Fertilizer

γένοι’ οἷος ἐσσὶ μαθών
become such as you are, having learned what that is

– Pindar (518 BC – 438 BC)

Time for another virtue essay.  This is my last one, on the unfortunately named “Fertility”.

I don’t use that adjective solely due to fertility’s association with breeding, which is what ADF’s seems to occasionally apologize for.  Rather, it is because the state of fertility is a passive one.   When a field is fertile is means that it is ready; it has the right acidity, the right nutrients, the right drainage.  It is an acceptable and willing vessel for seeds, but let’s face facts; it is the seed that takes root and grows, not the field.  So, while  I think that I understand what ADF means when they call this virtue ‘Fertility’, I don’t think it has to do with being a passive but welcoming repository for something else.

So what does ADF mean to convey through this virtue?  The definition itself is a hodge podge of loosely related concepts  (“Bounty of mind, body and spirit involving creativity and industry, an appreciation of the physical and sensual, nurturing these qualities in others“).  I thought for a while that what ADF means to convey with this virtue is simply creativity.  However, if that was the case why wouldn’t they have simply called it that?  So I have to conclude that ADF does not mean for this virtue to be taken to refer simply to the drive toward artistic output.

Rather, what I think I understand this virtue to be is what Nietzsche meant when he echoed Pindar in talking about “self-actualization”; the understanding, accepting, and becoming what you are, and the creative self-expression that springs from such a state of existence.   It is about making your own life an artistic output.   This doesn’t refer to some sort of superficial fashion choice, like taking up being a hipster.  It means understanding who you are, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and following your passions.  From such a state  would naturally spring what creative drive it is in one to have, for one needs to be filled with passion for life to want to create.

That is how I understand what this virtue is meant to represent.  However, I could be entirely wrong.

ΜΗΔΕΝ ΑΓΑΝ

Know Thyself - Nothing in Excess - Maxims from the Temple at Delphi

For thousands of years, travelers from all over the Hellenic and Roman worlds came to the temple of Apollo at Delphi in central Greece.  They came to make sacrifice, they came to worship, they came to participate in the Pythian games, and most of all they came to seek advice from Pythia, Apollo’s oracle.

And advice they got; each of these travelers was greeted by a slate of sayings writ large on the temple buildings.  Two of the most famous of these were ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΑΥΤΟΝ (“Know Thyself”) and ΜΗΔΕΝ ΑΓΑΝ (“Nothing in Excess”).  These maxims, I believe, are just as valuable today as they were then, hence the reason that a few years ago I decided to paint them in my kitchen above the sink.  And it is of course ΜΗΔΕΝ ΑΓΑΝ that is the topic of today’s virtue essay on moderation, although both phrases are actually intricately linked.

We tend to think of moderation today primarily in the context of food and wine and possibly in regards to sex and drugs as well.  However, to the ancient Greeks the maxim would have been read as applying to all aspects of life.  Knowing your place as a mortal and avoiding excesses was critical in the prevention of hubris, which tended to be fatal in all cases if the tragedies are to be believed.  In the modern world this maxim can be expanded to modern appetites, in particular consumerism with its emphasis on obtaining happiness through increasing material accumulation.

Of course, as Nietzsche so eloquently described in The Birth of Tragedy, the Greeks knew better than any that Apollonian moderation had to be balanced with occasional Dionysian excess.  The state of ecstasy, which is the kindling fire of the bardic arts, is arrived at by the path of Dionysian excess which unshackles the human spirit from the manacles of existence.  Thus, as Nietzsche says, to be fully human we must ‘sacrifice at the temples of both divinities.’

So does that mean that we must practice some sort of Apollonian asceticism punctuated by the occasional Dionysian orgy?  I don’t believe so.  In fact, one of my favourite definitions of moderation comes from Michael Dangler’s “Nine tenets of Druidic Ritual“, in which he describes the virtue as ‘finding joy in the ordinary’.  This, to me, is the secret and mystery of moderation; it is not about living in a state of constant denial waiting for that next ecstatic festival fire drum circle.   It is about finding spiritual contentment and happiness in cooking dinner, in reading a book, in spending time with friends and family, and even in cleaning, commuting, and work.  In this regard make no mistake — moderation is harder than denial, but it also promises so much more.

xenia

ὤ μοι ἐγώ, τέων αὖτε βροτῶν ἐς γαῖαν ἱκάνω

ἦ ῥ᾽ οἵ γ᾽ ὑβρισταί τε καὶ ἄγριοι οὐδὲ δίκαιοι,

ἦε φιλόξεινοι καί σφιν νόος ἐστὶ θεουδής

A simple traveller in the ancient world trying to get from point A to point B on some errand, upon coming upon an unknown people, may well have exclaimed “Woe is me! To the land of what mortals am I now come?  Are they cruel, and wild, and unjust? Or are they hospitable to strangers and have god-fearing minds?”

