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Conscience And Self Reliance

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Shakespeare on conscience, Aristotle on virtues, and Emerson on self-reliance

Shakespeare on conscience, Aristotle on virtues, and Emerson on self-reliance

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  • 1. Shakespeare’s Richard the III on Conscience: Innocence Is Never Enough King Edward IV of England has been placed on the throne due to the actions of his brother, Richard. After Edward‟s coronation in the Great Hall, Richard contemplates the throne, before advancing towards the audience and then addressing them, delivering a speech that outlines his physical deformities, such as a shriveled arm, hunched back, uneven legs, effeminate hair, and large nose. He goes on to describe his jealousy over his brother‟s rise to power in contrast to his lowly position. Richard dedicates himself to task and plans to frame his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, for assassination, and have him sent to prison at the Tower of London. Having confused and deceived the King, Richard proceeds with his plans and Clarence is murdered, drowned in a butt of wine. Richard goes on to woo and seduces the Lady Anne and though she hates him for killing her husband, father, and father-in-law, she cannot resist and ends up marrying him. Richard then orchestrates disorder in the court, fuelling rivalries, and setting the court against the Queen consort, Elizabeth. The King, weakened by exhaustion, appoints his brother, Richard, as Lord Protector, and then dies. Edward‟s son, soon to become Edward V, is met by Richard whilst en route to London. Richard has the young King‟s entourage arrested and executed, and forces the young King along with his younger brother into chains at the Tower of London. With all obstacles now removed, Richard enlists the help of his cousin Buckingham to alter his public image, and to become popular with the people. In doing so, Richard becomes the people‟s first choice to become the new King. The entire country is successfully seduced by Richard. With this new power, Richard orders young his two cousins, Edward and the Duke of York, killed at the Tower of London. Buckingham had aided Richard on the agreement of being given a title and a land grant, but balks at the idea of murdering the two princes, so Richard asks a nobleman, Sir James Tyrrell, to perform the evil deed. On requesting his earldom at Richard‟s coronation, Buckingham is later met with Richard‟s response: “I‟m not in the giving vein today!” Buckingham then fears for his life and, along with others, rebels against Richard‟s rule. Richard, now fearful due to his dwindling popularity, takes to war, and Richard‟s Yorkists prepare to battle Henry of Richmond‟s Lancastarians at Bosworth Field. Before the battle, Richard is haunted by the ghosts of all those he has killed in his bloody ascent to the throne, and he wakes screaming. But Richard easily composes himself, striding out to plan the battle for his generals, and gives his motivational speech to his forces: “Conscience is but a word that cowards use, devised at first to keep the strong in awe! Conscience avaunt! March on! Join bravely! Let us to it pell mell. If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell!” The two forces engage in battle, with the Lancastarians having the upper hand. Lord Stanley, whose loyalties had been questionable for some time, betrays Richard, and allies himself with Henry. Richard sees this and rushes out to fight Henry. However, Richard is knocked off his horse, loses his cherished crown and is soon lost in the battle, searching desperately for Henry. He lets forth his immortal cry: A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse! Richard then spots the treacherous Lord Stanley, and engages him in one on one combat. Before a victor can emerge, the Lancastarian troops charge Richard and fatally wound him. Richard convulses in several spasms and offers his sword to the sky before dying. Stanley orders Richard‟s body to be taken away, and then finds Richard‟s crown in a thorn bush. He then proceeds to offer it to Henry, leaving the crown of England in safe hands once again. Page 1 of 5
  • 2. Richard‟s successful climb to power in this play is not simply a tribute to his own skill; it is also a manifestation of the moral weaknesses of others in the play. Richard‟s victims are not simply innocent dupes outwitted by an irresistible Devil-Machiavel. Again and again, we see that they simply fail to recognize what they are confronted with and, even when they do sense what Richard is doing, for various reasons they evade the moral issue. The result is that we are forced to recognize here that Richard‟s success depends upon the refusal of others to stand up to him and what he represents. This play thus initiates what we are to witness again and again in Shakespearean drama: the point that evil succeeds in this world because of the moral complicity of others. Early in this play, Richard plots the killing of Clarence. When the murderers arrive at the prison where Clarence is held, they present their pass to the head officer of the prison, Brackenbury, who has just shared an intensely moving scene with Clarence in which the latter has made clear to all the intense suffering he is going through. Brackenbury is now faced with a choice: Should he let the murderers in to kill Clarence or not? His answer is significant. He says, as he reads over the commission, “I will not reason what is meant hereby, Because I will be guiltless of the meaning” (1.4.89-90). Notice carefully what this is saying. Brackenbury will not pause to reflect upon what is going on (and will thus not have to act upon any such reflection), because he wants to preserve his innocence. But he knows perfectly well what is going to happen. This is a moral evasion of great magnitude. Because of it, Clarence dies, Richard enjoys another success, and thusly confirms his strategy. Brackenbury may think this evasion makes him innocent; quite clearly it does not. Richard‟s successful murder of Clarence and what follows thus stem to a large extent from Brackenbury failure to act. No decision is a decision. Earlier we have seen a similar incident in the wooing of Lady Anne. She has every reason to recognize