Virtues of War – Theater

We have completed our discussion of the classical virtues, spanning from early Greece of Homer and classical Greece of Aristotle to the Roman Republic and Empire and on into the Medieval times of Thomas Aquinas and the emergence of a Chivalric ideal. We’ve even taken a quick look at a candidate for martial virtue, with Gen. Martin Dempsey, in our discussion of Patriotism.

In each era, I’ve highlighted both an abstract, propositional kind of knowledge as well as a creative, literary mode of thinking: Homer’s epic poems paralleled Aristotle’s practical moral philosophy; Cicero’s rhetorical genius was paralleled with Virgil’s imperial creation song; Aquinas’ exhaustive summary of theology was paralleled with Dante’s comedic theological poetry. This has been deliberate and reflects the importance of perspective and agenda. I have suggested that some authors, like Virgil, should be treated with suspicion by modern liberal readers with any animus against imperialism, for the Aeneid seems like it might be reinforcing the status quo rather than challenging it. Stories, like histories, are never value neutral, so we have to be selective about whose interpretation upon which we will rely. But who do we trust?

Interpretation is not an exact science, and yet if we follow the claims of MacIntyre and Lindemann about stories and narrative, then interpretation underwrites literally everything; our entire existence is dependent upon properly interpreting our world, the communities we belong to, even our own self-identity. Hell, who knows if we can trust ourselves?!

This makes it hard to talk about what is “real” because reality is, for modern Emotivist cultures like ours, self-determined – you decide what is real, or at least what you’re willing to call “reality” (just like certain political figures decide what “facts” are or are not). Don’t like a part of your story? Insist it isn’t true! Then just keep denying it until it sounds true. If honor is a zero-sum game, then take what you can and run. If your national identity relies upon false claims about simple, agrarian origins, rewrite history and propagate it to the masses and execute those who disagree. Even poetic license can be abused if our biases are buried deeply enough and we have the power propagate the narrative we create.

This is the danger of the dramatic arts, which we will discuss this week and the next. At its best, according to Meagher, the theatron, the seeing place, “more than any civic temple, was the house of truth.” (4) But words are dangerous, they can warp truth into myriad other things, like entertainment, commerce, or propaganda. This distortion is more likely when story telling is trusted primarily to those without practical knowledge of a given subject like war or military service. Speculative knowledge is restricted to the abstract if it is not partnered with practical experience. We’ll talk about this next homily, when we get into Aristotle’s account of the intellectual virtues, especially the distinction between episteme and techne. Today, however, we will be discussing how Meagher helps bridge the millennia between Greek theater and modern cinema.

I met Bob Meagher in March 2010, when I testified at the Truth Commission on Conscience and War, in which he served as a commissioner. His work is rather far reaching, and he is a respected as a translator of Greek dramas, including Herakles Furens, which I have assigned as today’s reading. Of particular importance for our class are his interpretive essays, linking Herakles, whom we may know as Hercules, with modern military veterans and combat stress. Before we get there, let’s explore the story of the play itself.

euripides-001Euripides is known as the last of three major Greek dramatists, following Aeschylus and Sophocles (in that order). His surviving plays outnumber those of both his predecessors combined, a testament to the persistence of his popularity. Compared to them, he is also seen as a progressive trailblazer, a man before his time, who supposedly exiled himself toward the end of his life and who had very few friends in his home city-state of Athens. What made him stand out was the internal depth of character he gave his subjects, the attention he gave to motive and intention. Aristotle called Euripides “the most tragic of poets” and who modern scholar Bernard Knox said “pushes to the limits what an audience can stand; some of his scenes are almost unbearable.”[1]

As an able-bodied man, he also deployed to combat whenever it was required, including the early battles of the Peloponnesian War. Meagher notes that Herakles Furens is reliably dated to just about the time at which we would have retired from the military at age 60, in the late 420’s BCE. Knox suggests the play falls within a period of Euripidean “disillusionment at the senselessness of war” at the height of what he would have seen as a total war between world powers.[2] If dated properly, it was written during the failed Peace of Nicias, before fighting between Athens and Sparta resumed in 415, the year after the Herakles was first performed. The war that Meagher describes as “the most bitter and brutal the Greek states had ever experienced” (xi) would end with Athens utter defeat in 404, two years after Euripides’ death in exile.

