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More Americans Should Live Heroic Lives of Virtue (Review Essay)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) July 26, 2011: The ancient Greeks were fortunate enough to have the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Unfortunately for us, we Americans today have no comparable cultural heritage. Unfortunately for us, we live in the Age of the Anti-Hero in serious literature and in the trickle-down stuff on television. Nevertheless, more Americans today should strive to live heroic lives of virtue because living a heroic life of virtue is satisfying. Virtue is its own reward. As a result, the pursuit of happiness is best understood to be the pursuit of the heroic life of virtue.

People who pursue heroic lives of virtue to the best of their abilities may reasonably disagree with one another regarding certain practical decisions to be made about practical matters and which course(s) of action to take. However, if you think that the current crop of elected representatives in the United States Congress have been pursuing heroic lives of virtue during their adult lives, then I think you should think again about that. I think that those guys have not been pursuing heroic lives of virtue because they are anti-heroes. By definition, anti-heroes are not heroic. Unfortunately for us, most Americans are culturally conditioned to be anti-heroes, instead of striving to live heroic lives of virtue. However, I would argue that the American experiment in representative democracy depends on American citizens who are themselves striving to live heroic lives of virtue. How else could we possibly hope to raise up candidates for political office who are themselves virtuous enough to be worthy of the honor of holding elective office?

As is well known, the interlocutors in Plato's dialogue known as the Republic engage in seemingly never-ending dialogue trying to construct their idea of a good polis, a city-state. They famously decide not to allow poets of the sort who sang the Homeric epics, because the interlocutors thought they were envisioning a better political system than could typically be found enshrined in heroic oral poetry in their day. But I have suggested above that the ancient Greeks were fortunate, compared to us Americans today, to have the Homeric epics. So I am thereby engaging in a form of dialogue with the interlocutors in Plato's Republic and taking a position contrary to theirs regarding ancient Greek poets and poetry. I would suggest that Plato himself constructed all his clever dialogues to prompt us to learn how to think for ourselves, even though we might then think to disagree with the interlocutors in the dialogues about certain points.

I think that it is unfortunate for us Americans today that we live in the Age of the Anti-Hero in serious literature and in the trickle-down versions on television, but I would not go so far as the interlocutors in Plato's Republic go and suggest that we should ban poets from the United States. But I would suggest that we Americans today who do want to strive to live heroic lives of virtue should learn how to find examples of real-life persons, as distinct from characters in works of imagination, who did strive to live heroic lives of virtue. To find such examples, we might turn to reading autobiographies and biographies. However, if we are really fortunate, we may have the good fortune of knowing real-life people who are obviously striving to live heroic lives of virtue.

As is well known, Paul the Apostle scared the living daylights out of people that he got to convert to striving to live heroic lives of virtue before the end of the world came. Even though he had made it sound like they should expect the end of the world to come momentarily, it did not come momentarily. Nevertheless, he never tired of telling them to expect its coming momentarily. In the meantime, he told them that they were doing a good job of living heroic lives of virtue but that they should strive to do an even better job than they were already doing.

From the example of Paul the Apostle's exhortations to do better, in the true heroic spirit, we can understand that the pursuit of heroic lives of virtue may set us on a course of life in which we keep challenging ourselves to grow further and to do more. For example, Robert Moore, the Jungian theorist at the Chicago Theological Seminary, which is across the street from the University of Chicago where he received his Ph.D. years ago, tells us that there are eight optimal forms of the eight archetypes of maturity in the archetypal level of our psyches. So when we have at long last learned how to access one optimal form, we still have seven more optimal forms that we should learn how to access.

To jump start people in their possible undertaking of the pursuit of the heroic life of virtue, I have compiled a list of suggested readings, annotating certain ones. Of the books I've listed, Mortimer J. Adler's is the most accessible. The one article by Walter J. Ong is also very accessible.

Adler, Mortimer J. Desires Right & Wrong: The Ethics of Enough. New York, Toronto, Oxford: Macmillan, 1991.

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Ambrose [Bishop of Milan]. Ambrose: De officiis, 2 vols. Translated and edited with an Introduction and Commentary Ivor J. Davidson. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, is probably best known for the role he played in Augustine's conversion to Christianity, as Augustine himself recounts in his well-known Confessions. Ambrose titled his treatise for the clergy De officiis as a way to signal that it is his Christian counterpart to the Roman stoic Cicero's famous treatise De officiis ("On Obligations" or "On Duties"). For further information about how ancient Greek and Roman stoic philosophy influenced the emerging early Christian tradition of thought, see Marcia L. Colish's two-volume study (below).

Anonymous. The Gospel According to Mark. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books: New Revised Standard Version. Edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, pages 47-75.

Critical biblical scholars today consider the Gospel of Mark to be the first of the four canonical gospels to be written. As a young man, the historical Jesus was interested in leading an heroic life of virtue. As a result, he went out into the desert and listened to John the Baptist. Subsequently, Jesus went around proclaiming excitedly that the kingdom of God has come, is upon us. By doing this kind of proclamation, he was pursuing an heroic non-violent resistance to the Roman empire. When he learned of the execution of John the Baptist, Jesus had to have understood the his own life was now in danger. He probably should have been prudent and stopped his public ministry and gone home to live a life of quiet desperation under the Roman empire. But his zeal for justice was so strong that he did not stop his public ministry; instead, he continued on. He was eventually crucified under Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem at the time of the Passover on the trumped up charge that he was "King of the Jews," a political revolutionary. Several decades after the crucifixion and death of the historical Jesus, the anonymous author of the Gospel of Mark constructed the story of the life and public ministry and crucifixion and death of Jesus as a hero story with Jesus undergoing a heroic death out of his zeal for justice. So living an heroic life of virtue may not always be easy. On the contrary, it may take fortitude or courage. Concerning the death of Jesus, see Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).

Aquinas, Thomas. Commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by C. I. Litzinger, O.P. Notre Dame, Indiana: Dumb Ox Books, 1993.

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Thomas Aquinas is as famous as you can get. He is easily the greatest Aristotelian in Western philosophy. Aquinas himself did not know Greek, but working from literal translations of Aristotle's works into Latin, Aquinas digested and assimilated Aristotle's thought. Then Aquinas ran with the ball, as we would say, on his own. As a result, his so-called Commentary is more than twice the length of the work he is commenting on, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

Aristotle. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Translated, with an "Interpretive Essay" (pages 237-302), footnotes at the foot of the page of the translation, glossary, index, and additional study aides by Robert C. Bartlett of Boston College and Susan D. Collins of the University of Houston. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Aristotle is as famous as you can get. His Nicomachean Ethics is arguably the most important treatise about virtue in Western philosophy. This new translation includes more aides for studying the text than any other translation includes.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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How can we Americans possibly hope to raise up amo... by Thomas Farrell on Wednesday, Jul 27, 2011 at 12:32:34 AM
I think there are plenty of heroic Americans, but ... by Jill Herendeen on Wednesday, Jul 27, 2011 at 10:51:52 AM
Heroic virtue is easier said than done. One only h... by R. A. Landbeck on Saturday, Jul 30, 2011 at 6:36:30 AM