Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Hip and cool as virtues

Timidity — bravery — recklessness

Whenever people talked about virtues in the past they used three words. One word meant that you had not enough of the quality in question, a second meant just the right amount and the third meant you had too much. Virtue meant having a good balance.

Now we tend to talk about virtues in purely binary terms. You are either chaste or you are not. As a consequence, chastity (which actually means being controlled and disciplined about sex and how many people you have it with) has, for most people, come to mean not having sex at all. Bravery has come to mean complete disregard of danger. Prudence has come to mean being, well, it has come to mean being a "prude".

We've tended to do that for two reasons. The first was modernism. Modernists saw morality as a matter of law. First you used your reasoning to figure out what the moral law was then you obeyed it.

And that is where the second part came in. That second part is pietism and puritanism. Pietism, which was a huge influence on Kant, emphasized a kind of extreme vigour in the living of life. It ignored the realities of human nature and said everyone should strive to live up to an extreme level of performance in everything. Puritanism did likewise. Once you had rationally determined what the law is, then it was your duty to follow the law. And it was your duty to obey the law even if, odd as this may sound, even if it was completely contrary to what the beings it was applied to tend to be like. If silence was a virtue then dogs were to never bark even though barking is something dogs tend to like doing.

This set up a sort of odd competition between the various Christian religions of the time. The praise of restraint transmogrified into an insistence on complete abstinence. The most damning effect of this was on sexual morality. There had always been people (Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine for example) who pushed the notion that virginity was the ideal we should all aspire to, but the thing hit ridiculous depths with the beginning of modernism.

And if we are honest, we can still see traces of it today. Even the defenders of sexual "freedoms" are heavily influenced by it as they tend to instinctively go to the opposite extreme recommending not that people should feel free to enjoy controlled sex lives but rather pushing promiscuity and sexual recklessness on everyone. The mirror image of any vice is just another vice.

Okay, but what has all this to do with being "hip" or "cool"? Well, the problem is that binary thing. We tend to think of people as being either hip or unhip or cool or uncool. And that is odd because we tend to admire not the hippest person or the coolest person but the one who shows balance and restraint. I'm no fan of Jay Z, for example, but if you compare him with other rappers, it's pretty obvious that the near universal admiration thrown at the guy is a reflection of his balanced life. He is edgy but not a criminal. he has credibility as a lover but he is married, he is a rebel but a successful businessman and so forth.

If we are going to get to the point where we can talk about hipsters in anything resembling a sane fashion, we have to think of it the way the ancients thought of virtues.

And it is a virtue by the way. You may sneer at me for taking a minor virtue so seriously, and go right ahead with my blessing, but it is a virtue.

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