Virtues Memo:
Plain to See
4 November 2014

Last night, at dinner, my friend ED and I were talking about Venice. Specifically, we were talking about the sestieri, the sixths (instead of “quarters”) into which the principal mass of the city, flanking the Grand Canal, is divided. We could remember the names of five, but not that of Santa Croce, which we found on a map as soon as we got back to the apartment. Our other, sharper reason for consulting a map was to determine the location of Castello.

We agreed, ED and I, where Castello is — next to San Marco — but I said that it was to the south, while my friend insisted that it was to the north. As ED is someone who tends to know what he’s  talking about, I was extremely uneasy about the possibility that I might be wrong.

It turned out that we were both right and both wrong. It probably doesn’t make much sense to apply the points of the compass to labyrinthine Venice, but if one must, it makes most sense to say that Castello lies to the east of San Marco, from which it stretches both to the north (the hospital and the Fondamente Nuove) and to the south (the Public Gardens).

If I have to be wrong, ED is the man whom I want to be right. But it still killed me to be wrong about Castello. Wrong, because I saw at once that I’d made a snap mistake a long time ago, and never revised it: I believed that Castello began on the far side of the Arsenale. It — doesn’t. I can’t count the number of times that this mistake has caused me to raise my eyebrows in the middle of a Guido Brunetti mystery, but did that ever get me to check the map? I read Brunetti mysteries map in hand, but my mistake about Castello was of the type that, all too often, pre-empts correction.

Now, here’s what’s typically me about this story. ED just got back from a week in Venice. I have never even been to Italy. ED, as I say, is someone who, more than most, knows his onions — and he was just there. strolling from San Marco into Castello. Did that stop me?



I managed to be out of the apartment for more than three hours yesterday, on a circuit of errands that I made up as I went along, just to be away from our crated chambers. After a few dozen blocks, I could actually think. What with Election Day coming up, and the strong personalities in Beth Macy’s Factory Man in mind, I found myself finishing up some connections.

It occurred to me that the virtues that I’ve been writing about here — generosity, decency, and self-respect — are political as well as personal virtues. Unlike “honesty,” for example, they function in the same way at both the intimate and the public level. Honesty is forever breaking down as a virtue because the appropriateness of candor shifts with the distance between people and the size and composition of the crowd. “Tell the truth” is as close to useless as a maxim can be. The concept of truth is hobbled by our belief that “truth” exists “out there” — that Platonic ideals such as truth exist, and, that, if we’re very, very good, we can grasp them.

The possibility that everything that exists might share human imperfection was, I think, physically unbearable to Plato. He bent his extraordinary mental powers to the development of an explanation of the world that proved to be very satisfying to intelligent men. It posited a zone free of the organic mutability of human life. In this view, humans might be imperfect mortals, doomed to death and decay, but unchanging ideals, such as truth and justice, lived on eternally, in every age the same. This is the backbone upon which grew the entire Western intellectual tradition — including the very idea of “Western.” This tradition, which was already sufficiently developed a thousand years ago for Islam to consider and reject it, has often been at odds with the capstone Christian virtues, and discord between the intellectual tradition and Christian dogma remains lively. But the habits of mind of educated Westerners are still founded on the axioms of Platonic faith.

The most regrettable aspect of Idealism is its contempt for the ordinary, for the “mere.” More than he knew, Plato was importing Greek ideas about heroes and heroism into his new faith — not the least of its appeals to those intelligent men. As a consequence, our Western ideas of virtue continue to extol the exceptional, the one-off, and especially the active self-sacrifice. We have only recently learned to appreciate — to recognize — the virtues of holding on, making a go of things over time, and enjoying “a good run,” but we still don’t know how to talk about them. Where are the clear and distinct ideas? You can’t construct much of a system with notions of generosity and decency, and “self-respect” seems almost solipsistic. At the same time, there doesn’t seem to be any need for systems. The things speak for themselves. So perhaps we ought to tell stories instead of laying down the law, even if this risks cutting off the Western tradition and becoming just like everybody else. A good thing?

Many years ago, when I was engaged in a group reading of the novels of Anthony Trollope, I became preoccupied, as good Trollope readers will, by the concept of the “gentleman.” (There is a pretty good book on the subject, The Gentleman in Trollope, if you can get hold of it.) After much puffing in and out of the cerebral folds, this train of thought carried me to a simple understanding: the gentleman is someone who seeks to make other people comfortable, whatever that means. Whatever that means. Couldn’t be vaguer, as the statement of a rule, and yet, in any particular instance, it is usually very clear what will make people comfortable, at least to those who have given the matter their gentlemanly attention. (My closest approach to a general rule is that civility begins with the offer of a comfortable chair and a glass of water.) In time, my interest in the gentleman faded, but only because the term is problematic for many readers, with its overtones of masculine privilege and social snobbery. The gentlemanly ideal remains explicit in my understanding of generosity.

My virtues are messily interrelated. Where does generosity stop, and decency begin?  They don’t. It is indecent to withhold generosity. What I mean by this is not that I must empty my pockets to the beggars on 86th Street but that it is wrong to get people riled up with inflammatory news stories about Ebola or Obamacare. It is wrong to make people uncomfortable even when, from sheer perversity, that is what they seek to be. (It is like giving car keys to a drunk.) Nor does generosity imply unstinting selflessness. Self-respect imposes material requirements — again, wildly idiosyncratic — that must be met if generosity is not to degenerate into foolishness. Both decency and self-respect seem to rule out the pursuit of glory. Does that erase too much of the flavor of life? Or are video games the solution?

Plato asked his disciples to explain the movement of heavenly bodies in terms of uniform circular motion. It took centuries for bright minds to realize that the very condition, which I have italicized, made explanation impossible. The heavenly bodies that are closest to our planet travel in ellipses, not circles. Mere observation eventually triumphed. But Plato was never interested in what’s plain to see. He was haunted by what ought to be. And he built that obsession into the way that all of us, especially the smart ones, think.