Vapid Goodyness

In his diagnosis of the “malaises of modernity,” the philosopher Charles Taylor claims that our disenchanted culture suffers from a lack of depth, particularly obvious “in what should be the crucial moments of life: birth, marriage, death.” Since these moments are important to us we mark their distinctiveness in some way, solemnizing them in ritual, symbol, and sense of the sacred.

When religious belief declines, or, alternatively, when religion is demythologized and tamed, the felt need for ritual continues, but becomes kitsch, wan and feeble, little able to stir us to wonder, awe, or dread. Sometimes the form remains, but with the substance evacuated – as in many contemporary marriage ceremonies – while sometimes the form itself is rendered a dull simulacra of the older rites.

Theodore Dalrymple illustrates such emptying when he sardonically defines a “moment” as the amount of time passing “between a terrorist attack in a Western city and the first public appearance of a candle.” As he observes, “it is almost as if the population keeps a store of them ready to hand for this very purpose.” One could also point to the profusion of stuffed animals, hashtags, or the playing of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” following similar attacks.

These are not votive candles offered in supplication or repentance. For while they evidence a vague desire for spirituality, they are not imbued with religious sense. Dalrymple notes that “being spiritual imposes no discipline” whereas religion “implies an obligation to observe rules and rituals that may interfere awkwardly with daily life.” These gestures may provide a “warm, inner feeling” but “like many highly diluted solutions, it has no taste.”

There is no substance present in the form, and the form itself is without transcendent intention, and so is vacuous and nihilistic. Pushing the point, Dalrymple suggests that all those candles merely confirm our enemies’ judgment that the people of the West are “feeble, weak, soft, enervated, vulnerable, defenseless, cowardly, whimpering, decadent.”

That may be a bit of an exaggeration, of course, and we could provide a more charitable reading of these and similar gestures. Candles, after all, provide light in the darkness, a bit of flame to cheer and hearten, even a symbol of solidarity as the many small lights together pierce the gloom of hate. In that sense, the candle represents hope and a commitment to goodness in the face of evil.

Read in this way, the new rituals manifest an understanding of the virtuous person. For the citizens of the contemporary West, or for many of them at any rate, the virtuous person is hopeful, peaceable, tolerant, inclusive, empathetic, and merciful. These virtues, however, and the rites by which they are engrained and expressed, do not have the same meanings as the older tradition ascribed to them.

Paris vigil, November 12, 2015
Paris vigil, November 12, 2015

For the Catholic, hope implies a certain trust that God can and will do as he promised, while for the “new man” it means something like the certainty in the progressive arc of history. For the Catholic, peace means the tranquility of a just order, while the new man intends the steady emancipation from older understandings of order. For the Catholic, community cannot be understood absent God who is Father of all and the mystical body of Christ, whereas the new man, whatever he means, does not intend that.

While perhaps sharing a common word, the new virtues are quite evidently not understood in the same way as the tradition. In one way, this reveals nothing more than the alteration of a moral discourse, the usual development and alterations of meaning over time. In another way, however, the new virtues are a substantial break from the tradition, in large part because the very meaning of “the good” has changed.

For Aristotle and Aquinas, a virtue was an excellence corresponding to the nature and purpose of a being. A virtuous horse was strong and fast because that was the purpose we had for horses; a good watch was one which kept the time because watches were time-keeping devices. In a similar way, the virtuous person was one who had the character and disposition to act humanly, to choose and do those actions proportionate to human nature and its purpose.

The new virtues are not understood in this way because the idea of a steady human nature is denied, replaced with the accidents of socio-biology and the conventions of time and place. Virtues, thus, are not those dispositions proper to the human life well-lived so much as aspirational conventions.

As Christopher Coope explains, the older accounts of virtue were not comforting but confrontational and (dare we say) judgmental. They viewed us as we were and declared us not as we should be. Against these, the new virtue “has become something soothing, edifying, and familiar.”

Consequently, Coope claims, rather than the thick demands of the good, virtues are neutered into the goody: “Goody virtues were soon being invoked (or inverted or emphasized) by the dozen.” Goodyness – and who could deny that the modern moral order emphasizes goodyness – creates rather nice, concerned, and vapid people. They recycle, to be sure, even while aborting tens of millions or, like Lena Dunham, mourning that they haven’t yet had an abortion. Climate change concerns them immensely, but the moral environment is all but ignored. They pursue health and refuse tobacco and processed sugars, but think the Pill and hormonal treatment for “transgender” persons to be rights.

They light candles in the face of terror, but will not offer the worship due to God.

Ours is a moment of vapid goodyness. It’s sweet, treacly, and sentimental; it also fails to order our desires and loves and being into right relationship with God, each other, and the world. Not merely vapid, then, but deadly, a corrupter of souls and a solvent of real moral and religious truth.

As such, the goody must be resisted with all our strength, although I fear we’ve let it go on for quite too long.

R. J. Snell is visiting lecturer at Princeton University and a Director of the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ. His most recent book is Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire.