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.

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 (or have and only remember the final scene; “what’s in the box?!”);

  1. Lust
  2. Gluttony
  3. Greed
  4. Sloth
  5. Wrath
  6. Envy
  7. Pride

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 for 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.

Dante 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 by 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;

  1. Lust Chastity
  2. Gluttony Temperance
  3. Greed Charity/Love
  4. Sloth Diligence
  5. Wrath Patience
  6. Envy Kindness
  7. Pride Humility

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)

Virtues of War – Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas was a 13th century Christian theologian and moral philosopher. Aquinas refers to the region of his birth, Aquino, not his family name. Noteworthy for our purposes is that each of his brothers became soldiers of some type, taking after their father. Thomas was the youngest and chose a different path. His family was embarrassed by his desire to join a new monastic order of preachers, the Dominicans, because of their life of poverty. His own brothers kidnapped him and held him in detention in a family castle for over a year. One story has them hiring a prostitute to tempt him away from a religious life, but he chased the woman away with a fire iron. His fellow Dominicans called him “The Dumb Ox” because he was large and quiet (“dumb” historically referred to muteness). One story circulated about him describes how his desk even had a slight curvature carved into to accommodate his size and shape.

The Summa Theologiae, or summary of theology, was an entire genre in medieval Europe. A “summa” was a textbook for theology students, which is to say Catholic priests in training. This was before universities really took any recognizable shape, and formal training often assumed a Christian form (convents, monasteries, etc.) Thomas modeled his summa after this type, but as lengthy as his was, it was never actually completed. In 1273, in the middle of writing a third part, he had an unexplained experience which caused him to cease writing altogether. When asked why he quit, Thomas replied “all that I have written seems like straw to me.” He died four months later. His writings, particularly those that make up his summa, have been unmatched in their influence upon Christian theology, and moral philosophy, and the Roman Catholic Church counts him as primary among “Doctors of the Church.”

In terms of the virtues, Aquinas assumes the account given by Aristotle, to whom he refers simply as The Philosopher, without much revision.

Intellectual virtues perfect the aptness for reliably producing goods, either Truth (in the case of speculative intellectual virtues) or things (in the case of practical intellectual virtues). Each practical intellectual virtue, prudence and art, must be passed down person to person; to be practically knowledgeable about pitching, for example, you must learn from a pitcher. The Greeks called the speculative intellectual virtues “First Principles,” including understanding, science, and wisdom, because they was accessible to anyone, even slaves and women (which were thought of as rational non-persons). Speculative intellectual virtues only needed to be awakened in a person (like 1+1=2), and maybe policed as subsequent conclusions were drawn (2+2≠5). Because they can be misused, intellectual virtues fall short of the full sense of virtue. For example, an artist can be excellent at their craft, but purposely make bad art (maybe Picasso serves as an example of this for some readers). The exception to this mis-usability is Prudence, which also serves as a moral virtue.

Moral virtues cannot be misused and are therefore virtues as such; they cannot but make a person good. According to Aquinas, trying to answer for the fundamental difference between Christian and pagan epistemological commitments, they can be ‘acquired’ by anybody at all, but they can also be ‘infused’ by God into righteous persons. This allows him to claim pagans like Aristotle as something like proto-Christians (what others of his era called “virtuous pagans”); those who would be Christians had they been born during the Common Era. Acquired moral virtues perfect genuine worldly happiness, and he insisted that non-Christians can genuinely achieve happiness, the highest human good on earth. Infused virtues, however, perfect supernatural happiness via supernatural ends, similar to the theological virtues. Thomas affirms Cicero’s list, citing the same four cardinal virtues the Roman world subscribed to, rather than the lengthier and more diverse Aristotelian list the Greeks propagated.

