An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of July 24, 2005
Issued from the Sierra Nevada Foothills
east of Sacramento, California, USA
VIRTUE

Back in the 60s, in rural western Kentucky, the druggist for whom my mother worked as a clerk died. I was given several books from his library, and among them were well thumbed classics of Greek and Roman literature, Tacitus included. When I told my mother how surprised I was that a small-town druggist should read such books, she said that back before TV the town doctor, lawyer, furniture-store owner and a couple of highschool teachers every Friday night had gotten together, played cards and talked deep into the night, often about what they'd been reading in such books. I can see them now, sweating on sultry Kentucky summer nights, crickets roaring from heavy shadows beneath Main Street's maples, and those men sitting around a table with a rattling fan blowing on them, arguing over local politics and sports and sometimes, maybe, about Aristotle's concept of virtue.

In my lifetime we've gone from a culture producing such people by the millions in untold numbers of small towns all across America, to what we have now. I think I miss that cultural ambiance nearly as much as 50 years from now people will miss drinkable water rushing from average faucets.

A difference between groundwater and cultural ambiance, however, is that once pure groundwater is polluted it can take millennia to restore it. But cultural ambiance is what we make of it, and it can change overnight, as I saw with my own eyes in Eastern Europe after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

I propose this: At the "Ethics and Virtue" page at http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/decision/ethicsandvirtue.html see if your mind finds any pleasure in the thoughts examined there. Do certain phrases and ideas on that page ignite little explosions inside you of recognition-of-truth, of wholesome curiosity, of brief but intense bursts of nostalgia for a time and a world where average people felt compelled to get their thoughts straight? If so, then nurture those good feelings by following up on the words that inspired them. In other words, study the issues that thinking people have always thought about, come to your own conclusions about them, and live your life according the principles you really believe in, after having really thought about them.

How do thoughts about ethics and virtue fit into a naturalist newsletter?

It is because I believe that when the great questions of classical times (such as, "What is virtue?") are reexamined in the light of what science now makes clear to us, it becomes apparent that the greatest virtue a person can possess is to aim to protect and live in harmony with the ecosystem that sustains all Life on Earth. And that the "community" at the heart of the "virtue approach to ethics" is, first and foremost, the community of living things on Earth, of which humanity is one beautiful part.

I think the time has come for us to return to the mindsets of the small-town pharmacist, doctor, lawyer, furniture-store owner and teachers of my childhood who took pleasure in shaping their own concepts of such qualities as virtue, beauty, and honor, and who recognized and fulfilled the responsibility each of them felt to strive for classical excellence in their own lives. Facebook Icon.