Virtues of War – Rome

Cicero’s Cardinal Virtues

Marcus Tullius Cicero was born into a wealthy family in the last century before the common era, or BCE. BC and AD have fallen from favor, as “before Christ” and anño domini” (year of our Lord) reflects a Christo-centric bias that carries with it memories of the crusades and the violent, coercive nature of Medieval Christendom. We might talk more about that later.

Cicero is credited with bringing Greek philosophy to Rome, and was an impressively talented writer and philosopher, introducing new Latin words to help bridge the intellectual gap between Athens and the Italian peninsula.

Unlike Aristotle, Cicero claims only four virtues: temperance, wisdom, courage, and justice. He and later moral philosophers calls these four virtues “cardinal,” from the Latin cardo, or hinge, as in the good life hinges upon them. In his De Officiis, or The Offices (Book I, Section 5), he claims that

all that is morally right arises from four sources: it is concerned either (1) with the full perception and intelligent development of the true; or (2) with the conservation of organized society, with rendering to every man his due, and with the faithful discharge of obligations assumed; or (3) with the greatness and strength of a noble and invincible spirit; or (4) with the orderliness and moderation of everything that is said and done.

Although Cicero was more known for being an orator, and he himself felt his most significant accomplishment was his time as a politician, he was first and foremost a lawyer. Amazingly, a record of his first major case is still extant, which was a defense of an alleged murderer. It was a bold move, as Cicero diverted the accusations toward a high ranking Roman military official favored by then-dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla. He had to play his hand very carefully to avoid being placed on the proscriptions, a list of people deemed enemies of the state who were assassinated without trial or due process, which served a similar function as the “Disposition Matrix” does in our own day.

The defendant was a young farmer, Roscius, who was accused of killing his father because he had supposedly been disinherited from the family estate. The disinheritance was never proven, so the case turned on Roscius’ motives (or lack thereof). Cicero leveraged some ill placed remarks by the prosecution about the farmer’s personality to his advantage to make the case about character types, about what kind of man could or would do something as disturbing for Romans as was patricide.

Luckily for Roscius, “extreme humility forms part of the positive stereotype of the young rustic.”  (Vasaly, 162) Note the narrative element of the defense; Young Rustic is made into a stereotype, one with positive, rather than negative, moral connotations. The ignorant young country bumpkin was acquitted in 80 BCE, shortly before Cicero took leave of Rome in a conveniently strategic move that may have helped keep him alive after indirectly marring the reputation of the dictator. It was after this vacation that Cicero became interested in philosophy and began the political and philosophical career for which he is much more known.

Unfortunately, Cicero’s luck turned when Mark Antony came to power with Octavian and Lepidus, when he found himself on the Disposition Matrix for having publicly opposed the transition from Republic to Empire in a series of 14 highly publicized denunciations he called Philippics. Octavian opposed putting his name on the proscriptions, but Mark Antony prevailed. Cicero’s popularity made him the most notable target, but also made him the hardest to locate because ‘rustics’ young and old simply failed to recall having seen him. He was discovered not far from the coast in December, 43 BCE, by two soldiers. Even his last breath was a rhetorical flourish; “accede ueterane, et si hoc saltim potes recte facere, incide ceruicem.” (Seneca the Elder, Suasoriae VI.18) Some translations play on the double meaning of proper, rendering it as “There is nothing proper about what you are about to do, but at least do it properly.” The cutting words were to remind them what they came to do was not good, but to do it well, which was to kill him, and quickly. A more literal translation preserves his cutting wit, if not the double entendre; “Come on, vets, it’s the least you can do to cut my neck.”

Cicero’s legal defense of Roscius was entirely dependent upon what kind of person Roscius was, and the narratively determined assumption that such a type of man was totally incapable of murder. This was possible because of the kind of polis Rome imagined they inherited and which the poet Virgil helped solidify, the idea that “The early Roman state was a small agricultural community, and few cultures have guarded the memory of their simple beginnings as fiercely as did Rome.” (Vasaly, 162)

Virgil’s Aeneid

Before we get to Rome’s narrative self-identity, we owe a quick glance back at Homer and the moral backdrop he endowed to Western civilization. You’ll recall our short discussion of Neoptolemus, Achilles son, orphaned by unyielding rage and adopted by self-interested deception. When we last saw him, bright eyed and bushy tailed, he had been deceived by Odysseus into deceiving Philoctetes, who had been abandoned by his mates to the isle of Lemnos. The bow and arrows he possessed, a gift from stricken Herakles for being the only person willing to put an afflicted demigod out of his misery, were needed to win the war over a woman. Neoptolemus, which means “new war,” was infected by moral pollution when he realized Odysseus’ duplicity and nonetheless becomes a knowing accomplice. The three of them sail off to Illium, Troy’s embattled capital city; one his honor long-lost, another whose honor is quickly receding, and one whose honor will soon be restored. With the magical bow of Herakles now secured by the Greek fleet, Trojan fates are sealed.

Homer does not tell us how Troy falls, for ‘the song of Ilium’ ends with Priam, the King of Troy, crossing no man’s land to retrieve his son’s desecrated corpse from its murderer. When he arrives at Achilles’ camp, the king begs for closure in no uncertain terms; “I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before — I put my lips to the hands of the man who killed my son.” (Fagles, 605) Homer ends his epic poem with tense reconciliation, as Priam dines with his son’s killer, who for the first time is described as “goodly” and whom Homer describes “was like the gods to look upon.” Rage is quenched, or at least is transferred, for the war is not over, and moral pollution yet spreads.

