Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Man and His Honor

If it is true that the best citizen is he who shares most fully in the honors of society, then today Americans are in quite a pickle. If it is also true that he who has no share in the government, cannot be a loyal citizen (Politics, 1268a), then we have a bona fide problem. I would talk about each in turn.

First, in a liberal democracy it is not hard to find, as Plato said we would, a variety of constitutions. There as many ways of life as there are men and it's not difficult to find someone with whom you share your esoteric ways. Yet is it satisfying or satisfying enough for a man to share those values with only a small set of people? Does he perhaps wish for some broader consensus, an accord on universal principles, however few? One the one hand external validation seems superfluous to morality. Socrates and Jesus are the most famous examples, but it's not hard to think of people who didn't get along with the majority. Surely objective morality is indifferent to the vicissitudes of popular opinion. Likewise, adhering to morality does satisfy the conscience. The good man can sleep at night and look at himself in the mirror on the morning, but how does he look at others?

It seems naive to suggest that anyone truly, deeply enjoys a plurality of opinions. Perhaps you think you are correct or you can admit your opponent is correct or you can admit you both are wrong, but it seems a fancy to think that anyone happily wallows in a muddy plurality of contradictory ideas. The variety might even be fertile, but man requires more than excitement. Chiefly, he desires to live up to a vision, an ideal of man, fulfilling his his duties and obligations and consequently receiving honors. When there is a variety of values in society and everyone is equally praised, man is left to find his own inspiration for and satisfaction in pursuing the good.

Such is possible, but not preferable in extremity. Absent a consensus on virtue, many will still adhere to the path of the good, but without recognition many will not. Moreover, without the reward of honors the virtuous man will develop resentment for his society. The man who saves his money, pays his bills, and spends within his means will learn to resent the society which excuses and rescues profligate men. The bachelor who keeps his hands off women and the husband who remains faithful will find anger in his heart for the fellow men who use women and the women who excuse them. The man who cultivates restraint will feel the fool when boors go without chastise. Whoever devotes himself to serious and genuine study bill begrudge the fame bestowed on fools and false scholars by the unstudied. And so on and on, the good man will resent his fellow citizens.

The good man in a society which does not recognize his virtue will wonder whether he is Aeneas or Don Quixote. Is he passing on the torch of virtue and tradition or is he following bygone ideals? He will question himself and his sanity, wondering whether his courage is foolishness. Denied honor he will either seek to reform society or he will retreat from it. A man with agency will turn toward reform. If he has charisma he may turn to politics, if he has artistic skill he may attempt to persuade by art, if wealth, by influence. A man with little agency in society will retreat to the sanctity of the next social circle in which he shares both duty and honor. Some men will turn to violence, against themselves or others whom they blame.

What, then, will prevent this dissolution? What will unite the plurality? Aristotle wrote (Politics, 1263b) that education would do this, but the education of Greek παιδεία is not of text books and standardized tests. It is a reconciliation of the individual to society, a stepping into society and ideals. Education then, Highet wrote (Paideia, I.xxii) is no adornment, but, "deliberately moulding human character in accordance with an ideal." To have a culture which is not merely a collection of traits or a main idea requires the nexus of its ideals in a vision of man which is fervently sought and when found, praised.

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