Virtues of War – Martial Virtues

Recap of Prior Homilies

This week I’ve selected readings that reflect the prompt for the first assignment of this course, a paper about the distinctive martial virtues, if there are any, and what constitutes a particularly American “good soldier.” We have covered classical and premodern accounts of virtues, beginning with Homer and what MacIntyre terms “Heroic societies,” whose virtues are basically competitive. To an Homeric audience, leaving Philoctetes alone on the island of Lemnos after he suffered moral pollution (in this case, the bite of a snake influenced by the anger of a god) was precisely in keeping with heroic values.

polsci-497-aristotle-001However, as we found in classical Athenian society, this same act prompted revision and augmentation of moral education, first by Sophocles in the form of his play on Philoctetes and then by Plato, in the form of a coherent and explicit list of the virtues. Aristotle built upon Plato’s list of four “cardinal” virtues and established the Doctrine of the Mean, in which a virtue is a noble average between a vicious deficiency of some state of character and its vicious excess. As far as I can tell, there is no limit to the number of virtues, but there are some limitations nonetheless. A moral virtue, or excellence of character, assumes some kind of good held in common by a polis, a community in which people in relationship pursue those goods which allow the whole to flourish. While happiness is the highest good, individual Aristotelian virtues name a kind of subordinate good that may be distinct to a polis.

virgilAt the twilight of the Roman Republic, the question of whether the virtues can sustain a polis that spanned an entire continent was living and uncertain. Cicero returned to Plato’s list of four, of wisdom (or prudence), justice, courage, and temperance, hoping that Roman values could survive the growing expanse of its territories. His dismal fate, however, may be a testimony against such a hope, as he was hunted down by the imperial powers and killed as an enemy of the state. Virgil, on the other hand, felt the warmth of the glowing affection of the same powers, and set out to solidify Roman moral (imperial?) imagination from narrative fragments. He chose a minor character from Homer, Aeneas, and strained him through the filter of the Romulus and Remus tale. His Aeneid was decidedly propagandistic, conceived deliberately as a rewrite of Roman cultural heritage, falsely claiming Greek and Homeric lineage. In fact, the Italian peninsula was settled not through Greece, but through the Balkans. Its foundation was not built upon twins reared by a she-wolf, but upon the expansionist ambition of an earlier Roman city-state against its Latin peers.

thomasThe virtues survived in ecclesiastical form as Rome fell in Late Antiquity when they were adopted by the growing Christian movement that expanded as the secular Roman state receded. The later Medieval forms known by Thomas Aquinas and Dante Alighieri may not have taken shape were it not for Christian interest in the early Middle Age. As Roman culture was disintegrating in the fourth century, a Christian ascetic known as Evagrius “The Solitary” wrote of eight ‘evil thoughts’ against which a pious individual must daily struggle, and which sounded a lot like classical vices. Just a few decades later, another ascetic, Prudentius, published Psychomachia, an epic poem that personified many of Evagrius’ evil thoughts in a battle against corresponding virtues. Prudentius’ poem and its seven virtues gained wide popular acclaim and formed the narrative backbone of the Chivalric Code as a kind of everyman’s spiritual battle against the vices (psychomachia translates as ‘soul war’). What is important to note with their lists is they regard the internal disposition of a person, not one’s context within community. The seven sins and virtues are not accounts per se, as they name no mean whatsoever and seem to have a primarily literary and metaphorical function, whereas embodied practicality is important for nearly all other accounts of virtue. Evagrius’ list became so popular that it was revised and augmented in the sixth century by Pope Gregory I, which he renamed “The Seven Deadly Sins.” In the High Middle Ages, Dante used the Gregorian list to describe “Seven Terraces of Purgatory,” the second in his Commedia trilogy, cementing its popularity for centuries to follow.

lindemannMacIntyre and most modern moral philosophers, including Lindemann, follow the Aristotelian school, in which individual virtues name one excellence of character among several, the sum of which makes one a “good” and fully functioning citizen. Virtues constitute socially embodied Characters, the moral representatives of their culture, and are transmitted via Narratives, which provide the historical memory of a culture as well as its moral backdrop. Lindemann agrees, calling Narratives a moral track record which commits communities (and its members) to certain values.

