A Short Note on Independence…

…and on the virtues in general.

The following is probably nothing new to you – you may have figured it out for yourselves – but I think it is worth mentioning and elaborating on.

Quent Cordair (the proud owner of an art gallery and of a dog named  Mollie) recently posted this on Facebook:

The man who needs you to know how independent he is, isn’t.

True enough. The truly independent person has no need to talk about his/her independence.

One commenter asked this rhetorical question:

Now I’m thinking about a man telling me how independent he is, or demonstrating how independent he is. Is purposeful demonstration of independence the same as declaration of independence?

Well, if one’s purpose in taking an action is to demonstrate one’s independence, then I don’t think the person is truly independent. A truly independent man, or woman, would simply feel no need to demonstrate his/her independence, neither to him- or herself, nor to others.[1]

The same holds true of the virtue of honesty. An honest person has no need to talk about his honesty. If someone has to speak about his own honesty, he/she probably has something not quite honest to hide. Likewise if he/she has to demonstrate or make a show of his honesty.

There is a good example of this in literature. If you have read Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea (Les Travailleurs de la Mer in the French original), you will recall that one of the protagonists works very hard to acquire a reputation for being completely honest; but he does so in order to commit a theft which no one will suspect him of, since he is perceived as such an honest fellow. (It does not end well for him.)

This is of course an extreme and stark example – an artist stylizes reality, as Ayn Rand writes somewhere in The Romantic Manifesto. But I am sure you can find less extreme examples in real life.

One could make the same point about the other virtues, as well. For example, a productive person does not talk about how productive he/she is (unless it is necessary when writing a CV); he/she just goes on producing. And the man/woman of pride and unbreached self-esteem has no need of talking about it or making a show of it. The person who does most probably is trying to overcome some self-doubt. (Parenthetically, I don’t think Quent Cordair talks a lot about how proud he is of his art gallery; I just assume he is; and he should be.)

Humble people, on the other hand, seem to have a need to talk incessantly – not about their own humility, or even about the pride they take in being humble – but about how humble the rest of us should be.[2]

There is also a good literary example concerning the virtue of courage. In Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone, one of the protagonists thinks of himself as a coward and is ashamed of his own fear; so he performs brave acts just to prove to himself that he is, after all, not a coward. This does not help him overcome his fear. When the other protagonists find this out, they all tell him that they, too, are very frightened when they perform their courageous acts. The moral sense of this is that fear by itself is not cowardice; succumbing to the fear is.

And I cannot withhold from you a great quote from Aristotle:

It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good. But most people do not do these, but take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become  good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be made well in body by such a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such a course of philosophy. – The Nicomachean Ethics in David Ross’ translation, Book 2, Chapter 4; italics mine.

In other words: one does not become virtuous by thinking or talking about virtue (or even writing treatises on the subject), but only by practicing the virtues.[3]

And whether I myself am a truly independent person, or an abject second-hander, who just repeats what better thinkers have said before – that is a closely guarded secret. The same goes for the question whether I have a sense of humor or not.

[1]) Someone truly independent might write a novel featuring independence versus second-handedness. I have a vague memory of having read such a novel.

[2]) The exception to this rule is Uriah Heep in Dickens’ David Copperfield – and if you have read the book, you know where that ends.

[3]) For Scandinavian speaking readers, I have written about this here.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: