[Because of the plague] People

[Because of the plague] People began openly to venture upon acts of self indulgence which before then they used to keep in the dark… as for what is called honor, no one showed himself willing to abide by its laws, so doubtful it was that he would survive to get a name for it… No fear of God or law of man had any restraining influence. As for the gods, it seemed to be the same thing whether one worshipped them or not.

The Peloponnesian War.

Book Two pp. 53.

It is difficult to read these passages and think that any man values good things simply in themselves. When deprived praise as an incentive, all abandon honor. When deprived of good things from the gods, it “is the same thing whether we worship them or not.” Hobbes, having read Thucydides so faithfully that his translation of him still sells, is clearly deeply affected by these sorts of passages. When we confront passages like these, the teaching of Hobbes seem to gather great force. Men by nature are small, ravenous, dirty, mean, smug, impious, self centered, shallow, and vain. All “virtues” are mere tropes on these features that make life more tolerable to spend among others.

Thucydides’ passage does not commit us to this drastic interpretation that Hobbes brings to it. We could, for example, say that all human goodness requires some external force to keep it in check, while at the same time there is some profound interior desire of men to be honorable and pious. Something like this opinion is made necessary by the simple fact of men writing the sort of laws that get disregarded in times of trouble. Why did me feel it necessary to reward honor if they did not have some natural appreciation of honor being honorable? Even if this honor was only posited in law to make civil society more commodious, why should we desire to have a civil society at all, except by some natural impulse?

But this response is open to objection. Could we not desire civil society for vicious reasons? Perhaps we want to band together so that we can conquer others, or exploit others more efficiently. This seems to be the idea that many have of a civil society- that it is a group of thieves that want more power. Powerlust, avarice and vainglory are the bedrock of human desire, they say. All else is concession, fear, and force.

But even given all of this, does not the idea of a virtue still remain? Even if we could find definitively that man is vicious to the core, why is it that this vicious nature could still be judged as “un-virtuous” or perhaps even “wicked”? We will never be able to shake the conviction that if man is fundamentally selfish, backbiting, covetous, and irrational then man is simply fundamentally evil. But to call all men evil is to condemn them. Something must remain in us- some conscience, some voice that we cannot escape, that tells us that there is something better than what we are- that some life is at least thinkable that is more worth living than our own.

It is in attempting to answer this question that the arguers must definitively part ways. If we attempt to object to the natural understanding of virtue as laid out above, then we must at last plunge headlong into an abyss that we must regard as no abyss at all. Virtue must become the very exultation of what we might call “depravity” and all other thoughts to the contrary must be torn out root and branch. We must get beyond thinking our depravity to be depraved, and start to embrace it, live it, and seek its fullest development. We must view any hint of the old “virtue” as a vice, and swallow down all the consequences of the new “virtue” of rapacity. The terms of both this life, an its contrary (virtue in the old sense) are absolute and admit no final middle. Look at them. Now decide: which do you want? Which can you do? What do you need?


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