polsci-497-8-theater-001But what of his subject? Herakles was a fabled warrior whose life is described in innumerable narrative fragments and is a popular persona to dissect, even to this day. A more helpful question may be “what made Euripides’ character any different than the rest?” Euripides loved to philosophize in his plays, and his intellect was frequently compared to the Greek philosophers. His “characters and plots were eikones (icons), challenging and inspiring their viewers to eikasia (imagination), the act of seeing one thing in another, the same act by which the mind ascends toward ‘the Good’ or ‘Being itself’ in Plato’s Republic.” (Meagher, 4) The theme of ascent is common in literature by veterans, and indeed, the Herakles opens with its hero in Hades, or hell. If Civil War General Sherman is right, that war is hell, then the setting may intend to evoke the closing moments of Euripides service in the first battle of his world war. Meagher certainly wants us to think so, citing James Hillman’s A Terrible Love of War (2004, 32-33) who insists ““The return from the killing fields is more than a debriefing; it is a slow ascent from hell.” Letting a bit of his battlefield experience bleed into his creative endeavors is understandable, and author identifying with their main character isn’t without precedent.

If this is true, then Herakles is also Euripides working out his own slow ascent from the hell of war. As a performance observed by other veterans, their families, and young recruits, the Herakles is also a public ritual of purification. Meagher notes the importance of the ritual, for “the process of healing from trauma lies fundamentally in communalizing it.” (x) Most of the community in attendance would have been returning from the war with their neighbors, fellow city-state Sparta. The Greeks would not have seen the men returning from battle as autonomous individuals reducible to the category “damaged”; they would have seen it in collective terms, for the individual is merely an extension of the community. If soldiers incurred moral pollution, that meant they all had.

This assumption, that the individual represents something of the whole and the whole is somehow responsible, survived through the Greek World War. Tragedy as a genre was fundamentally about a community, not an individual. In his Poetics, Aristotle names the function of tragedy as “the representation of pitiable and fearful incidents, the catharsis of such.” (Poetics VI.9-11, trans. Meagher) Catharsis purges moral pollution by re-presenting it communally, before the entire polis by which soldiers are sent, for “it was by phulai [tribe] that Athenian citizens voted for or against war in ekklesia (assembly).” (24) Tragedy, in particular, is “collective therapy” something which “brings both individual and shared healing to a traumatized, polluted community.” (20)

Herakles works especially well in our own context, where soldiers can be either venerated as heroes of vilified as psychologically damaged or morally compromised. In Vietnam, Americans had unprecedented access to images and sounds of a war they did not support. When veterans returned they were received with hostility, as though they were to blame both for the atrocities and for their defeat. Guilt by association was and often remains, the name of the game in perceptions of our military, and Vietnam veterans were made to be less than human. Fast forward a generation, and the guilt for that treatment has been reversed, with “Thank You for Your Service” being parroted ad nauseum, as though by public obsessive compulsion, until the words lose all meaning and then some. To be blindly venerated makes my generation of veterans something more than human. Herakles knew this feeling well; as the son of Zeus to a mortal mother, he was not quite divine and not quite human. To humans he appeared more than, but to the gods, he never quite measured up, just as soldiers get pushed up on pedestals by some and blamed into oblivion by others.

But there is one other way that Herakles symbolizes soldiers, and it hits close to home for me, and not just because he seems to represent enlisted soldiers in particular. Herakles is commanded over and over, but never commands; in Euripides’ play, Alkestis, Herakles says “fighting is my job, my burden… My orders? To do battle.” (43, cf. 39 – “he pursues another’s agenda. He does as he must, as he is told.”). The play’s climax describes Herakles’ return from hell only to murder his wife and children in a fit of madness. In the summer of 2002, I was a young paratrooper at Fort Bragg, just an hour and a half south. Over the span of six weeks, four wives were killed by their Special Forces husbands, each of them enlisted personnel; Sgt. 1st Class Rigoberto Nieves, Master Sgt. William Wright, Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Floyd, and Army Sgt. Cedric Ramon Griffin. Special Forces are an elite unit, known for specialized training and revered throughout the US armed forces. Their prestige mirrors a bit of how the Greeks likely perceived Herakles, but not the way Euripides depicts him, home from hell but still on the warpath. His ‘madness’ is all to familiar to military communities…

When Herakles comes to his senses, he is tied to a pillar, like Odysseus before the sirens and Samson before the Philistines. His adopted mortal father, Theban General Amphitryon, and the battle buddy he saved from hell, Theseus, talk him down from suicide. He denies the gods, describing them as the invention of poets, and determines that suicide would be cowardly. The play ends with him leaning upon Theseus, forbidden to attend his family’s funeral, leaving for… another adventure? Euripides doesn’t tell us, and the curtain closes as they limp off together, arm in arm. Herakles’ parting words to the only father he’s known testify to the ravaging of war upon one’s psyche, or soul;

I leave my home a shambles, drenched in shame – all my doing.

