Dialectic of the Good: the structural containment of tradition in the in the establishment of virtue

As I write this, England will or will not be on the way to the finals of the World Cup, and that matter, like the fate of Schrödinger’s cat, will have been settled by the time this article is posted. Although I played (badly) as a boy, I have assiduously avoided following football as it seems an invitation to either adulation of bought success or perpetual disappointment à la Fever Pitch and, ultimately, always the latter. Moreover, the present games began inauspiciously, being located in a country that is an emerging threat to Western Europe, and through a process of tender that has come to be viewed in retrospect as highly suspect. However, like many others, I have been impressed by the shape of the England squad, less for their potential in lifting the Cup (though I would admit this is not entirely a negligible matter) than the character of the England manager, the care he demonstrates towards his players, the cohesion as a team and the attitudes they demonstrate on the pitch. This has inspired some thoughts on a topic not always considered these days, that is the nature of virtue.

According to Aristotle in Book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics:

Every art and every investigation, and likewise every practical pursuit or undertaking, seems to aim at some good: hence it has been well said that the Good is that at which all things aim.

Clearly, football, like any other pursuit, has an intended goal (no pun intended) of being played well. But what is it to play the game well? Aristotle makes a distinction between an art in which the goal is the pursuit of the practice itself and that in which the practice is productive of some tangible outcome. Aristotle’s examples are flute playing and house building respectively. Which one is football? For some this will be a ridiculous question, as the answer would clearly be that football is a productive activity, the product being scoring goals, winning matches and, at the professional level at least, winning cups and achieving eminent status. This much is not really in doubt. But as football has become increasingly wealthy, with the corruption that wealth can bring, the image that people have had is not so much that of ‘the beautiful game’ but something more akin to Game of Thrones.

Aristotle argued that every practice has an intended end, or telos, which is the cultivation of virtue; by which he meant the cultivation of the human character. This concept of the realisation of virtue through the cultivation of an expertise was also found in the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s teaching on the Tao – literally ‘the way’ – which persists today in various oriental arts, the do in Japanese martial arts (Judo, Aikido) and in the tea ceremony, Cha-do, for example. That is to say, the point is not merely to win, or more broadly to achieve success in something, although it is also that, but also to develop a virtuous character in keeping with one’s expertise.

The question then arises: what do we mean by virtue? The two great proponents of virtue in the history of philosophy are probably Aristotle and Confucius. There is some convergence between their thoughts on virtue, but important differences between them. For Aristotle the cultivation of reason (logos) was paramount, as this is what differentiates us from the animals, but this is mitigated to some degree by our sociality (ethos), what Aristotle calls our being a ‘political’ animal, that is one embedded in human society and its norms. Ultimately, though, Aristotle retains what today we would call a ‘critical distancing’ from the contemporaneous social form. By contrast, by today’s reckoning Confucius appears highly conservative. For Confucius virtue consists in obedience to the laws and rituals (li) of the past Zhou dynasty, which he considered to have embodied ‘the mandate of Heaven’. However, mere obedience to li without ren – literally ‘love’, though I prefer the translation ‘humanity’ – is empty of meaning.

Both Aristotle and Confucius, therefore, have a binary concept of virtue, consisting of an internal virtue and an external virtue, an individual response and an external conformity. I would argue that this essentially balanced and cohesive idea of virtue was sundered in Christianity, something which has haunted the idea of virtue in the West ever since, though it also added another dimension. Jesus, who according to Karl Jaspers, is one of the great ethical teachers of history, came with the radical demand that people leave behind worldly concerns and focus on the kingdom of God. Asked whether the Jews should pay the Roman tax, Jesus took a denarius and asked whose image was on it:

They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. (Matt 15:21)

There are various interpretations of what this might mean, but subsequent history was strongly influence by St Paul’s insistence that the spirit has precedence over the law, underlying the split between the sacred and the secular in the West.

For Confucius ren was the love within the family, particularly of the son for the father (filial piety), which he saw as the basis for good citizenship and the model of the relationship between the king and his subjects (benevolence and loyalty). Jesus, however, took a radically different turn:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… (Matt 5:43-44)

What it means exactly to love your enemies – specifically – is not elucidated, though there are extraordinary cases of those who have been the victims of bestial crimes finding in themselves the power to forgive. I think more generally, particularly within the modern context, though, loving one’s enemies can be interpreted in a twofold way: the call to universality; and the call to empathy, both emanating from the implicit deracination implicit in Jesus teaching.

Both Aristotle and Confucius, as far as we know, saw their duty as delimited by that which was close to them, for Aristotle the polis, which at the time would have numbered a few tens of thousands and for Confucius the State ruled over by the king. Universality was not within their conception. The world that Jesus inhabited was already much wider and interconnected; in Palestine the Egyptian, Graeco-Roman and Semitic-Hebraic cultures collided. Literally collided, that is, as Palestine was a vassal state under the dominion of the Roman Empire. Through exhorting his disciples to love their enemies, Jesus was extending the range of their concern from the local to the universal.

Despite its Greek linguistic roots, empathy is a modern term coined in the nineteenth century, developing out of German Romantic philosophy. It has no analogue in the ancients, which could be taken as evidence for humanity’s continued spiritual development. However, I would argue that the seeds for the development of the concept of empathy are in Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemy, and that, therefore, it is more likely to have arisen in a civilisation based on Christianity. There is no historical evidence for this, of course, as empathy arose from the romantic school of interpretation of the artwork, as Einfühlung, literally ‘feeling into’, and it was only later translated into social theory by Theodore Lipps as an explanation of our ability to identify the emotional life of others. But it is at least plausible that the Christian context allowed the development of the idea that it is worthy to understand the world from the perspective of minds other than our own.

Is it possible, though, that the teaching of loving one’s enemy, rather than extending the idea of virtue, has fatally undermined it? Nietzsche certainly thought so; he saw through the supposed Christian virtues of meekness and forgiveness an underlying corruption of the spirit and the values underlying European civilisation. His solution was a radical transvaluation and a return to the warrior codes of aristocratic society.

The moral philosopher Alasdair McIntyre in his 1981 book After Virtue, though no less aware of the demise of virtue, targeted the humanism that emerged in the Enlightenment. According to McIntyre the concept of virtue was lost when thinkers such as Hume and Kant attempted to reconstitute virtue in purely sentimental or rationalistic terms, undercutting the notion of tradition – whether religious or cultural – that had always been a part of it, as can be seen in the case of both Aristotelian and Confucian ideas of virtue. For Hume the good was no more or less than human feeling. Kant attempted to explain virtue in terms of the categorical imperative, the admonition to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”, which while it is mirrored in the teachings of the great religions, is itself devoid of any particular content or transcendental cultural grounding. For McIntyre, modernism has so etiolated the notion of virtue that it is now virtually impossible to reconstitute it, unless through a return to classical notions of the community such as found in Aristotle.

I am not as pessimistic as either Nietzsche or McIntyre about the influence of Christianity or the Enlightenment project on Western civilisation. Both in their way have the potential to release us from the stultifying weight of tradition, as demonstrated historically by periodic episodes of reform and revolution. However, the discussion of virtue in the ancients placed an emphasis on what I have termed an external virtue, which can only be some form of social norms, as well as an internal attitudinal virtue. This, of course, is none other than a tradition.

Can we and, if so, how do we, reconcile these seemingly incompatible facets of a tradition, as an obstacle to aspiration and as a context to aspiration? It is, in effect, to achieve the seemingly impossible of a synthesis between the critical and the conservative approaches to tradition. There is in fact an activity with a long pedigree within religion, law, aesthetics and more recently in philosophy that sets out to accomplish that, which is the art of interpretation, the study of which is known as hermeneutics. Interpretation is premised on the assumption that the text – a general term for any object of interpretation, though frequently a written text – is given and indissoluble; that the interpretation extends the meaning of the text, but does not replace it. Interpretation, therefore, steers a middle course between literalism, which allows of no interpretation, and deconstruction, for which every interpretation has the same literary or aesthetic value as the original.

Interpretation offers a bridge between an Aristotelian more intellectual and critical approach to tradition based on the rules of the community and the Confucian one of loyalty to a tradition mediated by humanity. Interpretation allows the preservation of a tradition – in fact, insists on it – while seeking that which is essential and profound within it, not merely an external observation or observance. Virtue, then, can be understood as a variety of interpretation, one in which the telos of the activity is the acquisition of the good. The hermeneutic philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer likens interpretation to ‘play’ and cites the poet Rilke:

Catch only what you’ve thrown yourself, all is

mere skill and little gain;

but when you’re suddenly the catcher of a ball

thrown by an eternal partner

with accurate and measured swing

towards you, to your center, in an arch

from the great bridgebuilding of God:

why catching then becomes a power—

not yours, a world’s

Which is perhaps an apposite moment to return to football. According to Bill Shankly, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that”. Perhaps not, but neither is it as mundane as kicking a ball around a field. Like all serious sports it is a game bound by rules that represent a tradition within the sport, but one that is symbiotic with the traditions of civilised societies. Some interpretations may push the rules to the breaking point in a winner-takes-all attitude; while this may appeal to a narrow sporting fan base, it does not command widespread public respect. A truer – certainly a more virtuous – interpretation, one which we have seen inklings of this time round, sees the rules as the occasion for exemplifying the values of sportsmanship – courage and fairness, magnanimity in victory and resilience in defeat. Sport at its best humanises and civilises us.

 

Selected Bibliography

Aristotle (2000) Nicomachean Ethics (tr. And ed. Roger Crisp). Cambridge: CUP. Online at: http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/samples/cam032/99036947.pdf

Hans-Georg Gadamer (1994) Truth and method. London: Continuum Publishing Group.

Alasdair MacIntyre (1981) After virtue: A study in moral theory. London: Duckworth.

Karsten Stueber (2018) ‘Empathy’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2018/entries/empathy/&gt;.

Jiyuan Yu (1998) ‘Virtue: Confucius and Aristotle’. Philosophy East and West, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Apr., 1998), pp. 323-347.

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Mythopoeic Memory and the Oral Tradition

6

Memory is not a passive depository of facts, but an active process of creation of meanings. (Alessandro Portelli) 1

The relationship of memory to reality is something that we have all, at one time or another, had to face, not just the fact that our memory is unreliable, but that even our most cherished memories can turn out to be partly – even sometimes wholly – figments of our imagination.2 Dreams are an obvious case in which what we remember never actually occurred. Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, probably his most famous painting, plays on the themes of dreaming, time, space and memory. Its most noticeable feature is the number of timepieces and the fact that they are visually distorted. Being what it is, it has been variously interpreted,3 but one persuasive reading is that it is suggesting allegorically that in memory time itself becomes meaningless, that there is a collapse of the past and the present (also represented by the eternal landscape of the desert in the background), and that the passage of time itself distorts the actuality, the facticity – if indeed there can ever be such a thing – of the events through which we pass as we remember them.

While not disputing the Dalian insight into memory, there is another perspective that can be added, which is that the passage of time rather than simply distorting the reality of events, by blurring the detail allows their true significance to emerge. This is what Hans-Georg Gadamer refers to as the ‘temporal distance’ established between a historical event and the present moment, mediated by a history of interpretation, which is the basis of our own understanding,4 or what Heidegger refers to as ‘the fore-structure of understanding’5. What we understand by a particular event is not ultimately a solitary act of comprehension, but is constructed from the collective discourse around the event, and not simply a contemporary discourse but one located within a historical framework: an interaction with one’s peers, with one’s elders, and with the historical record.

I recently attended a school reunion. Many years have passed and everyone has grown older. It is particularly poignant because the school closed a couple of years after I left ending a history of 500 years. So my year group is among the youngest at the meeting, and over the years the roll-call has become noticeably shorter. Since leaving school we have dispersed over the country, in some cases the world, and have made our own lives and have mainly stayed in contact through this annual gathering. Therefore, most of our shared memories, and certainly this is so collectively, are of the time we spent together at school. It is as if when we meet we are still schoolboys and not grown men with families and careers, in some cases grandchildren. Anecdotes about school life are shared, the reputations of faded or former athletes, scholars and villains resurrected and burnished in the glow of reminiscence.

