Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Date: 25th February 2012

Brokered by Love

Happiness and virtue are brokered by love.

In moral philosophy there is a significant divide between:

  • Those who think morality has a purpose – telos – or 
  • Those who believe moral action is just about doing the right thing – with no reference to a goal.

In my Phd thesis I have argued at length that the moral understanding cannot be reduced to either perspective, that it is ultimately founded in our experience of duty, but that duties reaches out to virtue both in its respect for rights, but also in its desire for the good.

However another way of looking at this dilemma is much easier.

Think about bringing up your child. You want your child to be happy (and this can have many meanings) and you want your child to be good (and this can have many meanings). But what is the exercise of loving your child if it is not the effort of reconciling these two objectives. The paradoxical hope of true love is that our children will live long and contented lives but that they become the kind of people who know when they must sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.

Only love, not empty rationality, can reconcile this paradox.

Making the Story True

“Pride” she [Isak Dinesen] once wrote in her notebook, “is faith in the idea that God had, when he made us. A proud man is conscious of the idea, and aspires to realise it.”

…she did write some tales about what must have been for her the obvious lesson of her youthful follies, namely, about the “sin” of making a story come true, of interfering with life according to a preconceived pattern, instead of waiting patiently for the story to emerge, of repeating in imagination as distinguished from creating a fiction and then trying to live up to it.

Hannah Arendt on Isak Dinesen

Pride is the first sin and yet it seems such a natural and unavoidable part of being human and of having some notion of our own purpose, destiny or value. In the Greek tradition pride is something proper – often it almost seems to be the point of everything – think of Ajax on the beach. But in the Jewish and Christian tradition pride is always problematic.

Elie Wiesel tells this Hasidic tale:

Just before he died, the Baal Shem told his disciples that the one among them who would teach them how to overcome pride would be his successor. The problem was put to each of them; the Maggid happened to be called first. His answer: Since pride is one of God’s attributes, man cannot uproot it entirely, all at once; it must be fought every day and at every moment. This reply was so favourably received, no one else was questioned.

I love this thought. It seems to truly capture what is necessary in pride, and yet, it properly puts pride in its place.

Part of what it takes to ‘fight pride every day and at every moment’ is also to be found in the idea of ‘letting the story emerge…’. The vanity of pride is not found so much in the fact that we value ourselves but in that we pretend to know what to value in ourselves – how to define the pattern of our own life. This is real vanity. Stories are not projects – they evolve and they are changed by the world and its contingencies.

We must live our lives with imagination. We must tell and listen to the stories. We are looking for meaning. But we must not force the story to come true or feel defeated when the story takes an unexpected turn. This is why proper pride is an act of faith, not knowledge; we must have faith in our value – but not pretend to know what that value actually is.

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