Tragic Virtue Ecologies

Nov 10, 2018

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people, that they plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  — Book of Common Prayer, 1559, Collect for the 25th Sunday after Trinity.

By Act 4 of Macbeth, Macbeth has murdered his king, Duncan, and his colleague and potential rival, Banquo. Duncan’s son Malcolm, proper heir to Scotland’s throne, has fled to England for safety. In Act 4, scene 3, Malcolm is visited by the decent man Macduff, and the two share a peculiar conversation, one of the more peculiar scenes in Shakespeare.

Macduff enters the scene ready to urge Malcolm out of hiding. He says, basically, “Come on! We need to save Scotland from the murderous tyrant, Macbeth!” Macduff wants Malcolm to pull together an army with English aid, march back to Scotland, and help purge the terrible evil that has torn Scotland apart. But Malcolm regards Macduff skeptically. Malcolm is a young man, and he has no idea anymore whom he can trust. So he tests Macduff.

Malcolm explains that he is not the shining savior everyone hopes he is. Macbeth may be a devil, Malcolm says, but he himself knows “all the particulars of vice,” and he especially emphasizes womanizing and avarice. Well, poor Macduff is so desperate that he’s willing to overlook those things in Malcolm. Macduff responds that he could put up with those vices in a king as long as the vices are “with other graces weighed.”

Malcolm replies:
But I have none. The king-becoming graces,
As justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude,
I have no relish of them…

At this hopeless testimony, Macduff merely exclaims: “O Scotland, Scotland! … “O nation miserable,/ With an untitled tyrant bloody-sceptered,/ When shalt thou see thy wholesome days again…?”

At this point, Malcolm reveals to Macduff that he was pretending the whole time! He wanted to see if Macduff genuinely cared about Scotland or was only showing up as Macbeth’s spy, ready to capture him and deliver him to death. Malcolm then explains to an astonished and confused Macduff: Actually, I’m an entirely innocent guy. I’ve never even been with a woman, I’ve never lied (before this!), and I’m at the service of Scotland! What do we do next?

I’ve been thinking about this odd scene lately, and particularly that list of “king-becoming graces.” Shakespeare includes this scene, I think, to counterbalance the madness consuming the world of the play. Witches appear, owls shriek, horses go wild and try to eat each other, all because a Scottish nobleman wants power and is willing to murder to get it. There seems no purpose to Macbeth’s destruction of the social order except his own desire for power, abetted by a toxic view of masculinity. Lady Macbeth urges him into committing his first murder, claiming that to be a man he must shut down his conscience and act impulsively, violently, and selfishly. Macbeth himself adopts this discourse, and his murder spree cascades relentlessly through the play.

I proposed to my students in class last week that Malcolm’s little moment with Macduff in 4.3 reminds the audience that there is an alternative discourse available in the world, an alternative view not only of manhood, but of leadership. Look at that gorgeous list of virtues Malcolm rattles off. How we long for leaders who claim, take to heart, and practice those virtues!

Last week at Calvin College we welcomed Shakespeare scholar Julia Lupton to speak about her work on virtues in Shakespeare. In one of her talks, she referenced Aristotelian virtue ethics, explaining that for Aristotle, the end purpose of virtues was eudaimonia: human flourishing. Lupton emphasized that this flourishing includes the moral status of the soul as well as material circumstances. Virtue itself, in the Aristotelian view, is dynamic, energetic, goal-oriented, and aspirational. It’s about allowing our human potentials to be realized well. While she drew from Aristotle, Lupton reflected throughout the talk not only on classical virtues (such as courage, fortitude, temperance, and justice) but also on the Christian theological virtues: faith, hope, and love.

Because we influence one another, Lupton continued, virtue is social: we need certain conditions to practice virtues well. That is to say, we all inhabit a virtue ecology, for good or ill. That means, if we care about virtues, our task is to cultivate settings in which people can develop capacities for virtue. “We have a word for that cultivation,” Lupton said at one point. “It’s administration.”

Everyone laughed when she said that, but she was serious. She herself is an administrator, a dean and program director in the arts at the University of California at Irvine. She tries to be intentional in her work, striving to create structures and programs that help students and faculty reflect on virtues and build capacity for practicing them.

Ever since this lecture I’ve been thinking about leadership and what it means to cultivate a healthy virtue ecology. It seems to me we often connect virtue and leadership simply by asking whether a particular leader is virtuous. Does the person exhibit something like Malcolm’s list of graces?

Virtue modeling is a valid and necessary criterion. We are horrified—or should be—when leaders are hypocrites or when they model nothing but vices. But perhaps individual virtue-modeling (what we used the call “the character question” in American politics) is not the only question. What if we also ask whether our leaders create an atmosphere that cultivates virtues?

This would mean, in the dynamic/energy view of virtue, considering whether leaders seek to create conditions that enable all people to realize their potential. How might we grow healthy virtue ecologies in our churches and communities? What virtues do we most want to model, reflect upon, cultivate? How can we do it?

Virtue ethics is a complex field of thought, and obviously creating a healthy virtue ecology is much easier in theory than in practice. Probably in reality we are far more familiar with what happens when leaders create what we might term a toxic virtue ecology. Spreading lies, instigating hate and division, protecting offenders and hushing up offense, demonizing “the other,” despising the vulnerable, and creating constant instability—all of this makes it extremely difficult for people to concentrate on the virtuous life. Instead, we become caught up in the toxicity, poisoned and exhausted by it.

We might imagine Shakespeare’s tragedies as dramatic depictions of toxic virtue ecologies. Once Macbeth sets his murderous course, all Scotland suffers, even the horses. Malcolm and MacDuff and their allies eventually manage the necessary purging, concluding the play with Macbeth’s head on a pike and Malcolm restored to the Scottish throne. But there are terrible, permanent costs. Virtuous people are not necessarily rewarded in a tragedy. The innocent end up at best traumatized and at worst dead.

In classical tragedy, the fall of the hero is resolved through a purging and a restoration of order. Perhaps all tragedies, including Shakespeare’s, teach us that a few high-placed people making terrible moral errors tend to cause carnage all the way down. The tragic genre may confirm that the moral arc of the universe eventually bends toward justice, but it also suggests we can plan on heavy costs along the way.

In the midst of what may feel like a tragic plot arc in American life and in world events, I suppose we can resist that downward spiral by working to create healthy virtue ecologies wherever we have influence. I don’t quite know what that means. Right now, I can only pray for a critical mass of well-meaning people—especially leaders—with the patience, courage, and fortitude to find out.

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

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