Virtue Cultures

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

All cultures prior to modern European culture were virtue cultures, Michael Strong suggests:

Humans were raised understanding that they had a role and standing in society and that their entire life was a reflection of how well they fulfilled that role. Indeed, in many cultures, this reputational effect was multigenerational: if one violated a cultural norm, it damaged one’s children, and children’s children, and so forth.

Each culture had a vision of excellence in that society. This vision of excellence was transmitted by means of myth and heroic tales, it was transmitted by a multitude of comments, jokes, attitudes, manners, behavioral corrections, and so forth: the very texture of day-to-day life provided a consistent, coherent template that taught young people how they were to behave. From time to time, a member of the society was sanctioned or expelled in a manner that made it perfectly clear what types of behavior were not condoned by the community. And young people were brought up in a set of cultural practices that allowed them to practice the requisite virtues of that society so that they would naturally become respectable adult participants in such a society.

Of course, western civilization has been seeking liberation from these sorts of “intolerant” virtue cultures for some 500 years. The social rebellions known as the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment in their resistances to traditional authorities unwittingly provided the foundation for the more radical liberations of the 20th century. In the 1920s and the 1960s it appeared as if radical individual freedom was the final goal.

What none of the liberators seems to have realized is the truth of Goethe’s insight, that “Whatever liberates our spirit without a corresponding increase in self-control is pernicious.” I continue to be committed to the liberation of the spirit; and I have gradually come to realize that as I liberate spirits, I have an absolute obligation to simultaneously provide training in self-control. Else I am responsible for disasters.

Traditional cultures did not seek to liberate the spirit: by and large, they sought to constrain the spirit within very well-defined cultural boundaries. As a consequence, they were often highly bigoted, shaming, and sometimes cruel: Zorba the Greek contrasts Zorba’s own liberated spirit with the cruel stoning of a young widow. Films continue to celebrate the liberation of the young from the constraints of traditional narrow-mindedness: See My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Bend it Like Beckham for recent sweet comedies based on the same theme. Few people who are truly knowledgeable about traditional cultures would want to return to their brutal stasis, conformity, constraints, and judgementalism.

And yet many people long for community, tradition, ritual, structure, and meaning in their lives. We (including most emphatically Socratic intellectuals such as myself) have ripped traditional societies and norms to shreds. We had to do it. There were gross injustices and bigotries. We must now re-build more humane, tolerant, decent replacements for those earlier meaning systems.

He notes that we only see honor in fantasy and sci-fi characters:

In reading about the concept of honor in Japanese society at Bronze Doors last week I noticed, as is typically the case, that the students are fascinated. Adolescents, I find, crave a sense of honor. I asked them if characters in science fiction and fantasy had a sense of honor, and they all acknowledged that usually such characters did have honor, and that that was partly why they loved those genres.

And then I asked if the people in reality tv shows had honor, and those who were familiar with such shows agreed that those people did not.

How strange it is that young people in our society must look to fantasy novels to enter a world in which honor is a living reality, and yet “reality” television typically shows us a society made up of human beings motivated entirely by short-term vanities and pleasures.

It seems abundantly evident to me that we evolved in tribes in which a sense of honor was a key element of society.


  1. It’s one thing to liberate oneself and fellow philosopher kings. Providing training for the lumpen citzenry is a joke. They need to find a tribe, and they will do it on their own, and Herby ain’t gonna like it.

    An irresponsible man.

  2. Isegoria says:

    One of Strong’s points, a point he reiterates throughout The Habit of Thought, is that modern students have been trained to learn facts, and that they see anything else as opinion — and all opinions are equally valid. From there, I suppose you have two strategies: train them to mindlessly follow tradition, despite the Zeitgeist, or train them to think through (some) ideas and their consequences.

Leave a Reply