Virtues

In her most interesting book, The De-moralization of Society, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb suggests that a part of the reason that folks insist that morality is relative — to individuals or to cultures — is because we no longer talk about “virtue.” She also suggests that we have abandoned the term out of preference for the term “”values” because the notion of virtue has unpleasant associations with the Victorians. She insists that the Victorians’ “family oriented culture” has gotten bad press — and she ought to know, since that is her area of specialization. But what I find most interesting is the current trend toward talk about “values” as though they are nothing more than “beliefs, opinions, attitudes, feelings, habits, conventions, preferences, prejudices, even idiosyncrasies — whatever any individual or group, or society happens to value at any time for any reason.” Artists even talk about colors as “values.” As Himmelfarb goes on to point out:

“One cannot say of virtues, as one can of values, that anyone’s virtues are as good as anyone else’s, or that everyone has a right to his own virtues. Only values lay claim to moral equality and neutrality. This impartial ‘nonjudgmental, ‘ as we now say, sense of values — values as ‘value-free’ — is now so firmly entrenched in the popular vocabulary and sensibility that one can hardly imagine a time without it.”

Historically, the term “value” was introduced into Western conversations by Nietzsche in the late nineteenth century and embraced by Max Weber soon thereafter who sought a “value-free” social science. Until then, going back to the Greeks, talk was all about “virtue,” which is based on character — that in the human being which is instilled in children by their parents and later dictates how they will behave as they grow into adults. For the Greeks there were four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. These four were supplemented during the Christian era by faith, hope, and charity. But in England, just prior to Victoria’s reign as Queen, the notion of virtue broadened to include such things as self-discipline, hard work, thrift, sobriety, self-reliance, self-discipline, responsibility, love of family, perseverance, and honesty — virtues recognized by Victorian Christians and Jews alike.

None the less, the notion of  “Victorian virtues” has become identified with the notion that the Victorians had hang-ups about sex and were prudish introverts that turned a blind eye toward all the civil inequalities and injustices that surrounded them. Himmelfarb takes exception, acknowledging that these attitudes were prevalent during the Victorian age, but insisting (as she ought) that this is the way people behaved: it is not what they believed. Indeed, if they engaged in what they regarded as “irregularities” they paid a heavy price, as Himmelfard notes:

“They did not take sin lightly — their own or anyone else’s. If they were censorious of others they were also guilt-ridden about themselves.”

Folks have always believed one thing and behaved in an entirely different way. This is not necessarily hypocrisy because the conviction that there are things that matter is often overwhelmed by situations in which those things simply cannot be realized for one reason or another. We may think courage truly virtuous, for example, and embrace the virtue itself while, at the same time, running in fear from a man with a loaded gun headed in our direction, or trembling at the thought of the surgeon’s knife. In any event, hypocrisy cannot be attributed to the Victorians any more than it can to today’s Christians who voted for Donald Trump — or indeed of Donald Trump himself.  In fact, they were almost certainly less hypocritical given the heavy weight they attached to their lapses from virtuous behavior, lively consciences that dwarf our own.

The problem is, as Himmelfarb correctly points out, we no longer even pay lip service to the virtues. Not only have we changed our terminology, we have abandoned any notion that there are moral principles that matter. Character is no longer stressed as a thing that ought to be instilled in our young people as we now worry more about whether they are they happy and well-adjusted. Aristotle noted long ago that character is instilled in young people by habits, the correction of unwanted behavior and the stress on those behaviors that later develop into strengths, what came to be called “positive reinforcement.” In a permissive society, like ours, many young people develop character flaws, behaviors that cannot be corrected in later life; emphasis on correcting behavior in the young in order to develop strong character, as was the case in the Victorian era, while it may develop into neurosis, can be corrected. Character flaws cannot. A dishonest, self-indulgent child will become a dishonest, self-indulgent adult.

