So here’s the deal: My Easter-time schedule is always pretty full, and those of you who’ve been coming to the site for more than a year know that in and around Christmas and Easter, I don’t post much. I’ll probably be on Twitter sporadically, and I will of course have access to email. But outside of that? Expect very little.
I’ll be on the road for Holy Thursday (visiting family), offline for most of Good Friday and Easter Saturday…and Easter Sunday is basically going to be one meal with family after another. And then I’m back on a plane on Monday, off to do more site work.
So expect an update come Monday, is what I’m saying. Have a safe Easter weekend with friends and family (as the case may be).
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I think we need more art like this.
Long-time readers of the site will know that I observe a yearly tradition of posting Easter and Christmas reflections. I don’t treat my Catholicism as any kind of secret, so hopefully it won’t come as a surprise to newer readers that I’m departing from the usual tempo of Ultima-related news in order to offer up yet another such reflection.
The last couple months have featured some very big news items, especially as regards Ultima 4 and EA’s clamping down on the more overt violations of their copyright thereto. Not surprisingly, a lot of the discussion surrounding that news was of a fairly personal nature; Ultima 4 had a profound impact on the lives of many Ultima fans, and many keep it as their favourite entry in the series.
And not surprisingly, a goodly portion of the personal reflections people were offering in those discussions focused on what sort of an impact Ultima 4 had on their philosophical formation. This tended to be true more for people that didn’t participate in what could lazily be termed “traditional” religion, though I don’t think it was exclusive to such people by any measure. In fact, I know it isn’t, because in truth the Eight Virtues in some way impacted on my own philosophical formation, and I am “traditionally” religious.
That said, the Virtues didn’t actually end up forming a part of my philosophy; instead, they were a kind of stepping stone — an impetus — toward what actually became my philosophy. I think part of that was the fact that to me, it seemed that Richard Garriott had developed a philosophical system which had a number of internal conflicts, which were in turn reflected in some of the questions posed during the character creation process…this one, from Ultima 6, for example. This wasn’t the case with every moral predicament put to the player during the character creation process…but it is true of a number of them.
Not that the Virtues are a bad system, as such things go…but they struck me, even at an early age, as being a quite imperfect system, one that it was impossible to truly live up in the most authentically human sense.
The other thing that struck me about the Virtues was that, by and large, they’re a very binary system; each virtue is matched by only a single anti-virtue. This works well enough in Britannia, but not so well in the laboratory of real-world human experience.
Take the virtue of Valor, for example. It seems pretty obvious that Valor is opposed by the anti-virtue of Cowardice, and indeed it is in the Britannian system. But as a favourite author of mine, John Zmirak, notes:
[The] truth of life emerges with fullest force in the fleshly appetites, but it isn’t, alas, restricted to them. How easily we move from fervent hunger to bloated fullness, and end up regretting or even resenting the meal that gleamed so irresistible on the menu. How quickly the flame of eros consumes its material, and the flesh that once obsessed or even possessed us turns into a burdensome, nattering mannequin with an irritating accent.
…each [sin] corrupts a real satisfaction we are meant in some sense to pursue…Even when they are pursued in the proper way, along the Golden Mean between the deadly sin and its opposite neurosis, we will never quite find what we’re seeking, and we’ll always feel just a twinge of disappointment.
Zmirak is taking a somewhat Aristotlean view in noting that the antithesis of sin — that is, virtue — exists as a Golden Mean between a sin and an “opposite neurosis” (which, arguably, is another sin).
And indeed, it was precisely this kind of thinking that I applied to the Eight Virtues. Let’s come back to our example virtue, Valor, for a moment, and its obvious anti-virtue, Cowardice. Is Cowardice the only thing that opposes Valor? Valor is typically explained as “[the] Courage to stand up against risks”…and it’s in that explanation that we can find implied a second, opposite anti-virtue to Cowardice; I suppose we could call it Recklessness: acting with little or no regard to the risks or consequences of the action undertaken.
Maybe this is why the Ophidian Virtues always seemed more sensible to me, concerned as they were with positioning virtue as a balance between disciplines, and opposed by equal and opposite anti-principles.
