DEFINITIONS MATTER–‘Virtue’ Cannot Exist w/out Them

Published on December 23, 2014

by Jesse Fennig
Clash Daily Contributor

As far back as Plato, one of the vital questions in the discussion of “virtue” is the question of definition. Who decides what is virtuous? In the West, it started with the Greek conceptions of civic duty, continued on through the Roman concept of the ideal citizen, and came to a new definition in the teachings of Paul, where the quintessentially Hebrew concern for the suffering of others, the Greek idea of arete and the new self-sacrificing ethos of the early Christian Church were all bound up in a spectacular new vision of virtue. This vision has withstood the test of time, (although not in an unbroken chain – the light of arete has waxed and waned throughout history) and has brought about a great deal of improvement in the human condition.

Leaving aside for the moment the theological implications of Paul’s vision of virtue, here is the core of it all — it is possible to simply be a good citizen. What other traditions teach is a set of rules an individual must obey to fit into society. What the Western tradition teaches is how to be a more personally responsible member of society.

This is the difference between someone playing poker on a computer, using calculators and spreadsheets to determine ideal plays, and a truly skilled player, relying on a honed instinct. The skilled player may make more mistakes in the beginning of his career, but the play will eventually be instinctual, and more importantly, flexible. Our perfect rules player, with his spreadsheets and odds calculations, can only function in a single, specific circumstance. The skilled player can sit at any poker table, and he still has his skills with him.

Arete is properly developed in a whole life experience, rather than merely in the home or schools, as some have suggested. When developed intentionally and carefully, arete creates a person for whom the moral choice comes as naturally as breathing. It creates someone who does not need to rely on a set of “Thou shalt nots” or “thou shalts”, but instead has the proper choice in the bone. The aretaic citizen develops through consistent application of principles until they are ingrained in the bone.

Now, this all assumes a common picture of arete, and one that is both teachable and productive. What makes the picture presented above better than the picture of virtue presented in modern society? You know the one — personal offense is the highest sin, and self-gratification the ultimate goal of humanity… It’s quite simple, actually — it grants a standard. When offense is the standard, it permits anyone to view anyone else as the bad guy. Since any person may declare that any act or word is offensive, they can immediately become the hero in their own mind. The accusation of “you’re being mean” takes on moral value. Note that I am not defending unkindness, which has no part in arete, but when there is no standard the simple accusation of unkindness is all that is required for someone to claim moral superiority for themselves.

You’ll note that I’ve avoided stating any specific standard of arete, beyond the rather nebulous “good citizen”. This is quite deliberate. The real terror of the modern age is the denial that there can be any standard of arete. Someone who has a different standard of arete is someone with whom I can argue, discuss, and perhaps come to an agreement (or at least a cordial disagreement) with. Someone who denies any standard of arete save the personal, immediate, and amorphous concept of “tolerance” is someone who is willing to walk over anyone else in the furtherance of their own ideas.

If we can call any act or word that we don’t like “intolerant”, it becomes a matter of who gets offended first. Therefore when we enforce tolerance, we enforce the tyranny of the loudest. Sincerity becomes the yardstick of truth, making the concept of a sincerely mistaken individual meaningless.


jesse fenigJesse Fennig is a thirty-something who spent his childhood in Africa, his youth in Ohio, and has not yet spent his adulthood, so is unwilling to commit to a statement about it. He spends altogether too much time thinking about the “whys” of modern society, and a lot of energy writing about them. His collected writings (such as they are) may be found at questionsforstrangers.word When not expressing sweeping opinions on the failings of society, he restores antique woodworking tools. He’s better at fixing them than using them.