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I generally agree with Aristotle that virtue is a mean between two vices – even in cases like justice, which are often taken as counterexamples. If one goes too far in one direction (say, cowardice or sense of entitlement), one misses the best way to be; the same applies in the other direction (foolhardiness or submissiveness), though it may sometimes be harder to see.

It’s easy, though, to misinterpret the idea of virtue as a mean. Virtue is not merely the middle ground. It is not a combination or a compromise between two vices. Virtue requires that the middle ground one occupy be specifically a good middle ground. It needs, essentially, to preserve what is best in each vice – to be a synthesis rather than a compromise.

On the virtue of justice, for example, a lack of justice may be expressed in a greedy sense of entitlement, claiming things that are not one’s own. As I expressed before, against the criticisms of Grotius, there may also be an excess with respect to justice, of not feeling entitled to things that really are one’s own (an unhealthy submissiveness that is often taught to women). But it is possible to combine these two in an unhealthy way, and I think this is the pattern among narcissistic personalities. Contemporary psychoanalyst Andrew Morrison claims that “shame and narcissism inform each other”: a narcissist can veer between experiencing himself as matching a false and overinflated ideal, and as contemptibly vile for falling short of that ideal; between believing himself entitled to everything and believing herself deserving nothing. Submissiveness and sense of overentitlement, the excess and the lack, can coexist in the same person, both getting in the way of justice. This is a middle ground between simple submissiveness and simple overentitlement, but it is vicious, not virtuous.

I noted the point briefly in the final chapter of my dissertation. I had presented an earlier part of the dissertation at the AAR conference, examining the questions at issue between Śāntideva and Martha Nussbaum on external goods: Śāntideva telling us that having possessions or close relationships will produce dangerous attachments, and Nussbaum saying that they are essential to a flourishing life.

As a respondent to my presentation, Mark Berkson had suggested a middle ground between their two views: one could live with the outward form of Nussbaumian flourishing — living in the world with property, human relationships, political participation — while inwardly renouncing all attachment to them, as is advocated in the Bhagavad Gītā. But I responded: this is indeed a middle ground, a compromise, but it is not a synthesis. Without further justification, at least, the Gītā approach does not answer the concerns of either Śāntideva or Nussbaum. As I said in the dissertation:

Nussbaum sees not merely one’s outward relationships, but one’s inner engagement and attachment, as central to the good life. Something fundamentally human is lost if one goes through those relationships like a play-actor, as surely as if one renounced them entirely for the monastic life. So too, Śāntideva’s ethical revaluation warns us of the dangers posed by external objects themselves, at least if we are not sufficiently advanced. If we did try to go through the trappings of a worldly life in this way, it would affect our minds, bringing us back into the attachment and anger we tried to escape.

One could argue, then, that the life promoted by the Gītā satisfies neither concern: one does not experience the joys of a Nussbaumian life passionately tied to attachments, but also doesn’t get Śāntidevan serenity because the attachments creep back in when one doesn’t want them to. It is the worst of both worlds, and not the best. I’m not arguing here that the Gītā’s proposed life actually is this bad (although I do find that view plausible), merely noting why a compromise is not good enough without being synthesis: one must make sure that the mean is virtuous and not vicious.

Whether one is putting together different worldviews or trying to navigate between the vices that prevent one from being a better person, one must constantly be aware that merely putting two things together or inhabiting two worlds is not enough. If one does not make sure to get the best of both worlds, one may easily end up with the worst. I am reminded of the (possibly apocryphal) exchange between an aged George Bernard Shaw and a beautiful young dancer. The dancer told him they should have children together: “Imagine a child with my body and your brain!” “Yes,” Shaw demurred, “but what if it had my body and your brain?”