Sail down and full of holes, like a wrecked boat in tow,

I remain afloat in Theseus’ wake

Watching from the seats of the theatron, the house of truth, few observers would leave with their preconceived impressions of Herakles intact. If they were veterans like Euripides, coming home from hell as Herakles had may have also struck close to home. Pollution has a way of spreading, but drama re-presented moral trauma and provided a means of interpretation to which a community could adhere. Through characters like Herakles, the polis could commit (or recommit) to certain values and shared meaning. Doing so as a public was for the good of the individual as well as for the community.

Meagher contrasts “communalizing” with “publicizing.” The former forces all in attendance to “feel each other’s presence and see each other’s pain.” (x) The latter is not described in detail, but I imagine it has everything to do with individuated anonymity of the Emotivist age, in which we can change the channel and remain blissfully ignorant of our collective responsibility in the political actions of our union. Soldiers in a representative democracy, or even a senatorial empire, do not go to war alone. Perhaps the deepest tragedy modern American veterans face is that our polis does not even know it is polluted, ‘experts’ assume moral responsibility or guilt is an individual problem requiring an individuated solution. This is MacIntyrean emotivism on full display.

In a world where there are more intersex people than there are people serving in the armed forces,[3] the availability of credible voices presents the first problem, and leads to perhaps another larger problem – a minority of a minority becomes referent objects in a conversation that avoids any and all critical attention to the embodied reality of military service. Civilians talk amongst themselves, creating a false reality that is almost entirely self-referential; panels “about war” without veterans proceed without question, conferences are planned about how to “Provide Support to Veterans” without any veterans involved, academic centers are created and funded without employing any veterans, and self styled “elite” research universities have almost completely privated themselves of undergraduate student veterans.

But I’m just a disgruntled veteran right? I just want the attention for myself, and I’m taking the path of least resistance in a world of identity politics. As a veteran, I have a dog in the fight, maybe I want easy money by claiming a financial stake in the success of others. I’m sure Jeffrey Sarver heard objections not unlike all these. If we are to be at all rational and objective, though, we need to ask if objections like that are valid, and what interests are served by the status quo, of nonveterans telling other nonveterans (and even veterans) what it means to be a veteran or what needs and desires veterans have. Should we trust nonveterans to oversee the narrative identity of  military communities, and if not, then what to do with the proliferation of nonveteran narrated war films, novels, etc.?

We’ll ask the 2nd question later, when we compare and contrast autobiographies against feature film adaptations. For the first question, I do want to leave some bread crumbs that Meagher gives us before we return to Aristotle next time.

Meagher uses a very helpful metaphor for trying to name and critique what may be going on in terms of the matrix of tensions between narration, embodiment, truth, and reality. Early in his essay, he talks about myth, which he reminds us is meant strictly as the plot of a Greek play. Let’s call it the analogy of the butterfly. He accuses other classicists as being abstracted from their research subject, that they lose sight of the appeal of drama when plays become referent objects, mere artefacts to be studied. This orientation to drama robs it of its social power, what it can and should and did do, which was to move audiences toward Eudaimonia, strengthening the social bonds of an integral community. Wars, and other morally polluting events, require collective catharsis, they require narrative purging that benefits both the polis as a whole as well as the individual person. But “a butterfly,” or a play, or a soldier’s experience, “pinned to a board is no longer a butterfly.” (5) Pinning is itself almost impossible for the subject in question, but almost always by a foreign entity, a nonmember of the social group, for to be pinned is to be made a referent object, a morally neutral and impotent artefact to be studied, not loved, appreciated, or cared for. Pinning occurs when a polis has fundamentally lost touch with members of its union, when a part of it becomes an object rather than an organism, and it is almost never a conscious act. I’d wager it is even an act of charity, however ill-fated and destructive, for to affix the butterfly to a board is to plunge a needle through its heart.

