February 10, 2007

Decadence Pt.IV

Vice and Virtue

I will admit to a certain preoccupation of late. I am convinced that Western Civilization has succumbed to the sort of decadence that precedes a fall. The theme is still developing in my mind which is why the essays are somewhat disjointed and lacking coherence as a single idea. I haven't even touched the historical record, an easy task, but that essay is still percolating on a backburner. I hope to put it all together by summer's end.

I find the works of two philosophers particularly useful at the moment: Marcus Aurelius and Confucius. The two men, separated by race, language, culture, and seven-hundred years of history are, nevertheless, so similar as to be almost identical. Marcus is the more introspective and personal, Confucius the more general and holistic. Yet both are deeply concerned with the nature of virtue. The word "virtue" is no longer fashionable in western society, habituated as we are to a life of self-gratification. I offer this quick list of original aphorisms to illustrate my point.

Freedom is a societal virtue. It can only exist amongst a disciplined people who understand the necessity for self-restraint and voluntary compliance with the law and social mores. Modernity offers in its place only license. We have become creatures of appetite, libertines all.

The ability to see and speak the truth is a virtue. Yet our public discourse is dominated by sophists who declare there is no truth. Relativism is a mire of shifting sand upon which no structure will stand for long. To abandon truth is to live in a land of falsehood.

Struggle is a virtue. Man must always be challenged. Ease and leisure are the earned rewards of hard work, not ends to be pursued.

Self-control is the mark of disciplined men. It's opposite is promiscuity, a siren call to personal destruction.

Patriotism is the recognition that society is worth defending, if necessary with martial vigor. Its opposite is faux pacifism, a type of treason masking itself as moral superiority to disguise its cowardice.

Material comfort is a virtue. Aurelius and Confucius agree. But the Chinese sage admonished that poverty must be overcome by right means or otherwise endured. Modernity offers us only consumption, a fool's paradise of self-indulgence at any price.

The wise man seeks contentment with his station in life. The egoist desires power.

Saving is a virtue. Borrowing is a vice.

Manliness is the virtue of a society on the ascendancy. The decadent society is weak and effeminate. The Greeks knew this about Persia and the end was preordained.

A healthy society requires sacrifice from its citizenry as a means to create a vested interest in the whole. Selfishness is the mark of a society in decline.

A wise society understands the need for an educated populace. A society that values entertainment over substance is doomed to fall.

Public manners are a measure of societal rectitude. Vulgarity is a symptom of a society in moral retrograde.

Public service is the duty of a genuine aristocracy, but those who covet power should never be allowed near the reins of government.

Hard work is a virtue in its own right. Public subsidy of idleness corrupts the body politic and saps the spirit of a nation.

Philosophers are men of moral and intellectual substance. A preference for fashion is the characteristic of a fool.

Virtue is universal and timeless. Ask Marcus, ask Confucius. Simple truth is best. Look closely at my aphorisms. Tell me now that we are not set for a fall.



Aethelred said...

Virtue is a worthy societal goal to foster. The supreme bureaucrat (deity of the Chinese bureaucrats for thousands of years) Kung Fu Tse had a truly huge ax to grind, but did have some good points to make, in terms of fostering a stable and static society.
Marcus Aurelius (last of the Five Good Emperors) in the second century spent the better part of his lengthy reign engaged in war ... killing those who might one day challenge the Roman Empire: Parthians, Swebians, Celts ... pretty much anybody more organized than a village of shepherds. Yeah, effective at establishing a stable Roman state ... and ultimately responsible for the "Dark Ages".
The trouble wih "virtue" is that, like any social characteristic, it is unique to the observer.
To me, the "virtue" of Confuscious' "contentment with one's station in life" and "poverty must be endured" are no virtues, at all.
The virtue of Aurelius' militarism was just fine, if you were a Roman, but woe betide you if you were a Parthian (whose culture could be argued to be superior in some regards to the Roman of the period).
Virtue is not absent from our society. In fact, I venture to propose that, due to the unusually high and wide nature of our educational system (why, even FARMERS and BUMS can read, these days!) those who can actually define a virtuous state are more common in our society, rather than less.
Take heart, old friend, in the knowledge that while the wastrels and morons are louder these days, they have no more actual effect on the core fabric of society than did the buffoons and mummers of Padua in 1362.
The "virtues" of science and technology and consumerism burn brightly still, and will for a while longer.

Anonymous said...

RE: Bums & farmers.

Confucius said, "learning without thinking is useless. Thinking without learning is dangerous."