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Plutarch Defines Virtue

November 4, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

"[V]irtue, by the bare statement of its actions, can so affect men's minds as to create at once both admiration of the things done and desire to imitate the doers of them. The goods of fortune we would possess and would enjoy; those of virtue we long to practice and exercise." - Plutarch

Virtue is a topic that we write about often at Harrison Middleton University. Merriam-Webster defines virtue as: “1. morally good behavior or character, 2. a good and moral quality, 3. the good result that comes from something”. In other words, virtue is extremely difficult to define because it depends upon the subjectivity of how one qualifies goodness. I may agree with one politician, for example, and you may agree with another. If we do not agree on the virtuosity of their actions, have we also destroyed or limited virtue itself? I don't think so. Virtue's strength may also stem from this same issue that I call a weakness. “Good” is not the same as virtue, but leads us to a better understanding of virtue. It is necessary, then, to discuss what we qualify as good in order to create and understand a cultural “goodness”. Plutarch writes endlessly about virtue and morals in The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. In an attempt to better understand virtue, I have posted an entire passage taken from his introduction to “Pericles”. I think he offers valuable insights about the idea of virtue itself and I hope you agree. Thank you!

“Caesar once, seeing some wealthy strangers at Rome, carrying up and down with them in their arms and bosoms young puppy-dogs and monkeys, embracing and making much of them, took occasion not unnaturally to ask whether the women in their country were not used to bear children; by that prince-like reprimand gravely reflecting upon persons who spend and lavish upon brute beasts that affection and kindness which nature has implanted in us to be bestowed on those of our own kind. With like reason may we blame those who misuse that love of inquiry and observation which nature has implanted in our souls, by expending it on objects unworthy of the attention either of their eyes or their ears, while they disregard such as are excellent in themselves, and would do them good.

“The mere outward sense, being passive in responding to the impression of the objects that come in its way and strike upon it, perhaps cannot help entertaining and taking notice of everything that addresses it, be it what it will, useful or unuseful; but, in the exercise of his mental perception, every man, if he chooses, has a natural power to turn himself upon all occasions, and to change and shift with the greatest ease to what he shall himself judge desirable. So that it becomes a man's duty to pursue and make after the best and choicest of everything, that he may not only employ his contemplation, but may also be improved by it. For as that colour is most suitable to the eye whose freshness and pleasantness stimulates and strengthens the sight, so a man ought to apply his intellectual perception to such objects as, with the sense of delight, are apt to call it forth, and allure it to its own proper good and advantage.

“Such objects we find in the acts of virtue, which also produce in the minds of mere readers about them an emulation and eagerness that may lead them on to imitation. In other things there does not immediately follow upon the admiration and liking of the thing done any strong desire of doing the like. Nay, many times, on the very contrary, when we are pleased with the work, we slight and set little by the workman or artist himself, as, for instance, in perfumes and purple dyes, we are taken with the things themselves well enough, but do not think dyers and perfumers otherwise than low and sordid people. It was not said amiss by Antisthenes, when people told him that one Ismenias was an excellent piper. 'It may be so,' said he, 'but he is but a wretched human being, otherwise he would not have been an excellent piper.' And King Philip, to the same purpose, told his son Alexander, who once at a merry-meeting played a piece of music charmingly and skillfully, 'Are you not ashamed, son, to play so well?' For it is enough for a king or prince to find leisure sometimes to hear others sing, and he does the muses quite honour enough when he pleases to be present, while others engage in such exercises and trials of skill.

“He who busies himself in mean occupations produces, in the very pains he takes about things of little or no use, an evidence against himself of his negligence and indisposition to what is really good. Nor did any generous and ingenious young man, at the sight of the statue of Jupiter at Pisa, ever desire to be Phidias, or on seeing that of Juno at Argos, long to be a Polyclitus, or feel induced by his pleasure in their poems to wish to be an Anacreon or Philetas or Archilochus. For it does not necessarily follow, that, if a piece of work please for its gracefulness, therefore he that wrought it deserves our admiration. Whence it is that neither do such things really profit or advantage the beholders, upon the sight of which no zeal arises for the imitation of them, nor any impulse or inclination, which may prompt any desire or endeavour of doing the like.

“But virtue, by the bare statement of its actions, can so affect men's minds as to create at once both admiration of the things done and desire to imitate the doers of them. The goods of fortune we would possess and would enjoy; those of virtue we long to practice and exercise. We are content to receive the former from the others, the latter we wish others to experience from us. Moral good is a practical stimulus; it is no sooner seen, than it inspires an impulse to practice, and influences the mind and character not by a mere imitation which we look at, but by the statement of the fact creates a moral purpose which we form.”

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