Theological virtues are unique to Thomas, at least in terms of the history we’ve traced in this course. There are three, modeled on Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 13, the (in?)famous wedding verse. The scriptural element is critical, for it is referencing those things which will remain after “the end” (telos), the final consummation of justice that Christ will accomplish upon his second coming. Paul exhorts the church in Corinth to remember that what we see before us, the sensory world we inhabit and which we usually think of as real, is in fact passing away; “for now we see in a mirror, dimly… Now I know only in part; then [we Christ’s perfection arrives] I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (v.12, NRSV) All we thought we knew will pass away, all except for faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love. As individual theological virtues, they regard perfect happiness; their practice moves a subject closer to their supernatural telos, a perfect end only possible by God’s intervention, assistance, and final consummation.

MacIntyre on Aquinas

Although the heroic era and its cultures were centuries apart from 13th century Italy, MacIntyre is quick to remind us that there were remnants of heroic societies in Celtic, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon cultures, whose “social forms and poetry… were Christianized so that the pagan warrior king could emerge as the Christian knight, remarkably unchanged.” For that reason, “the medieval order cannot reject the heroic table of the virtues.” (166) We might explore next week if the competitive nature of the heroic virtues played a part in the use of virtue to justify Christian knights going off to fight in the crusades…

The ‘rediscovery of classical texts’ MacIntyre alludes to was mentioned last week, as Cicero saw a huge resurgence during this time. The medieval era is undoubtedly the crux of his dystopian catastrophe, when a heavily “Christianized” Western Europe rediscovered its own philosophical story, in Homer, Aristotle, Cicero, and Virgil. Culture had to confront new assumptions and ideas about human freedom and common goods, which had become co-opted by Roman Catholicism. Nearly all forms of intelligent thought assumed a Christian structure, which had become corrupted by power, wealth, and status after Constantine I legalized the religion in the 4th century and it quickly became the de facto religion of the empire. The penetrative intercourse between church and state fermented for many centuries until the Pope held more power than any king, and often acted accordingly.

Thomas, like Sophocles before him, illustrates a moral inconsistency between structures and institutions of power and the cultural reality within which that power operates. Put another way, he filled a void left between what was preached about being good (which also implied obedience to the Pope) and what was practiced by those claiming to be good.  The recovery of Greek and Latin literature and culture, including the virtues, was what MacIntyre had in mind when he described the post-apocalyptic attempts to piece the natural sciences back together, only in reality it was moral philosophy which had lost its roots. Writing Leviathan 1651, the subtitle of which was The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, Hobbes (not a defender of democratic or republican forms of government) remarked, perhaps lamentably, that “the failing of Vertue in the Pastors, maketh Faith faile in the People: and partly from bringing of the Philosophy, and doctrine of Aristotle into Religion.” (Leviathan, part I, ch.12; page 95. Paraphrased in After Virtue, 165) It was his work which asserted the absolute power of an autocratic ruler, the leviathan, which combined the ecclesiastical power of the Pope with the political power of the King. The first pages of Hobbes book make the connection to the beast of the bible explicit, citing Job 41. “There is no power on earth to be compared to him.” It isn’t clear if Hobbes was aware that the same beast is killed by God in Psalm 74:14 and Isaiah 27:1. In Aquinas’ time, “Leviathan” was synonymous with the devil, and often represented Greed, one of the seven deadly sins.

Philoctetes’ return and the changing meaning of isolation

Remember that, for Aristotle’s Athens, isolation was a fundamental violation of friendship, but not for Homer. MacIntyre revisits Philoctetes and places him in the same meaningful social space as “the solitary anchorite or the shepherd on the remote mountain side.” This is important because even expulsion, voluntary or not, from a community still assumes a social role. Insofar as their meaning is assigned by a community, even the exile is a functional social role. “The individual carries [their] communal roles with [them] as part of the definition of [their] self, even into [their] isolation.” (173) Even if serving primarily as a means of enforcement, that role may be revised and augmented via counterstories. The Monastic Hermit, a character known for fleeing the urban centers of third century Rome, is a perfect example of assigning positive moral substance to a formerly derogatory social space.

