When the pursuit of virtue by society turned to self-preservation

by Andrea Elizabeth

Some of the audio, not to mention the concepts, is a bit hard to understand, but I find the following idea from Leo Strauss’ lecture on “Plato’s Political Philosophy: Apology and Crito,” (h/t Gabriel) the first of the series, enlightening. I hope it is the point he was making.

Apparently Professor Strauss believes that Niccolo Machiavelli ushered in a shift from political or social science being based on virtue to it being based on circumstantial realism/”hedonism”. The virtues became imaginary and unattainable and a more pragmatic approach was adopted. I believe he’s saying that a person’s drive for self-preservation became the goal, not the attainment of the virtuous, ideal telos of all mankind. I like being able to pin this shift on one person and one time in history, which not all agree with Professor Strauss as occurring, but it makes comparing and contrasting, and closure easier.  Even if Machiavelli is being used as a scapegoat, what should he care at this point? The ones who disagree probably don’t think he’s the model citizen either.

I have at times considered that a selfish focus can lead to good. Nice trees and shrubs make people want to shop at certain locations, thus it is profitable for merchants to beautify the polis. However, setting the bar as low as Machiavelli does degrades humanity, and thus stifles it.

On the other hand, idealistic people can become too narrow in what they think the ideal is. The ideal man or woman behaves thus and has a certain kind of appearance. It can get pretty discriminatory and limiting. Louisa May Alcott seems to have suffered from not fitting into an ideal mold in her father’s comparison. He believed his fair hair and mild manners were perfect, whereas her dark looks and passionate manner, being the opposite, must be evil. “What Would Jesus Do” also presumes that a person can imagine the ideal on their own. We can’t completely discount this because our nature is in the divine image. Balancing this with our sinful habits and delusions is the challenge.

Another point Professor Strauss made while talking about how the idea of human nature changed with Machiavelli, was that man began to be seen as an individual and not as a social being. In his desire for self-preservation, he saw after the fact that he needed to be social. I guess this goes along with believing sin is natural. In the Orthodox view, sin is unnatural. Thus, if desiring society is virtuous, then individualism is sinful and not natural. This also fits with the idea of Being as Communion, which I haven’t read.

One can easily idealize and imagine what the perfect society would be like, but its virtuous reality may be far different from that. As long as we strive for it however, by grace we’ll attain it someday – maybe in the next life.