Of course, even understanding virtue as a happy medium between two opposite (and unpleasant) extremes is only cold consolation at best. Zmirak notes this, and in his article goes on to explore yet more examples — in modern life and in the Bible — wherein even good and properly ordered appetites, once sated, leave us feeling underwhelmed or unsatisfied.
Even if we can walk the narrow path between, say, the Cowardly and the Reckless, we will often feel unfulfilled after the moment requiring Valor has passed. Even if we have acted with Valor in its purest form, we are not left feeling awash in Virtue and more powerful to the tune of a +3 increase to our STR stat. Very often, we are left feeling relieved that the danger has passed, weary at the exertion of opposing it, and perhaps even profoundly sorrowed over any who did not pass the test alongside us. It’s almost paradoxical to think, but we often feel emptier for having pursued a virtuous path than for not having done so.
Easter centers on a very similar paradox, both at its beginning and its conclusion. It’s a feast for a king that ends with the unjust execution of said same king. It’s supposed to be the fulfillment of a prophecy that was thought to speak of imperial conquest and a lasting earthly dynasty, but it ends with the promise of an eternal dynasty that arrives only at the conclusion of a truly dismal earthly existence.
How disappointing is that? How could that possibly be appealing to anyone? Indeed, what would be the point of committing to following that “life sucks, and then you [have to] die” philosophy?
Is the rote avoidance of a bad outcome a sufficient impetus to drive us to aspire to act with virtue? And if so, then is that really virtue? Or is virtue a facet of character, one which is extrinsic to the desire to avoid jail and being shunned? Is not socially-motivated observation of the principles of virtue only a simulacrum of the ideals that the virtues represent?
Why do the Britannians strive to follow the Eight Virtues? Moreover, is there any point to their doing so, beyond the fleeting satisfaction of knowing that the right thing has been done, which is all too often quenched with stunning rapidity by the weight of the world? Is it just that we desire to avoid being imprisoned and/or ostracized?
Why would anyone take on the quite probable disappointments that striving to follow virtue’s golden path would entail, especially since one already has the disappointments one knows already, even though we don’t necessarily come to them along a virtuous path? Especially since that golden path is strictly metaphorical, and doesn’t even offer us the opportunity to find a few valuable flecks of shiny stuff on the worn-out soles of our shoes at the end of the day?
And yet, we grasp intrinsically this call to take the narrow way, to chase the Golden Means and suffer the righteous downfalls. It appeals to us despite ourselves; we can avoid it, but do so with trepidation.
A paradox doesn’t have to mean a contradiction; it can mean the juxtaposition of two truths that only seem contradictory, but which in combination become a source of great insight. The paradox of Easter — like the paradox of virtue — is quite like that. Yes, it’s true that Christ was pretty much everything people didn’t expect in the Messiah, and that his chief act of Lordship was to march into death hanging naked and bloodied upon an instrument of brutal torture. And yes, it’s true that pursuing virtue is hard, and often leaves us bitterly empty.
But: in case you didn’t catch it, think back on what I said a few paragraphs ago. Easter the fulfillment of a prophecy that was thought to speak of imperial conquest and a lasting earthly dynasty, but it ends with the promise of an eternal dynasty that arrives only at the conclusion of a truly dismal earthly existence. It’s easy to look at that and ask what all the bother is about it, but the answer is there even so.
The purely material always fades — it must fade. The great promise of Easter looks past the material, and promises instead the eternal; it looks past the ring, and promises the marriage. Where it disappoints is that it leaves us wanting now what is yet to come; it gives us the merest taste, and leaves us craving more.
So too the virtues. The virtues are wild in their narrowness, as Chesterton noted many times, cutting a swath between pitiless fact and factless pity in pursuit of truth. Virtue in its highest for is not merely a good thing; it is Good, in the sense of the Platonic form; Good beyond quantity, Good as being. And what drives into the fiery, maddening pursuit of the narrow way is that merest taste of Good, which we always desire but can only ever taste in the most fleeting of ways.
When we crash back down to Earth, feeling bereft and empty for having pursued the golden path, we feel as empty as we do because we have for once known what it means to be truly filled, and nothing else will do in lieu thereof. Because the paradox of virtue is that it looks and often feels like every other quiet, cowering emptiness we feel…but only because in its highest moments, it is a triumphal, bold and bursting shout into eternity, the colision and fusion of life and dream like a passionate kiss.