Sunday, June 28, 2009

Review: The Other Side of Virtue

Followers of the major monotheistic religions occasionally trot out the idea that only their traditions offer true ethical systems, while presumably everyone else is devoted to thievery, murder, incest, cannibalism, and failure to pay parking tickets.

Such an attitude is unhistorical, of course. Socrates, Confucius, Epictetus . . any pre- or non-Abrahamic figure might as well have never lived, you would think.

Hence I have been reading and enjoying Brendan Myers' The Other Side of Virtue, which while admitting that "some values really are 'out there,' beyond the self and are not a matter of personal opinions and preferences," approaches the topic in a "poly" way, not relying on one man's claimed revelation but on a wide variety of ancestral teaching, poetry, philosophy, and tradition.

In an easy-going historical exposition, Myers lays out how for Heroic societies (which still live in our own) "the chief virtue was Honour, the quality for which you earn the respect of your peers." He continues, "To writers in the classical age, and the Renaissance, the chief virtue was Reason. For Romantic writers, it seems to be the sincerity of one's passion and the beauty of one's creative work."

Although it covers ideas and thinkers both ancient and modern, what places Myers' work firmly in the Western Pagan tradition comes at the end, when he reminds us of the importance of free choice in living the good or virtuous life:

The creation of eudaimonia, the good and beautiful destiny, begins when you declare that your life shall be meaningful and worthwhile. It begins in the pursuit of a life that could stand as a model for others, and perhaps ought to be remembered by future generations.

It is hard to do justice to The Other Side of Virtue in a blog post. Perhaps my one quibble is with Myers' creation of what I think is a false dichotomy between "cold duty" and "beauty." In that dichotomy his writing resembles Emma Restall Orr's, which is unfortunate. He rather slights the (later Roman) Stoic school of philosophy with its emphasis on civic life, although not as thoroughly as she does.

If I say, "Honor the gods and do your duty," I can interpret "duty" broadly and flexibly, not militaristically. There is the duty of a student (to study), the duty of a parent, the duty of a citizen, and so on.

But that is a minor quibble, for I see much to admire in The Other Side of Virtue and urge you to buy and read it. It is a pity that the book lacks an index, however.



Blogger Yewtree said...

Sounds interesting. It's worth remembering the commandments of Solon, as well.

2:41 AM  
Blogger Dashifen said...

I've been meaning to get this one for my shelf for some time. Glad to see that it was enjoyed by others. My wife -- a Catholic -- even seemed intrigued by the idea, so now I definitely have to get it!!

7:26 AM  
Anonymous Kullervo said...

I may be the only person who ever read The Other Side of Virtue that did not love it. I had high expectations, but was severely disappointed: I read it as basically a pagan apologetic for mdern western liberal values. Myers goes back and attempts to build a justification for liberalism from ancient paganism and modern philosophy, as if it was all an evolutionary process leading somehow to the Green Party. I think it's a laudable early effort in an area where there have not been many modern pagan voices, but I think we as pagans can do a lot better.

8:04 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...


Did you want him to detail the Heroic virtues and then stop there?

I suspect that you assess Myers' politics correctly.

However, the larger importance is that he demonstrates that Pagan traditions produce viable ethical systems without a Holy Book full of rules.

9:00 AM  
Anonymous Kullervo said...

If all we're doing is beginning with western liberal values and then and using mythology to defend those, we're creating a meaningless religion. Nothing more than a colorful justification for what we would have already done without it.

I agree that virtue ethics is the most appropriate approach to ethics for pagans, and I agree that we need to go to our own sources and derive our virtues from them.

But Myers has not gone to appropriate sources, followed the lines of virtue, and let it lead where it may. He has started by assuming his end point: modern liberal values.

This is not a rant against modern liberal values, but about an approach to ethics and morality that assumes the answers a priori.

If we as pagans really want to think of the pagan past, nature, mythology, and yes, maybe even the Aquarian ideals of the 20th century as the sources for our virtues, we need to do a much more authentic job of distilling values from these diverse sources and comparing them to each other and seeing the tension that results and figuring out a way to chart a course forward through that tension. It's a moral framework that will not only be compelling but also totally unlike the deontological-ethics approach of the monotheistic, Abrahamic religions.

But if we chart this moral course with integrity, we are probably going to find that we derive virtues that are at odds with the virtues we get from other cultural and political sources.

It means a lot of weighing and mature moral decision-making, but it is a hell of a lot more authentic than letting culture and politics dictate our morals to us, and then trying to bolster our position with an after-market veneer of spirituality.

Authentic religion should challenge us, and should probably give us values and virtues that are starkly at odds with the virtues and values we get from a culture and political system that is based on very different sources and assumptions. That's just reality for a grown-up in a pluralist society.

Instead, Myers has basically subordinated his spirituality to his politics. Maybe that's the way you want to go, maybe your politics are important enough to you that you'll shop around for the religion that fits them or invent your own, but I don't think there's much sense or much authenticity in doing that.

9:40 PM  
Blogger Apuleius Platonicus said...

On the one hand Chas did a very good job in the OP of dismissing those who claim that prior to Jesus all human beings were practitioners of cannibalism and/or human sacrifice. On the other hand Kullervo is certainly right in pointing out that just because ancient Pagans were ethical, it doesn't mean they had the same mores as modern day middle class american liberals.

I would suggest as an alternative to Myers' Book Julia Annas magnificent "The Morality of Happiness". Or, even better, Cicero's De Finibus.

As to Myers, he doesn't seem to have the slightest idea what he's talking about when it comes to the classics. He doesn't even know the difference between Plato's Myth of Er (found at the end of the Republic) and Homer's Odyssey, which was written about half a millennium before Plato was born. See page 82. Odysseus is alive and well at the end of the Odyssey.

1:52 PM  

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