An interesting thing that I’ve found as I work through the aphorisms is that there are ones that I don’t feel like I can talk about when I first examine them, and then later return to them and feel comfortable expounding on them.
I’m not sure to what degree this reflects growth and to which degree it reflects the various mindsets required to engage with a text, but I find it interesting.
Sometimes it’s the case that a point that I’ll come to while discussing one aphorism will reflect itself in another aphorism, which isn’t surprising when one focuses primarily on maxims by a single person.
This one from Rochefoucauld is another example: a few days ago I skipped over this aphorism in favor of another one (you can see it here), in part because I didn’t have anything to say about it. Now I do.
What we term virtue is often but a mass of various actions and divers interests, which fortune, or our own industry, manage to arrange; and it is not always from valour or from chastity that men are brave, and women chaste. (Maxim 1)François de La Rochefoucauld
Humans are and are not moral creatures, depending on how you define them. The problem is that as with most matters which defy simple classification neither really satisfies the truth.
People can be moral creatures, and that sets us apart from everything else we’ve found in the universe. We’re capable of making decisions based on guiding principles, not just the experiences and stimuli around us.
However, that doesn’t mean that we always are. Consciousness is expensive, and we budget our attention toward the things that we view as important in the moment.
What that means practically is that more of our actions and reactions are reflex, or subconscious, than we would like. This is pretty logical, really; we don’t know exactly how much unconscious stuff we do because it’s precisely unconscious. If it’s happening and it works, then we don’t think about it.
One of the biological functions of guilt is to discourage patterns of behavior that are known to bear consequences. If I spend more money than I’ve made in a week and then notice that I’m headed in the wrong direction financially, I feel a little guilt about it. It’s a manifestation of the worries I have about my future state, even if I can’t explicitly communicate that to myself.
When we do things with unknown consequences or we actually manage to avoid everything that we associate with guilt through supreme effort, we assume automatically that it is a form of virtue.
The problem is that virtue isn’t just avoiding the things that earn us guilt.
Virtue is strength. It’s a moral sort of strength, one which does not grant mastery of others, but it’s strength nonetheless.
One of the problems with strength is that it’s relative. I can go about my daily life without doing anything that I would consider at the outer edge of my physical capacities, but that doesn’t mean that I would be considered strong. I might be “strong enough” but even that is a relative description.
Virtue is the same way. You might look at honesty and say “Well, I don’t lie on my taxes.”
That’s very good!
It’s also pretty much nothing. There’s a giant penalty for lying on your taxes. You’re forced to be honest, or at least lie well enough to get away with it, and most of us are bad liars and know that on at least an unconscious level. If you aren’t, you’re gonna get a whole lotta pain, and that could be what’s driving the honesty.
If you could make a universal statement (“I don’t lie.”) that would be a virtue. Of course, virtue being a relative strength it may be impossible to really have perfect virtue. But if every time you were to tell a lie you instead chose honesty you’d be making a lot of progress. There are further forms of dishonesty, of course: omission, over-statement, miscellaneous deception, and “white lies”” all degrade the virtues of honesty and integrity.
However, the struggle is what forms virtue. It’s not an inherent thing that some people have and others don’t, which is part of the reason why the virtuous don’t have any claim to superiority. Virtue is an interaction between the individual and the universe (to put it in hippy language; I’d argue that it’s an interaction between the individual and God), and it has to be found outside the individual’s disconnected being.
Choosing virtue may be laudable, but virtue itself is revealed. Nobody can claim to be closer to it than anyone else, because the problem with a choice is that it overlooks two key points.
First, for every virtue one chooses, there are likely virtues they have not developed.
Second, a choice is not permanent. It can be reversed. The virtuous person is not in a fixed state of virtue, and can throw away everything in a moment of moral compromise.
Don’t enter into moral compromise.
Look for opportunities to develop virtue.
Remember that all morality is shaped by our relation to the universe.