Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Vice, Dressed Up as Virtue

Most anyone who survived high school literature has heard of the notion of the tragic flaw. While this term is defined in different ways, the main idea is that the protagonist of a tragedy has within his character or personality some particularly deep, if hidden, weakness that ultimately leads to his ruin.

One of the more interesting college literature professors I had disagreed with this notion, especially as it was applied to Shakespeare's tragic heroes. He argued that what led to the downfall of most of Shakespeare's protagonists was not a flaw at all, but rather a "tragic" excess of virtue--that what they really wanted was something that in itself was a good thing, but that ultimately given their stations in life, responsibilities etc. this good thing they desired led inexorably to their undoing.

While I appreciated this more original and unusual view, ultimately I came to reject it. It is not Romeo and Juliet's "virtuous" desire to marry rather than settle for some less honorable connection that condemns them--it is the vice of lying by omission, when they can't admit that they are married and thus keep Juliet from being forced into a second, and bigamous, marriage to Paris. Further, the Elizabethan audience would have understood that the secret marriage of Juliet to a man who was the son of her father's enemy, conducted without the permission or approval of either family, was in itself a vice, not a virtue. In any case, the secret and ultimately tragic stratagems they attempt to employ to keep Juliet from having to explain just why she can't marry Paris are the direct cause of their doom.

Similarly, King Lear is not motivated by great love for his daughters, but great pride in forcing them to prove their love for him, and great blindness to the faults of his older two daughters and the goodness of the youngest; Hamlet is not excessively virtuous in wanting justice for his father's murder, but is driven simultaneously by the desire for vengeance and his own vacillating nature; Othello isn't excessively in love with his wife, but excessively and morbidly afraid that he will lose her affection, and thus plagued by the vice of jealousy; and as for Macbeth--well, it's hard to see how anyone could put a positive spin on his bloodthirsty ambition.

To me, the very fact that tragic heroes often cloak their inmost motives in trappings of virtue says something about the nature of vice that is worth reflection. Evil and sin are part of the human condition, since the Fall--but Our Lord Himself was comparatively gentle with tax collectors, prostitutes, the woman at the well, the woman taken in adultery; and He was comparatively harsh on the scribes and Pharisees, who cloaked their vices in a cloud of false piety and vain show, and whom He called hypocrites, whitened sepulchers, and broods of vipers.

Parents know that the child who comes to them openly and sadly confessing to a childish fault or sin is easy to forgive, while the child who tries to argue about his conduct, blames others for leading him into the error, or makes the case that really, he was trying to do good, when through no fault of his own things went wrong--is much harder to excuse. I think we readily recognize this fault, the tendency to dress vice up as virtue in order to get away with it, because it is a fault that dogs at our heels, and whispers foul temptation into our own ears, throughout our lives.

We are tempted again and again to tell ourselves that God understands, that He'll overlook this sin or bad habit or wrong behavior, which really isn't bad at all. We try to convince ourselves that this thing we're attached to is really okay for us, for now, for our particular circumstances. We put layers of finery around our pet vices, and clothe, for instance, untruthfulness as a form of charity, rash judgment as a type of "good advice," laziness as a habit of contemplation, failure to discipline our children as respecting their independent spirits, unkindness as being realistic, and so on.

The most dangerous aspect of dressing vice up as virtue is that we fail to see it for what it really is. It is comparatively easy to see open wickedness for the wrong that it is; but when vice puts on the garments of virtue the destructive consequences may take a while to recognize.

Perhaps I can illustrate that point with a story. Suppose a wealthy and influential Catholic man--we'll call him Hal--has a wife and daughter, and is open about wanting more children; but, sadly, Hal is known to be unfaithful. Despite his reputation for infidelity Hal has lots of friends and followers; it's all too true that vice is often overlooked when a person has enough money and power to make what would seem unforgivable conduct in one person acceptable in another.

A young married woman, whom we'll call Mary, moves to Hal's city and becomes one of his many mistresses. Her conduct is notorious, and there are rumors that at least one of her children has been fathered by Hal. Mary doesn't pretend to be virtuous, and neither does Hal, but everyone around them keeps up appearances, even if they all, Hal's wife included, know the real story.

Then Mary's sister comes to visit, and decides to live in the same town, too. Soon it's obvious that Hal is enamored of Mary's sister, and it seems inevitable that she, too, is going to end up like her sister, the mistress of a rich and powerful man. But Mary's sister, Anne, is steadfast--she is a good girl, she is not going to lose either her virtue or her reputation, she won't play along.

If that were as far as it went, we could admire Anne's virtue while clucking at Mary's lack of it. But Anne isn't really virtuous--she is ambitious. She isn't willing to settle for being yet another of Hal's girlfriends; she has her eyes on his wife's position, and wants that for herself. If she meant her refusals seriously, she would leave town to avoid Hal's company; instead, she is constantly with him, and just as constant in her refusal to become his mistress.

Anne's greed, her ambition, her willingness to inflame Hal with desire while insisting on marriage--knowing that he has a wife already!--are nothing like virtue. But they are effective; Hal divorces his wife, leaves the Catholic faith and his family--and that's the least of his actions.

Mary, the 'wicked' sister, may eventually have repented; in any case, she became a widow, then married a nobody, and lived the remainder of her life very quietly, far from the city and from Hal.

But Anne, the 'good' sister, caused by her actions so much evil that it's hard to contemplate; and though she got what she wanted, the position as Hal's wife and all the power and authority this implies, it didn't last long: just less than three years after her wedding day, Anne Boleyn was executed by her husband Henry VIII's orders, to make room for his new interest, Jane Seymour, whom Henry married only eleven days after Anne's execution.

There is nothing good about a vice dressed up as a virtue. Real virtue has no hidden agendas, no ulterior motives; real virtue doesn't need excuses or thrive on deceit or vain ambitions. Real virtue is of God, and as such has nothing to do with evil, which God hates in all its forms. We can never fool Him into thinking our actions are good when we know, deep inside, that they are not; and trying to fool others into thinking us good even when we know we are lacking in true goodness will ultimately lead to our unmasking and humiliation--if not in this life, then most assuredly in the next.

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