One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Supposedly, we learn more from our failures than from our successes. 
I certainly hope so.
One step forward…
The purpose of this writing project is to chart my own personal journey in trying to live a life according to the classical virtues of Justice, Fortitude, Prudence and Moderation. My ultimate hope is that others will be motivated to do the same. Since beginning this project I have come to appreciate how paying attention to these virtues can be a real source of strength in my daily life. But the road is not an easy one. If I am going to do this properly I am going to need to be brutally honest in chronicling not just my successes, but also my failures. 
Two steps back…
Today I willingly kicked Fortitude & Justice to the curb. I knew there was something I should do today, but I just didn’t want to. It was something I was uncomfortable with, even though it was clearly “the right thing to do.” I am not the most outgoing guy and today’s opportunity would have required me to go out of my comfort zone. I let my discomfort rule over my sense of both Justice and Fortitude. And now I feel lousy. I think in retrospect my guilt feels worse than the discomfort would have had I gone through with today’s chore. I suppose that is something to remember. But right now it doesn’t help all that much.
I remember reading somewhere that once you start eating better, that when you cheat, and eat junk it tends to make you feel worse than it did before you were eating healthy. I think the same principle applies here. Before I started seriously evaluating my daily activities in light of the classical virtues I doubt whether today’s missed opportunity would have left much of an impression on my psyche. 
Progress? In a way, I guess it is. But I’ll tell you one thing. Next time I feel anxiety pushing me away from a task I know I should do, I will work harder to push it aside. One step forward…

Star Wars Virtue

I write this post as hurricane Irene is bearing down on the east coast. Though so far it has been something of a let down. While I certainly don’t want mass damage, so far there has been little more than a steady rain. Oh well. [Note- not five minutes after completing the first draft of this essay the power went out, not to come back for 24 hours. It was out even longer in neighboring towns. Guess I tempted fate.] School is about to start here in New England and I have been giving some thought as to how I can incorporate the classical virtues in my every day teaching.

Values education has been around for years, but most programs I have seen have revolved around reading kids painfully fabricated stories and then discussing the moral decisions the characters must make. They tend to be preachy, unrealistic and the kids treat them accordingly. The teacher “covers” the values section of the curriculum and the kids file it away, never really gaining anything long lasting.

Enter the four classical virtues.
Ideally a values education program would allow English teachers to use the works they always have- books and stories that have stood the test of time and appeal to students intellectually and aesthetically, rather than prepackaged “programs.” It is my hope that by applying the classical virtues to what we already read we can show students examples of how to live without it coming across as phony, or put on.

I believe every major character in a work of fiction either exemplifies one of the four classical virtues or is lacking in one of them. Many times a protagonist will do both, with the lacking virtue acting as the character’s fatal flaw. Let’s use Star Wars as a proxy for all fiction simply because it is familiar to most.
Each character in Star Wars can be analyzed by looking at how much or how little of each classical virtue he has. I am going to limit myself to the first movie (by first I mean 1977 release, not the chronological first- confusing isn’t it?) I’ll look at two characters, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.
Luke the Evolving Hero
He is brave enough to decide to rescue Princess Leia and his sense of justice will not let him leave the job undone when they go up against superior forces in the Death Star. Yet, he lacks prudence. This devil-may-care, jump-before-you-look attitude leads him into trouble time and time again. It is not really until the end of the first trilogy that we see a Luke who is able to think about his next move and make it confidently, knowing he is doing the correct thing at the correct time.
Han  the Complete Hero
Solo on the other hand is quite prudent and moderate in his dealings. However, because these two virtues are not tempered by Justice, he tends to only look out for himself. It is not until he puts others before himself that he becomes a true hero. He is in fact the real hero of the first film, even though Luke is the one who saves the day.
Han is the one who overcomes his main flaw and comes in to save Luke just before certain death. The fact that Luke is the one who destroys the Death Star is an important step in his hero’s journey, but he is not finished. Han on the other hand has essentially completed his journey and will be a steadfast hero throughout the rest of the films.
Looking at fictional characters through the lens of the classical virtues allows you to see deeper into their motivations and eventual actions. In turn you can discuss morals and values in a more authentic manner.
I will return to this topic in a few posts and elaborate on how I will try to incorporate this into my teaching over the course of the year.

The Virtues of Our Ancestors

I have incredibly deep roots in the northeast. Most of my family, on both maternal and paternal sides, came down from Canada into New York, Vermont and Massachusetts in the early to mid 1800’s. And as far as I can figure they were in Canada for a good 150-200 years before that.
Recently, I visited upstate New York where I did a bit of research into my father’s side of the family tree. After walking through that rural landscape with it’s mountain passes and fields of swaying corn, as well as reading countless historical documents from census records to newspapers to farm schedules, I have come to a startling conclusion.
I am fairly certain my ancestors could kick my ass, and had more character than I ever will.
The hard lives they lived as farmers and laborers left little time for comfort and softness. Pumping water for up to four hours a day simply to supply the livestock, struggling through winters that dipped to 30 below, all while raising families of 9, 10, 11 children all built character. They lived the four classical virtues in an authentic way because if they didn’t, they likely wouldn’t survive.
Prudence came more naturally because the world was a much less forgiving place. Mistakes in judgement could mean ruined crops, dead animals or children without enough to eat. If I make a bad decision I can usually make up for it –  at least materially- pretty quickly.
Fortitude was something they had in spades. Simply existing then took courage. When I think about my ancestors leaving all they knew to travel to what they hoped would be better land to start all over, usually with huge families in tow, I am left speechless. I doubt I would have that courage. I know that for good or ill, I have grown too comfortable.

When there are less distractions Moderation tends to be man’s natural default. The siren song of TV, radio and Internet were not things they had to contend with in the 1800’s. Nor was the danger of over eating. With no ready-made convenience food most of the time they were doing their best simply to have enough. They worked when it was light, rested when it was dark and spent Sundays with family.

Finally, the concept of Justice was much more immediate. Reading one newspaper article I saw how what we would call a mugging was thwarted by a couple courageous townsman. When they is less of an official deterrence in the form of regular police, lawyers and courts, neighbors needed to take care of each other.
Trying to live a virtuous life in the 21st century has a number of obstacles that life in the rural 19th century simply didn’t have. I love living where I do and when I do,  and I know that it is easy to idealize the past. I am sure there were obstacles to virtue that I am glossing over. Still, a part of me wonders if all our so-called progressed has simply made it harder to live life the ways it is supposed to be lived.

A Failure of Political Skill

Democracy may not be perfect, but it is the best form of government man has come up with to manage a free market, capitalist society. However, in order for a democracy to work its many factions need to have the requisite political skill to compromise in order to get things done.

In the U.S. this must take the form of Democrats working with Republicans. Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of our recent polarizing climate is that many on both sides now seem to value ideological purity more than they do the country as a whole. Politics, always an endevour synonymous with a contact sport has seemingly become nothing more than sport to a large number of its participants.

The problem is, this is not a game. And the loser doesn’t get to go play golf in the off-season.

Neither political party holds the high ground right now either. The Democrats, united by their dislike of former President Bush have solidified into an ultra-liberal, semi-socialistic party. For their part, the Republicans have become so afraid of the Tea Party faction that they dare not do anything that even has the faint glimmer of moderation.

The solution comes back to what this project is all about- virtue. The stunning lack of which is best illustrated by looking at the recent failure of the grand compromise on the debt ceiling. For those who have not been following the debate, here is the issue in a nutshell.

Administration officials say the country needs to raise its $14.3 trillion debt ceiling to stop a default on loan obligations, and Republicans want spending cuts in order for them to cooperate. Obama says that in return, he wants new taxes to combine with the cuts to reduce the debt by $4 trillion over the next 10-12 years.

The taxes he has in mind are of course the much talked about Bush tax cuts for those making over $250k. Obama and Speaker Boehner were basically in agreement. This was the opportunity to do something truly big and far reaching. Hell, by the end of their golf-outing negotiations Obama was even willing to put entitlements on the cutting block.

Think about that for a minute, for raising taxes on those who could probably handle it anyway, the GOP was going to be able to take a huge bite out of government spending. To think that we could dig our way out of this debt hole without any pain is folly ~ this was as good a deal as either side was likely to get. Trillions in cuts and modest tax raises.

Then the rank and file on both sides shot it down. No way can we cut into Medicare! NO new taxes!
So, how does virtue come into play you ask?

Neither party, apparently aside from the president and speaker, had the fortitude, or courage, to do what was prudent, or necessary.  Now I will admit I have no insider knowledge here. Maybe there were others willing to put aside short term political gain and do what clearly needs to be done for the nation as a whole. But if so, they have not been very vocal. And the leaders of each party, Obama and Boehner, have to take the blame for that as well. Leaders can only be leaders if people are willing to follow them.

The point remains that until we have people of strength, men and women of virtue in places of power, we will continue to simple play games with our collective future. Real democracy needs real political skill.  Something to think long and hard about as we enter the next election cycle.

What This Blog Is Not

A plethora of sites inhabit the blogoshpere that purport to teach you how to make the most of your life. They use terms like risk-taking, unconventional life and doing the impossible to motivate you to do more and live better. To steal a quote made famous by the US Army, they try to enable you to “be all you can be.”
Development For Development’s Sake
Just Google the term lifestyle design or personal development and you’ll be inundated with information about how to become a better human. You’ll learn how to travel the world, live minimally, be location independent, raise an army to your cause and many other such things.
Before I go any further I want to make clear that I have no problem with these sites as far as they go. If they serve to motivate people to realize there is more to life than Netflix and iTunes then that is great. These sites act as giant pep rallies, and rallies have a purpose in life, a good purpose. They get us to move, break us out from our self-imposed lethargy. But rallies generally do not answer the questions, Why? and How?
I can readily find information online about how to run my first marathon, do 100 consecutive push ups or travel around the world with little more than a back pack. But aside from a feeling of personal satisfaction, or greater global awareness, I still do not really know why I should do these things or how they make me intrinsically better than I was before I accomplished them.
What This Blog Is
This has been a long-winded way of saying A Certain Quality of Life will not be one of these sites. I will hopefully inspire people to make more of their lives; that is of course why I am chronicling my own journey here. But more importantly, I think, is that I will be attempting to discover and share why living a fuller life is important to our being human and how living a certain way can help us attain that life. I admit I do not have the answers yet, but I hope a few of you will stick around for the conversation.
By focusing on the classical virtues as the glue holding this site together I hope to draw on the learning and experience of people much wiser than I am. The world has changed so much, and so fast, over the past 100 years, hell, over the past 20! It is easy for us to feel like we need to find the answers to life’s biggest questions on our own. But we don’t. People have been struggling with how to define what a good life looks like, what happiness is, for literally millennia.
People like Aristotle, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Thoma Aquinas.
Books like The Bible, Summa Theologica, and The Art of Living.
These sources can give us insight into how people, who dedicated entire lifetimes to study, attempted to answer some of life’s most perplexing questions. Through a study of those who have gone before us I hope to get closer to an answer to the Why and How.

The Importance of Self-Control

I am a teacher. I understand the value of learning the “3 R’s”. I believe all sorts of schooling scenarios can work: public school, private school, home school or even guided independent study. A lot depends on the teacher and the type of student(s) involved.  However, I also know that there are things even more important than the basics of reading, writing and computational skills.

Character counts.

And character is not as easy to quantify, teach or assess. Many schools institute a type of values education, but this is often just an add-on to an already over-crowded curriculum. The teachers resent having one more topic to cover and the kids sense their ambivalence. Not a recipe for success, which is why these programs never seem to go the distance. They pop up only to disappear once the teacher or administrator who spearheaded the program moves on to something else. At the same time we are learning more and more about just how important character is in determining the quality of your life.

Your character can be defined as how well you abide by the four classical virtues, one of which, Temperance has been in the news lately. Back in the early 1970‘s Stanford did a study to see if four-year-old kids had an innate sense of temperance, or self-control. They put a child alone in a room with a marshmallow. They were free to eat it, but if they could resist for a set amount of time they would receive two marshmallows.  Turns out, some kids were better at this than others. The finding were an interesting curiosity at the time, but decades later the follow up data has made news once again.

Scientist Terrie Moffitt and her colleagues found that self-control has a pervasive and powerful effect on the arc of a life.

Even adjusting for IQ and economic background, children who were more adept at self-control went on to lead better lives. They were healthier, less likely to abuse drugs, more likely to save, less likely to be convicted of a crime, and the list goes on. These “good choices’’ not only benefit the individuals who make them, but their friends, family — even taxpayers.

What makes Moffitt’s discovery of such great public consequence is another surprise. Self-control is like a muscle. It is not just something that one is born with, but something that can be strengthened through regular exercise. Equally important, everyone can benefit. Moffitt found that, no matter the starting point, any improvement in self-control meant brighter prospects, and steps down portended trouble.

While it is always nice to have scientific back-up, the fact that virtue takes practice is hardly new. Over 2,000 years ago Aristotle said that excellence, or virtue of character was a habit more than anything else. We need to constantly exercise our self-control over small things if we ever expect it to “work” when the big temptations of life come along. Many religions instinctively realize this, hence the self-limiting disciplines- no meat on Fridays or set times for prayer. It is not that these specific practices need to have a dogmatic relevance; it is that they help train your self-control muscles as it were.

