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The Measure of a Human

The Measure of a Man

Many at the highest levels of government in the U.S. over the last four years have been busy pursuing selfish, partisan objectives at great expense to civil society. Minds are largely closed; discussion and debate have deteriorated into shouting matches. The evidence of reason and science is routinely denied and dismissed if it does not fall in step with personal ambitions, and urbanity and politeness have been demonized as submission to “political correctness.” The Greeks had a name for such people. They called them “idiotes.” For the Greeks, the measure of a human being lay in that excellence of character demonstrated in a range of virtues, all of which look beyond selfish gratification to the greater aim of promoting the general welfare. These virtues include truthfulness, humility, self-possession, meeting one’s responsibilities, empathy, the willingness to own up to one’s mistakes, slowness to anger and reaction, winning and losing graciously, forgiveness, living up to the same standards that one holds for others, conducting oneself with dignity, playing fair, courage, sound judgment, reasonableness, respect and consideration for others, high-mindedness and openmindedness, and so on. None of these is esoteric. As children, we learned early that we should tell the truth, and that lying, cheating, and stealing are wrong. We were taught the importance of playing well with others and playing fair, of cooperating, being empathetic, and restraining the impulse to push to the front of the line.

The measure of a human has not changed since we were two and a half nor in two and a half millennia. It is the same today that it was then. Life calls us to live up to what it means to be a man or woman, to cultivate and abide in the virtues whispered by our better angels, to live up to them as a sacred trust and potential, even when we stand to lose some worldly objective. And what, we might ask, is the virtue of virtue? Why be virtuous? It is simply this: Our happiness and the fulfillment of our humanity depend upon the state of our soul. Ultimately, virtue is not only its own reward but the only sustainable path. The way of the idiotes leads to destruction, suffering, and tragedy. It is toxic, poisoning both the self and the community. Allowed free reign, it spreads like a cancer, eventually corrupting the body and mind, personal and professional relationships, family, nation, and world, Only good character can be trusted to lead and sustain us into the uncertain future. The belief that character does not matter, that anything else is more important, is so monumentally misguided, it can result in the loss of 205,000 lives. And counting.

Immersed in a sense of entitlement, the idiotes act out of blind self-interest with no regard for the impact of their actions on others. As they have no interest in self-examination and the improvement of character, which the Greeks regarded as the cornerstone of true and abiding happiness, they remain unteachable. Yet this unteachability is a superficial symptom of a much deeper dysfunction, for it should not be necessary to teach adults the lessons that we must learn as children in order to become emotionally, mentally, and spiritually mature adults. Central to this development is the establishing of a consciousness of boundaries and the limits of our will that make it clear where the self ends and others begin. Boundaries allow us to recognize what is not okay. We expect it to inform the behavior of adults whose development has not been arrested, and where it is absent, its absence is shocking.

Last night’s U.S. presidential debacle (billed as a debate) was a toxic display of reckless belligerence and wanton disregard for boundaries that left no room for even the pretense of civility. Viewed as symptomatic, it was a serious and disturbing indictment of the state of the nation, one pointing to a widespread sickness in our society that has nothing to do with the coronavirus, a soul sickness that, left unchecked, may prove fatal. Yeats describes a similar zeitgeist in his chilling poem, The Second Coming, expressing his pessimism about the future of humanity and the world in the run-up to World War I:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The same forces were at work in the 1930s with the rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany. Sadly, the world has never been without the idiotes. We only can pray that those who suffer from this sickness of the soul prove to be a tiny minority in America. Come November, when the ballots have been counted and the election certified, the idiotes may fall from power, canceled by a clear majority of voters like a vulgar reality TV show. The pendulum of the dialectic swings far only to swing back. Many of us in the U.S. who love our country enough to hold it to high standards are clinging to the hope that, despite appearances, the best of us is still alive and well at the center of the maelstrom of chaos we are witnessing and enduring. And that it is not too late to save in ourselves all it means to be human.