By Nicholas Senz, The Catholic Thing, Jan. 11, 2018
In Plato’s dialogue Meno, Socrates discusses with his interlocutor the nature of virtue and whether it can be taught. Socrates argues that, as a kind of knowledge, virtue indeed can be taught. Yet at the same time, he is unable to identify any teachers of virtue. At one point, Socrates raises the Sophists as potential candidates for teachers of virtue, since they made it their profession to charge fees in exchange for teaching rhetorical persuasion. In other words, the goal of the Sophists was to teach you not how to be a good man, but rather how to appear to be a good man.
The spirit of the Sophists lives on, perhaps stronger than ever, in the world of today. We do not attempt to teach or pass on virtue, but merely to make a show of (supposedly) having it.
We see this in today’s universities, where the formation of the person through intellectual pursuit has taken a backseat to the promotion of certain social positions (and the silencing of others). Our elite universities impart virtue by bestowing their imprimatur on the chosen few, and teaching them the latest trends in social thought. The virtue given by the Ivy League has even less to do with persuading your fellow citizens than it does with convincing them a priori that you are to be entrusted with leadership. Universities have transformed from bastions of learning into radical finishing schools.
We see this in social policy, where wealthy activists – who own multiple homes and fly on private jets preach the dangers of climate change – literally buy back their virtue in such matters by purchasing “carbon offset credits.” They declare “green living” to be virtuous, and then literally buy their virtue, managing to have their cake and eat it too.
We see this in the apologies offered by public figures caught in egregious offenses, where heinous sexual crimes are excused or elided if the offender holds the correct position on key issues. Witness the pass given by so many to both Bill Clinton and Roy Moore because of their professed views on abortion. (Remember Gloria Steinem’s odious “one free grope rule”?) Thankfully, society has not fallen so far that this is an ironclad defense. Moore was defeated, Clinton is beginning to receive repudiation from left-wing elites, and Harvey Weinstein was not able to buy his way back into our good graces simply by vowing to fight the “evil” NRA.
Virtue in society today is not a quality of soul – magnanimity – but rather a simple list of propositions to which one must adhere. The determining factor is not how you live your life, but whether you have the right opinions – and can indulge in “virtue signaling.” Should you hold the wrong opinions, beware the Twitter mobs.
Thus people do not have to act virtuously by giving to charity or helping their neighbor; rather, they can merely signal their virtue by making a social media post voicing support for the cause du jour, or expressing their disappointment that others have not come around to their way of thinking. In the wake of a mass shooting, for example, public virtue now does not require a discussion of the various contributing factors and how they might be addressed. Apparently all one need do is post “Enough” on Facebook.
Thus we have the recurring cycle in every moment where a person’s fifteen minutes of fame via social media (from Ken Bone to Keaton Jones) is followed within a day or two by the revelation that they hold an opinion outside of the Zeitgeist, or that a family member once posted an inappropriate joke, or some such. “Sure, this guy saved ten people from a burning building – but he opposes net neutrality!”
Aristotle, as he so often did, clarified that which Plato left murky. (Yes, my biases are showing.) For Aristotle, virtue was not primarily a form of knowledge, but a way of acting: to be virtuous is to act virtuously. And thus virtue cannot be simply passed on as a form of abstract knowledge; rather, the way to learn virtue is to observe the virtuous man and imitate him, building up the habits of right judgment and right action.
Once virtue is understood in this way, the folly of the sophists is revealed. One cannot buy a habit or purchase experience, any more than one can buy a ready-made ditch. It takes time and effort to build character. It cannot be bought, sold, seized, or clutched. To attain virtue, one must find a worthy guide, and sit at his feet as a student, a discipulus. One must find a magister – not just a teacher, but a master.
Plato found his in Socrates. We have been given the definitive one in Christ, the divine teacher who instructs us in the depths of our hearts how to live our lives, and showed how a fully virtuous man can endure even the worst suffering and death. So often we lose Him. But like the ancient Israelites we may turn and find Him again and again.
What He has to give cannot be bought or sold; rather, He Himself is the one who is given.
Nicholas Senz is the Director of Children’s and Adult Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, TX, where lives with his wife and two children. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA.