From Boston to New York

On the bus ride home from Boston, I was seated across the aisle from a man who was illustrative of the complexity of this human, all too human ethical life. He let one woman have the window seat. Some women spilled cookie crumbs on him and he reacted calmly. Throughout the ride, he spoke on his cell phone but not obtrusively. Yet when he got up to leave, he was one of the first to step into the aisle. So, the man showed deference and calmness (in lieu of irritability) but also exhibited a lack of courtesy and a sense of impatience.

We seem to have in mind that a man is good period or bad period, but in reality a man is good (or virtuous) in some respects at some times and bad (or deficient or excessive) in other respects at other times. The point of our moral judgments should be to seek clarity about the overall nature of a man such as this. (When is he calm and for what reasons?) In so doing, we exercise compassion. The aim of our lives should be to seek understanding about our own virtues and vices and to try as best we can to achieve a harmony of the virtues.

The transformation of the beautiful soul: A revised account

I think I want to modify my account somewhat of the transformation of an individual into a beautiful soul. A beautiful soul, we said, manifests beauty in his appreciation of beauty. How is it possible for one to become a beautiful soul?

To begin with, I want to say that the preparation for becoming a beautiful soul is a ‘humbling’ of one’s self-understanding. I thought I knew myself, one says, thought I understood my greatest cares and commitments, but now I realize I do not. My ‘arrogance’ was the arrogance of believing that I had a lucid grasp of myself yet now some event or set of events has–in the words of one conversation partner–‘unsettled’ me. I cannot ignore the event, and I cannot figure out what sense to make of it. My sense of humility is a recognition that I do not truly know myself and I dwell in the not-knowing.

This humbling opens the individual up to the possibility of re-evaluating his virtues and vices. Which brings me back to my second point about the shift in virtues I argued for yesterday, with one important revision. Through good practice with what Aristotle calls ‘friends of virtue,’ the incipient beautiful soul will undergo a transformation in her table of virtues–from the virtues of the market to those of nature. The condition, “through good practice with friends of virtue,” seems necessary because it seems impossible for one to become a beautiful soul on his own.

Third, the beautiful soul will come to see his virtues as needing to be harmonized with each other. So, an exercise of the salient virtues in his appreciation of beautiful things will also bring about a second-order harmony of the virtues so exercised.

The conclusion to humbling, the shift in virtues, and the harmony of the right virtues should be that the beautiful soul is, for the first time able to regard himself as belonging to a beautiful world. This to say that the world is beautiful, the beautiful soul is beautiful, and the beautiful soul dwells within the beautiful world. The beauty in his demeanor would indeed be, as my friend David E. Cooper says, “discernible to a sensitive observer.”