As for the end of the war, Homer does not give us much detail. The well-known tale of the wooden horse is mentioned only in passing in The Odyssey, in which “all our best encamped, armed with bloody death for Troy,” (Fagles, 133) “where the prime of Argive power lay in wait with death and slaughter.” (Fagles, 208) The boastfulness evinced by the prose is indicative of the author of such a deceptive ploy, for none could have devised such a cunning (and dishonorable?) strategy than the lying Odysseus…

Virgil picks up where Homer left off, telling us how the wooden horse effected the downfall of Troy. A Trojan seer, Laocoön, explicitly cites Odysseus’ reputation and (correctly) guesses as to the trustworthiness of the Greek ‘gift.’ The prophet is silenced by the gods, and the Trojans wheel in their own demise. It is not clear who exactly hides within the horse itself, for participants were chosen by lot. As soon as night falls, the hidden soldiers open Troy’s gates to the Greeks and the massacre begins. Achilles’ young son, fresh from his deceit of good Philoctetes, is quick to take center stage;

[Read Fagles, p.91]

Notice the place that names play for Virgil, a Roman poet writing what he knew would be the definitive Roman creation myth. At first referred as Pyrrhus, for the color of his hair, it is a nickname we might render as ‘redhead,’ or ‘ginger;’ not a name of honor or distinction. Notice he throws it off in the heat of his own inherited fury, as he brazenly kills the man to whom his own father granted clemency. Neoptolemus has begun a new war, one within his own soul, and the narrative fragments that survive about him outside Homer and Virgil do not paint him as anything but dishonorable. The exception to that rule is Sophocles’ Philoctetes

But I digress.

The –id suffix of Aeneid, like The Iliad, indicates the subject of Virgil’s own epic poem; the song of Aeneas. Say it with me; ah-Nee-us. Not anas. As with Greek mythology, Aeneas was well known, but through narrative fragments; bits from Homer, others from elsewhere. Most, if not all, of the characters from Homer eventually make up a large part of the master narrative/s of the Roman world. Virgil picks up on these fragments and endeavors to unify them, to give Aeneas a coherent and linear identity. He does so, however, with an explicit purpose in mind, a predetermined motive, to distribute throughout the Roman imagination. The conscious desire to propagate one’s work is one we should keep in mind as we discuss the motives for propagating other stories, and it may be noted that many soldiers do not wish for their stories to be dispersed.

To hint at why this is important, I turn once again to etymology, the science of determining the origins of words. If I was not clear before, let me be so now; dictionary definitions contain the reigning use of words, which is subjective. Etymology, on the other hand, describes the historically situated meaning of words, which is slightly more objective. Take “exploitation,” for example. Earlier, we defined exploitation as the unjust (morally wrong) transfer of the benefit of one’s work to someone else. But the word is originally morally positive; “The action or fact of deriving benefit from something by making full or good use of it.” It only become negatively loaded in the last couple of centuries. The propagation of the recent, negative usage has usurped the objective, historically situated actual meaning.

Virgil set about knowingly to create the story of how Rome began. Stories are central to social group identity, as Lindemann has earlier established. This is woven throughout the character of Aeneas, and it begins with Homer. In Book Twenty, Aeneas attempts to face Achilles in battle, beginning his address “Here’s my story, Achilles,” before being tossed back by Poseidon to save him from certain death. It is from the loins of Aeneas that Rome springs, as the song Virgil composes has him flee flaming Ilium as a refugee, with his father upon his shoulders and his homeland aflame at his back.

Romulus and Remus, mythic founders of Rome, are hinted at in Book Six of The Aeneid, but it should be noted that they are the products of other earlier writers, like Quintus Fabius Pictor, for example, from a century and a half before Virgil. If true, then we may need to ask about Virgil’s reasons for writing a work he intended to propagate, with the full support of Octavian, one of the emperors. If Lindemann is right, that master narratives in part act to justify what we do, then is it not significant that Virgil re-writes (or at least re-imagines) Rome’s genesis right at the twilight of the Republic, as Rome becomes ruled by a succession of dictators?

Finally, what effect might the Aeneid have on Roman readers and hearers (apart from Virgil’s intent)? Do they see themselves as the descendants of the losers of the greatest war the world had known, refugees from a wasted, war-torn land? Or is the Trojan war and its wooden horse more like September 11th, an event which effectively inspires the dictum “never again;” thereby forever memorializing the Greeks, and the rest of the provinces at Rome’s borders, as treacherous terrorizers who can Never Again be trusted?


Questions for Discussion

  • Is Virgil using narrative fragments to challenge the status quo, or to defend it?
  • If counterstories are the work of marginalized social groups to revise and augment master narratives to restore their moral dignity, and master narratives are technically benign, then what do we call stories produced by cultural elites which reinforce master narratives and justify the actions or character of those in power?

What do you think? Sound off in the comments below!

Virtues of War – Aristotle

Before we get to Aristotle, it is worth pointing out how MacIntrye sees the movement from the virtues as they were understood by heroic social values of Homer to Athenian democratic values that give rise to Aristotle’s account. He cites the poet Sophocles’ play Philoctetes as representative of Greek culture reassessing the dominant narratives and their assumed meaning.

philoctetesPhiloctetes was a Greek warrior who possessed the bow and arrows of Herakles, a weapon incapable of missing its mark. Herakles gave it to Philoctetes for being the only person willing to light the funeral pyre the demigod built as he writhed in pain from a cursed shirt he could not remove. We’ll read about Herakles, who you may know as Hercules, later in the semester.

But on the voyage to Troy, Philoctetes suffers a snakebite on his foot. As the wound festers, it begins to smell, and it is clear to his companions that Philoctetes is polluted and has become a threat to everyone’s safety. MacIntyre has AWH Adkins to thank for differentiating between Homeric virtues as competitive, and Athenian virtues, which are cooperative. (After Virtue, 133 &139) For heroic social norms, the Greeks quarantining their friend by leaving him on the island of Lemnos may have been morally acceptable. But to Sophocles, several centuries later, they have abandoned him. To Homer and his hearers, Philoctetes has been treated as he should, even if by no fault of his own. But to Sophocles and his audience, the Greeks have violated the bonds of friendship and have acted profoundly unjustly.

