"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Zycher, Bennett and the Genesis of Reform Club

Dr. Benjamin Zycher (a great sci-fi name) included a hit on Bill Bennett in his speculations about the new Supreme Court nominee. The drive-by shot reminded me of a more extended assault on the virtue guru by yours truly. I was and am a fan of Bill Bennett, but I felt a tremendous disappointment in hearing about his gambling habits. It seemed to me the conservative zines were determined to give Bennett a pass, so I tried to preserve the integrity of social conservatives (particularly of the evangelical set) with this piece for American Spectator.

Because it was original and not a whitewash, it was quoted by Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post and several other web outlets. The best part, though, was that I saw an email one S.T. Karnick sent to the editor of American Spectator praising the short essay. That led to me writing for his magazine American Outlook and ultimately to this weblog, which we hope to someday expand into a more full-featured website with archived essays, short fiction, reviews, etc..


Kathy Hutchins said...

Wow, that's almost as good as the story about how I met my husband -- and has the advantage of not being too ickily sweet for public consumption.

Re: Bennett (not that that point of the post was to drag his bulky body around the arena one more time)....sharing a faith with Bennett that does not condemn gambling as per se evil, my main impression was that is was just so disappointingly dumb and boring. How could a man who obviously understands beauty, who loves literature and art and music, spend so much time doing something so dull?? It's not just flirting (or worse) with vice, it's a rejection of the ideal of the examined life well-lived.

And on the coulda, shoulda, woulda line: last night on Brit Hume, Fred Barnes said something I'd never heard before: that before GHWB was dragooned by Sununu and Rudman into nominating Souter, his choice was Edith Jones. Is that true? Would anyone care to go back through the list of cases since then and speculate on how very different the legal landscape would be had Jones sat on the court all those years?

Scott Carson said...

Well, I'm not a fan of gambling, either, even though I, too, share Bennett's religion. But I do know Bill Bennett (he slaughtered me once in a game of Trivial Pursuit, relying on his godlike knowledge of 1950s Doo-Wop music) and I think that it's fair to say that he lives a life that is marked by virtue in many respects. Nobody is perfectly virtuous, of course, and so it's always an easy cheap shot to ridicule someone who talks about virtue. But that it is important to talk about virtue not from the standpoint of what we, as individuals, have actually accomplished but from the standpoint of what we, as humans, are able to achieve if we try, is a point that has been made over and over again, from Plato, to Aristotle, to Augustine, to Bonaventure, to Aquinas....

Hunter Baker said...

I'm quite sure that's true, Mr. Carson. My article of a couple of years ago was a passionate response to feeling a personal hero let him down. The example of going gambling after a speech to a pro-family group was a true one. A friend had to arrange for Bennett to speak earlier one evening to accommodate a quick getaway to Vegas.

No, it's not terrible and Bennett never claimed to be a saint, but it was a sad story that left many disappointed.

Burwell said...

Scott Carson said: "But that it is important to talk about virtue not from the standpoint of what we, as individuals, have actually accomplished but from the standpoint of what we, as humans, are able to achieve if we try..."

"Virtue" is the Anglicized word from the Latin "virtus" meaning "strength, manliness, etc", which is based upon the Latin word "Vir" which means "man." A common definition of the word is "a conformity to a standard of right: morality."

I do not think it was Bennett's "fall from virtue" that caused so many people's disappointment (mine own included). What he represented, perhaps in the minds of the aforementioned supporters more so than in reality, caused the dismay. What I believe happened was we blurred the lines between holiness and virtue, and assumed that the two terms were synonymous, which they are not.

Any man can be virtuous, but to be holy is quite another matter. Is there really such a thing as a fall from virtue? Virtue is a humanistic in origin and scope. Can a man be true to anything other than himself? That is the issue (and hence the problem) with virtue: a man is a man, and morality is a will-o-the-wisp. Unless, of course, it is based upon something other than man.

Holiness (at least the Judeo-Christian concept) is not based upon man; it is a characteristic of God. And according to the Bible, it is the standard that all men are held to. Holiness is also the basis for our (again, in the J-C persuasion) understanding of virtue. Therefore, Bennett’s "fall" was more than a violation of virtue; it was a sin against holiness. We were hoping for something more than we should, and we should have not been surprised when we received what we did. Bennett is merely a man, nothing more. While he may tout morality, he is subject to the same limitations everyone else is.

Scott Carson said...

I think Burwell makes an interesting and important point about the dangers of hoping for more than we should. I was intrigued by his etymological point, but I would note that "virtue" as Bennett tends to use the term is a philosophical term of art, and is intended as a translation of the Greek word aretĂȘ as used, classically, in the expression aretai ethikai from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. In that context, I think, what we see is not a divine standard that is literally unattainable by humans (though I think, to weaken my own argument somewhat, that Aristotle himself mentions "the divine" in relation to the happiest possible life), but a set of socially constructed values governing those traits of human behavior that we find most valuable.

Here I think there is lots of room for disagreement over the nature of What Bennett Did. I am very sympathetic to Hunter Baker's complaint (now that I understand it better), but I myself would hesitate to go so far as to say that gambling, in and of itself, constitutes a fall from Holiness, or even a sin against Holiness. It's his money, after all, and as far as I can see there is little difference between throwing money away at a poker game and investing in modern art. But that's just me. Did Bennett endanger his own family? No. Did he perhaps serve as a bad example, as Hunter Baker worries? Quite possibly, and in that sense he would fail to be the Practially Wise Person whom Aristotle says we ought to follow. But I don't think it entails any major sins.

Perhaps we were the sinners, Burwell, in hoping for more than we should? (Sorry about calling you "Burwell", by the way--it sounds rather brusque just like that, but I don't know what else to call you--I'm completely new to this blog.)

Hunter Baker said...

There are a couple of sources of the disappointment. In the evangelical community we had Larry Burkett who talked a lot about how one should use his/her money. He was very much against gambling because it was a zero-sum situation. For you to win, someone else has to lose. That's very different from business, where two people could deal with each other and have no losers. There are probably holes in the argument, but it made an impression on me.

Second, whenever I have had money, I've thought a lot about how I would spend it, what I would give away, and to whom I would give it. Gambling very large amounts of money doesn't fit into that sense of ethics or Christian mission very well. I'd feel the same way if he lived very extravagantly.

Burwell said...

Dr. Carson,

I appreciate your positive feedback. Thank you. And "Burwell" is fine. I am trying to work my way to a one-named existence (typed tongue-in-cheek).

I appreciate your unpacking Aristotle’s use of virtue. While I succumb to arrogance all too frequently, I will try to refrain when discussing Greek with a Classics scholar (though I cannot keep from jealousy- a confession). Perhaps I was thinking more of the use of agathos, as in Romans 5:7. Please feel free to correct or refine my usage.

And I suppose we were sinners in that we erred or were mistaken in misplacing our hope and trust. Good point!