Antony, perhaps the most famous early eremitic monk, inspired many after him, including St Augustine of Hippo. Early monasticism, from which Thomas’ Dominican order descended, signified an attempt at dealing with the moral incoherence of the church becoming increasingly invested in secular power and status. We may think of this impulse, of voluntary exclusion and rejection of wealth, as a kind of counterstory. If so, then it might complicate Lindemann’s account, for Christians were by no means being marginalized by dominant narratives; they were writing them; ruling over civil cases in basilicas, advising emperors, and inheriting large swaths of land. The time of persecution had ended, and the age of the martyrs had passed. That story was contested by the early monastics, who interpreted the legalization of Christianity as a tragedy. To understand why, let’s look at what, for the early church, constituted the highest good, which was martyrdom.

Q&R- PTS & Spirituality

I recently got a question by email from an online friend and fellow academic. I wanted to post it for a couple reasons; 1) It’s a great question, and 2) he drops the D from “PTSD.”
This is increasingly being done by veterans and veterans service organizations, and which I support whole heartedly. The D stands for “disorder,” which carries with it certain moral judgments, namely that the veteran is ‘disordered.’ But vets are pushing back on this claim, insisting that there is nothing out of order about expressing reasonable reactions to the unreasonable circumstances they faced in war or military service. Some vets, myself included, worry that this actually displaces or falsely concentrates blame onto a minority population, that in fact we need to seriously assess our society as a whole and whether it has become disordered. There is a lot more that could be said on this, but I’ll leave that for another post. For now, here is my friend’s question;
Logan, I got a question from someone who has a Christian friend who is suffering from post-traumatic stress.  I was asked if I am aware of any books or materials that address this from a Christian perspective.  I am intrigued by the question since I am increasingly convinced that PTS is a spiritual issue as much as a medical one. Are you aware of anything? If so, thanks
Well, at the risk of self-promoting, that’s what I’ve been trying to do through my writing. My own thought on it is that we have too many resources on the diagnosis, which can be dangerous because it reinforces the false idea that ‘I am my diagnosis.’ What I do, through Centurions Guild especially, is to create a constructive account to work from, so the conversation isn’t all about mental illness. So we talk about what a Christian soldier has been in church history (correcting misconceptions along the way) and then invite people to consider what it means to be a Christian soldier today. To do so, we have to privilege the voices of Christian soldiers in order to correct the narrative that directly links me with my diagnosis. Furthermore, we need to connect people with the story of salvation history to which the church bears witness, and which Christian soldiers contribute to in their own very unique way.
So that is all to say that my 2nd book especially is an attempt to do this. I failed to see this concretely when I wrote it, so you won’t find this rationale in the introduction. The point of the book is really about creating a constructive martial hermeneutic, one which displays how integral Christians soldiers are to the Church. Not for killing, but for how they embody virtues the church has failed to in the last few centuries (like loyalty, courage, etc.). My first book narrates my discovery of the living story of Christian soldiers, and also makes me want to encourage other vets to write, because putting my experience on paper (and sharing it) really helped me assign moral meaning to it (both good and bad. i could more readily see the things I did wrong and the things i did not do wrong).
I hope that helps, and that I’m not just tooting my own horn. There are really good clinical/therapeutic books out there, but I don’t usually find them satisfying in terms of rich theology. I will say, because I clearly like tooting my own horn, that I am working up a book proposal for something that will accomplish what you’re talking about, but that probably won’t happen any time soon…

Virtues of War – Patriotism

To sweep us along in the interest of time, let’s press quickly into MacIntyre, or at least my summary of his essay “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” Before we do that, let’s outline some linguistic issues we face in the event we are using the word “patriotism” in a way divorced from its historic meaning.

Our English word “patriot” derives from the singular masculine nouns patriotes (πατριώτης) in Greek and patriōta in Latin, each from the root pater, or father. Its literal translation might be something like ‘fatherlings’, but it shares an association with patris, or country, in a similar way the Hebrew word bayit (בָּ֫יִת) or “house” implies both genealogical heritage and boundaried structure.