In Sophocles’ play, Odysseus sends Achilles’ son Neoptolemus to acquire the bow, a young man who never knew his father. The pollution is not within the man wounded in action, but in the man he should have been able to trust as a “battle buddy.” Philoctetes receives them as xenoi, guests, which heightens the moral tension for Athenian audiences. Guilt originates with Odysseus, who persuades the celebrated recruit, whose name means “new war”;

polsci-497-aristotle-001I know, young man, it is not your natural bent

To say such things nor to contrive such mischief.

But the prize of victory is pleasant to win.

Bear up: another time we shall prove honest.

For one brief shameless portion of a day

Give me yourself, and then for all the rest

You may be called most scrupulous of men[1]

Moral pollution passes from the weathered warrior to the fatherless “young man” when the latter becomes aware of the treachery and complies. The play is resolved, as is common, with the intercession of a god, in this case Herakles, who encourages Philoctetes to continue on with Neoptolemus to Troy. When he does, his foot is healed and he regains his lost honor by his performance on the battlefield. Homer relays none of this, and is only concerned with Achilles’ rage…

As for Neoptolemus, we shall see what kind of man becomes next week, through Virgil’s Aeneid. For now, let’s turn our attention to Aristotle.

Aristotle’s Moral Virtues

polsci-497-aristotle-001Aristotle studied under Plato in Athens, who in turn had studied under Socrates. He wrote in the late fourth century BCE, at least four centuries after Homer (if not more). Placing him in the classical Greek philosophical tradition, MacIntyre remarks, is “a very unAristotelian thing to do,” but acknowledges necessary irony of doing so. Aristotle thought his work would replace the errors of his predecessors, disclosing some of his own assumptions about history, ethics, and knowledge, but that’s beside the point.

It is true, however, that Aristotle felt a certain departure from his teachers, which some have read into his introduction to Book Two of his Nicomachean Ethics, on “Moral Goodness,” where he states;

since the branch of philosophy which we are at present engaged is not, like the others, theoretical in its aim – because we are studying not to know what goodness is, but how to become good [people], since otherwise it would be useless.” (Thomson, 33)

polsci-497-aristotle-001He is a kind of pragmatist, rooted in actual life but keeping in mind the importance of universals. MacIntyre sees him as having given himself “the task of giving an account of the good which is at once local and particular – located in… the polis – and yet also cosmic and universal.” (After Virtue, 148) A community properly understood, deserving of the name in a moral sense, for Aristotle, is one “whose shared aim is the realization of the human good.” (155)

Communities are supposed to enable a person to pursue and retrieve the greatest good, which is to be happy. Happiness is our telos, our function as well as our goal, and habituating the virtues is the embodiment of our purpose. “Human excellence” Aristotle writes, “will be the disposition that makes one a good [person] and causes [them] to perform their function well.” (Book II.vi, Thomson 40) Along deontology, a rules-based ethic, and utilitarianism, a consequences-based ethic, we might call virtue ethics “teleological,” for it asks ‘To what end are humans oriented?’ and ‘How may we accomplish our end?’ For many western philosophers, the answer to the What question is “happiness.”

For Aristotle, the answer to the How question is what he calls “the Doctrine of the Mean,” a noble balance between a vicious deficiency and a vicious excess. A virtue, then, is the mean, or average, between two vices. One way to remember it is the saying, “moderation in everything.”

Another way to remember it is with the image of a glass of water. Think of a person as the glass, who can habituate certain states of character. The average, or mean, is relative, there is no absolute determinant for what the exact right amount. If it helps, think of the liquid in the glass as spirits; your friends may tell you to have a drink or two, for a deficiency keeps you from having a good time (that’s what you’ll be told, at least). However, if you drink excessively, you’re not having a good time. You also might not have friends to tell you that, either…

His account of the virtues is peppered throughout the Nicomachean Ethics, but for time’s sake, we won’t get into the intellectual virtues. I’ve asked you all to focus in on the virtues of moral goodness, in books three and four.

Here’s a table I have adapted based on the text that outlines the moral virtues, with references to the Ethics. I’ve changed some of the specific wording to reflect a more dynamic English equivalent that undergraduates might be more familiar with;screenshot-2017-02-02-19-03-05

I count eleven spheres of action and their moral virtues within the assigned reading;

  1. Courage – the noble mean of Bravery, or the fear of death
  2. Temperance– the noble mean of Pleasures
  3. Generosity – the noble mean of  Giving money or material
  4. Magnificence – the noble mean of Spending on others, or taste
  5. Magnanimity – the noble mean of Possessing Honor
  6. Proper Ambition – the noble mean of Desiring Honor
  7. Patience – the noble mean of Temper or anger
  8. Friendliness – the noble mean of Amicability
  9. Truthfulness – the noble mean of representing one’s Reputation
  10. Wittiness – the noble mean of expressing Humor
  11. Modesty – the noble mean of Shame, or the fear of dishonor

Of the eleven in the assigned excerpt, nine are “states of character,” but two are not. The spheres of action concerning Bravery and Shame (1 & 11, in yellow) are more like feelings, of death and dishonor respectively. Aristotle calls them “bodily conditions” because of the somatic change it causes in people, the former to make men pale and the latter to make them blush. (Book IV.9, Ross translation)

Also, three are particularly “concerned with an interchange of words and deeds of some kind.” (Ross, sect.8) The three in green all revolve around intercourse, or conversation. Aristotle points out that two (Amicability and Humor) involve pleasantries, whereas the third (Reputation, number 9), is concerned with truth.

