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To the Right of Virtue
February 13, 2002
by grl2watch

In the capital of the mightiest nation which has ever existed, three people were found frozen. In spite of daily jet patrols, and a heightened level of civilian alertness, only unnatural stillness disrobed the dead of their anonymity. In these times, the Invisible Man is not a work of fiction.

The usual commentators were rounded up. City officials promised to increase efforts to identify the homeless. Activists complained that the city does not provide enough shelter space. The mayor proclaimed that an edict to force the impaired and intoxicated into shelters would be enforced. The police were instructed look out for the homeless, and to "get into their face in a nice kind of way."

Reporters hit the streets to find a newsworthy transient. One man said that the shelters were overcrowded. Another complained of bugs. Oddly, workers for an outreach group said that some men refused every type of help. They would not even accept food or blankets, and no type of persuasion would convince them otherwise.

Consider this - a man huddled in the cold, refusing all offers of help. Is this not self-sufficiency, honest pride, and love of freedom in its purest form?

Our immobile emblems of the virtues, formerly of stone, are now of flesh. Mr. Ashcroft would not hide these figures under cloth. No, hold back the shroud, these forms are fit for our perusal. Their stern nobility inspires us all.

With careful editing and a change of venue, the virtues of these men could be recorded in Plutarch's Lives.

There is a glaring problem with this model of virtue. Death is the logical end of pursuing it.

For Plutarch's heroes, the early republicans, death lacked the sting it has for us. The highest expression of virtue was death in many instances, and was sought, not shunned. But why dust off the history books? Did we not see this ethos in action on September 11?

My conservative friends, look up from your Book of Virtues. May I suggest that you and bin Laden share the same world view, that a model for behavior is higher than the life which embodies the behavior? We say that our ideas are worth dying for. Did he not say the same thing? The imbalance of one betrays the imbalance of the other.

This imbalance has been noted before, and again, the ancients have done the heavy lifting for us. Removing the beam from my eyes, I read in Plato that there is a world of forms, which hold the beautiful, the true, and the good. These forms, however, have no comprehensible reality until they are shown forth in the lives of humans.

To break it down, "lives are bigger than any big idea," as Bono says.

Being centered and in balance again, I consider a living form, bundled and lying on a steaming grate like a surrealist barbecue. During a week of bone-chilling cold, who could pass this life without some sympathy? Whose bed is not made uncomfortable, even vulgar, at the thought of a metal grate for sleeping?

Such feelings are the wellspring of the concept of community. This concept begins with compassion, advances to sharing, and thence to the common wealth, spreading in concentric waves from the individual to the whole. In this wider aggregate, the democratic virtues evolve.

The more literate will interrupt me at this point. Hobbes has held forth on this topic, and the common wealth results from the vesting of power in an absolute and undivided authority. Ah, here is where we differ. Hobbes thought like Ashcroft, and I do not.

An absolute authority has no reason to share, and being absolute, cannot be made to share. It might deem individual gestures of compassion to be permissible and even laudable, but such efforts do not comprise the business of the state. I say, if we do not universally share in the simple bonds, we cannot create the complex, in which condition the virtues of the poor but proud have the only validity.

My kin, these transients, ward off the concern of their fellow citizens. Indeed, the notion that others are citizens and compatriots is, in their savage and isolating environment, inconceivable.

In warmer, loftier spheres, the new Republicans give their assent. (click on FeedRoom graphic to see news stream)

I am an author by choice, and a human being by grace.

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