has virtue gone out of fashion?

I’m in the process of reading this book about Reverence. The author is not a great writer so it’s not quite as quotable as, say, Emerson, but it’s got me thinking about all sorts of things. For one, had I/have we lost our ability to feel reverence appropriately for the things in our world that deserve them? Intriguing, and I’m interested in hearing what he has to say.

I am also interested by the way this book speaks frankly of virtue. It’s not a concept you hear discussed often in modern society. I mean, I grew up hearing lots of talk about being a good and righteous person who avoids sin in the context of church. And you come across virtue when reading Greek philosophers for that one philosophy class you took in undergrad. But, other than that…nothing. Which brings me to the question: has virtue gone out of fashion?

Has our (post(post))modern society completely abandoned this idea of being a “good person”? There’s this liberal, intellectual idea of a decent human being, such as you see exemplified in the talks presented at TED.com. This concept of a good human being, however, seems to revolve more about the outward characteristics of a person: being productive in the labor force, participating in society & community, showing compassion to the less fortunate through volunteer work & donations, campaigning for justice & equality for all, being politically involved. And of course, there’s ethics – but ethics is only discussed in the context of work and career and the power that one may exercise in these fields. Can you act well in regards to all these and still not be a “good person”? I guess what I’m asking is: what can we define as a “good person”? Is it the inner spirit (which we can only guess at) or is it the outwards gestures (which can be mimicked)?

And as a follow up question, do we see people striving “to be better,” in the sense of being more good? In education, students struggle to increase their knowledge, to excel intellectually. In the work force, people push themselves to know what’s going on in their field, to be better than their coworkers, to excel professionally. In religion, devotées strive to meet the strict requirements of their faith, to excel spiritually/religiously. But if you don’t believe in a God or cannot accept the often-arbitrary and no-longer-current rules of a religion, how do you become a better person? What criteria do you use to determine whether you are a “good person” or just another shmuck?

The advent of psychology allowed us to blame others for our faults and sought only to make us functioning members of society. Modernism focused inwards to the sensual self and outwards to the destructive forces of an industrialized world, leaving the individual adrift in a frightening new world of easy genocide, the erotic prose of D.H. Lawrence, and the self-promoting philosophy of Nietzsche. Then postmodernism destroyed our belief in the constructions of our world and left us certain only that we couldn’t believe in anything. These movements were a constant trend in the direction inwards into the individual, away from values and morals and inwards towards self-gratifying behaviors and lifestyles, inwards towards sensuality and emotionalism.

I myself am a child of the educational system that taught us all these schools of thought. I attended one of the Seven Sisters and studied the literatures of France and Russia. Then I went on to get a professional degree in information sciences in order to make myself useful to society. I class myself right there in the midst of all these decent, educated, intelligent people I described above – I met those attributes I listed. And yet, here I am, much like the rest of my generation: lacking a standard (and feeling the lack of it) that will make us, in straining to reach it, better people.

What, then, is left the contemporary, educated, reasonably enlightened, politically aware individual? What kind of morality can s/he turn to and base his/her actions upon? Clearly, something is lacking. Our liberal, intellectual humanism[1] is not enough.


[1] Or, according to some secular humanists who believe in universal moral standards, perhaps it is? Need to look into this more.

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One Response to has virtue gone out of fashion?

  1. Pingback: not what, but how you believe » Thoughtful Pauses

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