Some things worth our attention are also in the Greek transliteration I’ve used;

  • One fun little thing is the deficiency for Pleasure, which I have labeled insensibility, as in not taking pleasure in sensory experiences. You can probably even sound out the Greek word, anaisthēsia, and infer another, equally valid, translation; numbness.
  • Magnificence and miserliness might be rephrased ‘high taste’ and ‘low taste,’ and in fact many translations prefer the English “vulgarity” for the deficiency. Notice the Greek suffix the share, –prepiea, which I cannot define easily; the mean is megalo- (much of), while the deficiency if mikro– (little of).
  • Below that, in the sphere of action I’ve called Possession of Honor, the deficiency and mean again share a greek suffix, –psūchia, from the root word psyche. To modern hearers, we think of mental health, but it is more comprehensive than that. Psyche is a person’s will, their soul. We see this reflected in the English suffix –animity, from the Latin anima, for soul. In the Vulgate, the Latin Bible translated by Jerome, it is the psyche that God breathes into Adam to make him a living creature after fashioning him from clay.
  • The next below that, the entire word is the same for the mean and the excess, which I’ve translated as “ambition.” Too much philotimia is improper, but in itself, according to Aristotle, is actually a virtue; one should aspire to be good.
  • Finally, and this is important given how central friendship is for Aristotle, take a close look at the mean for Amicability, from the Latin amicus, for friend. It is not friendship, and philia is not exactly the right word. Aristotle himself admits that it is difficult to name the mean between a flatterer and a curmudgeon; it only “resembles” friendship (Ross, sect.6). Therefore it might be best referred to as a friend-likeness, friendliness.

What are some things you notice about this list? Join the conversation by leaving your thoughts in the comments below!


[1] Translation of Philoctetes, by Sophocles, in Robert Meagher, Killing from the Inside Out (Wipf & Stock, 2015), 7

Virtues Of War – Homer

Over the next four weeks, we will be discussing the classical virtues of four different cultures. You will hear the phrase “conception” or “account” of the virtues frequently, for they vary slightly from person to person and society to society. Virtues name the characteristics necessary for a political union, or polis, to thrive, and things like cultural advancement, geography, diplomatic situation, and common ideals all contribute to social group’s self-determined trajectory.

As I said on the first day about education, an origin without a destination is not a journey, nor is movement properly “progress” unless there is an end in sight toward which a journey moves, or to which progress names an ever-increasing proximity. This will be important for the next few weeks because virtue theory requires an end. The Greek word in play here is telos, which means end, purpose, or goal. All virtue theory is teleological, it assumes an end toward which it gives us a stereotype, a fixed set of characteristics representing the kind of person we should strive to be.

I am aware of the irony of using the word “stereotype” in a positive moral light, but it is the most appropriate word to use. An archetype is the beginning of something, even before it takes material form, while a prototype is the first of something, from which subsequent models become increasingly functional. Stereotype is a word that belongs, in the modern world, to publishing. It is what the printer does by laying down each individual lead character, called a type or a sort, in its prescribed place on the printing tray, called “furniture,” Stereotyping must not begin until the printer is confident that all prior revisions have been completed. It is the last step before the ink is warmed and applied. Once the stereotyping is set, no changes may be made. “Stereotypes function as cultural shorthand, a way of describing something in simplistic, quickly recognizable types, usually as a means of self-preservation. They are problematic insofar as they are fixed, solid, and firm, reflecting their Greek root; stereos (στερεός).

But we are, ironically, called to become stereotypes. Our ultimate purpose is to embody whatever it is that makes us whatever character we play in the social drama we embody, to continually revise and refine our personal habits and actions so that we become the best [fill in the blank] we can be, whether that character is named “skateboarder,” “dad,” “American,” or, simply, “human.” We all are the embodiment of the story we’ve inherited (what Lindemann calls “Found Communities”) and the story we are building for ourselves (“Communities of Choice”).

This is leads us to Homer, and what MacIntyre calls Heroic Society, for “Heroic social structure is enacted epic narrative.” (After Virtue, 129, emphasis in original)

Homer’s Heroic Society

Homer takes for granted that there might be coherent “accounts” of virtue. That no accounts existed may suggest that, within the Homeric imagination, there was no need for them, precisely because they are taken for granted; according to MacIntyre, Sophocles’ play Philoctetes (409 BCE) is the first to display “a connection between some of the basic incoherencies in classical society and the Homeric background” which Plato also may have been trying to articulate by producing his own “coherent well-integrated account of the virtues.” (After Virtue, 131) The very production of such an account implies a lack, a need, a desire; If true, then in the centuries between Homer and Plato, the virtues had become somehow incompatible with Greek society, prompting their revision and organization.

For Homer and the world he or she called home, the virtues were dissolved into the cultural kool-aid. In fact, calling them virtues may be distracting, for the root word, virtus, is Latin, not Greek. Derived from vir, for man, virtus initially named a particularly skilled Roman soldier (i.e. to be truly manly one must be a member of the military), but its meaning diffused into non-military spheres over time. The Greek equivalent, which we find in Homer and Aristotle, is arête, or excellence.  Virtue, in the Iliad and Odyssey, is displayed in people being excellent at what they do, whether that is soldiering or politics, for example. An excellent soldier might be strong and courageous, while an excellent politician may know how to negotiate competing interests. Excellence is not restricted to men, as Penelope’s excellence is displayed in The Odyssey by her fidelity, whose “good sense” secured for herself “the fame of her great [arête].” (Book 24, line 216. Fagles, p.474) Nor is excellence restricted to humans, as animals or even inanimate objects may also be described that way.

Although excellence may seem to be a state of being or character, in Homeric literature, it is equally related to efficacy. The excellent soldier uses all their talents and gifts to complete whatever their mission may be. Arête is about results, for excellence can only be truly secured at the end, as a person and a community reflect back from the twilight of a life or an endeavor successfully concluded. Excellence is about fulfilling one’s compete potential, by becoming and fully functional model and exemplar of whatever character or role they fill in society.

For soldiers, the guarantor of arête was a noble death in war. For wives, it was to be forever faithful to their husbands. For tradesmen, it was to yield excellent products, like the sharpest blade, the strongest shield, or to breed the fastest horse.

There were often multiple subordinate elements of excellence: excellent athletes were not only expected to win, but to do so as good sportsmen; excellent philosophers were not only expected to be wise, but to put wisdom to work by practicing what they preached; excellent tradesmen were not only expected to yield reliable products, but to conduct their business fairly.

