Early Christian theories of education in particular emphasized the aspect of virtue in arguing for the proper Christian stance toward pre-Christian literature. In his treatise addressed “To Young Men, on How They Might Derive Profit from Pagan Literature,” St. Basil the Great launched an extensive argument that the primary means by which Christian “young men” could “derive profit from pagan literature” is in drawing from those writings their lessons in virtue. “Since it is through virtue that we must enter upon this life of ours,” he says, “and since much has been uttered in praise of virtue by poets, much by historians, and much more still by philosophers, we ought especially to apply ourselves to such literature.” Basil’s near-contemporary St. John Chrysostom, wrote an “Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children” in which he exhorts parents first and foremost to “exercise this child’s soul in virtue.” In his “Letter to Laeta,” St. Jerome exhorts a young mother to care for her daughter Paula by centering her education from a young age in exhortations to and exhibitions of virtuous behavior.

One of the most famous examples of liberal learning among the Church Fathers, St. Augustine of Hippo, presents some special insight for the current situation of modern education. In his Confessions, Augustine wonders “what did it profit me, that all the books I could procure of the so-called liberal arts, I, the vile slave of affections, read by myself, and understood?” The rhetorical question here put has great implications for the modern movement away from teaching virtue in education. Although Augustine was extraordinarily well-educated, he found himself unable to discern what whether what he read “therein was true or certain.” He was unable to differentiate truth from falsehood because his own education lacked in the instillment of virtue. He, like so many children being educated in American schools today, was filled with interesting facts but unable to establish the meaning of these facts for his life. He, like them, was unable to find truth because the nature of the education he had received denied the very existence of truth in the proper and complete sense. Augustine was able to recover from the trauma of his education and discover truth later. How many American schoolchildren today will be able to do the same?