Thus, the seemingly simple transition in our thought from concerns about virtue to talk about values has resulted in the reduction of a concern about things that really matter, virtues that form the warp and woof of strong character, the abandonment of any real concern for the kinds of people our young will become as they age. We now talk about values which are relative or subjective, and simply assume — without giving it any real thought — that all morality is itself relative and there is no right or wrong — only what people feel is right or wrong. Perhaps the Victorians weren’t just hung-up about such things as sex and chastity but had a firmer grasp of those things that really do matter in this world.

Bogus Christians

The following story caught my eye. Jesus threw the money-changers from the temple. He should return and throw this guy out of his plane….

You may have heard the story a few months ago about an Atlanta-based minister who claimed he needed a $65 million private jet so he could “safely and swiftly share the Good News of the Gospel worldwide.” But almost as quickly as Pastor Creflo Dollar asked his 200,000 followers to each donate $300.00 [each] towards the purchase of a luxurious jet, the campaign vanished and was removed from his website.

But now, the board of World Changers Church International — which also operates as Creflo Dollar Ministries, has announced it is ready to purchase the plane.

“We plan to acquire a Gulfstream G650 because it is the best, and it is a reflection of the level of excellence at which this organization chooses to operate.”

This has got to be one of the biggest shams ever, and there’s so much delusion it’s hard to even figure out where to begin.

Let’s start with the money. Imagine what could be accomplished with $65 million! That’s a lot of money. Do you think Jesus would have wanted his earthly representatives travelling the globe in luxurious accommodations? Or do you think Jesus would have wanted to see that $65 million used to feed the poor, help the homeless, improve education, or just make some kind of huge impact to help humanity?

The final paragraph says it all: think of the good that money could do, especially since “World Changers Church International” presumably was organized to help the poor. But this is an old story and isn’t restricted to this man or this obscene expenditure. The Christian Church since the days of Constantine, at the very least, has sold out to Mammon. Victorian Bishops lived in palaces and we read often about corrupt and selfish church officials that are bent on living in a grand style. Dante put numerous Popes in Hell because of their corruption which resulted from their succumbing to the lure of money and power. It is possible, I suppose, that Pastor Dollar (how’s that for a revealing name??) is a decent man, but it defies logic and history to suppose for an instant that he cannot be corrupted. If Dante were only alive today….

But, again, when one considers how much good the filthy rich could do with the money they buy trinkets with and hide away in off-shore accounts and homes in Europe one’s mind is already boggled. There is no argument I know of that allows us to say that the rich ought to help others. But there are religions that all agree this would be the right thing to do. It’s not a question of logic and argument; it is a question of conscience.

Funny Thing

A funny thing happened in writing these blogs. Not funny ha-ha, but funny peculiar. I wrote a blog about a couple who elected to rely on prayer to bring two of their children back to health only to watch them die, and the subsequent attempt by the state of Pennsylvania to take the remaining seven children away from the family and prosecute the parents as criminals. I argued for religious freedom and against paternalism and received one very thoughtful response and several expressions of disappointment: how could I ignore those poor children and take such an indefensible position? It seemed to several readers that I was out of character. (Heaven forbid that I become predictable!) So I wrote a follow-up attempting to spell out my position more carefully and, except for one good comment, the silence was deafening. The issue no longer seemed to interest many people. This raised a couple of thoughts in my mind.

To begin with, it does appear as though most people who read blogs really want to be diverted or entertained, not made to think. I suppose that’s to be expected. Perhaps they are too caught up in what Tom Lehrer once called their “drab, wretched lives” to want to put on the thinking cap. But, come on, the issue of the growing extent of state power and the subsequent loss of individual, liberty is a rather important issue, though even a couple of the folks who almost always comment on my blogs seemed not to be terribly interested in the issue. I found that worth pondering.

But I also found the expressions of disappointment interesting. A couple of my former students who commented on Facebook, where the blog appears, wondered how I could take such a strange position, seeming not to care about the sick kids whose parents choose prayer over hospitals. I do care about those kids, as I do about the kids who are summarily taken from their parents and sent to a foster homes — even though the evidence suggests that they were much-loved by their parents (who just happen to be fundamentalist Christians). But I saw the issue of paternalism as the larger issue, given our increasing tendency to simply sit by and watch the political state take away our liberties one by one. In any event, the blog was not about me, and whether or not I was “in character,” it was about a couple of issues I thought worth some serious thought. But aside from those few comments, what I read was a simple, “I don’t agree.” The important question is WHY don’t you agree? In fact, the important question is always “Why”?

