Cool Heads Prevail

I had coffee with my friend Lloyd the other day and among other things we discussed Goethe’s Faust. We have discussed that book many times over the years as it is one of Lloyd’s favorites — he read it in German, which he taught at the university. I read it in English, and I have taught the first part a number of times in my honors classes: it is also one of my favorite books of all times.  Lloyd is convinced that Faust loved Gretchen while I am convinced he is incapable of love — in the modern parlance he is incapable of “commitment.” He is a narcissist. But we struggled to figure out the second part, which has baffled critics over the years. Goethe spent his entire life writing that book and I daresay he never figured out the second part, either! I do not think Faust is a thoroughly evil man (though Lloyd disagrees with me here as well). He attempts to improve his world and throughout he manages to exhibit a fairly lively conscience; in the first part of the poem Mephistopheles has to drag him away from Gretchen’s prison cell just prior to her execution. He feels terrible about what he has done to her — as well he should.

Mephistopheles, on the other hand, is without feelings: he has no conscience at all. He is the cold intellectual that Goethe holds up for our examination as a paradigm of the thoroughly evil person. He is without compassion and fellow-feeling. He simply calculates and acts accordingly. I find the same insight in Dostoevsky: the man who lacks compassion and fellow-feeling, who has no conscience is not a man you want to approach. Dostoevsky knew several of that type while he was a political prisoner in Siberia and he knew whereof he spoke. Shakespeare tells us that “conscience does make cowards of us all,” but then Hamlet says that “being a coward” means “doing the right thing.” It leads us away from those actions that would ultimately destroy us. Dostoevsky’s character in Crime and Punishment commits a dreadful crime and in the end he can’t live with his conscience.

But what does this have to do with us? Plenty! In the recent past we have witnessed a country run by men who seem to be lacking in compassion and fellow-feeling. Hannah Arendt describes at great length the psychology of Adolf Eichmann who was a man determined to get the Jews to the gas chambers on time. He was a bureaucrat who worried only about the efficiency of the killing machine. He never lost a moment’s sleep over the thought that he was sending men, women, and children to a grisly death. And the men who commanded him and followed his orders were evil in this same way: they were cold and calculating. Joseph Stalin was cast in the same mold. And history has shown us others of that type — even in the bosom of the Catholic Church, in the form of Torquemada who sent “infidels” to a screaming death in the auto-da-fes in Spain.

And if we are willing to look closer to home we might see these types sitting in a comfortable room somewhere in Washington, D.C. (or North Dakota) ordering drones into crowded city centers in Pakistan to target al-Qaeda leaders. They remain aloof because they don’t actually see the faces of those people thousands of miles away and they brush aside the uncomfortable facts that a mere 2 % of the reported 4500 targets are actually militant leaders and that 881 of those people were almost certainly innocent civilians, 176 of them children. (One suspects that these numbers are on the low side.) By remaining aloof and apart I imagine that those who direct the drones can sleep well at night, because their conscience never enters the picture: they are not killing people, they are killing the “enemy”  — while seeming to play a video game.

Education and Virtue

Socrates famously suggested that virtue is knowledge. This implies that if one knows what is the right thing to do she will do it. It also implies that virtue can be taught. Socrates’ style was ironic and one never knew whether he meant what he said. In addition, he was being quoted by an adoring pupil. But in any event, I think Socrates might have been wrong on both counts, especially since we now know a bit more about human motivation and human frailty than even Socrates knew.

This is all by way of introducing a discussion of the relationship between virtue and education. And while knowledge is not the same thing as education I want to talk a bit about the two and the supposed teachability of virtue. Education certainly involves both teaching and knowledge, even though it is not the same thing as either. But that doesn’t tell us much. To know more about what education is we need to ask what other things it is not.

Education is not schooling. There are many people who spent 20 or more years in school who are not well educated. It all depends on what they did while they were there. Furthermore, there are many well educated people who never spent much time in school — like Abraham Lincoln and Eric Hoffer. And education is certainly not vocational training either, since this focuses attention on the how to? and not they why for? Education involves the conveying of information, which is at least part of what happens in school, and what we can be done online. But it also involves the ability to assimilate that information and bring it to bear on problems and issues that need to be thought through and perhaps solved. This is seldom taught in the schools, and it certainly cannot be taught on the internet. In fact, education is more about process than it is about information. As Robert Hutchins was fond of saying, education is what is left after we have forgotten all we learned in school. An educated person, as I am fond of saying, has taken possession of her own mind: that person is autonomous, able to make her own decisions and not easily led by demagogues and quack salesmen or devious politicians.

Virtue, on the other hand, is about character. It is molded in youth and refined as one grows older. It is largely a matter of imitation: if the parents are honest people, it doesn’t matter what they say, the child will find truth-telling perfectly natural: she will become honest as well.  Strictly speaking, virtue is not taught. And since education is all about teaching and learning, it follows that virtue has nothing to do with education either. They are two separate capacities, if you will. Just because a person is well educated it does not follow that she will be virtuous. A well educated person who can think for herself will know what is the right thing to do in a particular situation, but she may not to it. Doing the right thing is a function of character, it’s about who you are. No matter how bright and well educated a person is, they may still do the wrong thing. There’s no necessary connection between intelligence and virtue whatever.

Torquemada, according to all accounts, was a very intelligent person, perhaps even well educated. But he was a monster because he couldn’t control his fanaticism. And virtue is, above all else, a matter of self-control. History is full of examples of well-intentioned people who nevertheless do the wrong thing. The road to Hell, I have heard it said, is paved with good intentions. And an education can make clear our good intentions, but it can only lead the way. Whether or not we choose to do the right thing depends on character.

As suggested above, virtue cannot be taught, in the sense that arithmetic or grammar can be taught. It is not a function of intelligence or a good education. It is a matter of following the example of good people and having our good inclinations reinforced by parents and grandparents. Teachers can teach arithmetic and correct grammar; they cannot teach virtue. Neither can coaches, as I have mentioned in a previous blog. But these people can certainly reinforce the lessons learned in the home — which is where virtue is learned, where the child becomes the good person — or the bad person. The most we can ask of  well-educated people is that they know what is the right thing to do; whether or not they choose to do it depends on what kind of person they are, whether they are virtuous.