Virtue and Being

What does it mean to define something? At a minimum, it means to set it apart from others; for if x is to be defined, it must be defined as distinguished from y; otherwise, it remains subsumed and indistinguishable; for if in discussing x, you are unable to make heads or tails out of whether I am discussing either x or y, I have failed to set a boundary around the word, the subject, or concept about which I am discussing. I have failed to define my terms.

When taking on a partner in a business venture; accepting employment with a company or firm; interviewing a potential job candidate; considering a friendship; considering marriage; do we ever ask the question, Does he/she possess virtue? Or, What virtues (pluralizing the concept) does he/she possess? Is he/she virtuous (i.e., does that person’s essence or personhood contain the characteristics of virtue)? Are such questions so culturally irrelevant and anachronistic that they are no longer considered (is it similar to asking, how far must I travel before I fall off the edge of the earth?) Culturally, of course, it is interesting in this Post-modern Age that our language is dominated by purely emotive-injected adrenaline. Do I like him/do I love him/does he excite me/does he care for me? Virtue is without meaning; not because it cannot be defined, for certainly anyone can turn to a dictionary and verbalize the definition; rather, it has no meaning because it has no cultural relevance; it is a vacuous concept; it has fallen off the edge of the earth.

But can a truth exist without a mind to embrace it? Can virtue escape the historical relativity to which it has been relegated? And, moreover, how does one attain virtue? How can virtue retain a significance when the concept itself has been subsumed into relative vacuity? In Book II, Chapter 1, (1103b 21, following), Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle provides the key:

After noting that “moral virtue comes about as a result of habit,” he states: Thus, in one word, states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.

Thus, the conceptual vacuity of a concept like virtue need not remain so; truth unembraced and unacknowledged need not be perennially forgotten in the temple of meaninglessness; Aristotle’s point is that virtue, properly understood, has nothing to do with conceptual existence or non-existence; it has to do with the habit of acting in such manner as the consistency of actions brings about a state of character – of being virtuous. Just as one becomes a murderer by murdering; one is dishonest by acting dishonestly; so, one becomes virtuous by acting in a virtuous manner. Simplicity is often the subtle voice of profundity, and Aristotle is the master craftsman. In the cultural void of modern day; where chivalry, manners, being a ‘gentleman’; indignation at moral inappropriateness; embarrassment at lewd conduct; one may still define virtue, simply by being virtuous. And that is certainly how it should be – for words are cheap; a man can claim to be virtuous but act in ways which clearly define him differently; yet, consider the opposite: a man who acts virtuous, remains virtuous despite private thoughts to the contrary, for virtue is not defined by thoughts; it is defined by actions.

And so it is; we may recapture virtue, by being so. Let those who speak meaninglessness sound the hollow sounds of vacuity; those of substance, let his actions reveal the true Being of Virtue.

Reflections Upon Law, Arête, and the Banality of Life

The practice of law is a peculiar exercise in combining the theoretical with the practical; in that sense, perhaps it is an anomaly in that the two disciplines rarely intersect, and the great divide between a conceptual discipline and a practical one is defied by the ‘practice’ of law. Indeed, the very phrase ‘practice of law’ is an anomaly — it is in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics that the Greek philosopher notes that moral growth “comes about as a result of habit,” revealing to us the banal truth that excellence in something comes about through the habitual practice of that thing. Such a truth should be self-evident and unsurprising; yet, reflection on the very idea that to ‘practice law’ is to gain a level of competence and excellence in the endeavor is a frightening concept – especially for the client upon whom a lawyer practices. But, of course – it cannot be avoided; just as wisdom is reached through age, experience, encounters with difficulties, and overcoming life’s episodic challenges; similarly, a lawyer becomes competent in an area of law through the experience of research, preparation, depositions, trials (both wins and losses) – through the ‘practice of law’.

For the beginning attorney, the practice of law can be an unnerving prospect; for neither wisdom nor experience has yet been gained; ‘practice’ can be one of trial and error – literally. And even for an experienced trail attorney, the prospect of an overlooked detail, of an unexpected answer from a witness on the stand, or a sentence in a document that suddenly takes on a destructive life of its own in the midst of a trial – these practical aspects of law are what makes being a lawyer both exciting and angst-filled. Leibniz once wrote that virtue “is the habit of acting according to wisdom. It is necessary that practice accompany knowledge.” It is this latter statement – of the necessity of knowledge accompanying practice – is what is often ignored. The practical aspect of ‘practice’ in law does not mean practice without knowledge; and that is the difference between competence and incompetence. The great tool of a lawyer must always begin with the theoretical side of the discipline – knowledge. For knowledge is gained through study, research, observation and a humble recognition that we can never know enough.

Law combines the theoretical (research of case-law; systematic and logical argumentation of legal principles, etc.) with the practical (courtroom strategies; voicing sustainable objections; having the rhetorical ability of persuasion, etc.). In this world of pragmatism, however – where the practice of law is driven by profit-motives; where law has become not a profession, but rather a business; and where the art of trial-work too often gets reduced to obnoxious and aggressive acts of unprofessional behavior – the theoretical is too often expendable; the success of a case is based too often upon courtroom strategies.

We have lost something in this age; whether because technology has left irrelevant the necessity of quiet reflection; where poetry and metaphor can no longer impact the mind; or because we need constant entertainment as opposed to sustained meditation upon conceptual conundrums (reflect: if Wittgenstein, Wisdom, Derrida, et al are correct, that there are no substantive philosophical problems to be solved, and all that we are confronted with is a confusion of language, then what substantive issues are left which require sustained meditation?); and the loss of that which we must recover may be found in the very principle of ‘virtue’, or arête (?????) as found in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Book II, Ch. 6), where he states, “Virtue then is a settled disposition of the mind determining the choice of actions and emotions, consisting essentially in the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by principle, that is, as the prudent man would determine it.” Arête is a principle with a pervasive quietude of enveloping profundity; it is a state acquired through habitual application over time; it cannot be reached in an episodic instance; it is almost a Zen-like principle (and yes, I have no qualms about using this term, despite being a Christian) where, if you ask yourself if you have acquired arête, then in all likelihood you have not. It is a level beyond mere competency or a quantitative roster of having won x-number of cases; it is, instead, a state of excellence.

We have lost that sense of having excellence as a goal, both in law as well as in all other aspects of life. We have goals to make money; to become an x; to go mountain climbing; we have financial and career goals; we have goals for our spouses, our kids – but when have you heard of someone saying, “My goal is to acquire arête“? It is a goal worth having; to reach a state of a life well-lived is a worthwhile goal. As the ‘practice of law’ is a combining of the conceptual with the theoretical, so is life itself; for as we mature, it is our conceptual framework; our ‘foundational beliefs’; our ‘noetic structure’; which determine our behavior in this temporal, short span we designate as ‘my life’ as opposed to ‘that other’. As with all disciplines, the practice of law is merely a microcosm of who we are in the macro aspect of living our lives. Hannah Arendt coined the famous term, “the banality of evil”; there is an even greater banality in the life we live as ordinary people – the banality of living a life of worth. That such a concept might become a banal one is of faint hope in this day and age.