Download PDF Here Live Encounters Magazine March 2022.
The Cancelling and Restoration of Virtue – Guest Editorial by David Morgan.
Beatus autem esse sine virtute nemo potest
No one can be happy without virtue.
At risk of sounding moralistic and out of touch with current customs and values, I have elected to discuss the meaning of virtue and to argue for its necessity as a means of restoring good conduct in both public life and private behaviour. This is to recognise that public and private are conjoined and intricately connected to the point of inseparability.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the meaning of the word virtue is as follows:
“a good moral quality in a person, or the general quality of being
The Roman statesman and orator, Cicero, has numerous insights into the nature of virtue. Most readers are aware of the phrase “virtue is its own reward”, that is attributed to him. He also observed, “It is not enough simply to possess virtue, as if it were an art; it should be practiced”.
Indeed, that is as it should be . This means that I cannot agree with another noted statesman, Machiavelli, when he contended that, “politics have no relation to morals”. Admittedly, if we look at the antics of the modern political elite we would be compelled to agree with Machiavelli, but surely it is the attitude that is expressed in this maxim that is the root of many of our social ills.
If the political elite were to observe a clear moral code, in a word to be virtuous, then we may have resolved many of our festering problems by going some way to ending the endemic corruption. Some will no doubt argue that this is not a matter of virtue in the abstract sense, but of a lack of effective measures to control a group of conceited individuals who now enjoy too much power and who therefore escape punishment for misdemeanours simply because we, the public, allow them to get away with it time after time. Does virtue have anything to do with this sorry state of affairs when corruption is rife in public life?
Is virtue relevant in any respects today and is it even worthy of consideration at a time when virtue as a word hardly exists in our public vocabulary? After all, you rarely even hear the word ‘virtue’ uttered in discussion or discover it written about by authors outside the confined circles of theological debates and the academic treatise.
Furthermore, there is possibly only one example where virtue is still commonly used in modern conversations, and this use only has negative connotations. This is the phrase, “virtue signalling”, which is employed to condemn and ridicule the attitudes and behaviour of enemies and those with whom we profoundly disagree. The phrase is often used with malicious intent. A recent occasion when it was used in the British political context was when the Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer used it to attack British peace activists from the Stop the War Coalition, the campaign that had been very effective in exposing the motives behind the illegal war in Iraq and the phoney reasons for pursuing that war in the first place (the infamous “dodgy dossier” and its claim that Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction poised for launching on Britain; it was of course all lies).
It is distressing to realise that the only common use of virtue in modern spoken and written English is this destructive phrase, “virtue signalling”, which in substance and intent is the exact opposite of the true meaning of virtue.
However, the near total excision of virtue from public discourse and social consciousness is a distinctly modern phenomenon. In past centuries, by contrast, virtue was a dominant social force necessary for regulating human behaviour and guiding individual conduct across all social classes, professions and domains. Ideas of virtue were an essential aspect of religious thought, but virtue also took on a more secular form and had a much wider resonance than the theological. Virtue was a key theme in English literature, for instance.
Virtue preoccupied the authors of great works of literature over several generations, reflecting its significant place within the society and the culture. There was a ready audience for works of literature that dealt with codes of good conduct and virtuous characters in fiction, plays and poetry acted as role models and guides for the behaviour of people in going about their daily lives and in how they dealt with others.
I recall going to see a production of John Milton’s Comus in 2016 at the Globe Theatre in London. I had imagined that this would be a faithful rendering of this early work of the poet and that the play would be as inspiring as the written text found on the page. I was extremely excited about the prospect of watching the play until the curtain opened. Milton’s great work had been mutilated out of all recognition.
Comus was turned into a ribald sex comedy with innuendo and scenes reminiscent of a crude Carry On movie. The experience was far from elevating. I left the theatre feeling insulted and felt that the production had been an opportunity missed to revive Milton’s wonderful poetic drama. But on reflection, this interpretation was possibly to be expected.
Cynicism and sensationalism, pushing boundaries of the acceptable, breaking taboos, are part of the modern sensibility and reflect the zeitgeist. Was this the only way that the play could be approached in current circumstances? Cynicism seems to rule our lives both in public and private. All the goodness and virtue had been totally expunged from the text. Comus concerns a young woman who finds her virtue under threat, reflecting a common theme in literature seen in the work of novelists such as Samuel Richardson in Clarissa and Thomas Hardy in Tess of the d’Urbervilles and in plays such as Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, where female virtue challenges the corruption of state officialdom and their abuse of power.
In all these works virtue ultimately triumphs. Comus has a sublime message and is written in beautiful language. The production on stage was simply banal and vulgarised.
Virtue was frequently associated with female behaviour, but this was far from exclusively the root of its qualities and function, although we should never disregard the powerful critiques of feminism of how notions of virtue were manipulated to control and constrict women.
The basis for the notion of women’s virtue really arose to its greatest prominence around the eighteenth century with the rise of the middle-class and the growth in the importance of property rights and inheritance. Women were controlled simply because they were responsible for giving birth to an heir to the estate and society imposed restrictions on women to ensure there was no contamination to the process of inheritance. This was an extension to the rising middle class of practises that had long been common among the monarchy and aristocracy.
Far too much weight was placed upon the conduct and behaviour of women to reflect, influence and inspire the wider social behaviour and actions of individuals in both public life and in their private relationships. One only needs to mention the image of the “Virgin Queen”, the Tudor monarch Elizabeth I of England, whose stately power seemed to become bound up with and ultimately derived from her personal status as a sexually chaste or virtuous woman.
