The Battleground of Virtue
Updated: Jan 31, 2020
I expect that there are changes coming to our world and society, some of them difficult ones – not just those we will make deliberately, but those that will be forced on us by resource depletion, climate change, and the social unrest those will occasion. Of course there will be pleasant aspects of the move to sane living, as we simplify our lives now and anticipate a more balanced life in the future. However, I can’t ignore the challenges of the next few decades and centuries. We’ve already seen the beginnings of them, and we’ll see more: large migrations of displaced peoples, battles over increasingly scarce resources, political unrest caused by inequalities, hateful philosophies being developed as an antidote to fear, and many more that you could name. In addition to these predictable difficulties awaiting us, there are the random possibilities, too, such as worldwide epidemics and natural disasters.
There’s no way to ignore the fact that our future promises struggle, however it unfolds. It’s wise to expect and plan for these struggles, through developing appropriate technologies and creating strong communities, for example. But the foundation of every successful approach to future challenge is not a thing or a system, but an idea, a philosophy or worldview. There is a way of thinking that expects and prepares for future challenge. It’s a philosophy most people no longer subscribe to because they have been spoiled by the unprecedented wealth and leisure of Western society in the last two hundred years. This philosophy could best be expressed in this sentence: Life is not the playground of whim but the battleground of virtue.
This idea was held by many in ancient times in the West. The Stoics were the group that made it most overt and systematic, but the idea that the purpose of life was to develop virtue was an underlying assumption in most ancient belief systems. In the case of pagan philosophers, virtue was a reward in itself; a life spent growing in virtue brought honor and peace to the person living it and harmony to the surrounding society. Early Christian thinkers had no difficulty incorporating that same idea into their theology; for them the growth of virtue was a part of theosis, or the process of becoming like God. Unlike the pagans, the Christians believed they had supernatural help in the process, but still everyone accepted the same assumption: life is hard and suffering is inevitable; the wise person prepares for suffering; and the best preparation for suffering is the development of virtue.
I’ve mentioned only the West so far, but the ideas I’ve just outlined echo the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism and at least suggest aspects of Taoism and Confucian beliefs. People worldwide who have lived uncushioned by the wealth and technology of recent first-world society have generally reached the same conclusions about the necessity to face suffering.
So what were the virtues we were meant to develop, according to these other philosophies? They varied. Buddhists and Taoists sought peace and detachment. The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Germanic tribes emphasized respect, honor, and reputation, the Jews obedience to the Law, while the Christians focused on humility and charity. Everyone believed skill and fortitude were virtuous – in fact, the root of our word is the Latin virtus, which means, according to my Latin dictionary, excellence, worth, goodness, virtue, bravery and courage. (It also means manliness – you can see the vir as in virile – but we can allow woman some measure of virtue, too!) This definition encompasses much more than the meager chastity that the word virtue connotes today.
Unlike the cultures of the ancient world, our culture sees life as the playground of whim. It does not call people to train for suffering by developing virtue. Instead, we have increasingly frenetic calls to act like spoiled babies: go for all the gusto you can get, YOLO, I’m lovin’ it, have it your way, I did it my way, you deserve a break today, follow your heart, you’ve got to take care of yourself first, name it and claim it, there’s always room for Jello. No calls for self-denial, for asceticism, for sacrifice.
In fact, people nowadays have a visceral negative response to any call to self-denial, asceticism, and sacrifice. Try recommending them to people. I predict you’ll get one – or all – of several reactions: mockery, generally involving the words Puritan or Amish; scorn, invoking medieval religious extremes; or anger and defensiveness. Most people suspect that a call to training in virtue is an excuse to rob them of their rights to consumption, excess, and diversion.
But the consumption, excess, and diversion that people are pursuing so frantically are not making them happy. The ancients defined happiness less as a giddy feeling and more as a sense of balance and rightness, of living according to one’s nature without inner conflict. So the people who say they’re happy because they’ve got junk food, two walk-in closets full of clothes, and a wide-screen TV with a hundred cable channels aren’t in fact happy; they aren’t in balance and living according to their nature. They are rendering themselves unfit for their current lives and failing to prepare for inevitable future suffering. The effects are physical, such as obesity, an inability to handle temperature extremes, and the lack of practical life skills; they’re also emotional. A friend of mine who is a counselor says that anxiety and depression are rampant, for example. We are out of balance and not living according to our nature.
People are not spoiled babies through and through, though. I see signs that many people want the challenge of genuine virtue. The popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction, extreme sports, and survival challenges, even of team sports and marching band in school, the discipline of the military, or Tough Mudder competitions, all prove that some of us want to be pushed to be more excellent, worthy, good, virtuous, brave, and courageous. We may be dulled by the bread and circuses of our wealthy culture, but we dream of more and try to find it in obstacle courses and other constructed challenges. That’s not enough, but it’s something.
The training in virtue that will prepare us for the uncertain future is not complicated. It involves self-denial, not as a neurotic way to punish ourselves for some inchoate guilt, but as toughening. It involves fasting, physical training, and moderating the entertainments we allow ourselves. It involves living according to natural rhythms as far as we are able, sleeping when it’s dark and rising when it’s light. It involves learning skills and information rather than watching Netflix; getting rid of stuff we don’t really need; occasionally being alone and silent; standing up for what we know is right, even when it’s dangerous. It involves diving into the surf instead of staying on the shore squealing.
And if we do all those things and grow in virtue, what do we get out of it? Well, we get suffering. But we were going to get suffering anyway, since it is the way of the world. With virtue we can face suffering with self-respect and peace of mind, knowing that even if the world is capricious and cruel, we have met our challenges the best we could, and we have maintained our honor.
Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
From A.E. Housman’ s“Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff”