There is a passage in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in which Aragorn asks for some leaves of athelas, a healing herb brought by the Men of the West into Middle Earth, and which is now called “kingsfoil.” Minas Tirith, the chief city of Gondor, is celebrating its successful defense against the forces of the Dark Lord, whose armies have been crushed in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, but the wounded of Gondor now lay broken and in need of care. Aragorn, the true king of Gondor, has stolen by night into the city (he is still camped in the field, awaiting the appropriate time to return in glory). Disguised in a cloak, he is helping to care for the sick. Aragorn asks for athelas, a request which is met with scepticism:
“But alas! sir, we do not keep this thing in the Houses of Healing,” says the herb master. “… For it has no virtue that we know of, save perhaps to sweeten a fouled air, or to drive away some passing heaviness.”
Aragorn, however, knows different. He assures the herb master, as he has assured the Hobbit Sam Gamgee earlier in the story, that, indeed, it “has great virtues”:
Then, whether Aragorn had indeed some forgotten power of Westernesse, or whether it was but his words of the Lady Éowyn that wrought on them, as the sweet influence of the herb stole about the chamber it seemed to those who stood by that a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.
The effect is as Aragorn has predicted: Those to whom it is administered are not only refreshed and made clean, but healed. Athelas is an ancient herb, and yet it has the power to bring about healing.
Using the word “virtue” to indicate this kind of power seems natural as we read a skillful writer like Tolkien, and yet, when we reflect back, it seems strange. It doesn’t seem to comply with the definition of the word that we know.
In fact, the word “virtue” has an interesting history. Although in English it has taken on an effeminate tone, the word itself has masculine origins. The English word derives from the Latin virtus, which not only had a masculine connotation, but actually meant “manliness.” Virtus implies moral strength, an excellence of manhood. The word itself comes from vir, the Latin word meaning “man.” In his military diary, the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar uses the word virtus to connote courage on the battlefield, and the King James Bible frequently translates the word into the English “power,” the meaning employed by Tolkien.
When we say that a human being has “virtue,” are we not saying that he has a power—a power to do certain things in a certain way appropriate to who he is? Virtue is indeed a power—a power that has to do with what it is to be a man.
The word “virtue” itself is an ancient word, and one that has the power to bring about its own kind of healing, if we can install it again.
There are many diagnoses of what ails our modern culture, and one of them is that we humans think too highly of ourselves. Man, we often hear, has put himself at the center and made himself the measure of all things. It is humanism that has corrupted us, and the sooner we are rid of it, the better. There is a sense in which this is true, but another sense in which it is entirely false. We do, in fact, think too much of actual man; but we think entirely too little of ideal man. In fact, it may be that modern thought is just as detrimentally affected by not thinking highly enough of what man ought to be, as in thinking too much of men as we happen to find them in this world.
In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Ishmael, the narrator, articulates an ancient view of man that has now been all but abandoned:
Men may seem detestable as joint stock-companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meager faces; but, man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars.
This is one of the last echoes of the old order that once held sway in the West: the belief in an ideal man, an ideal which, through education, we once tried to approximate.
In this passage, Melville marks a bold distinction between man and men. Men are what we experience; man is that which we should aspire to be. It is an idea which we can see as far back as Sophocles, who said, “Wonderful are the world’s wonders, but none more wonderful than man.” Melville, like Sophocles before him, used the singular when referring to the human ideal. It is this belief that underlaid the entire system of classical morality.
This older classical scheme recognized two things about man: the first was that he had an ideal or essential nature; the second was that each individual man incompletely and imperfectly approximated that ideal. This view was shared by all pre-modern cultures, both pagan and Christian. Christianity disagreed in part with paganism in regard to what this ideal man consisted of, but neither the Hebrews, the Greeks, nor the Romans would have ever conceived of denying the existence of this ideal.
For the Greeks, the ideal of man was embodied in the Iliad, their great national story. That of the Romans was evoked in the Aeneid, the story of the founding of Rome by Aeneas.
Christian ideals were to be found in the Bible—as well as in the vast treasury of Western literature that was influenced by it. It was a belief articulated in the Biblical book of Genesis and which was held by the earliest Church fathers: that man is God’s highest creation, and is different in kind from the animals by virtue of his being created in the image and likeness of God.
According to the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, the classical view of virtue was simple: It was the power by which man got from man-as-he-happened-to-be to man-as-he-would-be-if-he-achieved-his-telos, or purpose. This telos was connected essentially to man’s nature. To be good, in other words, was to simply act in accordance with your nature. Becoming more virtuous—becoming more like the ideal man as expressed in this human nature—was to become more human. To the Christian, this meant becoming more like what you were created to be.
