But notice something about the logic of attributions of virtue. A virtue is a person’s disposition to respond to a certain type of situation in an admirable way. So you can’t begin to know whether someone has a virtue without having seen him respond to a decent-sized sample of situations. Judgments about presidential virtue early in a president’s first term are like believing that a rookie baseball player belongs in the Hall of Fame because he had a good spring training and a hot April.
WOW. I think this is one of the big difficulties with modern thinking – the idea that virtue is merely a matter of disposition.
I know that Mr. Replogle didn’t write “merely.” However, the emphasis above is his, and the whole of his essay makes it clear that he expects people’s virtuous acts to flow naturally from their disposition like a tap.* But in practice, as we all know, virtue is more like a garden. Good soil is a good start but the best soil in the world won’t grow good fruit without a lot of pruning, weeding, watering, and plain WORK. Without that effort, well, all you got is dirt.
Virtue can, and indeed MUST be learned, cultivated, practiced. A natural storehouse of virtue will be exhausted in short order without replenishment. I know a few folks who are naturally cold fish, somewhat offputting and strange… they’re not generally easy to relate with. It is through hard work that they’ve developed the skill of treating their neighbor as they like to be treated. And sadly I know more people who seem cheerful enough, most often when they get to talk about themselves, or whatever cause or hobby has their current attention. These are the easiest persons to upset. All you have to do is question their assumptions or actions in the slightest way, and prepare to be met with icy contempt, or great bitterness and hostility. They have no qualms about it. Even ties of blood and long, loving relationship will not stop them from getting nasty… though it may help them forgive you later.
Some people just never worked to confirm their advantage in disposition, considering the work already done. As a result, their “hot April” has progressed into below-replacement-level behavior. And maybe this helps explain why Obama launched himself into such prominance based solely on a smooth reading of other people’s words… the appearance of virtue without any of the bother of having to prove it first. To use Mr. Replogle’s description:
Once you left matters of ideology aside, what was there about Obama not to like? The breathtaking eloquence? The commanding intelligence? The even temperament? The tactical dexterity? The relentless self-discipline? You know the litany as well as I do.
That’s just the trouble. This litany was written based only on a Keynote Address and two years as a Senator-in-absentia. None of those “virtues” were ever proven in deeds; they were disposition only. They weren’t backed with actual eloquence, command, intelligence, even temperment, tactical dexterity, or self-discipline. In fact, he’s pretty much whiffed on every single one of these things in the past two years. The man can barely speak without the teleprompter, has no leadership ability, makes easily-avoidable blunders, is snappish and thin-skinned, stumbles constantly in response to current events, spends more energy on vacations and pet projects than the pressing business of the country, and indulges in demagogery and posture when questioned. The appearance was taken for reality, and found wanting.
In life you have to confirm in practice what you are potentially. This is true in everything that matters. It’s even true in stuff that doesn’t matter nearly as much, such as the lengthy list of “things to like” we were given above. Eloquence and cleverness are well and good, but they aren’t, you know, actual virtue. They aren’t honesty, courage, compassion, prudence, or justice. They’re certainly not faith and hope. Obama may have written books with those words in the title, but there’s scant evidence of any actual practice thereof. Even an ardent supporter like Mr. Replogle doesn’t ascribe any real, concrete virtue to Obama. You almost never see anyone do that, actually. He gets praised for talking about virtues; the slogans and iconography mention them. Somehow, that’s considered to be enough. What’s not to like?
Just don’t ask about any of the substance behind, if you know what’s good for you.
*As long as I’m armchair-psychoanalyzing, I may as well note that this may also shed light on the tendency to demonize those who do not act according to “virtue.” They feel more than free to consider a political, social, or cultural non-adherent a reprehensible idiot; anyone who breaks ranks among them gets a double-dose. Well, of course – their tap has run dry. They must not have ever been virtuous at all, and thus are legitimate targets for attack. (This is not always a metaphor, either.) Seems a strange place to find a parody of Calvinist predestination, considering what they think of the Puritans, but there you have it.