Richard for what he truly is. After all, he has murdered her father-in-law and her husband and helped to kill her father. She is in the midst of mourning for the dead Henry VI. And yet within a few moments she has capitulated and given him encouragement to continue his courtship of her. This transformation provides Richard with his first success, and he is elated by it. It confirms that he is right to have set out on the evil journey he has undertaken. Why does Anne so suddenly capitulate? That we can only know clearly if we see the scene acted out, but it seems that she has given into Richard‟s flattery and perhaps sex appeal (she tells us later in the play that she had grown grossly captive to his honeyed words). There is no force involved here, other than the force of Richard‟s personality. Confronted with Richard, Anne is unable to maintain her strong rejection of him. Admittedly his tactics are brilliant (and very dangerous to him personally since he risks death). But he judges her weakness superbly and brings her, not simply to the edge of an emotional collapse, but to be his wife. Richard III details the rise and fall of Richard, duke of Gloucester during the English War of the Roses, a dynastic struggle between the rival noble houses of Lancaster and York for control of the English monarchy that raged between 1455 and 1485. Richard is an ego weak person because his behavior is controlled by his drives, which is demonstrated when he commands to murder his two young nephews without showing any pangs of conscience. During his entire childhood, the Richard never had a chance to identify with someone on which to model his own moral standards. In the drama, Richard‟s mother shows what she thinks of her son by using every chance to express how ashamed she is about Richard being her son. The same damage could have been done by using every chance to express how perfect he was – both would have built a free-standing self-esteem without any connection to reality. Stories like this significantly deepen our understanding of the way political evil manifests itself in the world and the reasons for its frequent success. And this becomes a major theme in many Shakespeare plays: in this world you have to keep your wits about you; innocence is never enough. Purity of conscience without courageous action and an intelligent sense of what is going on around one does not leave one blameless or free from harm. Standing up against evil in the world is everyone‟s responsibility. Page 2 of 5
  • 3. Aristotle’s Essay Views On Ethics and Virtures Although Aristotle wrote several works on ethics, the major one was the Nicomachean Ethics, which is considered one of his greatest works. The ten books which comprise it are based on notes from his lectures at the Lyceum and were either edited by or dedicated to Aristotle‟s son, Nicomachus. Aristotle believed that ethical knowledge is not certain knowledge, like metaphysics and epistemology, but general knowledge. And, as it is a practical discipline rather than a theoretical one, in order to become “good” one could not simply study what virtue is… one must actually do virtuous deeds. He said we must have the goal in mind of being “good.” This ultimate goal, he called the Highest Good. Aristotle contended that happiness could not be found in pleasure or in fame and honor. He found happiness “by ascertaining the specific function of man.” To determine this function of man, Aristotle analyzed the soul and found it to have three parts: the Nutritive Soul (plants, animals and humans), the Perceptive Soul (animals and humans) and the Rational Soul (humans only). Thus, a human‟s function is to do what makes it human, to be good at what sets it apart from everything else: the ability to reason or Nous. A person that does this is the happiest because they are fulfilling their purpose or nature as found in the rational soul. Depending on how well they did this, Aristotle said people belonged to one of four categories: the Virtuous, the Continent, the Incontinent, and the Vicious. Aristotle said that we learn which acts are virtuous, choose virtuous acts for their own sake, and acquire virtuous habits by performing virtuous acts. Not because virtuous acts are pleasant, but by internalizing punishment and becoming generous-minded, becoming motivated by shame, regretting one‟s vicious acts and passions, and through positive models do people learn why virtuous acts are virtuous and become able to discern and desire them. The emotional and active elements in the personality of virtuous persons are ready to be „persuaded‟ by their reason; they feel and act as they should without any great struggle. In fact they take pleasure in acting rightly. Similarly a vicious person takes pleasure in doing what comes naturally to such persons. The virtuous do the right thing without struggle or regret and with pleasure; and, the vicious do the wrong thing without hesitation or remorse. Most of us struggle in the middle either with the continent control or self-reliance to work towards righteousness or the incontinent surrenderers of choice who are consumed by viciousness. Aristotle believed that every ethical virtue is also an intermediate condition or struggle between excess and deficiency. This does not mean Aristotle believed in moral relativism, however. He set certain emotions (e.g., hate, envy, jealousy, spite, etc.) and certain actions (e.g., adultery, theft, murder, etc.) as always wrong, regardless of the situation or the circumstances. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle often focused on finding the mean between two extremes of any particular subject; whether it was justice, courage, wealth and so forth. For example; too much courage can be a bad trait because it leads to ignorant choices, and too little courage would mean one is prone to cowardice. This middle ground is often referred to as The Golden Mean. Aristotle defined justice in two parts, general justice (existing only in a perfect society) and particular justice. Particular justice is where punishment is given out for a particular crime or act of injustice. This is where Aristotle says an educated judge is needed to apply just decisions regarding any particular case and where we get the concept of the scales of justice, the blindfolded judge symbolizing blind justice, balancing the scales, weighing all the evidence and deliberating each particular case individually. Homonymy is an important theme in Aristotle‟s justice because one form of justice can apply to one, while another would be best suited for a different person/case. MacIntyre believes today that of all the moral theories advanced since Aristotle: code theory, obligation theory, consequential theory, human rights theory, utilitarian theory, etc, that no theory other than Aristotle‟s virtue theory is better at a complete description of a good person. Page 3 of 5