This is where the tricky part comes in to play. We currently live in a culture that values instant gratification. Self-control is almost looked at as a vice, rather than a virtue in many cases. How many parents give their children everything they could want, and do so out of sincere love, only to be stripping them of the opportunity to train the temperance muscle.

The same goes for adults, myself included. One of the unforeseen benefits of the hard economic times we are currently facing in much of the western world is the drying up of readily available credit. Most of us can not simply whip out the plastic and make spontaneous purchases anymore. But this is a good thing. Part of being human is dealing with lack. It is unnatural to live in a perpetual state of plenty. Just watch one of those lottery-ruined-my-life shows to see how having everything soon leads to nothing.

Self-control, Temperance, a classical virtue that is being thrust, unwelcome, upon many of us could be just the training we need in a 21st century world. Which brings us back to schools. How do we incorporate true character education? Again, they best society has come up with is often based in or around religion, therefore religious schools have the best track record here. Is there a way to bring this to a secular public school setting?  This is a topic I will be exploring in the future and I welcome any thoughts below in the comment section.

Plato and Our Current Culture

Plato: RepublicWe like in a culture that feeds on itself. We build people and organizations up simply to tear them back down. Little attention do we devote to our own moral development. without each doing his part the whole of society can not improve. Does this sound like the current state of affairs in the modern western world?

The state being a perfect one must exhibit in itself the four cardinal virtues. Not that every one of its citizens must exhibit them perfectly, but the philosophical rulers present prudence, courageous standing-army courage, the well-conducted populace and craftsman temperance. The remaining virtue justice, the virtue of the whole, the principle and cause of the existence of the other three, compelling each portion of the state to keep it own business, and to abstain from all interference with the affairs of the other portions.- Plato’s Republic, Book 4

The question is: how do we get there from here? As the U.S. moves into yet another divisive election season we could benefit from some attention to a basic civic virtue.

C.S. Lewis and Political Virtue

Mere Christianity

I have been rereading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity over the past few weeks and a section really got me thinking about the whole idea of the need for virtue in the political world. I apologize for the long quote, but I certainly can’t summarize Lewis’ point better than he does himself.

When people say in the newspapers that we are striving for Christian moral standards, they usually mean that we are striving for kindness and fair play between nations, and classes, and individuals; that is, they are thinking only of the first thing. When a man says about something he wants to do, “It can’t be wrong because it doesn’t do anyone else any harm,” he is thinking only of the first thing. He is thinking it does not matter what his ship is like inside provided that he does not run into the next ship. And it is quite natural, when we start thinking about morality, to begin with the first thing, with social relations. For one thing, the results of bad morality in that sphere are so obvious and press on us every day: war and poverty and graft and lies and shoddy work. And also, as long as you stick to the first thing, there is very little disagreement about morality. Almost all people at all times have agreed (in theory) that human beings ought to be honest and kind and helpful to one another. But though it is natural to begin with all that, if our thinking about morality stops there, we might just as well not have thought at all. Unless we go on to the second thing-the tidying up inside each human being-we are only deceiving ourselves.

What is the good of telling the ships how to steer so as to avoid collisions if, in fact, they are such crazy old tubs that they cannot be steered at all? What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for social behaviour, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper, and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them? I do not mean for a moment that we ought not to think, and think hard, about improvements in our social and economic system. What I do mean is that all that thinking will be mere moonshine unless we realise that nothing but the courage and unselfishness of individuals is ever going to make any system work properly. It is easy enough to remove the particular kinds of graft or bullying that go on under the present system: but as long as men are twisters or bullies they will find some new way of carrying on the old game under the new system. You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society. That is why we must go on to think of the second thing: of morality inside the individual.

 I am in agreement with C.S. Lewis on this point.  Unless we fix ourselves we really can not fix society. I am not suggesting that we stand by and let the country go to hell while we work on some sort of new age self improvement. What I am suggesting is that we hold our leaders to a higher standard. We need men and women who are serious, and who conduct themselves is a manner that is in accordance with some basic virtues. Otherwise we will just end up with more of the same.

Art is a lie whose secret ingredient is truth.