So indeed asked Odysseus, twice, during his travels from Troy to Ithaca, and no wonder; back then there were no welcoming Comfort Inns along the way and no highway patrols or coast guard enforcing the local laws.  Bandits and pirates were a common threat on land and sea. Travellers had to rely on the benefaction of strangers, and so it is no wonder that a complex system of rituals and ethics sprang up to deal with interactions between guests and hosts.  Indeed, the concept was so important to the Hellenics that they attributed its oversight to Zeus himself.

This ethical and ritual system went far beyond our modern notions of hospitality, which is generally limited to gestures such as bringing a customary bottle of wine or flowers when invited to dinner.  As a result ADF, although it officially uses the word ‘hospitality’ as the name of this virtue, more often than not talks about *ghosti, a reconstructed proto-Indo-European word.  This is a good word since those literate in English will recognize the root of both host and guest in the word.  My preference is to use the ancient Greek xenia which also derives from *ghosti but which is well attested with numerous references in the classics and therefore more familiar to me.

In the classical sources the typical xenia rituals followed a pattern of i) the host welcoming the guest and seeing to their needs (bathing, food, drink) before even asking their name, ii) the guest being courteous and undemanding and if possible providing news, stories, or song, and iii) the host providing a parting gift to the guest.  Given this framework provided by the ancients, it is perhaps a bit of a curiosity as to what ADF suggests when they recommend hospitality as a virtue.  Most of the ADF literature related to the *ghosti relationship concerns ritual context, the idea being to be a good host to the Kindred.  I actually find this usage somewhat questionable on a number of grounds, but that is a topic for a different essay.

The real question that I am wrestling with here is; given that central to the notion of *ghosti / xenia was the ability to create a ritualized relationship between strangers for reasons that mostly no longer exist in the modern west, what does hospitality / *ghosti / xenia mean today as a virtue for day to day living?  Is it really just bringing that bottle of wine when invited to dinner and not flirting with your host’s wife?

I don’t have the answer to this question, but it feels like the type of question that is more valuable in the asking than in the answering.

Perseverance..zzzzzz

Perseverance was the motto of my ‘middle’ school.   As such, for me it has this lingering smell of a word that uses too many syllables just to say that you really need to do your homework no matter how much it makes your eyes water from boredom.   Needless to say it is pretty difficult for me to get overly excited about perseverance as a virtue worthy of discussion; yes, yes, one should pursue one’s goals (like completion of the Dedicant Path documentation) even when the pursuit becomes tedious (like having to write an essay about Perseverance)…. am I at 125 words yet?  Indeed it appears that I am not alone in not wanting to talk about perseverance; there isn’t even a wikipedia article about it.

Here is the other thing about perseverance; it is not enough.   There is a trick to achieving a goal — it requires planning.  You can have all the perseverance in the world but without a plan you’ll just find yourself going (admitted steadfastly) in circles and never reaching your destination.

So in my humble opinion, perseverance should be replaced by some other virtue like ‘goal orientation’ which encompasses not simply the tenacity implied by ‘perseverance’ but also the cognitive qualities that allow one to determine how to get to where they want to go.

 

Virtue Essay: Integrity

I have to say that I am now starting to find writing virtue essays to be becoming tedious.  Therefore the next few will likely be closer to the minimum word count than previous essays.

Today’s essay is on Integrity.  The DP defines this as “Honor; being true to one’s self and to others, involving oath-keeping, honesty, fairness, respect and self-confidence“.   I actually believe that this definition is deeply flawed, and I shall explain why.

In my previous essay on the virtues I included Integrity into the classification of a character strength as opposed to a moral.  I still believe that this is correct; my definition of Integrity is the virtue of being true to one’s morals.   Importantly, therefore, Integrity does not provide those morals.   Honor, honesty, fairness, and respect are all morals; they have nothing innately to do with Integrity.  The metric that we use to judge whether someone has Integrity is not whether they are fair or respectful towards others; it is whether their actions reflect their beliefs.

Integrity, therefore, is the quality that we are describing when we use phrases like “if you’re going to talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk” or “practice what you preach.”

Lion-Hearted: On Courage

In my last post I put forth the argument that there are two broad categories of virtues; those that are morals and those that are character strengths. I assigned ‘courage’ specifically in the camp of those virtues that are character strengths rather than morals.