Such attitudes are clearly not restricted to the English-speaking cultures when one considers the part mythical, part historical figure of Joan of Arc, the virgin saint and national heroine of France, who was known as “Jeanne la Purcelle” or “Joan the Maid”. Her youth and inexperience were constantly stressed in all the chronicles and accounts of her extraordinary life. Her unique form of resistance took the form of assuming male attire, cropping her hair like a boy and taking up the sword.
By all accounts, she wore the armour of a knight which no woman of her time would be expected to do. But the essence of her resistance lay in her virtue. Her opponents sought to besmirch and defile her character, but the attacks failed. Her virtue triumphed and grew stronger after her martyrdom.
Joan’s powers as a military leader and her abilities to win tremendous devotion of her largely male followers became inseparable from her virtue or virginal state. In modern France, Joan’s historical legacy is still intensely contested and she remains a heroine who is claimed by the left and right in French politics.
Virtue as a human quality is certainly concerned with purity and innocence but it also possesses and is related to other qualities that remain essential for the maintenance of good conduct, for shaping of the good character of an individual and it is ultimately a crucial component required for building and preserving the good society. The good society is not a Utopia that will never be discovered but a liveable community which could be created with the enormous material resources at our disposal and sense of common purpose.
Moreover, public service would be totally inconceivable without a code of behaviour founded in a shared concept of virtue. Trust in individuals in various positions of authority should be quite impossible to maintain without a shared belief in virtue or in what is appropriate behaviour. In part, for example, parents can entrust teachers with the care of their children because of an innate or residual belief in virtue. The individual teacher need not possess the attributes of a saint, in fact that would be an absurd exaggeration and impossibility, but they are obliged to allow their past conduct to be examined, to sign codes of behaviour, so as to be seen to be a person of good character and to demonstrate trustworthiness.
Ultimately, these preferred positive human qualities are deeply embedded in a concept of virtue, even though people may no longer use the actual word virtue. As such, virtue still very much exists in our society even though it goes unspoken and the fact that it still endures in some shape or form, no matter how elusive, can at least give some degree of hope for a restoration of good conduct and integrity in public and private life. That will only occur when more people decide, enough is enough, and hold their elected representatives to account. The public need to demand that the political elite work for the common good. The people must demand virtue of their politicians. Then we might be able to respect our leaders once again as people in earlier generations sometimes seemed able to do.
Tarnished politicians are always seeking to embellish their images and reputations to impress a sceptical public who have become jaded and all too aware of the disreputable conduct of their leaders. In past centuries, kings, chieftains and others at the top of the social hierarchy would commission artists to produce romanticised portraits of themselves depicting them as heroic national leaders dressed in full military raiment, often splendidly seated on horseback in a field of battle commanding their troops, or in scenes reminiscent of great moments from classical myth, dressed in Roman togas and with heads regally wreathed as a mark of honour.
Poets would be hired to compose odes to flatter the vanity of their patrons and purposely to exaggerate the prowess and moral rectitude of political rulers. Nowadays it is PR firms and spin doctors who perform the equivalent function, although of course it is far more difficult to conceal the discreditable actions committed in the often shadowy careers of our contemporary leaders who perform in the full glare of twenty-four hour media exposure. Even their most private movements and activities are subject to intense scrutiny and dissected.
In seeking to shelter from the modern media’s interrogation public figures find themselves fighting a losing battle against all-pervasive intrusiveness. Their response is to adopt a cynical persona that appears as if it is based on a character from low comedy in hope that their public will find their antics endearing, and frequently this strategy works, at least for a brief time. We will not name any particular names in this regard. Those who commit the offence are far too common.
Modern politicians under constant scrutiny seek battles with enemies, real or imagined, in order to embellish their reputations. Times of national crises and wars offer rare opportunities for these cynical manipulators of public opinion to achieve a modicum of virtue or honour. In the theatre of modern politics, the stage-villains who hold the reins of power can hope to salvage their sullied reputations and enhance their image by taking the moral high ground. But that moral high ground is a very crowded place. What they achieve is only a kind of pantomime virtue, lacking any deep substance and quality. All the grandstanding, ostentatious posing, moralistic verbiage and cloaking themselves in the garb of moral arbiters completely fail in persuading the public when the realities of their scheming self-interested manoeuvring, misconduct, greed and vanity, are so well understood and all is a matter of public record.
At the end of the day nobody can be happy without virtue, as Cicero insisted, and we all want to be happy. To live in hope of change for the better we must hold to the belief that humanity is capable of real virtue and that people are capable of reforming their behaviour. We must hold that even those who have committed the most terrible offences and deceptions against the people will one day recognise the error of their ways and then mend their behaviour. In a word, we must hope that they become more virtuous.
We can draw our inspiration from the thoughts of John Ruskin, the Victorian sage, when he wrote about the essential virtue of human beings, in these lovely and inspiring words,
“I speak with a fixed conviction that human nature is a noble and beautiful thing, not a foul or base thing. All the sin of men I regard as their disease, not their nature; as folly which may be prevented, not as a necessity which must be accepted. And my wonder, even when things are at their worst, is always at the height which this nature can attain. Thinking it high, I always find it a higher thing than I thought it; while those who think it low, find it, and will find it always, lower than they thought it; the fact being that it is infinite, and capable of infinite height and infinite fall. But the nature of it- and here is the faith which I would have you hold with me- the nature of it is in the nobleness, not the catastrophe.”
It is our common task to end the “disease” of which Ruskin here speaks.
“Compassion is the basis of morality,” as Schopenhauer observed.
© David Morgan
David Morgan is the author of The Good Old Cause – Communist Intellectuals and the English Radical Tradition and co-author of Writers of the Left in An Age of Extremes, both published in London by the Socialist History Society, of which he is the secretary. David is a journalist and editor who is interested in exploring the connections between literature and history.