Thursday, July 19, 2012

Vice/Virtue, Vice/Versa

Evil, be thou my good” -Paradise Lost, IV.110

Friedrich Nietzsche is one of those, what I like to call, “Phase Philosophers.” What I mean by that is that I know a lot of people who pass through his thought and walk with his ideas for awhile, but then outgrow this phase and move on to something else. Some are Cartesians (“Nothing exists but my mind”) or Randians (“Selfishness is a virtue”), but Nietzschianism tends to be popular (“God is dead”) with high school and college students. I understand why. Nietzsche is passionate and he is brilliant, which can be very attractive to the young. Socrates was passionate and brilliant, which is why the young of Athens flocked to him.

Of course, Nietzsche was also insane.

He had a total psychotic break where he tried to strangle a horse in the middle of a crowded street (to be fair, I'm sure the horse started it). Surely there were biochemical factors to his problem, but I also believe that his philosophy led to his madness. There are several aspects of this thought that we could talk about but there is one that I believe has slowly been infecting our world: The transvaluation of values.

Don't let the big words scare you. All this means is that Nietzsche wanted to overturn the virtues of Christianity and turn them into vices. He saw Christianity as a cancer that killed human nature. The traditional virtues need to be flipped on its head. He famously asked, “Granted that we want the truth: WHY NOT RATHER untruth?”

And while very few of us embrace Nietzche's ideas the way he embraced horses, his influence in this area has subtly persisted. I've noticed that we've been slowly shifting the pieces of our moral chessboard to put virtue in moral checkmate to vice. We've turned vices into virtues and virtues into vices. There are 2 ways this is done:

The first involves holding that which is good in contempt and that which is vile as admirable. Here are some examples:

Honesty – often we see this in the name of “sparing feelings.” Little white lies cover small injuries. This is nothing new. But more and more I've noticed that lying can be held up as not only acceptable, but virtuous. Take a movie like The Dark Knight. The entire ending is predicated on the “noble” idea of embracing a lie for the greater good. As Batman says, “Sometimes the truth isn't good enough.” We find it acceptable to deceive others as long “as it makes them happy.” This is horribly dangerous because once we undercut our demand for truth, we are cut off from a common objective world and are left floating alone through life in the bubble of our own lies.

Patience – In the last few decades life has sped up to lightning speed. We want our desires fulfilled NOW. If I graduate from college and do not have my dream job, then something must be wrong with the world, not with me. If I have to wait 35 seconds for my burrito to heat up, I yell at the microwave. If the streaming HD video on my phone buffers slightly, I want to slap someone. But patience is often viewed with derision and inaction. We are told that we constantly have to “DO SOMETHING.” I recall a bill was being debated in Congress and many of the legislators said that they didn't read it because it was important to pass it first. I found this odd. It reminds me of the old joke where someone tries to get a man to sign a contract. When the man notices that the paper is blank, the contract maker says, “We'll fill it in later.” Socrates was always disappointed when people wanted to move on in a conversation until he truly understood what was happening. Now it seems that patience is standing in the way of progress and should be shunted.

Faith – Like pornography, faith appears to be one of those things that society feels should be kept behind closed doors. There was recently a Rhode Island woman who threatened to sue a group of Catholics who prayed the rosary in the common room. Expressions of faith can make people very uncomfortable, so we need restrain it to the privacy of the house and the church. And how often are religious people portrayed in popular culture as either manipulative charlatans or naïve little lambs. Private personal piety is fine. But when someone publicly speaks of their belief they are called phonies, panderers, fanatics, and busybodies.

Chastity – This is the most obvious one to see in the pop culture, but I want to take a slightly different tact. As a society we have basically conceded fornication as normal and our Church stands against the tide there. But even the most abnormal sexual conditions are being normalized. I mentioned in an earlier post about the movie Savages. Here, the lead female character is romantically involved with the two male leads at the same time. In fact, they often refer to her as “our girl.” The New York Times when telling the story of ex-homosexual activist Michael Glatze casually mentions that at one point he and his lover had “for the last few years the relationship had a third member...” Any kind of sexual self-control is held as a repression of healthy desires. Also note how sexualized our society has become. Take this example: two males are in an isolated area spooning each other. Often they hold hands and show their affection with a kiss. Am I describing Brokeback Mountain? No. This is Sam and Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. But none of that activity of the hobbits is sexual. But Tolkien wrote in a different time. Now, we sexualize everything and anything we can. Don't believe me? Google search any subject and I guarantee there will be some form of that thing depicted in a sexual nature.

Now, some virtues cannot be turned into vices because we hold them too dear. But this leads to the second kind of corruption: redefine the value. If we cannot get people to reject the virtue, distort its true meaning. Two examples:

Courage – Nobody believes cowardice is better than courage. It is good to overcome fear. But then we distort the objective of that courage. Two nuns riding a bus protesting the Church while getting fawning media coverage is called brave. Taking on bullies by bullying them is called brave. Throwing glitter at politicians is called brave. Asking taxpayers to pay for maintaining your sex life is called brave. To be sure we still have strong examples of true bravery, but by widening the definition we lose its value.

Love – I mentioned in one of my posts on logic that a student expressed her support for “gay marriage” by saying “love is love.” This points very clearly to bastardization of our language. Part of the problem is the English itself. The Greeks recognized four different loves: Storge is simple affection; Eros is romantic desire; Phileo is friendship; Agape is complete self donation. To confuse these is to cause great problems, both personally and in society. How often in high school have we spent sleepless nights trying to figure out if that hug we got from that cute classmate was storge, phileo, or eros? And as a society don't we generally call people to greater agape, but a more restrictive eros? In other words, isn't good to have more compassion for everyone while being exclusive with someone romantically? But when we confuse these four loves we lose what makes them unique and then we cannot place them appropriately in our lives.

So vice becomes virtue, virtue becomes vice. How do we overcome this problem?

Intellectually, we must turn to reason and logic. The corruption of our virtues do not come from our intellect, but from our emotions. Pointing out the logical conclusions and implications of these corrupted virtues applied universally will hopefully shock people away from its absurdity.

But more importantly than virtue being known is virtue being lived. The living example of honesty, patience, faith, chastity, courage, and love will speak more powerfully than any words.


  1. How the hell do you produce this much well thought out content so fast. Is CatholicSkywalker a title for a group of people?

    Every person I have ever met that reads Nietzsche is one of those angry people that everybody walks on egg shells around. It is anecdotal but a consistent truth in my life.

    I do the "spare feelings" thing all the time and I tell myself that I do it out of love, because I do not want to hurt the other person's feelings. However the truth is I do it out of a lack of courage.

  2. Unknown,
    I hope I did not come off as some kind of self-appointed moral hero, because the truth is that I am not. I pointed to the virtue of courage because it is one of the virtues that I often lack. I find this in the little things like when with a group someone is invited to share an opinion, and I wait to see who speaks first. CS Lewis said "Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point."

    Maybe that's why I like Green Lantern so much. The whole point of the comic is overcoming fear.

    As to whether or not there are a group of people writing: No, it's just me. I wouldn't be too impressed, though. I am a theology teacher on summer break, so I have a lot of free time and a lot of built of "lecturiness" in me.

    Thank you for your kind words.