20091012

Of Virtue and Vice

Japanese Tea Garden
San Mateo, CA USA
20090702

No one is perfect.  But people seem to be judged based on what seems to be one-sided recognition of either one's improprieties or virtues.  As I scroll through the blogs and news stories in my feed reader, I see people either completely condemning others for their faults or idolizing them for their proprieties:

- the Dalai Lama associated with Nazis and is a potential despot and therefore lacks all credibility;

- the Dalai Lama brings messages of peace and hope and should be put on a pedestal as a perfect example of wisdom and compassion;

- Mother Theresa brought health care to thousands in need and should be put on a pedestal as an example of selflessness;

- Mother Theresa inflated her numbers to make herself look better and flew first class on interviews, so none of her achievements should count.

I like to think the truth lies somewhere between these extremes, that we all have our vices as well as our virtues and that too much or too little of either is not a good thing.  I have found at least one person who agrees.  In a recent blog entry, writer Isabel Chalumeau opines that rather than being completely blackballed for fleeing his statutory rape sentence or having his crime completely forgiven because of his cinematographic genius, Roman Polansky's work as a filmmaker should continue to be respected while he is still held responsible for his crime.  Sounds reasonable to me, but it seems like most people seem to fall on the extremes with regard to their opinions of him.

In my current bathroom read, The Book of Vices:  A Collection of Classic Immoral Tales, editor Robert Hutchinson argues that vice and virtue are both important, and that Aristotle had stressed the importance of moderation, not too much of one or the other.  But in this day and age, we are pressured to at least seem perfect, and he points out that the world has only seemingly become too virtuous, when, in fact, we have become the opposite.  Humans "have a singular talent for elevating their basest impulses into lofty virtues; and the most craven acts of self-interest are almost always cloaked in the silken robes of noble intentions."  We do nice things not out of kindness, but because we are forced to do them.  I would add that we also attempt to justify our misdeeds by turning them into acts of selflessness or by reasoning that we were forced into them by others.

The majority of us are spared the burden of having our whole being judged on the sum of our good deeds or our misdeeds, but many of us are.  I wonder ... at what point do one's transgressions make one irredeemable, and at what point do one's good deeds make one untouchable?  And why do so many in the spotlight seem to fall into both categories?  Is it really all about sensationalism and ratings?