Martial Virtues

It is my claim that the military is just such a community; one which has characters, a narrative unity over time, and which embody or preserve certain values properly called “virtues.” I am aware, however, that some progressives might not like calling most, if any, military actions virtuous, but as a community the military, whose members are known generically as “soldiers” (with a lower case S), is by no means monolithic. To help us better situate the military, we should identify the goods which their virtues advance or preserve. So that we do not get overwhelmed, you will only be expected to remain within modern American culture, which I have further restricted to the 20th century and its armed conflicts, namely the world wars, Vietnam, and those fought in Iraq (by whatever name they’ve taken). We should also understand how the military self-narrates the goods it has in mind and how it internally recognizes those of its members it takes as exemplary.

The Congressional Medal of Honor is a good start; it is awarded across the various branches and is the highest award given to members of the military. You’ll notice three of the individuals featured in the next segment of this course are MOH recipients; York, Murphy, and Doss. It is telling that the MOH has not always required as a criteria that merit worthy actions must occur in battle, which suggests that American soldiering per se is not involved exclusively with battle. This is reflected in the formal function of the Army (at least), as it is enshrined by 10 U.S. Code § 3062, which only lists active belligerence in its fourth (of four) capacities. More specifically, it is a fact that not every soldier kills, which means that true essence of soldiering per se cannot just be about violence.

The character we might call “the good soldier” must truly and actually abide by expectations and ideals that preserve or advance real goods held in common by Americans and our union. “Good” is often manipulated, either to earn a buck or secure a vote, but we are concerned with goodness in truth, not just in talk. To get at goodness, however, we do have to wrestle with some badness that soldiering does, nonetheless often entail. I’ve assigned readings for today that, I hope, help us get close enough to the moral landscape to stop seeing black and white in order that we might begin seeing the many shades of grey.

aristotleAristotle and Plato are the first in the west to write about violence in war and its justice. We’ll ignore Plato for this course, but know that Aristotle does borrow from him (and I’m sure he in turn borrowed from predecessors as well). In Aristotle’s Politics, he calls war “an art of acquisition,” even comparing it to hunting. (Book I, 1256b, lines 23-26) A just war is one which is waged against “such of mankind as though designed by nature for subjection refuse to submit to it.” In other words, violence is good and proper if its aim is to force people to remain within their “natural” place of subjection. This ‘art’ extends to households, and would almost certainly have been leveraged against wives and slaves. He also has a very interesting line at the end of the ninth section of his Nichomachean Ethics, the same in which he discusses shame, where he observes

it is quite possible that the best soldiers may be not [truly brave] men but those who are less grave but have no other good; for these are ready to face danger, and they sell their life [the greatest good] for trifling gains

Interesting… Economic despair does not a good solider (usually) make.

ciceroCicero has more discussion of war and justice in the first book of his De Officiis, or On Duties. He gives a very loose list of criteria that provide for calling a war just, including

  • “The only excuse… for going to war is that we may live in peace unharmed”
  • “an official demand for satisfaction has been submitted or warning has been given and a formal declaration made”
  • “the man who is not legally a soldier has no right to be fighting the foe”
  • “any promise to the enemy” must be kept

Perhaps aware of the danger of false words and how empire can manipulate language, he includes a very important observation with particular relevance to this class, namely that “one must always consider the meaning and not the mere words,” for meaning can be discarded in favor of improper usage or even simply lost by the same means. He cites as an example the Latin word hostis, which once meant guest, but through a “long lapse of time” had come to mean “enemy,” not unlike the Greek word xenos which once meant the exact same but has come to mean “stranger.”


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