Long the pride of place among the educated, compassion, empathy, and presentness are giving way to a completely different order of supreme virtues. This is because, at a more general level, the post-religious outlook is being supplanted by a post-martial outlook. It has to be so, since history is uncompromising.
This is what I see. The post-martial order carries forward the essence of physical courage in the forms of mental toughness, defiance, determination, perseverance. We have no single word for this hearty disposition: I could call it cheerfulness or something else. We are in the midst of reinventing a vocabulary for our time, one that should enable us to speak clearly about standing firm, holding our ground, and going on in the face of what once was believed to be known yet now is known to be unknown. Our own ignorance is what we are and will continue to be confronted with.
This is what I also see. Compassion, peacefulness, presentness, and the like are simply not suitable responses to that which we face today. I mean, most of all, Fear, Terror, Horror, Panic, and Despair as well as fear’s minor key manifestations such as misgiving, reservation, hesitation, reticence, taciturnity, shrinking, feeling vulnerable, and feeling uncomfortable. There is a reason why these monastic virtues (again, compassion, peacefulness, calmness) are failing us: it is that others’ compassion doesn’t make any crucial difference to my unnerving fear, and my compassion for another person makes no difference when he is despairing. Ignorance remains, fear remains, weakness remains.
My hypothesis is that we are in the midst of changing our picture of human beings from soft and weak to tough and firm, and thus our salient virtues must also no longer be soft (e.g., compassion) but tough (moral and intellectual courage). One of consulting’s big cliches– ’embodying compassion’–will have to be mocked out of existence.
Cultivating toughness is a profound question of education. All genuine education is reorientation. How do we train individuals to become tough without believing that martial toughness will do (for it too is out of touch with our time) and without believing that we can provide concrete future scenarios that would help us to spell out what well-specified future world will decidedly require of us? We are not actually at war with the present or future, and we have no idea what is coming. Profound ignorance again.
Cultivating toughness is not opposed to sweetness or gentleness. Sometimes, the toughness I can barely envision will mean doing nothing more than standing in a room. And sometimes it will mean displaying gentleness which acts as a spur for the other person to continue–to become tougher. Toughness will also be exhibited in other ways as yet unimaginable.