A review of Decadence – The passing of personal virtue and its replacement by political and psychological slogans.
A collection of essays edited and introduced by Digby Anderson
The Social Affairs Unit, 2005
It is hard to recommend Decadence enough. It stands well in the long tradition of The Social Affairs Unit of offering an alternative view to the received wisdom of the time. Decadence considers themes of universal concern, especially in secularised modern Europe. Virtues are habits or they are not virtues at all. This collection of essays contrasts the “old” virtues (perhaps it would have been better to say, “real” or “traditional”) with the “new” virtues of the modern world.
Indeed, Plato describes the virtues as “habitual excellence.” This may explain why the modern enemies of excellence have been so keen to bring down the old virtues and bring in the new, which are quite rightly described on the back cover of the book as “experimental.” Decadence more or less ignores Plato who was the first to discuss the virtues but conceived of them as intellectual rather than practical. This lacuna is perhaps not so surprising given the political audience for the book.
The analysis of Decadence is excellent. However, while reference is made back to Aristotelian ideas of the virtues, the first six chapters covering Prudence, Courage, Love, Thrift, Disinterest, Family Virtues (authority, obedience, stewardship, succession) do not always fit into the traditional categories. As in Aristotle, Prudence is called the orchestration of the virtues.
The first of the next six chapters on the new virtues, Distributive Justice or Social Justice could be considered the traditional virtue of Justice. It is more of a case that the pure and simple traditional virtue of justice has been distorted by its modern socialist practitioners. Justice is no longer a justice in personal dealings (commutative) or directed towards the common good (distributive) rather a societal imperative based on the fulfilment of supposed “rights.”
The remaining chapters are distinctly “new virtues” which displace the older virtues; environmental virtues, caring virtues, help seeking and therapeutic virtues, business virtues (transparency and accountability) and finally intellectual virtues (being critical). Their ersatz nature is clearly demonstrated by the contrast between the direct practice of charity or love and the proclamations of “care” in modern society. The modern individual often gives lip-service to care, offloading financial and practical responsibilities onto other people while claiming the credit for themselves. (Socialist) politicians take note and if you wish to be called humanist, let’s see the sacrifices you are prepared to make in the name of humanity. Love without sacrifice is not love at all.
It is ironic indeed that the new virtue of “environmentalism” is experimental. The habits of the old virtues were habits proven to work; so much modern Parliamentary legislation is simply “experimenting in virtue.” The same can be said of modern marriage.
The discussions in the book stop at analysis. British pragmatism has a horror of the philosophical synthesis that is required to respond to the attack on the traditional virtues. There are no real reasons presented for choosing the old virtues over the new virtues or indeed for taking any virtues seriously. Perhaps you could choose a selection of virtues either to meet your own personal tastes or to meet the demands of society. The choice between the old and the new virtues is really the choice between reason governing the emotions (as in Kant) and the emotions governing reason (as in Hume). This can be illustrated by the environmental debate; scientific reason battles it out with the precautionary “principle” in the public arena. The choice remains with no real reason for choosing one side over the other.
Associated with the pragmatism, there is a profound sense of embarrassment in Decadence about the Christian discussion of virtue probably mindful of the need to build a larger platform in the modern world in defence of virtue but also part of the English horror of discussing politics and religion in polite society. The missing link in the argument of Decadence is the Christianisation of the Aristotelian virtues by St Thomas Aquinas. Before him St Augustine had introduced the Platonic virtues systematically into Christian rhetoric and dialectic (but don’t forget Plato considers the virtues to be intellectual rather than practical).
St Thomas principally treats of virtues in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and the First Part of the Second Part of the Summa Theologiae, Questions 49-64 also called the Treatise on Virtue. St Thomas says that the virtues are necessary for the perfection of our faculties (intellect and will) and are ordered to this final end. They give a purpose to our lives. Virtues are natural to human beings (indeed there is something unnatural and unprecedented about the lack of the practice of virtue in the modern age). Those interested in a more extensive consideration could start with this article by Father John Hardon SJ.
It seems that virtues can only be defended except in the Christian and indeed specifically Catholic context. The reforming Luther demanded in contrast: “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here in this world we have to sin. This life is not a dwelling place of righteousness.”
What price virtue if one holds Luther’s beliefs? These demands were accompanied by a bitter hatred of the scholastic tradition whose finest mind remains St Thomas Aquinas. After Luther, many Protestant philosophers had to struggle to rediscover an effective account of a proper rationale for the practice of the virtues. For the most part however, there was no doubt they should be practiced and if all else failed, one could fall back on the argument, “By your fruits shall you know them.” 1968 can be seen as the beginning of the era when the practice of traditional virtues was deemed no longer necessary.
That said, two of the contributors are Anglican vicars, Digby Anderson himself and the ever-excellent Peter Mullen. However, that leaves a large part of the Anglican establishment, Bishops included, who are silent or struck dumb on these issues. The Anglicanism of the essayists becomes clear when instead of the traditional virtue of temperance (which covers far more than teetotalism), Thrift has been substituted which is described as a Victorian virtue with Calvinist origins. Indeed thrift is on its way out of being a virtue and becomes near to meanness, not just to others but also to oneself. It is Calvin rather than Luther that casts a long shadow over the Church of England.
It is no co-incidence that the “Thrift” essayist, Theodore Molloch is a sometime lecturer at Protestant colleges in America on “Spiritual Capital” as if this is something that you can built up by your own efforts (and kept to yourself). This is Pelagianism which rejects the need for grace and which permeates so much British theological thinking. The error has turned the Church of England into an amateur social service. Decadence has little or no discussion on the crucial roles of grace and freedom in a discourse on the virtues.
In the absence of the practice of the virtues, Christianity, the Catholic Church included has attempted in the last forty years to become more influential by secularising Christianity. Why the failure? Either the Churches simply could not keep up with the inevitable progressive march or succumbing to the Zeitgeist, they failed to impress the world or as the Churches no longer provided an anchor point, the State moved further than it actually would have done. For the Catholic Church, not ultimately dependant on the State, the results of such a false move are, in terms of the long sweep of ecclesiastical history, depressing but God willing temporary and reversible. However for the Anglican Church and the other Protestant Churches, the results are poignant and tragic, so well reflected in Decadence.
A Short Guide to the Virtues
Virtues in Plato’s Republic (Courage, Temperance, Wisdom, Justice) become the Cardinal Virtues, which when combined with the Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, Charity) become the Seven Heavenly Virtues.
The Seven Contrary Virtues (Humility, Kindness, Abstinence, Chastity, Patience, Liberality, Diligence) oppose the Seven Deadly Sins (Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Greed, Sloth). Ask anyone to name the seven deadly sins; they will normally leave out those that they are most guilty of. It would be interesting to do a survey asking people to name what they consider the virtues.
New Lamps for Old
An explanation of the front cover from the back cover of Decadence: One of the best known bad exchanges is that of Aladdin’s lamp. Aladdin’s princess wife, not knowing his old, dusty lamp is a magic one, is persuaded to exchange it for a bright new one. The exchange of a dusty, old but well-proven morality for a bright, new quasi-morality is an even worse deal. This book shows how good the old one was and how empty the glittering new one is. But there is something worse than the new set of quasi-virtues, and that is the exchange itself. The princess gave away Aladdin’s lamp in ignorance of its magic powers. Our society has given up its priceless set of virtues in the face of ample evidence of their goodness and practicality. Indeed, it may be that it is this very goodness with which society is so uneasy. A shiny bauble morality is so much easier to live with.