By MacIntyre’s account, Homer functioned as a moral backdrop to heroic societies, a supplier of epic narrative which gave shape to the everyday lives of ancient Greeks. Greek arête assumed narrative form because epic characters provided actual human beings with the means by which Homeric ideals assumed embodied form. This is precisely why MacIntyre puts insists “Heroic social structure is enacted epic narrative.” (After Virtue, 129, emphasis in original)

The earlier printing reference is important, and not just because I have family in the business. If “the chief means of moral education was the telling of stories” (After Virtue, 121) then culture itself is transmitted by crafts like literature and theater, which we’ll cover later. History itself often assumes the form of a story, a certain kind of story told by a certain kind of narrator. As ancient literature, Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and Odyssey are imitative, mimetic, making them inescapable to the average Greek hearer. Aristotle felt that the only form of literature truer to life than epic poetry was tragedy, which he described as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude… through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions.” (Aristotle, Poetics, VI.1449)

Modern histories assume certain commitments to “facts” that earlier forms do not. There is no way to say decisively that Homer did not understand his or her task to be anything but the transmission of history.  That it may not align with our own expectations about the genre, by the depiction of gods or super natural phenomenon, only discloses our modern assumptions. It is the modern emotivist self which assumes “the capacity to detach oneself from any particular standpoint… and view and judge the standpoint from the outside,” but a person “who tried to withdraw [themselves] from [their] given position in heroic society would be engaged in the enterprise of trying to make [themselves] disappear.” (After Virtue, 126)

History is both political and storied, we are “what the past has made us and we cannot eradicate from ourselves… from those parts of ourselves which are formed by our relationship to each formative stage of our history.” (After Virtue, 130) History, like any story, is made up of characters, some of whom we find morally upright and exemplary and others which we find morally repulsive and which serve as cautionary tales to dissuade later generations from acting in like fashion. History and narrative each ultimately beg the questions “What kind of person shall I be? What kind of society do I inhabit, and is it worth my life?”

This brings us back to the virtues, or excellences, by which we can morally self-assess and, as needed, replot our moral trajectory. Becoming the kind of person we should requires understanding the kind of person we are, which is dependent upon knowing our surrounding story. Likewise, “to understand courage as a virtue is not just to understand how it may be exhibited in character, but also what place it can have in a certain kind of enacted story.” (After Virtue, 125) MacIntyre forces us to ask not only “What kind of stories does Homer tell?”, but more importantly, “What kind of characters does Homer describe?” We have no time to contend with the many, and more academic, descriptions of The Iliad, though it would help to know the title means something like “The song of Troy’s capital” (where the battle takes place), but it’s opening lines insist the actual subject is Achilles “murderous” rage (Fagles, 77), which hurled

down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds

We can get at both earlier questions, however, through a brief consideration of a concluding scene from The Odyssey, when the war-weary Odysseus finally returns to his native Ithaca, where his queen, Penelope and heir, Telemachus, have waited 20 long years for his arrival.

Men vying for the Queen’s favor in the king’s absence have devised a contest to determine who shall usurp Odysseus’ throne. The first string Odysseus’ fabled mighty bow and hit a mark will win her hand as well as assume Odysseus’ rule. The long-gone king, disguised as a commoner, waits until the last to reveal his identity, at which time he proceeds to slay the entire cohort of suitors. The twenty second book describes “The Slaughter in the Hall” as Odysseus and Telemachus make easy work of the many ambitious admirers. Thus concludes Odysseus’ long trek home from the Trojan war. Here is how Vietnam veteran Doug Anderson summarizes the seemingly satisfying conclusion of Homer’s two volume history of the Trojan War and its aftermath (“Homecoming,” in The Moon Reflected Fire, 43);

Telemachus felt something enter his spine 

when his father threaded the axe-heads, 

victorious arrow quivering in the wall, and a small cry escaped him when, 

without pausing, the old man fit 

another shaft onto the string 

and shot Antinoos between the nipples. 

And so it began for Telemachus, 

the deep, swirling momentum;

some power slipping him on like a skin,

and him mad with it; hiss of sword—stroke

father and son working the cowering suitors,

the one stalking, the other cutting off escape,

until the stone floors were slippery red.

But finally, when he thought it was over,

his righteousness spent, and the weeping servant girls 

on their hands and knees were sopping up the blood, 

he leaned on his sword,

tried to fit his dream of the man gone twenty years 

over the gore—soaked beard and chest before him. 

And then his father looked around, and scarce believing 

there was no one left to kill, smiled at his son.


Questions for discussion:

  • What kind of person is Achilles, and what kind of story is the song of Illium?
  • What kind of person is Odysseus and what kind of story is his Odyssey?

Virtues Of War – Modern Moral Philosophy

Today we turn our attention from the crisis of Veterans Civic Health to the crisis of modern moral philosophy. Although I understand it may come as a shock to many that moral philosophy has suffered a crisis, it is a claim that the two authors we’ll focus on today share. You’ve already been introduced to Alasdair MacIntyre, whose 1981 book After Virtue provides the backbone for this course.

Before we get to Anscombe, we would do well to take a brief look at the way MacIntyre understands the predicament faced by any modern moral philosopher or student thereof. Besides the benefit of being formed by his theses, MacIntyre displays a tendency toward the dramatic which, I think, succeeds in drawing in even a lay person’s interest to the problems he described at length. The first few pages of After Virtue invite us to imagine a dystopian future, one which could easily have been torn from the pages of Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchock.

“Imagine,” MacIntyre begins… [read 2 para.]

MacIntyre admits this sounds like science fiction, but he maintains that it is basically the very state in which he and Anscombe encountered moral philosophy. He says it bluntly; “the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I describe.”(After Virtue, 2) Philosophy has suffered so great a catastrophe that we lack the proper language and perspective to even properly diagnose the crisis in the first place. Hell, that “no record of any such catastrophe survives” merely confirms that we have no means of recognizing one in the first place, for we have become culturally unmoored.

