That’s “the virtuous life,” for those of you like me who are not proficient in Spanish. The subject has been on my mind lately as I finish reading Brendan Myers’s recent book The Other Side of Virtue. It has taken me a long time, partly because it is a new subject for me. Paganism as we know is long on spontaneity and very light on anything which requires concentrated, sustained thought. This book demands it however, and rightly so. It suggests a way to live that is radically different from the way most of us view our lives, and which bring us into accord with some of the great minds of Western civilizationâ€”those famous Pagan philosophers and heroes most of us know very little about.
When I first saw the title I was confused, because I had never considered that virtue might have more than one side. Wouldn’t the other side of virtue be simply a lack of virtue, or a life spent actively refuting its importance? Now I know better, as the title is meant to identify mainstream values like Faith, Hope, Obedience, Charity, Humility, and Chastity as largely Christian virtues. In contrast to these “passive virtues” Myers then takes us through the “other side” of virtue: those values and character traits which arose earlier in Heroic and Classical societies, had a resurgence during the Renaissance and Romantic periods, and are surfacing yet again in various formsâ€”in short, he introduces the reader to Pagan virtues.
Myers digs deep into the Greek, Germanic, Irish and Norse sagas to build his depiction of Heroic virtues such as fortune, friendship, honor, courage, trust, hope, magic, and atonement. He then moves into Classical society, where he finds reason, courage, prudence, temperance, and justice. Moving ever onward, he visits the virtues espoused in Renaissance art and humanism, and in the writings of Machiavelli, Shakespeare, the Romantics, Nietzsche, and for good measure ends with the more modern take on virtue expressed by Tolkein and J.K. Rowling. (Spoiler alert: they may be such popular authors because they revive the old virtues which still resonate deeply in the population.)
If someone had asked me previously what qualities I considered virtuous, I would have named honesty, humility, integrity, courage, compassion, and maybe humor. But virtues have often felt like extra credit assignments to me. We aim for leading a good life, and if we manage to hit a few of the virtues along the way, more’s the better. Perhaps this laissez faire attitude is a generational trait, but it might be a larger cultural issue.
Growing up my favorite jigsaw puzzle was one of the Seven Deadly Sins, with gleefully cartoonish faces in 1920’s attire depicting sloth, avarice, lust, gluttony, pride, envy, and wrath. They all looked like they were having a fine time, though one might gather that too much of a good thing could harm one’s looks. How telling that I can still remember almost the entire list off the top of my head, yet had no idea what the corresponding biblical Seven Virtues were until I read about them in Myers’s book.
The other thing we as a culture know about virtues is that those who espouse them are usually guilty of the worst sorts of hypocrisy: witness former Education Secretary William Bennett, whose best-selling Book of Virtues belied the fact that he himself is a compulsive gambler who has lost millions. Or poor Ted Haggard, that paragon of God-fearing, anti-gay religiosity who fell from his pulpit when it was revealed that he had a thing for gay sex with hookers and speed. In a crazy world with no real moral compass, it is usually the one shouting the loudest for people to follow his compass that we should trust the least.
Myers acknowledges that he is not broaching a popular subject. Yet he lays out his case for following the ancient virtuesâ€”and some new ones stemming from contemporary Pagan experienceâ€”with patience and clarity. Though the subject may be dense with literary and philosophical references, the book is written in an accessible, almost conversational style. Myers knows (and laments, to some extent) that when he speaks to his fellow Pagans, it is to an audience largely ignorant of and unaccustomed to the thinking of our learned forebears.
Today’s Paganism is replete with varied customs, devotions, and ritual recipes. We put on a pretty good festival, but are we ready to tackle philosophy? Or, to put it another way: given the tremendous influence Pagan ideas are currently having on the larger culture, what can we put forward that best exemplifies our core values? How do we believe a good life is lived, no matter one’s religion?
The origin of virtue itself…is in the dynamic meeting between our ideas of who we are, and the various events and experiences that call these ideas into question. (pg. 155)
Times being what they are, we will have plenty of opportunities to ponder those big questions in the months to come. Read Brendan Myers’s book, especially the last section where he proposes some newer virtues. Then think about it, and if your ideas don’t match his figure out why that is. Make philosophy a topic of normal conversation. I don’t know whether the world needs another Socrates or Aristotle, but it would be a shame to cede the position to another religion, just because we were too busy blogging to wade back into the deep end after all these centuries.