Who pins the butterfly to a board? Those with a desire to gaze upon, not gaze with, those who see a problem to solve, rather than a person to embrace. These well-intentioned members of our own polis are the guardians of a gap between soldier and civilian, who have lost access to the house of truth, the seeing place, not because their membership has been revoked but because they have been led astray by false myths and corrupt plots. Anyone who, for the last 28 centuries or more who heard the name Achilles or Ulysses and has spoiled for the thrill of battle has been misled, for “The Iliad and the Odyssey represent two of the most fierce and eloquent critiques of war and the warrior code in all of world literature.” (7)  Those who have spun appeal from atrocity “learned of war from books. [Their] dreams of combat, if [they have] them are second hand, far from the nightmares of veterans.” (10)

The deepest tragic irony is that these same enthusiasts have effectively marginalized soldiers and made them liminal even to their own narrative world. The master narratives of war push actual soldiers and their embodied experiences to “the edge of the human circle.” (44) Liminal is a buzzword these days, at play throughout the battle over identity politics I mentioned earlier. Meagher used it to describe soldiers a decade ago when this book was published. Liminal derives from the Latin limen, or “threshold.” Meagher retells what every soldier since Homer has known, that war can make you a beast or a hero, both of which exist exclusively at “the boundaries of the human.” (17) What Euripides’ depiction of the half-blood Herakles “makes clear… is that what bestiality and divinity share is… inhumanity. Transcendence, at the end of the day, is only a euphemism for transgression.” (17)

In the event I haven’t convinced you, perhaps you’ll trust Homer, writing at least 2800 years ago. In Book VIII of his Odyssey, a bard, like Homer, is singing the tale of the Trojan War to a rapt audience, listening intently to every morbid detail. As the song reaches the climax, telling of Odysseus’ prowess in battle and his crowning achievement, “While the audience thrills to the tale, we are told that Odysseus for his part hides his tears.” (22)

That was the song the famous harper sang 

but Odysseus, clutching his flaring sea-blue cape

in both powerful hands, drew it over his head

and buried his handsome face,

ashamed his hosts might see him shedding tears.

as soon as the bard would start again, impelled to sing

By Phauacia’s lords, who reveled in his tale,

again Odysseus hid his face and wept[4]

“Hero” is not a self-determined title here, nor is it ever. When it is truly earned, only a polis can acclaim someone a hero. But in this case, it is particularly dissonant with the main character’s self-perception. He buries his handsome face, ashamed. Those enchanted by the songs of Ilium, or Odysseus, or Aeneas have succumbed to a soothing siren song, calling men and, now, women to their moral and mortal end. The bright lights of popular myth shine upon masks, and only masks. Real soldiers, as Homer knew, often hide from luminosity; Medal of Honor recipients and war criminals alike have hidden behind the excuse “I was just doing my job.” The lumen, or light, doesn’t shine on the limen, the margins. If and when it does, the truth of war’s experience is rarely enchanting, and the light doesn’t stay for long.


[1] Bernard Knox, “Euripides,” in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, Cambridge University Press (1985)

[2] Knox, 316

[3] Health Research Funding estimates about 1.7% of Americans are “affected in some way by ambiguous genitalia”; http://healthresearchfunding.org/15-notable-ambiguous-genitalia-statistics. Personnel in the United States armed forces constitute .5% of the population; http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/27/opinion/americans-and-their-military-drifting-apart.html

[4] Meagher cites another section of the Odyssey, in which the hero also weeps. That this fact is repeated seems to suggest the author’s desire for the audience to ‘get it.’

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.”

 

Virtues Of War – Chivalry

Aquinas fused classical virtue with Christianity with unmatched intellectual rigor, and it might be argued that the fusion was inevitable given the epistemological monopoly the Roman Catholic Church had upon western Europe and the British Islands by the 13th century. But this same era, called the High Middle Ages by most scholars, was also one often remembered for the Knights of the Round Table and the chivalric ideal. Chivalry did not develop in a vacuum; it was brought into being in large part by the dominance of Christian culture, but also by the literary milieu of the time, which was reaching unheard of popularity due to advances in printing and rising literacy in lower social classes.