In order to diagnose the problem, we would have to abandon the modern value given to morally neutral evaluative criteria, by which the present “moral disorder… remains largely invisible.”( After Virtue, 4) Understanding the history which brought us to this dystopia would require “standards of achievement or failure,” judgments about the right or wrong, proper or improper, means by which to make a definitive claim. Because it is a history we inherit, and one in which we may be indicted, the “academic” ideal of an impersonal, objective appraisal is not possible. In fact, that is part of the problem; this idea that the “best” judgement is one in which no interest or value is assumed.

That is how MacIntyre sees the contemporary crisis, at least. Anscombe is not as focused on the modern fetishizing of impersonality in moral assertions. She is more focused on the how the schism of moral language, between ancient meaning and contemporary usage, has contributed and reinforced the modern moral dystopia. To be fair, she saw it first, and in fact MacIntyre readily admits he is “deeply indebted to” her, even if their claims differ slightly. (After Virtue, 53)

Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe was an Irish philosopher who studied, like MacIntyre, at Oxford. A devoted Catholic convert, in 1948 she prevailed in a debate with famed Christian writer and WWI veteran Clive Staples Lewis. The loss had such an effect on Lewis, according to his student and WWII veteran Derek Brewer, that it evoked a rare martial memory from Lewis, of “the retreat of infantry thrown back under heavy attack.”[1] Lewis subsequently rewrote the paper, which had been the third chapter of Miracles: A Preliminary Study. The defeat supposedly led to his abandoning theological writing entirely, turning instead to spiritual writing for children.

Her expertise at debate and philosophical acumen were likely a product of her training under Ludwig Wittgenstein, a decorated WWI veteran (an artillery observer, in fact). Wittgenstein has been described by many as the epitome of the traditional, classically conceived genius. His monograph Philosophical Investigations, often cited as the most important work of philosophy of the 20th century, was compiled, translated, and edited by Anscombe. He is most famous for his 1921 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the only full length book he published in his lifetime.

Despite all this, it was her 1958 essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” for which Anscombe is most widely known. In it, she cites three basic theses;

  1. Scholars should cease talking about moral philosophy, until a philosophy of psychology could is developed
  2. Concepts of duty and obligation like “should” and “ought” should also be avoided until they can be placed within their proper linguistic and philosophical genealogy
  3. Most modern moral philosophers are all basically saying the same thing

She does quickly and cursorily what MacIntyre does expansively; After Virtue spends chapter after chapter debunking most major philosophers, whereas Anscombe only spends a few pages doing the same. Some of whom you may be aware, like Hume, Kant, and Mill. The unifying feature, or flaw, they all share is to have removed moral language from its own history and meaning, namely from Aristotle.

For Aristotle, intention and acts were much more closely aligned than they seem to be for contemporary philosophers. Anscombe hints at the tragic irony that, in modern moral philosophy, “an explanation is required how an unjust man is a bad man, or an unjust action a bad one.” (“Modern Moral Philosophy,” 4) The need for explanation would confuse the premodern moral philosopher because it would have been self-evident that an unjust person or action was “bad.” But in modernity, it is actually debated whether or not it is “wrong” that an elected official may profit from their office or that acts of marital infidelity are merely ‘affairs’ and not deeply damaging moral transgressions.

But we should not take this too far and assume that individual acts reflect the nature of a person. Anscombe illustrates that someone like Aristotle would be confounded by modern moral language in order to make a larger argument, one which will help us understand this course in light of soldier stories and their narrative trajectories. She brings to light the modern situation in which we are embedded; of “the survival of a concept outside the framework of thought that made it a really intelligible one.” (“Modern Moral Philosophy,” 5) It is noteworthy that she links the emergence of this situation with the Protestant Reformation, which may make much more sense when/if we were to consider the nature of Christendom and the epistemological monopoly the Church held throughout Europe. But that is a reeeeaaallllllly deep rabbit hole.

Remember when I asked whether elements of your story might be true, but bad, or good, but false. I suggested that might motivate you to adjust or ignore those parts of your story which you did not prefer to be known. This is what’s at stake for modernity moral discourse; Anscombe is suspicious of the “linguistic analysis” by which “you frame your ‘principles’ to effect the end you choose to pursue.” (“Modern Moral Philosophy,” 8) As soon as moral language and principles become mobile, you can be sure that you’ve stopped doing good philosophy.

This essay coined the term “consequentialism” (ibid.) to describe utilitarian ethics, the other major modern school of thought after deontology, for a rule-based system. Perhaps because of her devotion to Catholicism, she does not accept utility as a moral philosophy, in part, in light of the “Hebrew-Christian” absolute prohibition on some acts, like killing innocents. While she does not wish to import this particular religious framework wholesale onto secular moral philosophy, she does insist it names a category of action which modern philosophers have largely ignored; acts “forbidden whatever consequences threaten.” (ibid. Emphasis in original)

The failure of consequentialism as a coherent philosophy is found in the fact that one “can exculpate [ex – out of, culpa – blame] oneself from the actual consequences of the most disgraceful actions, so long as you can make a case for not having foreseen them.” (“Modern Moral Philosophy,” 10. Emphasis in original) It might be important to point out that Anscombe’s most noted work is Intention, also published in 1958. Rather she claims that people are “responsible for the bad consequences of [their] bad actions, but gets no credit for the good ones; contrariwise is not responsible for the bad consequences of good actions.” (“Modern Moral Philosophy,” 10)

As to deontology, the second form of ethical framework we’ve discussed, Anscombe is more amenable to its potential coherence. She notes that deontological ethics, in the modern era in which the Church no longer commands universal intellectual authority, must address “the possibility of retaining a law conception without a divine legislator.” (ibid.) In other words, some entity must be given ultimate authority: the rules must come from somewhere. I won’t dwell on deontology, as it does not seem nearly as dominant as consequentialism in liberal democracies like ours.

