Between the good and the great

The moral ideal of classical Athens and Rome was “the good life.”  The phrase sounds acceptable enough to twenty-first century ears, but it really means something quite alien to our notions of right and wrong:  a glorification not of goodness but of greatness, of competitive excellence, of the aristocratic character.

In Herodotus’ Histories, the Athenian sage Solon, when asked about the happiest men he had known, offered three candidates.  The first was a wealthy Athenian who lived in prosperous times, saw his sons and his grandsons grow to maturity, then died splendidly in battle and was honored by his city.  Next were two brothers of Argos, young men who “had enough to live on comfortably” and possessed immense physical strength; they pulled their mother in an oxcart for six miles to the temple of Hera, and there died “an enviable death” amid the admiration and praise of the Argives.

Aristotle makes greatness contingent on being wealthy and tall and having a deep speaking voice, not exactly moral traits by our lights.  And, notoriously, Aristotle considers the “crown of the virtues” to be pride – not only a deadly sin in Christian doctrine, but in a sense the original sin:  “Pride goeth before a fall.”

Wealth, power, strength and beauty of body, physical courage, pride, a gift for friendship, plus a sense of justice and loftiness of character:  the ideal was of human excellence in a specific social setting, the city-state.  Greatness was validated by one’s fellow citizens.

The Christian ideal that overthrew classicism preached humility, damned the rich, and favored the “least of these.”  The validation of one’s life became a moral judgment on it, delivered by God, not man.  This outlook undergirds our way of life, even in the most secularized liberal democracy.  We feel deep misgivings about the morality of private wealth and power.  We redistribute wealth and call on the power of the state to protect the poor and the weak and the marginalized.  We assert as a self-evident truth the proposition that all men are created equal – a statement that, to Aristotle, would seem self-evidently false.  Our secular moral and political ideals are Christian to the core, and rest for their justification largely on the Christian doctrine of natural law and natural rights.

Yet an interesting problem arises in countries such as ours, that have, in a spirit of toleration, separated church from state:  an appeal to the justifying doctrines of our government becomes impossible.  If I am unable to invoke divine sanction for, say, punishing adultery, so too am I unable to invoke divine sanction for a moral equality that transcends the obvious differences between individuals in wealth, power, intelligence, beauty, strength, and almost every other category of description.

In part because of this dilemma, in part because of the wish not to abandon morality along with religion, there has been a revival of interest in the classical ideal of the good life, taking place under the blanket label of “virtue ethics.”  Richard Taylor, for example, makes a pretty convincing case that the central questions of moral philosophy, framed by the Greeks in terms of personal greatness, become nonsensical when applied to a morality of equality and compassion.  Taylor would replace the “ethics of duty” whether to God or man, with an “ethics of  aspiration” to excellence, that would restore pride to the roster of virtues.

I hope to say more at a later time about the virtue ethics movement; here I will simply declare my opinion that its objectives are almost certain to be frustrated.  The secularization of virtue, from this perspective, entails an aristocratic disdain for the rule of the majority, whether acknowledged or not.  The great man by definition can’t bend to democratic compromise; the proud man will never accept his fellow citizens as equals.

In the end, we live in a culture permeated with an egalitarian faith, and are molded by a tradition of universal rights rather than personal greatness, and no amount of explaining will change the people we are.  Virtue, I fearlessly predict, will remain a matter of duty and moral judgment.

What is the proper relation between the great and the good?  I believe in the supreme importance of human freedom, and in the necessity of morality – of the virtuous citizen – to the survival of freedom.  In every way of life, a hierarchy of values is required.  In ours, the good comes first.  We must define together a morality of freedom that allows the greatest possible scope to individual predilections without degenerating into self-indulgence or chaos.  We must define our duty and live up to it, and I’m afraid we must judge against those who take the low road and shirk.

Within the morality of freedom, we must seek to excel.  That is what freedom is for.  In whatever field we choose for our endeavors, we should rejoice in competition, and we should aim to win.  If  “greatness” sounds too undemocratic, let’s then strive for “excellence,” nothing less.  The validation of American freedom, for this generation, will be in the achievements it leaves behind for the next.  And that is true of every generation, time without end.

There’s no acceptable choice between the good and the great, in my opinion.  We must struggle for the one, so we may aspire to the other.


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