After I retired from teaching I wrote a book that was essentially a collection of blogs before I ever thought about blogging. Like my blogs, it was not a big seller! But I did receive a very thoughtful and careful review on Amazon from a former student who read the book and at the end of his review he noted that he

. . .enjoyed this book. I was an advisee of Dr. Curtler during 1982-86 . . ., and his encouragement, advice, and philosophical principles influence me to this day. As a professor, Dr. Curtler was always trying to guide our thinking, asking us questions: ‘you can say anything you want, but I will always ask you WHY?’ As a result, what he himself thought was often withheld. I was quite interested, then, when I saw this book, to read his open views.

If I ever begin to wonder why I took the vow of poverty and chose to teach, comments like that remind me. From where I stood, the notion that my students had no idea what philosophical position I held on complex issues was the highest possible compliment. You can’t top honest praise from a former student who seems to have seen exactly what you were up to. And even though my blogs reveal my own thoughts again and again, it is important that I return to that neutral role from time to time, take up opposing points of view and defend them as best I can, and play the gadfly in an attempt to stir up some thought in the few readers who follow these blogs. It may not make for popularity, but it is why I started writing them in the first place.

Conflicting Beliefs

I wonder of there is any hatred and distrust as deep and pervasive as that between or among various religious sects. It has been said that human history is the history of wars and a great many of them — far too many — are religious wars. The Christians hate the Muslims and the Muslims hate the Christians and — as Tom Lehrer so cleverly pointed out — everyone hates the Jews.

The latest story out of the Middle East is disquieting, to say the least. Religious extremists have attacked the American embassy in Cairo and In Libya the American Ambassador and three diplomats were killed by extremists — all over a movie funded by Morris Sadek, an American Christian, that seeks to show the depth of prejudice in Egypt toward the Christians by the Muslims who dominate the culture in that region of the world. As a recent Yahoo News article points out

 “Protesters in Egypt chanted Sadek’s name because of his support for the film, which presented the Prophet as a bloodthirsty womanizer and religious fake, among other characterizations that deeply offended many Muslims who consider any depiction of the Prophet as blasphemous.

Now I am not an expert in foreign policy, but common sense tells me that a movie depicting the leader of one of the world’s major religions as a “bloodthirsty womanizer and religious fake” is certain to stir up anger and hatred — especially in a region of the world where “America” is something of a dirty word. Of course, that is hard for us to fathom, because we are blinded by our pride and don’t see this country from the perspective of the rest of the world. But it is certainly the case that in the Middle East, at the very least, this country is the embodiment of evil. Obama’s presidency has helped, but as one wag recently pointed out, it will take more than a few speeches to mend the broken fences between this country and the Muslim countries. And Michele Bachmann’s recent crusade against the Muslim Brotherhood certainly won’t help matters a bit.

In any event, the incident in Libya has become a political football as Mitt Romney has leveled untimely criticism at Obama’s foreign policy in the region and the Democrats point out that Romney has a tendency to put his foreign policy foot in his mouth and is not the man to deal with such a volatile situation. Neither side wants to yield as each points fingers and accuses the other of incompetence and inexperience. And while the bodies in Libya are still warm newsmen debate in public which political candidate most “benefits” from the upheaval in the Middle East. Does anyone wonder why this country is held in low esteem by so many people around the world?

In any event, whether it is a political football or merely another chapter in the history of humankind that exhibits our inability to get along with one another, much less to tolerate religious differences, recent events in the Middle East raise red flags and should make us all aware that whichever man is elected to the Presidency in this country, he had better be able to present a formidable front while at the same time showing that he can mend fences and admit that while we don’t do things the way other people do things, they may be right and we may be wrong. That’s something it is difficult for Americans to admit.