Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

DEWEY: The Virtues (Introduction)

Here’s a pop quiz.  Our last two readings were about Antigone and Socrates.  Antigone broke the law; Socrates didn’t.  Which one is virtue? Socrates would probably come back with a counter-question: what do you mean by virtue?  To help answer this question we turn to fellow-American John Dewey.  Dewey gives his own definition of virtue: A virtue may be defined either as (1) the settled intelligent identification of an agent’s capacity with some aspect of the reasonable or common happiness; or, (2) a social custom or tendency organized into a personal habit of valuation.  This is about as clear as mud.  Dewey is a smart guy but he doesn’t write very well.  Socrates asked a simple question: what is virtue?  Dewey seems to break virtue down into two separate categories: personal virtue and public virtue.  Fine; now we have two definitions of virtue.  Would that satisfy Socrates?  Probably not; Socrates would want to ask some follow-up questions to clarify what those definitions actually mean.  Dewey tries to make things clearer by giving examples: Natural abilities are used in different ways and aim at different results… For example, no society can exist without patriotism and chastity.  But the actual meaning of patriotism and chastity is widely different in contemporary society from what it was in savage tribes… Now we’re getting somewhere.  We could spend time talking about patriotism and how it relates to virtue; or chastity and how that relates to virtue.  For Socrates this would be progress.  This is what Socrates is all about.  We would be learning what virtue is by reflecting on it through the prism of patriotism or chastity.  This should give us a better notion of what virtue is in the first place.  But then Dewey goes on to say the meaning of virtue changes from time to time.  The abstract form of virtue (the man’s attitude toward the good) stays the same.  But customs change…  This would really get Socrates going.  Oh, he might say, so virtue is different in modern America than it was back in my day in ancient Greece?  That’s interesting.  Tell me more O professor of true virtue.  Dewey defends his notion of virtue like this: The community’s formulated code of esteem and regard and praise at any given time is likely to lag somewhat behind its practical level of achievement and possibility.  It is more or less traditional, describing what used to be, rather than what are, virtues.  Socrates might respond: then the so-called “virtue of the many” is not the true virtue that we’re seeking?  It’s merely the community’s formulated code of social behavior, and not true virtue?  Is that what you’re saying (Socrates asks Dewey)?  Dewey answers that we sometimes confuse personal virtue with social respectability.  This happens when the “respectable” comes to mean tolerable, passable, conventional. Accordingly the prevailing scheme of assigning merit and blame, while on the whole a mainstay of moral guidance and instruction, is also a menace to moral growth.  Socrates would agree that virtue strives for excellence and not just trying to achieve what’s tolerable, passable, and conventional.  So, Socrates would continue the conversation, is achieving excellence in patriotism or chastity the same thing as achieving excellence in virtue?  If I’m an excellent patriot but an unchaste man, am I still virtuous?  You claim that virtue changes from time to time.  Is the meaning of patriotism different in modern America than it was in ancient Greece?  Is chastity the same thing for me as it is for you?  What I want to know is this: is virtue one simple thing that applies in all times and in all places for all people?  Dewey would come back: Virtues are numberless.  Every situation not of a routine order brings in some special shading, some unique circumstance…  Oh, I see, replies Socrates.  So what may be right for me may be wrong for you, and what’s right today could be wrong tomorrow?  Is that what you mean?  The two philosophers could go on like this for hours.  Dewey wouldn’t win.  People don’t win arguments with Socrates; they pursue truth.  But that’s not the point.  Socrates asked a question and many Americans shrug off hard questions.  At least John Dewey is in the game. 


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