A reader posted and disagreed with me, saying that he often asks himself “what is the courageous act?” to determine whether an act would be right or wrong.  I’m going to argue in this post that, although this question may provide a useful clue as to whether the act would be right or wrong, it does not determine whether the act is right or wrong.

Let’s begin with a simple thought experiment.  You are walking down a street at night and pass by an alley.  In the alley you see two people assaulting a single person.  You have two choices; you can get involved and help the person being assaulted, or you can keep walking.  Helping the victim would be courageous; after all, you might get hurt in doing so.  But here is the crucial point; you would not get involved simply because doing so would be courageous.  The plain fact is that you would be acting on a moral imperative that is separate and distinct from courage.  It could be; compassion, the desire to help a fellow human in distress; justice, the desire to thwart crime; or simply fairness, the desire to even the odds in the fight.   Whichever is the case for you personally, it is the moral imperative that compels you to act, not your courage.  Having the courage to act on that moral imperative is the character strength that allows you to take the action.

Courage does not exist in the absence of intent.  I would suggest as well that the ADF definition of courage agrees with me in this:

Courage: the ability to act appropriately in the face of adversity.

Read carefully, this defines courage as an ability.  Courage does not tell you what is “appropriate”.  That is the role of your morals.  Rather, courage is the strength of character which is necessary to take that action in the face of adversity.

 

Of Virtues and Semantics

I am only one third of the way through the Virtue essays yet there is already a theme running through them.  Before I continue with these essays I feel it necessary to pause and discuss this theme.

I’m going to start right now by saying that I believe that Ár nDraíocht Féin should stop using the term “Virtue”.  Let me explain.

The Oxford English Dictionary has two basic definitions for virtue:

1) behaviour showing high moral standards,

2) a good or useful quality of a thing.

Let’s look at these two definitions in a bit more detail.

So to begin, both definitions can be seen as measurements:

diagram of virtue

The first definition applies to one’s actions, and the second definition applies to attributes that one possesses.   Let’s explore some analogies to try to make this clearer.

some virtues provide a moral compass

A virtue according to the first definition, I am going to suggest, should provide individuals with a moral compass.  That is, it should provide a basis for determining whether a particular course of action would be moral or immoral.  The most famous example of this would be the seven heavenly virtues and opposing deadly sins of Aurelius Clemens Prudentius.  If you hold charity as a virtue, for instance, it is relatively easy to gauge whether any particular action would be charitable versus greedy.  By consistently acting in accordance with a particular set of such virtues, one is deemed to be moral or ethical by those who share the same set of virtues.  It is important to note of course that morality is entirely relative; if I believe that greed is a virtue then I will look at your acts of charity as being immoral.

others provide a yardstick of usefulness

The second definition, instead of a moral compass, gives us a usefulness yardstick.  This allows us to judge certain virtues as something that is useful to possess.  Importantly, possessing such virtues does not generally say anything about whether the possessor has high moral standards or not.  Such virtues may gain you respect and loathing at the same time from the same person.  To reuse my previous example, if I believe that greed is a virtue then I may see your acts of charity as being immoral — while at the same time respecting you for having the fortitude to act according to your convictions.

The point of all of this is that I believe that the term “virtue” is too vague to be of much use.  I like precision in words.  Therefore, I am no longer going to discuss virtues.  Instead, I will discuss morals (virtues which provide a moral compass) and character strengths (virtues which are useful to possess).  Both are vitally important. Morals tell you whether an action is right or wrong.  Character strengths are what makes your actions effective.  To have morals without strength of character is to be impotent.   To have strength of character without morals is to be a monster.

Having arrived at this point, it is an interesting exercise to re-frame the ADF’s “9 Virtues” in this light.  Here is my take on it.

Morals

Character Strengths

Piety Wisdom
Hospitality Vision
Courage
Integrity
Perseverance
Moderation
Fertility

 

As you can see, most of the “9 Virtues” are really character strengths, as opposed to morals.

At first glance, I found this uneven weighting towards character strengths over morals somewhat surprising.  After some consideration I do think it is understandable given ADF’s pan-Indo-European focus, since societal mores varied widely from culture to culture.   ADF is clearly more interested in giving its members the tools to act rather than trying to guide those actions.

However, I do think that Our Druidry may be improved by starting to differentiate between morals and character strengths, and encouraging dedicants to research and consider whether or not to adopt some of the morals of their hearth culture.  This will go a long way to providing what I see as much needed balance.

There, now that I have gotten that out of my system I can hopefully continue on with the Virtue essays requirement!