The matter of Virtue – what it is, and how it may be able to help humans make sound decisions and live good, fulfilling lives, has been a central premise in religious and philosophical traditions for thousands of years.
As was noted yesterday, much of our modern world has been built on the elevation of rational, logical thought as being a foolproof guiding principle. By our great human gift of reasoning, the assumption goes, we can clearly distinguish between right and wrong, value and vice. Living a virtuous life is the rational choice, and the reasonable person is bound to automatically be a good person.
While it was, I believe, a step forward to discard the belief that humanity is intrinsically sinful, evil, cursed or “fallen,” the belief that sheer rationale alone will make us virtuous ignores the fact that for many people, their appetites, greed, and desires are not controlled by reason at all.
And furthermore, history is riddled with the sorry results of people completely ignoring logic and objective evidence, and acting against their own best interests. From going to war under dubious circumstances to the women who rallied around Phyllis Schlafly and defeated the Equal Rights Amendment, such behavior is all too common. In all fairness, of course, such behaviors are often (but not always) the consequence of being manipulated as pawns in some grander strategy, by forces we do not always fully comprehend.
As Matthew Pianalto writes in Philosophy Now, “The Greeks recognized that it takes more than a sound argument to get people to do the right thing. People need to be trained to desire and be motivated by the right kinds of things, beginning in childhood.
“Aristotle’s basic insight regarding moral education is that people don’t learn how to live virtuously in a classroom or a weekend seminar, because virtue requires not good lecture notes, but practice. Good arguments might be necessary for justifying our actions or for understanding why our actions are right, but they are certainly not sufficient to transform us into moral people.”
If you have ever tried to use logic and argument with a usually reasonable nine year old about why he must not climb up on top of the roof, or with a loaded adult who is dead certain she can drive just fine, you know all about this.
So what, exactly, would the ancient Greeks, and other ancestors suggest, in order to undersand and to live a virtuous life?
Stay tuned for more tomorrow.