Aquinas has given us a high classical account of the virtues, borrowing as he did from Aristotle’s intellectual virtues and Cicero’s cardinal moral virtues. But other accounts were operative in the middle ages, notably less rigorous but also far more appealing to everyday Europeans. This alternative, vulgar account of virtues and vices often corresponded with popular works of literature of the time, including Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and Jacob de Voragine’s Golden Legend, which we’ll get to momentarily.se7en-vices

The Seven Deadly Sins or Vices first took shape in the fourth century, under the pen of Evagrius Ponticus, and were codified two hundred years later by Pope Gregory I. Aquinas defends Gregory’s list in his summa seven hundred years later, a testament to its popularity. (Summa, I.II Q.84, A.4) The seven deadly sins are, in case you haven’t seen the Brad Pitt movie —>

It is noteworthy that the vices appear without any corresponding virtues, and are not classical vices. Aristotle, for example, would see gluttony as only the excess expression of the appetite or food. No deficiency appears, something we might call starvation or something. Others, like sloth, only name a deficiency (of energy or passion, for example). For this account is therefor rather odd, and may fall apart under intense philosophical scrutiny. But they survived seven centuries anyway, and in fact seemed to only grow in popularity in the Late Middle Ages.

virtuesofwar_danteDante Alighieri uses the seven deadly sins in his fanciful description of purgatory in the second part of his Commedia trilogy, “Purgatorio.” You’re probably more familiar with the prequel, “Inferno,” but the sequel is less known, “Paradiso.” The trilogy was later called Divine, in part because his Comedy drew heavily upon Thomistic theology, the reason why it is often thought of as “The Summa in Verse.” The work is significant for this course in that it has been called epic, like Homer’s song of Ilium and Virgil’s  song of Aeneas. The use of “epic” to describe Dante’s Commedia is largely a reference to its length, though, like the works of Homer and Virgil before him, Dante exerted significant influence over later generations and culture.

Dante employs Pope Gregory’s list of Seven Deadly Sins in Purgatorio as “terraces of purgation” through which men and women ascend on their way to Paradiso, or heavenly paradise. In Roman Catholic theology, purgatory is a place in which those who have died are slowly purged of their earthly sins before they arrive at heaven, for the pure goodness of God and the heavenly hosts cannot tolerate imperfection. In purgatory, people destined for heaven undergo temporal punishments to finalize their purification, as penance for their earthly sins. Theologically, it is a process, not a place, so Dante is giving substance to an idea by geo-morphizing an abstraction in narrative form.

This relates to our readings and course trajectory in two ways. On the one hand, the notion of purgatory contributed to the moral corruption of the Church and fertilized the later reformations. On the other, the seven deadly sins were given corresponding virtues through the propagation of the chivalric code to which crusaders and knights were thought to adhere.

In terms of the first, purgatory provided anxious Middle Agers the psychological placebo of potential posthumous penance within a world of the Black Plague, injury and infection,and other forms of sudden, inglorious death. Purgatory served a function, conscious or not, to placate a culture of consciousness infiltrated by Catholic doctrine. Obsessed even more with the hopes of heaven than the most fundamentalist of televangelists, the fear of death arriving before one could receive last rites or atone for past sins could be crushing. But when those sins could be forgiven not on, but after, one’s death bed, the church could soothe a lot of souls. In time, the purification process came to be seen as open to participation by the dead’s family and close friends, who could reduce the time required for purgation by their prayers, called indulgences. It wasn’t long before the living could even purchase indulgences on behalf of their loved ones, or someone could store up indulgences in advance by bequeathing their estate to the church.

But the moment they became commercial transactions, they privileged the rich over the poor. If, in the pursuit of wealth, you commit a few mortal sins, then that same wealth could easily serve as your eternal insurance policy. One of the primary claims against the church that Luther would later make was about the sale of indulgences, literally pieces of paper that could be purchased that would promise a shorter stay in purgatory. Penance, Luther argued, could not be purchased. In fact, it was by grace and grace alone that souls entered eternal perfection. The pendulum had pushed back, and human agency was about to take another crazy path. But that’s another rabbit hole…

Bernard Verkamp gives us more information than we need on the Medieval practice of penance, and he connects it directly to the subject matter for this course, soldiers and veterans in Western cultures. But before we get there, let’s discuss the second way purgatory relates to the Seven Deadly Sins and alternative accounts of virtue competing with Thomas’.

Like an argument from silence, describing vices doesn’t give us a positive moral structure se7en-virtuesby which to live lives that move us toward human goods like happiness. Luckily, not long after Evagrius gave us his list of sins, another Christian poet, Prudentius, wrote Psychomachia, modeled upon Virgil’s Aeneid, which personified the seven vices in a battle against similarly anthropomorphized virtues, including —>

Each poet and their list became wildly popular not when they were composed, in Late Antiquity, but nearly a thousand years later, during the High Middle Ages. It is no coincidence, then that these virtues correspond with the chivalric code intended for cavalry soldiers marching off to the crusades, a role we have come to call “Knights.” Maurice Keen argues that new, restrictive changes in military technology and strategy domesticated European warrior classes in the twelfth century.[1] Those changes made the codification of a warrior ethos appealing in a time when soldiers were reduced to entertainment in tournament and dueling culture. These games needed a measure by which to judge sportsmanship and fair play, as they rarely resulted in death, which had been the final proof of a noble warrior’s virtue.

