Time to Get Tougher Ourselves

The following character is not so easy to describe in a single word, yet one can get good at spotting him. He is strong, tough, courageous, brave, properly proud, free-spirited, lighthearted, dispassionate, hearty, lively, enlivened, thumatic, vibrant, bursting with life, ‘crazy,’ wild, bloodthirsty, full-throated and big-hearted, ruthlessly committed to discovering the truth, occasionally enraged or outrageous, a lover of pain for the sake of the Good, quiet in such a unique way of ‘being quiet,’ full of bold laughter not least when it comes to himself and his own faults, a risk-taker based on reason, someone who lusts to stake himself to what is grand, a maker of challenges beyond all imagination, a generous spirit, a figure of exhilaration not flowing from imprudent acts, a being antipathetic to creaturely comforts, a rollicky yet self-controlled person, preternaturally cheerful especially amid tension and extra pressure.

The tough person is not at all meek or soft but all stoutness, openness, intense flexibility, fierce agility. What made him so? Hard to say. Surely at least: adversity but, more notably, his facing up to adversity. But surely not that exactly either. Facing up to it by thinking hard about it and by adapting in ways that overcome that particular kind of adversity. Overcome, though, not by forcing his way through like a dumb bulldozer but by making that form of adversity either obsolete or under his control.  Increasing pressures withstood. Aching surprises responded to with alertness and agility, with a warm tranquility. Muscular flexibility. Mental power akin to casuistry. Thinking slowly, very slowly, and acting surely and quickly like a lightning bolt.

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Toughness, not meekness!

There is too much giving in and folding up these days, too much softness and namby-pamby. What has been cultivated oh for many years is meekness as if all forms of power, even the power to live superabundantly, were corrupt. The great act crackling with tension is stifled summarily by the resentful complaint, and ‘every complaint,’ writes Nietzsche, ‘contains revenge’ in its heart.

Too much! Too much! We are overwhelmed! Stop! Do not push us to our limits!

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Vulnerability on the wrong side of the ledger

Claiming that vulnerability is a moral virtue makes the mistake of putting vulnerability on the wrong side of the ledger. An existential term, it is made to pose as an ethical concept. Jonathan Lear helps us see why this is the case.

For in Radical Hope Lear advances the metaphysical thesis that human beings are finite erotic creatures. We are creatures of finitude in the sense that we are limited in a whole range of cognitive, affective, and volitional capacities: there are unsurpassable limits to our knowledge, to our emotional states, and to our wills. We can only know so much, feel so much, and do so much and no more, and there is no getting ultimately beyond this (call it) existential state of being human.

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How could vulnerability be a moral virtue?

I have heard the maxim–‘Be vulnerable’–and the laudatory remarks–‘So and so was very vulnerable.’–in creative leadership and entrepreneurial circles too many times to count. Vulnerability is meant to be a moral virtue. How can this be?

We must return to the more familiar connotations of vulnerability. Saying that a baby is vulnerable means that he is susceptible to injury or illness. Vulnerability implies a creature’s proximity to the state of death. Notice that it is the ‘state of death,’ for vulnerability is not, in its most literal sense, an attitude, an outlook, or anything else toward death.

It is not a logical leap to say that entities (systems, states, etc.) can be vulnerable if by this we mean ‘susceptible to external threats, breakdown, collapse, etc.’ Nor is it a logical leap to say that John is fragile or vulnerable just in case John’s mental life is also not robust or resilient: if, that is, John is easily susceptible to falling into the sorts of mental states (melancholy, despair, etc.) when he takes a whole range of events to be devastating or damaging to his flourishing in some strong way or another.

Hence, vulnerability is a ‘location,’ a closeness to the state of death. Being vulnerable may thereby (and often does) evoke fear. These are the senses in which vulnerability as a moral-emotional concept is clear to us. How is it possible (unless by mistake) to think of virtue as a moral virtue? Is it?