Saturday, 26 January 2019

Philosophy: Virtue and Morality

There is a question, “Is there more to virtue than just doing good deeds? And if so, what is it?” In the tabloid press, “morality” never means anything other than sex, but of course there is much more to the question than that!
The debate begins as follows: actions may be good in themselves (e.g. giving help to the poor), but they may be performed for purely selfish reasons; such as avoiding tax, improving our “image”, or even increasing our chances of going to heaven. Do these dubious motives invalidate the moral character of the deeds themselves? Or does an action remain good in itself, whatever the character and motives of the doer? (E.g. Al Capone was always very generous in giving aid to the poor of Chicago, especially during the Depression. To a mediaeval thinker, this would be counted in his favour when before Divine judgement)
    Can an action be well-intentioned but bad in its consequences? E.g. giving money to a beggar, who may spend it on drugs or booze; or to a charity which may be fraudulent. We are often warned against irresponsible donations!
   (Jesus specifically told us to give our wealth to the poor, and denounced the rich. In mediaeval Catholic theology, performing good deeds would definitely improve your chances of going to heaven. In the morality play “Everyman” the central character is setting out on a journey (i.e. he’s dying), but “Good deeds” will accompany him, whereas “property” is revealed to be his greatest enemy. But early Protestant theologians specifically denied that good deeds could bring you any closer to salvation).

As against this, the ancient Greek philosophers, Plato, Aristotle and their successors, were less concerned with good deeds than with the creation of moral character: the virtuous man

“Virtue” = a combination of courage, justice, temperance and intelligence. A virtuous man could be relied upon to be truthful and honest, to act wisely and justly, to avoid corruption and self-indulgence, and to have the courage to behave properly under pressure. This would be more important than good deeds (in any case, we would expect a      virtuous man to perform good deeds). Such a man could be called magnanimous: “great-souled”
It would appear that the magnanimous man is in a position of power and authority. It would be difficult for a slave to behave like this.

The ancient concept of “virtue” was rediscovered in the Renaissance and revived by radical Jacobins in the French Revolution, where it appeared by mean a combination of patriotism and frugal living. In Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, Brutus shows “virtue” when he kills his friend and benefactor for the good of the state. By comparison, Dante saw Brutus as the arch-traitor, almost as wicked as Judas Iscariot.  

David’s paintings illustrate “virtue” as understood by the French revolutionaries, by portraying two episodes from the legendary early history of Rome.

In the first, the consul Brutus (ancestor of Caesar’s killer) receives the bodies of his sons, who have been executed for plotting to betray the Republic. The women weep, but Brutus deliberately shows no reaction at all.

In the second, “The oath of the Horatii”, the three sons of Horatius are about to go forth to kill Rome’s enemies. Again, the women are weeping: they are the sisters of the three Horatii, and the men to be killed are their husbands! In both these cases, “virtue” and patriotism are portrayed as being more important even than family.

Aristotle’s concept of moderation is quite different from Christian humility: helpless without divine grace – a concept unknown in the classical Greek world. Aristotle saw moderation as having a realistic view of your abilities: pretending you’re worse than you are is just as foolish as vainglorious boasting. 

The British public schools, from the days of Thomas Arnold’s Rugby (and all the masters were of course educated in the classical writers!) saw their role as not so much teaching knowledge and skills as building character: creating the ideal of the Christian Gentleman: an up-to-date version of Aristotle’s “virtuous man”; and a fit type to go out and rule the empire, hopefully in a magnanimous fashion (which they did!)

Plato, Aristotle and the other ancient Greek writers never touch on the question of whether good deeds may be rewarded, and bad deeds punished, in the afterlife. Such a notion was unknown in Classical philosophy. Homer portrayed the dead as leading a gloomy life as ghosts in a dark underworld. Similarly in the Old Testament “Shaol” is seen as a miserable underground place, but with no sign of torture by demons. In both the Homeric and the Hebbrew cases, all the dead went there: the virtuous and the wicked, the heroes and the obscure all alike. It was only with the coming of Christianity that we find a stress on glory for the saved and eternal punishment for the damned..

Monday, 14 January 2019


The spectacular Vaux-le-Vicomte, south of Paris, is the first of the great baroque manions. It was built between 1656 and 1659 by Nicholas Fouquet, Louis XIV's Superintendant of Finance. Absolutely no expense was spared. The very best experts were called in: the architect Le Vau, the decorator Le Brun and the garden designer Le Notre, together with their teams of craftsmen. The result was a palace of staggering richness, which was also a display of Fooquet's recklessness, for everywhere was found his emblem of the squirrel and his motto: "Quo non ascendum?": "How high shall I not rise?"   

Finally all was ready, and King Louis XIV was invited to the grand opening. A special play was commissioned from Moliere, there was a grand display of fireworks, and the King's meal was served on gold tableware. But Louis, in the words of Le Notre, "Had never seen anything so beautiful, and he did not like what he saw at all". Not only was the monarch hopelessly outclassed, but he no doubt wondered where Foquet could have got all that money.
   Less than three weeks later Foquet was arrested. Convicted of embezzlement, he was sentenced to imprisonment for life in the remote fortress of Pignerol, where he died in 1680. Louis then recruited Le Vau, Le Brun and Le Notre to work on his own great project, the palace of Versailles, which he clearly intended to outshine Vaux-le-Vicomte.
   So the unhappy Nicholas Fouquet never got to see his marvellous palace again, but fortunately we can.

Friday, 4 January 2019

Isle of Wight

Until I was six, I lived on the Isle of Wight, at Belcroft House, Newport. It was built by "a pupil of John Nash". In fact, it wasn't as grand as this sounds, since it had been divided into council flats. We had the ground floor. When we lived there, it had a large conservatory in front. My main memory is being taken up ontothe roof to watch the "Queen Mary" sail down the Solent. I managed to locate the house on a visit many years later.

This summer we returned to the island, staying at the Royal Hotel in Ventnor, close to the southern tip of the island. The hotel had a fine garden.

From the hotel it was only a short walk down the hill to the beach.

A mile or so away we found the Ventnor Botanical Garden; a sub-tropical paradise on the site of an old tuberculosis sanatorium.

The oldest building on the island is Carisbrooke castle. There was a motte here, and a tower (probably made of wood) as early as 1100. The present gatehouse and keep date from the early 14th century, when there were fears of a French invasion.
King Charles I was held a prisoner here after his defeat in the civil war, before being taken to London for trial and execution.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert loved the island, and built Osborne for their family. It is a vast Italianate mansion with formal gardens, grounds sweeping down to the Solent, and a special house and farming allotments for their children. (I have written about the house on an earlier posting)

After Abert died, Queen Victoria kept his rooms completely untouched. She died at Osborne in 1901.

In the pre-reformed Parliament before 1832, the Isle of Wight was politically significant, since it elected no fewer than six M.P.s: two for Newport, two for Yarmouth, a Henrician fort at the western tip of the island, and two for Newtown, which today consists merely of a small town hall on a desolate marsh.