Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Moral Virtue and Its Role in Human Affairs


Moral Virtue and Its Role in Human Affairs

Peter Schultz


            In reading a wonderfully complex book on the American Civil War by Charles Royster entitled The Destructive War, I came across the following: Thomas Edwin Smith, a Federal officer, wrote “’I used to think war was a science, but it’s a mistake…. the great majority of battles are the result of axident. And the results are the results of axidents.’” [236]


            As Royster points out, “Smith’s conclusion would break the link between fighting and attaining [the] spiritual and political benefits war was supposed to bring,” with some significant implications. For example: “Would not accidental victory in accidental battle offer at best an ephemeral glory not only to generals but also to those who believed in them?” [ibid] In fact, if victory is the result of accidents, why glorify generals at all? Except perhaps to reward them while fortifying the myth of their genius, as well as fortifying the myth that war is not an obscenity but a noble human activity?


            And there are further implications. If military victories are essentially accidental, then they don’t confirm the virtues of the victors. Nor do those victories confirm the importance of moral virtue(s). Going further afield, if your fate is essentially accidental, then your virtues don’t and can’t explain it. And to attribute your fate to your virtue(s) is vanity. This applies to generals and even armies. It even applies to “great nations.” If greatness is essentially accidental, then achieving it doesn’t speak to a people’s virtue(s). Were a people to attribute their greatness to their virtue(s), that too would be vanity.


            By implication then, the question, “What role does “accident” or “chance” play in human affairs?”, is a key question with wide ranging implications, including understanding the role moral virtue plays in human affairs. And, it is here apparently, that Plato and Aristotle, e.g., disagreed with Machiavelli and other “modern political philosophers,” with the latter denying that chance need play a significant role in human affairs. Greatness, political and otherwise, is achievable but only if humans learn, as Machiavelli put it The Prince, “to be able not to be good.”  For Machiavelli, it’s not chance that stands in the way of greatness; it’s goodness. Now that’s something worth thinking about.

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