The Virtue of Wild Things

There was an op-ed in the New York Times yesterday from David Brooks that re-examines the classical notions of character against a modern notion. The philosopher’s notion of character according to Brooks  is one that’s ingrained (see myth and Homer) and expressed though heroic action. The modern, psychological notion of character is something that depends on the situation. Brooks is setting up something of a straw man here, since those of us in the Aristotle reading group know that Aristotle said that character and virtue depends on the situation. Virtue requires hard work and practice and is not necessarily achieved through innate “character.” So it’s something of a false comparison.

Brooks uses the new film adaptation of the Maurice Sendak book Where The Wild Things Are. In the film version a boy named Max tries, and fails, to control a group of whiny and adrift monsters. He pretends to be their virtuous king, but cannot make them happy by heroic action. Their happiest moments are when they are working together as a community, building a fort, sleeping in a big pile, etc.

The key section of the column is this:

In the philosopher’s picture, the good life is won through direct assault. Heroes use reason to separate virtue from vice. Then they use willpower to conquer weakness, fear, selfishness and the dark passions lurking inside. Once they achieve virtue they do virtuous things.

In the psychologist’s version, the good life is won indirectly. People have only vague intuitions about the instincts and impulses that have been implanted in them by evolution, culture and upbringing. There is no easy way to command all the wild things jostling inside.

But it is possible to achieve momentary harmony through creative work. Max has all his Wild Things at peace when he is immersed in building a fort or when he is giving another his complete attention. This isn’t the good life through heroic self-analysis but through mundane, self-forgetting effort, and through everyday routines.

Readers, don’t you think Aristotle would have sided with the moderns here?

21. October 2009 by Arrian
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