As complicated as this may be, Anscombe does leave us some straightforward take-aways.  For one, she asserts “the superiority of the term ‘unjust’ over the terms ‘morally right’ and ‘morally wrong.’” (“Modern Moral Philosophy,” 14) Indeed, most virtue ethicists will cite Justice as the crowning virtue, or being in some way unifying of the various individual moral or intellectual virtues. As for the attachment of justice to people, “a good [person] is a just [person]; and a just [person] habitually refuses to commit or participate in any unjust actions for fear of any consequences, or to obtain any advantage, for himself or anyone else.” (ibid.)

In other words, just people are just just, just because justice is the just-est good.

Finally, Anscombe claims that all acts carry moral substance, substance which adheres to the person, even if the person (in the Christian conception) is ultimately good. Anscombe helps illustrate what justice has to do with the virtues and why they provide an escape from the incoherence dominating modern moral philosophy, several decades before MacIntyre’s influential contribution. She puts it plainly enough;

virtues and vices are built up by the performances of the action in which they are instanced, an act of injustice will tend to make a [person] bad; and essentially the flourishing of a [human person] qua [human] consists in [their] being good (e.g. in virtues); but for any X to which such terms apply, X needs what makes it flourish, so a man needs, or ought to perform, only virtuous actions.

Next week, we will get into the classical virtues, what they were and where they flourished. The next four weeks will be spent unpacking “the present disordered state of” moral philosophy. (After Virtue, 3) Following MacIntyre’s three stage model from his first chapter, we will begin by exploring where and why the virtues flourished; Ancient Greece, Classical Rome, and Medieval Europe. If we have time, we may discuss whether the early Enlightenment period represents the second stage, in which moral philosophy “suffered catastrophe” before entering the third and final ‘modern’ stage, in which moral philosophy was “restored but in damaged and disordered form.” (ibid.)

The function of understanding virtue will be to allow us to press into whether there may be a distinctive martial account of the virtues, the premise of your first assignment. Virtue rides on the back of characters and narrative, to which we will turn in the next phase of the course, when we critically examine popular soldier stories and their origins as autobiographical narrations.

Questions to guide discussion based on Anscombe and MacIntyre;

  • What is meant when we say or hear “judgment” (i.e. “don’t judge me”), and what does that disclose about the disordered nature of our moral language?
  • Is impersonality truly required for empirical, scientific inquiry? If so, how does that affect our definition/s of “truth”? Is it simply that the “humanities” and the “sciences” are fundamentally distinct?


[1] Derek Brewer, “The Tutor: A Portrait” in CS Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences (ed. James Como), 1992, p.59

Virtues Of War – Narrative Identities & Civic Health

Today our focus is on Hilde Lindemann’s introductory chapter from Damaged Identities: Narrative Repair as well as several articles pertaining to the perception of veterans and the current epidemic of suicide. We will return to MacIntyre soon, but Lindemann helps us flesh out some real-world applications for his overall project.

Identity

A feminist scholar accepting and even advancing his recovery of virtue and emphasis on narrative, Lindemann gives us some terms that may be helpful for understanding the unique social location of veterans. Before we cover those, it’s important to remember some of MacIntyre’s terms as well;

  • Emotivism – A state in which “all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling.” (12)
  • Characters – ‘Moral representatives of their culture… because of the way ideas & theories assume an embodied existence’ (28)
  • Narrative/s – ‘Historical memory of the societies in which they were finally written down…a moral background to contemporary debate’ (121)

polsci-497_2-004Lindemann, on the other hand, has more in mind when she uses the word narrative. She does, however, agree for the most part with MacIntyre, describing narratives as “a moral track record” which can commit individuals and communities to certain moral values. But narrative is bigger and broader than the definition I’ve given of MacIntyre’s. While she does give us some defining features of stories on pages 11-15 to which we may return later, she does not give a full typography of narrative. Perhaps she has inherited MacIntryre’s early Marxist influence, or maybe she is a social conflict theorist, but she classifies narrative into two conflicting genres. The narrative genre employed by systems of power she calls Master Narratives.

polsci-497_2-005Master Narratives are stories “that serve as summaries of shared social understandings… Repositories of common norms [used to] make sense of our experience… and to justify what we do.”(p.6) Although seemingly benign, this definition masks a clear power differential prone to creating “morally degrading identities” even if master narratives are not inherently oppressive.(‘Degrading’, p.xii. ‘Oppressive’, p.7) There are two negative effects attached to persons subjected to morally degrading master narratives; Deprivation of Opportunity and Infiltrated Consciousness.

polsci-497_2-006Deprivation of Opportunity describes the state in which a person’s moral agency and worth is diminished because others treat that person as morally incompetent. (pp.22-28)

Infiltrated Consciousness describes the state in which a person’s moral agency and worth is diminished because they treat themselves as morally incompetent.(pp.28-34)

To address the morally injurious effects of degrading master narratives, Lindemann proposes marginalized populations engage in crafting and disseminating Counterstories; clusters “of histories, anecdotes, and other narrative fragments” which can “repair the damage inflicted on identities by abusive power systems” by revising “understanding of a person or a social group…through augmentation and correction” of master narratives.(pp.xii & 8) Thus, counterstories are strategic narrative repair, they force the re-imagination of morally degrading or oppressive master narratives by populations asserting new, more uplifting (and often factually accurate) stories about their own identities. Keep these terms as frames of reference as we continue to think about the perception of veterans and the conflicting roles they often play for various political communities in America.