The title for this post comes from an article by Ian Leslie that deals largely with the idea that actors and writers are at heart artistic liars, whose lies are seeded with a deeper truth. The full quote follows:

Given the universal compulsion to tell stories, art is the best way to refine and enjoy the particularly outlandish or insightful ones. But that is not the whole story. The key way in which artistic “lies” differ from normal lies, and from the “honest lying” of chronic confabulators, is that they have a meaning and resonance beyond their creator. The liar lies on behalf of himself; the artist tell lies on behalf of everyone. If writers have a compulsion to narrate, they compel themselves to find insights about the human condition. Mario Vargas Llosa has written that novels “express a curious truth that can only be expressed in a furtive and veiled fashion, masquerading as what it is not”. Art is a lie whose secret ingredient is truth.
It seems to me that this concept speaks to the fact that human language is not always sufficient to fully express exactly what it means to be human. In many ways this is useful way to look at religion. In our modern technological society- a descendant of an age of enlightenment gone rogue – science often seems at odds with religion. This is because science works under a completely different rubric from religion. 
Where science seeks to break down, analyze and compartmentalize, religion seeks to open, set free and experience. Both are useful and objectively good. It is when they try to interact that we have problems.  Maybe instead of pairing matters of faith with matters of reason we would be better off using art. Whether you accept the “factualness”of any given religious dogma matters less than whether that story or belief points to a larger truth that pales before language. 
This is not a new age statement that all religions are equal. Just as some art contains more truth than others, some religions speak closer to what it means to fully express our inner humanity. 
If one studies Rembrandt’s The Philosopher in Meditation one can see that the  painting shows a man sitting near a window; on the far right is another man tending to a fire. The dark border of the image that surrounds the soft golden glow of the room emphasizes the philosopher’s stillness and the calmness that he embodies. The light illuminates the philosopher and his thoughts while the stairs remain untraveled, but waiting.
Did Rembrandt witness this scene? If we traveled back in time could we see it? Probably not, but it doesn’t detract from the meaning of the image he created. Now imagine a velvet Elvis; while still art, the value in terms of the truth communicated is clearly lacking. Yet Elvis is a documented reality. 
The core of the matter is what brings out an essential truth, not what can be scientifically proven. Art is a lie whose secret ingredient is truth- or- religion is the myth whose secret ingredient is truth.
In other words, true art.

The Founding Fathers, Classical Education & a New Hope

Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and LatinAmericans view the Founding Fathers in vacuo, isolated from the soil that nurtured them,” says Traci Lee Simmons in his book, Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin.

It is certainly true that little thought is given by the everyday American as to what the foundation of our own founders was.
This is to our own detriment, for if we paid attention to this we would see a way forward for education in America. So, how were the founders educated?  Through a Classical education. Simmons elaborates,

“These men, had read and digested Polybius, Aristotle, and Cicero, and they used the ancient luminaries to frame and illustrate their ideas before the assembly…These heated yet erudite debates, along with the Federalist Papers, fairly pullulate both with subtle classical allusions—with which Madison, Hamilton, and Jay assumed readers to be tolerably familiar—and direct references to the leagues—Amphictyonic, Achaean, Aetolian, Lycian—formed by the ancient Greeks in order to achieve political and physical security.”

Why is this important? Because it is through the prism of this classical background that they were able to see the way to a future that we enjoy today. Do we have the same faith in our current political leaders? Recent polls and common sense says no. The lack of depth in modern political discourse, which I have written about in the recent past, has its roots in a lack of serious thought in education.
However, there is hope out there. And ironically the seed of the future may indeed be in Washington, D.C. But it has nothing to do with The U.S. Congress. Instead it is a small Catholic school, the St. Jerome Classical School in Hyattsville, a suburb of D.C. Last spring, St. Jerome’s began transforming itself into an experiment for one of the more promising trends in education. It is one of a handful of Catholic schools in the country reinventing itself  as a classical academy . The Washington Post  recently ran had a great story on the school where they define the classical curriculum as:
Classical theory divides childhood development into three stages known as the trivium: grammar, logic and rhetoric. During the “grammar” years (kindergarten through fourth grade), children soak up knowledge. They memorize, absorb facts, learn the rules of phonics and spelling, recite poetry, and study plants, animals, basic math and other topics. Moral lessons are included. 

 I, for one, wish them well and hope the experiment works. Until we have a generation of citizens capable of the critical thought that the 21st century will require we will be stuck with the back and forth political ping pong that we have been subjected to over the previous century. Coincidentally, this is exactly the same time period during with Dewey’s practical philosophy of Progressivism dethroned classical education from our schools. On second thought, maybe it is not such a coincidence after all.