But the chivalric code was also employed in actual battle, in various forms. Verkamp gives us some idea of this, if you can bear the dense jargon and historical sources he provides in his first chapter. Prototypes of what we might think of as the virtues of chivalry appear in the early penitentials described by Verkamp, which seem like pre-formative accounts of what it means to be a “good soldier.” Describing the criteria by which one may be a good soldier or knight is also an attempt to understand what good military force secures, and therefore what virtues and practices enable those who commit violence to retain their virtue in a Christianized culture like Europe.

More than anything, knights served precisely this narrative function, for the prohibitions against violence in the Christian canon are many. Furthermore, the embodied reality of martial violence necessitates justification of violence as an answer to the question with which many soldiers are left when they leave the battle field; “Am I a good person?” Landing what, at first strike, appears to be a non-lethal blow to one’s opponent would usually result in death. In pre-modern combat, there were very few wounds from which one would survive. The mortality rate was much higher than it is now, and the mechanical proximity to death left psychological and spiritual pollution that threatened the soldier as well as his community. In a world without penicillin or sterilized gauze, death appeared to be contagious, which explains why siege tactics included lobbing dead livestock over city walls in the hopes infection would spread and the city be defeated.

The long list of soldier saints and chivalric knights provide a narrative moral backdrop against which soldiers and non soldiers can make sense of the chaotic intersection of armed service and (Christian) faith. Not only had they encountered death and lived, their actions were seen as just, and their survival could be explained, by merit of their adhering to some code or set of criteria which pleased God. Chivalry became ritualized and assumed overt religious themes in the eleventh century, setting the stage for the many Crusades.

Perhaps partly to blame for the nostalgic world upon which the Crusades were narratively dependent (and sought to protect) was the very popularity by which chivalry rose to prominence. In the thirteenth century, the same in which Aquinas was writing and which had already seen no less than three crusades, Jacobus de Voragine produced his Legenda sanctorum, or Readings of the Saints. For several centuries, it became the authoritative sources for the stories of saints, soldiers or not. By the time moveable type printing reached Europe, it was so popular that it quickly eclipsed the Bible in raw numbers as well as languages into which it was translated. The problem is that it was composed as devotional literature, meant to inspire rather than to educate, and freely embellished stories which either only existed in fragments, or did not exist at all. It sought to follow the liturgical calendar, and had to supply saints for days in which no feast was observed by the Church.

Some saints in the book, which came to be called legenda aurea, or Golden Legend, received special treatment to make them especially appealing to knights, like George for example. According to classicist David Woods, Saint George was, at most, a Cappadocian gentleman a veteran of the Roman military in Palestine, who was killed for refusing to confess Apollo as god. Most of the historical record is fragmentary and anachronistic. But in the Golden Legend, George is depicted in spectacular terms, as a knight in shining armor who slays a dragon and saves a damsel in distress. Surely the embellishment makes the story more appealing, but at what cost?  Certainly a product of his environment, his description of Muhammad as “a false prophet and sorcerer” probably didn’t do much for Christian-Muslim diplomacy either…

The Middles Ages were a time of intense cultural revision and change as Christianity solidified its political and intellectual power in Rome, but which also secured its own moral demise when it failed to balance the competing interests and goods of the church against a secular public. Chivalry and the knighthood, bolstered by the new literary genre of romance and shifting notions of nobility, encapsulated by the Arthurian legends and the Readings curated by de Voragine, played a central part of the self-identification of Medieval Europe. But clearly, we must question the moral coherence of the narrative ecosystem within which it flourished, as the project to unify church and state corrupted each. Hobbes noticed the pending fragmentation and argued in his Leviathan for a composite ruler who would combine the religious rule of the Pope and the political power of a king, a proposal which in no way arises from the list of the Seven Virtues outlined above. Enlightenment philosophers argued in a different direction, basically rejecting theology and any philosophy dependent upon the fundamentally flawed narrative world the Roman Catholic church sought to propagate. Reason, they decided, was the antidote to the autocratic moral rule of the Papacy, and I’m not sure we can blame them. But as we see in MacIntyre, even that can be taken too far.


[1] Maurice Keen, Chivalry (Yale University Press, 2005)