Perceptions

Before we introduced ourselves last week, I asked for responses to statements and images used for a Trait Imagery Exercise used in “Strengthening Perceptions of America’s Post-9/11 Veterans” a report commissioned by Got Your 6, a nonprofit coalition uniting Hollywood and government partners to serve veterans. As statistically illiterate as I am, I did not execute the test as fairly as I could. I was supposed to ask you to agree or disagree with three statements in reference to three different pictures;

  1. Is a military veteran
  2. Has a mental health issue
  3. Has experienced homelessness
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Numbers are percentages of “true” responses to statements on the left

I did not give the exercise as simply or objectively as did their researchers, but the basic findings nonetheless line up between their own application and the one we did in class. Of all the images shown, the person thought most likely to have a mental health issue and to have experienced homelessness was also the person respondents most frequently thought was a military veteran. In our own class, those associations mostly line up, with every single respondent seeing the panhandler as being a military veteran, having a mental health issue, and having experienced homelessness. The greatest discrepancy between our class and the GQR data was in our higher likelihood of thinking all three men had a mental health issue.

The rest of that report paints a picture of the overwhelmingly “generic and literal” perception many Americans have of military veterans. Got Your 6 commissioned it as part of their Cultural Change program, which recognizes the profound effect cultural narratives play in the construction and revision of personal identities. You can see how their programs break down here. The report found that veterans are seen in polarizing tones, of being either heroes or ‘charity cases’. Heroic perceptions were largely ignored in the report, perhaps a result of the negative stigma disclosed in the findings of the Trait Imagery Exercise just discussed.

The framework of Charity, despite whatever support it might publicly muster, “does damage by lending power to… misbeliefs.”(p.13) It can, and will, be argued that false assumptions are particularly destructive when held by what Got Your 6 calls ‘content creators,’ especially those who produce movies and television, what MacIntyre calls Dramatic Narratives.(After Virtue, p.250) In fact, test subjects participating in the research “self-report that the entertainment industry has an outsized impact on the way they think of veterans.”(p.2) It should strike us as particularly problematic that “Polar extremes of ‘damaged’ or ‘hero’ represent what respondents… report as the standard depiction of veterans on television and film.”(p.2, emphasis added)

Civic Health

The 2015 “Veterans Civic Health Index” paints a somewhat different picture of military veterans, and was also supported by Got Your Six. By “Civic Health,” the index means “the degree to which people trust each other, help their neighbors, and interact with their government.”(p.4) While homelessness and mental health issues are not a primary focus, these two social concerns are addressed briefly. The Index cites data suggesting that, contrary to narratives about veterans(p.7);

  • Veterans comprise 8.6% of the homeless population
  • Between 11-20% of veterans experience (posttraumatic stress)

It should be noted, as we’ll discuss shortly, that veterans only make up 7.3 percent of the American populace, so 8.6% suggests that veterans are in fact slightly over represented in the homeless population. Furthermore, many clinicians have reservations about the 11-20% number, which does not account for the significant number of veterans not receiving care from the VA.  Many mental health professionals also claim that, due to social stigmas, many veterans do not seek care even if they are enrolled in VA medical services or are not properly diagnosed in a highly politicized bureaucracy, sometimes being under-diagnosed due to bias against ‘malingerers,’ etc.

As a whole, the Index argues that the idea that veterans “are significantly more likely than non veterans to experience unemployment, incarceration, homelessness, and various other issues… are largely misconceptions.”(p.4) Additional data the Index cites to refute negative perceptions include;

  • The average adjusted non-veteran unemployment rate is 13% higher than the veteran rate (p.7)
  • Veterans have consistently earned significantly more than non-veterans (p.7)
  • Over the last century, veterans from all generations have outpaced the general population in their habits of service and civic engagement (p.10)
  • Young veterans have the highest rate of volunteering among all Americans (p.10)
  • The military promotes responsible family relationships and membership in the wider community (p.16)

screenshot-2017-01-18-10-35-42Civic engagement like voting, volunteer service, and participating in one’s local community, are important because “strong civic health positively affects local GDP, economic resilience, upward income mobility, public health, and student achievement.”(p.4) If that is true, then there are other facts about veteran health we cannot ignore, namely the startlingly high rate of suicide within military communities.

Suicide

A 2007 CBS investigative report was the first to look critically at the rate of suicide among veterans. Using two-year-old data acquired from 45 states through their departments of vital statistics, CBS found that approximately 17 veterans took their own loves every day. After a series of scandals, and denying the data wholesale for several years, the Department of Veterans Affairs conducted their own studies, the most recent and comprehensive of which was released in 2016. Despite the alarm caused by CBS’s investigation, the VA claims in their report that “prior to 2006, Veteran suicide rates were lower than adult civilian suicide rates.”(p.24) VA data comes from fewer states but is more reliable, originating from federal records and acting with political authority CBS couldn’t muster. You have been asked to read this report, much of which is comprised of graphics…

That being said, the suicide report is a statistician’s wet dream; sorting data sets between sex and age groups, and even outlining how methods break down between veterans and non-veterans. By stratifying data by age group, sex, etc., it makes it hard to draw general conclusions, which might be good, as this forces us to confront biases and talking points used by both sides of the political aisle. As it turns out, we cannot say “veteran” and assume the word has one monolithic meaning. After all, WWII veterans are very different from Vietnam vets, and there is even some animosity between these groups, based no less on stereotypes and falsities than those leaned on by non-veterans. As one veteran has put it, “If you’ve met one veteran… you’ve met one veteran.”

The suicide report prevents us from saying one simple, straightforward thing about veterans and what it is that’s fueling suicides within the military community as a whole (actively serving soldiers also have disproportionately high rates for suicide). Rather we can draw a few very basic conclusions from the data. One thing that stands out, to me, is that just under 40% of all veterans are enrolled in VA care (p.3; only 8.5 out of 21.6 million). That may be because many veterans receive health care through non VA employers, are ineligible (due to “bad paper”), do not want to go to the VA, or other reasons. This is noteworthy because, according to the report, only six of the 20 suicides per day are by veterans enrolled in VA care. That seems to suggest that the getting vets enrolled may bring the suicide rate down, but the relationship may be correlational without being causal…

Here is a run down of the main take aways, listed in the executive summary;

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