The strange thing is how different our memories are; even though we were passing through many of the same experiences, we recall them differently; some things we remember – or think we remember – that others have no recollection of at all, until what we remember is no longer an individual act but a shared act of collective narration, and vicarious recollection, in which we no longer discern (or wish to discern) the difference between personal memory and folk memory. Given the impossibility of omniscient grasp of an event, this is how many memories are constructed: through a contemporaneous retelling of collective narrative. Memory is, therefore, linked to the significance of events;6 but whereas memory is the construction we retain within our own experience of the world, the significance of events is more apt to exist at an institutional level into which we contribute and from which we draw. This takes place whenever and wherever people come together, whether in a family, a school reunion, a gathering of colleagues, friends sitting around a campfire and the young or novices initiated into the event. In such cases, an event is no longer singular, but becomes part of a tradition.

Oral traditions and the collective memory are fundamental to social ontology, to the sense of meaning that we acquire as individuals and to the continuing existence of social institutions. According to the anthropologist John Foley: “oral tradition stands out as the single most dominant communicative technology of our species as both a historical fact and, in many areas still, a contemporary reality”.7 If I ask my students what they consider to be the greatest invention of all time, I can guarantee that most of them will say the Internet. I can understand why they think so, to a degree; the Internet has transformed totally the functional aspects of our lives, lightening much of the drudgery: shopping for goods and services, waiting around for something to happen, or spending time in pointless travel. However, the Internet also poses an existential threat to human societies by privileging information over human intercourse and discourse, for which presence, Heidegger’s Dasein,8 is a fundamental prerequisite.9

In all cultures an oral tradition preceded the creation of a written one. In some cultures a written culture never developed, and this underlies our tendency to think of these cultures as inferior or ‘primitive’. The advent of writing is considered to mark the transition to history from pre-history, as records preserve details of societies that we would otherwise struggle to understand. There is no doubt that there is much that is fascinating in the information we can learn from the study of the past, and our whole education and much of our civilisation is built upon such knowledge. However, I think that we are living through a time of the excessive focus on information and that has made us undervalue the living history of oral traditions. Even when the literary remnants or artefacts of the past remain, in the absence of a living tradition they are like the fossils of some prehistoric beast that we can imagine but never truly know. Contrast that with the preliterate folk memories of the Australian aboriginals who still gather to speak of and act out their mythopoeic memories of the Dreamtime, the creation of the world, as they have done for up to 100,000 years.

Some traditions, like lost tribes, will die out, as our school reunions will end when there are too few survivors to continue them any longer. God forbid that anyone writes a book about them in the meantime; that would really be the last nail in the coffin and we would know that we had already passed into history.

Notes and References

  1. Cited on p.77 of Alistair Thomson (2011), op. cit.
  2. A considerable amount of research has centred on the reliability of witness statements in court cases. A spate of well-publicised ‘recollections’ of satanic abuse in the 1980s and 1990s turned out to be entirely fictitious. The resulting ‘moral panic’ reached government level in the US, spread to Britain and resulted in a number of innocent people going to prison. Daniel Yarmey (2001). Does eyewitness memory research have probative value for the courts? Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, Vol 42(2), May 2001, 92-100; Nicholas P. Spanos , Cheryl A. Burgess & Melissa Faith Burgess (1994). Past-Life Identities, UFO Abductions, and Satanic Ritual Abuse: The Social Construction of Memories. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 42 (4), pp.433-446.
  1. For example, as evidence of Dali’s mental instability, or as a comment on Einstein’s theory of relativity.
  2. Hans-Georg Gadamer (1994). Truth and Method. London: Continuum Publishing Group.
  3. Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time. (Trans. by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson). New York, NY: Harper & Row.
  4. Alistair Thomson (2011). Memory and Remembering in Oral History. In Donald A. Ritchie (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Oral History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.77-95.
  5. John Miles Foley (1999). What’s in a Sign? In E. Anne MacKay (Ed.), Signs of Orality. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, pp. 1–2.
  6. Heidegger, op. cit.
  7. We all know the corrosive effects of human isolation, both psychologically and for society. This undoubtedly underlies the unrestrained aggression encountered on the internet, when views are aired unmediated by any presence. By contrast, many conflicts can be resolved by meeting and discussing differences with others.