The Academic Chairs of Virtue (Today’s Reading)
What is virtue? Does anyone know anymore? Socrates, in Meno, attempts to define it and cannot. He determines that it is recollected by the soul rather than taught by an instructor. Arete, excellence – this is the Greek word for virtue. And what is the difference between virtue, itself, and the various virtues? What are the virtues? Can anyone name them? Should this bother us?
Aristotle would say that virtue is to become who we are to be, that there is a telos, a goal in our life to which we should strive. There is an ideal and a duty to strive for that ideal because that is what we ought to do. We are taught to strive for excellence, to do our best. But is this virtue? Is virtue something we take for granted in our lives or is it something that has fallen by the wayside? Or have we, as Alistair McIntyre suggests in After Virtue, so lost our understanding of virtue such that we do not even know which questions to ask?
Nietzsche points at the teachers of virtue and finds them foolish. The sage that Zarathustra meets instructs his attentive students that the goal of life is to sleep and to sleep well. The object of wakefulness is the preparation of sleep. Sleep is “the master of the virtues” because by believing in the virtues, one has given in to the great blanket that covers the eyes. One must utilize the virtues to achieve that peaceful rest. What use are the virtues, then, if their role is to lead a person to the state of being unaware?
The role of the virtues is inverted! The excellence Diomedes achieved in Iliad through his adrenaline-fueled race across the fields of Troy is not trumped by the sage’s encouragement to not excel in the act of being one’s self, but instead to excel by overcoming one’s self – and ten times per day at that! How exhausting! And once overcome, then reconciliation with one’s self. How exhausting! By the time this is finally accomplished, it is time for a well deserved nap. The vigorous energies expended through internal warfare will provide the foundation for a proper good night’s sleep. This is the life, says Nietzsche, of the teachers of virtue: sleep.
Sleep, says the sage, is the master of the virtues. And each virtue must be put to sleep (each at the right time, no less) before we can go to sleep, ourselves. They are like “fair, little women.” Nietzsche treats the virtues as feminine, weak and quarrelsome (Nietzsche’s misogyny needs not be glossed here). Like nagging mothers they are, encouraging each of us, children of misfortune. And Zarathustra laughs at this noting that the sage’s wisdom is thus: to wake in order to sleep well. Sleep is something to be sought and virtues, opiates for it.
How shall we deal with this passage? Nietzsche mocks the virtues and those who would teach them. But what about when we live in an age that neither sees nor seeks virtues? At best, we speak of something being “in virtue of” something. But what does that mean? We use that phrase so flippantly. Do we live in virtue of anything anymore? Do those who believe in something greater than themselves treat those lofty ideals as their virtues? But are they really virtues?
Are the virtues already sound asleep? Worse, have they died in their sleep? What shall we do with virtue? In an age of cynicism and doubt, can we rely on such things as virtues – and what would those virtues be?
There is irony in this passage. Nietzsche mocks the teachers of virtue, but the joke is on Nietzsche. We no longer have virtues to put to bed. The situation is worse than what Nietzsche feared, for we are now all asleep without the assistance of virtues. We can only have a troubled sleep, a sleep filled with anxiety and bad dreams, if we even dream at all. We live in a sleepy haze today, full of obligations and façades. How shall we recover from our constant drowsiness?
All that is left are questions. Shall we recover the traditional virtues or shall we create our own new ones? Can we even determine how to make them in the first place? How shall we live? How does the question of virtues affect our Lenten passage? Virtues gave structure and strength. They gave a goal and a fulmination and purpose. They were ideas and ideals to which we appealed. But as we slept, they slipped away in the night or, perhaps, they died and still we continued to sleep. Maybe we dreamt of their leaving. Maybe they stretched their arms out in tears to us.
“Blessed are the sleepy ones: for they shall soon drop off,” writes Nietzsche. Have we been so sleepy? Have we dropped off so soon? Can we stay awake to await the return of virtue? Or is it something for which we have stayed awake in vain? Will we only enjoy now our own troubled sleep as we attempt to wrestle with our dreams?