To the Greeks and the Romans, the power to do this came from self-generated manly self-discipline. To the Christians, this power came by grace from the Holy Spirit.
MacIntyre points out that this traditional view of virtue was based on the traditional view of man: He was an incomplete or potential being who had fallen short of the fulfillment of his nature.
Leon Kass has pointed out that, in the Creation account of the Biblical book of Genesis, there are only two things that God, in the process of Creation, does not call “good”: the heavens and man. Kass points out that the term “good” as it is used throughout Genesis, “cannot mean morally good.” “[W]hen ‘God saw the light, that it was good,’” says Kass, “He could not have seen that the light was honest or just or law-abiding.” Rather, “good” seems to mean something more akin to being fit to a particular intention, fully formed, or fully what the thing is by its nature. But this is precisely what men are not. “Let me put it more pointedly,” says Kass: “Precisely in the sense that man is in the image of God, man is not good—not determinate, finished, complete, or perfect.”
If Kass is correct, then there is some ideal that the author of Genesis has in mind from which men fall short—even at this, the beginning of all things. To the Hebrews, this truth had been revealed by God Himself. But the Greeks, too, knew this, not through any direct word of the God who was unknown to them, but from their own observations of the world that their Unknown God had created.
The Greeks had long possessed the concept of what they called arête—a culminating excellence in man which existed as a potentiality which needed to be actualized, of a purpose that must be fulfilled. The concept of arête reached its highest point of expression—it was, in fact, actualized—in the work of the Greek poets. “Sophocles guided his work by a standard,” said Werner Jaeger, “and in it presented men ‘as they ought to be’ … All the discussions of that age, and all the efforts of the Sophists, were directed towards finding and producing man ‘as he ought to be.’”
Christianity, which, in addition to possessing Divine Revelation, inherited the learning of classical culture and saw within it much that was true but incomplete, completed this view of man by incorporating in it the concept of sin: The reason man is not as he should be is because he has fallen from his primordial estate. He once acted in accordance with his nature, but because of the Fall, he is separated from himself. But this fissure in his own being has not destroyed his essential humanity. He is still the same kind of creature as Adam. As Tolkien once put it:
… Though now long estranged
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed
Dis-graced he may be, but not dethroned
And keeps the rags of lordship once he owned …
The image and likeness in which he was created, the source of man’s unique dignity, is effaced by sin, but not erased by it. It is still there for goodness to find.
And how do we find it? Athelas, Aragorn tells Sam Gamgee, grows now only sparsely and near places where the Men of the West camped in ancient times. We are the heirs of a great cultural inheritance, and with a little effort, it can still be found.
In the stories of the great deeds of great men, the ideal man was represented by the hero, whom students were encouraged to be like, and who differed from men, who were a mixed lot and fell short in various ways from that ideal. This was embodied by the Hebrews in their Old Testament heroes of faith who were brought again and again to the remembrance of the Jews: Moses the lawgiver, Abraham the man of faith, and David, God’s own king. Christians too, down through the ages, were reminded repeatedly of the great deeds of their saints and martyrs. In addition, there is the great classic literature—Greek, Roman, and Christian—which helps to teach us who we are and who we should be.
Classic literature is the vehicle by which we propagate and preserve our civilization. “We are the only species that does not know its own nature naturally,” writes Russell Banks, “and with each new generation has to be shown it anew.”
But like athelas in Tolkien’s story, the idea of virtue is seldom spoken of, save in the voice of scepticism.
The dark forces of modern secularism that now dominate our culture, in an act unique in history, have abandoned the belief in an ideal man. There is no man; there are only men.
Alas, virtue is a thing they do not keep in their Houses of Education.
The Western intellectual class, in what the French writer Julien Benda has called La Trahison les Clercs—”The Treason of the Clerks”—have joined the enemies of civilization.
“All about us,” said literary critic George Steiner,
flourishes the new illiteracy, the illiteracy of those who can read short words or words of hatred and tawdriness but cannot grasp the meaning of language when it is in a condition of beauty or of truth.
But virtue still has its virtues.
In his inaugural lecture at Cambridge in 1954, C. S. Lewis spoke of thinkers like himself—and by implication, Tolkien and Chesterton—as “Old Western men,” men who, like Tolkien’s Men of the West, were dying out. As Lewis predicted, they are now all but gone. But if we dig about their camps, there are things still growing that have the cultural power to heal.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Late Summer 2012 edition.