If we look up its etymology, or linguistic history, “patriot” comes to us from the French patriote, which, during the early enlightenment period, implied “loyal and disinterested supporter of one’s country.” By 1755, however, the word had assumed an overtly derogative meaning; “one whose ruling passion is the love of [their] country.”[1] Eighteen years later, the same British dictionary added “a factious disturber of the government.” It might be noted this later revision was added the same year that the Tea Act was signed in Britain and that Boston harbor briefly took the name Earl Grey Bay. I’m sure it was just a coincidence that three years later, those “factious disturbers of the government” signed, sealed, and delivered the Declaration of Independence.

The latter mischievous connotation prevailed for some time, becoming popular outside the United States in European resistance movements during the two world wars. But to be clear, the American meaning is ironic insofar as our country was still technically ruled by the British Crown, so our revolution was not just one of violent force, but also one of meaning and language. At least for a time, we removed the root word, patris, from the compound itself. Irony comes to us from the Greek eirōn (εἴρων) for dissembler, someone who professes beliefs and opinions that he or she does not hold in order to conceal his or her real feelings or motives. Sound morally wrong? An eirōn was a stock character in Greek theater, one who takes down a boastful adversary.

The most helpful definition I have found for patriot, which reveals my bias as a Christian, I suppose, is from Pope John Paul II. In 1995, he spoke before the United Nations in New York City, knowing full well the American use of “patriotism” before the global community. He defends the love of country by contrasting it, properly, I think, with “nationalism.” Speaking to diplomats representing the countries of the world, he insisted

we need to clarify the essential difference between an unhealthy form of nationalism, which teaches contempt for other nations or cultures, and patriotism, which is a proper love of one’s country. True patriotism never seeks to advance the well-being of one’s own nation at the expense of others. For in the end this would harm one’s own nation as well: doing wrong damages both aggressor and victim. Nationalism, particularly in its most radical forms, is thus the antithesis of true patriotism.


So how MacIntyre fit into all this (besides being Catholic)? Well, for starters, MacIntyre also uses contrast to make his point; he pits a particularist morality (of virtue) against a (liberal) impersonal morality, via characters.

The Liberal Moralist must object to patriotism as a virtue or good because it “places our ties to our nation beyond rational criticism.” (18) In other words, the obligation to be objective and impartial (i.e. “rational”) comes to contradict the necessary duty to a specific set of people or geographical boundaries which patriotism entails. Patriot, for the Liberal Moralist, comes to mean something like ‘national apologist;’ one who defends their own nation over and above cosmopolitan globalism. A defining feature of the liberal critique is what MacIntyre calls “patriotism by contrast,” (4) for it is only permitted to those of the nation itself (i.e. only Americans can be patriots, and protecting American people or property are more important than, say, any truly substantive representative democracy that ‘we’ might export).

The Moralist of Patriotism, on the other hand, will claim that liberalism “renders our social and moral ties too open to dissolution by rational criticism.” (18) The liberal fallacy, they will argue, is not only that “right/good” can only be determined by pure, detached reason (which may never be socially embodied) but also that any particular self-interest disqualifies reasonability. For example, by speaking about veterans in my own particularity as a veteran, the Liberal Moralist reduces my agency to mere self-interest and I can therefore not be trusted as a reasonable agent. But the Moralist of Patriotism may ask ‘What real application, or social embodiment, is possible for the purely rational agent?’, and ‘Why can invested parties not also be reasonable?’ Perhaps because the Moralist of Patriotism is not found in our culture nearly as much as the Liberal Moralist, MacIntyre does not put much effort into constructing a positive account of patriotism based on what seems to be the position closer to what he argues for in After Virtue.

Each of MacIntyre’s characters agrees that patriotism is a “permanent source of moral danger,” which MacIntyre seems to imply is some kind of flaw. (15, 18) But why should a virtuous person fear moral danger? Certainly, moral decrepitude implies something like social (eternal?) damnation, but the opposing ‘risk’ is of moral excellence and social (eternal?) glory. Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean is literally an average, and it seems intuitive that an Aristotelian like MacIntyre would be fine with the balancing act he calls “moral danger.” After all, the noble mean is perfectly realistic in that it can be “socially embodied” by actual human beings, who face the moral dangers of innumerable vices everyday…

Considering all this, MacIntyre’s critique of liberalism and its moralists, is that reason has become overemphasized and that the contrasting impulse to jettison reason is in fact merely flipping the liberal coin back to Emotivism? When MacIntyre says “good soldiers cannot be liberals,” he’s also saying they can be neither detached rational beings nor morally relative Emotivists. This may be why he claims that military service, whether of the highest general or the lowliest private, cannot be “contingent upon their own individual evaluation of the rightness or wrongness of their country’s cause,” at least not by a neutral standard (because such a standard doesn’t truly exist). The phrase I heard often in my short time in the Army, that we didn’t ultimately fight for flag or freedom, but for the man or woman on their right or left, requires a kind of detached morality that leans Emotivist.

But is that true? Does a nation’s cause unilaterally determine the exclusive moral structure of its armed conflicts? If “good soldiers cannot be liberals,” but for the twin vices of detached rationality and relativizing Emotivism, does it follow that they cannot be virtuous? If they can, then what will be distinctively martial virtues? This is THE central question posed by this course.

Here is where I think we can lean on MacIntyre for an account of martial virtue, or at least for the particular virtue of patriotism. He summarizes the difficulty thusly, “the patriot may find that a point comes when he or she has to choose between the claims of the project which constitutes his or her nation and the claims of the morality that he or she has learnt as a member of the community whose life is informed by that project.” (15)

The object of the patriot’s regard, then, is an “ideal, not the nation” itself. (4) Construed properly, an ideal worthy of loyalty may take differing forms for individual communities, but each ideal will “underline the moral importance” (16) of a common good shared despite particular narrative differences; say, for example “the best interests” (14) of a shared humanity. “What the patriot is committed to” MacIntyre suggests, “is a particular way of linking a past… with a future for the [national] project.” (14) In other words, the extent to which a nation departs from the moral architecture that has formed its members and pursues a destiny or telos incompatible therewith, that in any way threatens a common human good, “patriots” act in the interest of their own national ideal and of humanity by obstructing those in power who have decoupled the narrative trajectory of a morally coherent national project with its hope for a future.

The example MacIntyre gives, of Adam von Trott, is not virtuous patriotism, but rather may be what Pope John Paul called “nationalism.” Although Trott resisted Hitler and Nazism, he still had in mind the interests of the German volk, not “the best interests” of all humanity. In simply aspiring to replace Hitler, rather than overthrow national socialism and repent of their two world wars, von Trott acted to preserve the same imperialism which unified his nation in 1871 under Kaiser Wilhelm I. The story of Austria’s annexation in 1938 by Hitler, was a direct reflection of the same nationalist aspirations. Put another way, what if Hitler’s rise to power was fully in keeping with the ambitious trajectory of the German people, an element of their story for which no defense could be made, for defense implies rejection of guilt.

Before I close, I’d be remiss if I did not point out the prophetic irony with which MacIntyre concludes his essay. An immigrant writing in 1984, under President Reagan, the first who had been trained as an actor, he writes of his adopted country in morally vague terms, perhaps with full intention. He calls for an examination of “the political and social history of modern America,” coyly wondering if a fundamental characteristic thereof would have to be “a central conceptual confusion, a confusion perhaps required for the survival of a large scale modern polity.” (19) He gives us some sense of the danger involved, of “discovering that we inhabit a kind of polity whose moral order requires systematic incoherence in the form of public allegiance to mutually inconsistent sets of principles.” (19)

Perhaps tellingly, he then promptly (and “happily”) signs off, leaving the question to us…


Questions for Discussion

  • Is there such a character as the perfect rational being to which MacIntyre’s Liberal Moralist aspires? What kind of person would they be, or can you cite an example?
  • Is there such a character as the Emotivist Self? What kind of person would they be or can you cite an example?

[1] Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was the first attempt to enforce language by explicit standard.

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!