  • 4. Emerson’s Essay on Self-Reliance Emerson said, toward the end of his writing career, “I have taught one doctrine, namely, the infinitude of the private man.” Presumably, trusting oneself means much more than being self-centered; it means trusting that somehow or other we have an innate wisdom which is a projection of the inner light of God within, and that every person has that wisdom, although sadly few make access to it. Supposedly, then, to believe in ourselves and our deep capacity to understand and recognize truths is to believe in every self, even though we have no access to any other self besides us. Emerson hits us over the head with the same singular idea over and over, like a big hammer labeled, “believe in yourself.” But, he does this to also hit himself over the head, over and over, because he personally was deeply insecure. He had recently delivered a revolutionary speech at the Harvard Divinity School asserting a doctrine of the God within that caused a tremendous uproar and criticism from people he respected. There would be no job for him at Harvard! He had left the ministry a few years earlier and had lost his young wife to tuberculosis after 18 months of marriage. He didn‟t really have a career at that point; he just had the ideas he believed passionately and thought needed to be heard. There simply was no way to earn a living doing what his heart told him that he must do--to write and to speak; except, as it turned out, there were ways to realize his dream, as long as he didn‟t lose his faith in himself. The rhetoric of this essay shows signs of his years in the pulpit; it‟s like he‟s demanding you to listen and to go out and act. But he may well be exhorting himself just as much as, if not more than, his readers. What he wanted to do--to establish himself a place as a writer and thinker--was extraordinarily difficult to do outside of an institution like the church or the university (as it is today), and it would take all the nerve he could summon. And after all, he was no kid; he was 35 years old and counting. Wouldn‟t it be nice if all we had to do is “trust ourselves” and follow our own stars? Emerson knew it wasn‟t the whole story, especially after life dealt him a few more tough blows--like his beloved 5 year old son dying of scarlet fever. Self-reliance can look like a pretty puny doctrine in light of a tragedy like that, but it did sustain him. Thus, Emerson doesn‟t just keep preaching the same doctrine. There is a flip side: as exciting and energizing it may be to follow your deepest instincts as well as do and say what you think is right, it‟s also depressing to think that maybe all we can know is what is within us. In a sense, we may be imprisoned within our own perceptions and experiences, and can never really know what might be true. We can‟t even be sure if anyone or anything else exists, because all we can know is what‟s in our little individual heads, combined with the limitations on our power imposed by circumstances and environment, which Emerson calls Fate. “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions.” When you look at your life, especially when you are young, if you follow your “inner gyroscope” and do things and take courses that just “feel right,” it might look to others (parents in particular) as if you just can‟t make up your mind and are zigzagging all over the place. The coherence, however, will be an inner one, perhaps not even visible to you, but over time, it will probably make sense, just as you have to zigzag when sailing to reach a point most directly. One difference, of course, is that you (unlike the sailor) often haven‟t a clue where or what that “point” might be, and have to trust that by following your instincts and strengths, you‟ll actually reach some kind of point. Man is his own star; and the soul that can render an honest and a perfect man commands all light, all influence, all fate; nothing to him falls early or too late. Our acts our angels are, or good or ill, our fatal shadows that walk by us still. --Epilogue to Beaumont and Fletcher‟s Honest Man‟s Fortune Page 4 of 5
  • 5. The Bible on “True” Happiness The basic desire to find and model an ultimate personal meaning and purpose in an interconnected life is the most fundamental spiritual need common to us all. “Model” through being humble, serving, and deviating the least from God‟s will; “Meaningful” as the only true source of morale and trust; “Interconnected” through the only real means of access; and, “Personal” as the only authentic authority to God‟s power. We cannot measure success by how much money we make, by how happy we are, or by any other inward measurements. We can read self-help books, have the fat vacuumed out and the bones broken and reshaped to make us beautiful, memorize great quotes, and work to be more agreeable, but we will always know that underneath it is still not the “us” that God meant for us to be. There is nothing we can do to improve our worthiness to be loved, only in our capacity to love others. The “live well above all else” philosophy of eastern religions is missing a belief in God as a being that we should love personally above all else. A person that loses God is only one that has consciously decided that it is simply too painful to live with love and truth (and this was the mortal sin of Judas). Mental and physical health is typically perceived as the absence of disease, but health is really more about coming to terms with things the way they are (and not an either-or condition), with self-hatred being the most disabling disease. Miangileo tells about coming to terms with a childhood rape, “When reading Terrance Afar‟s (ex-roman slave turned poet) line „nothing that is human is foreign to me,‟ I realized that I was my rapist. I realized that there was no emotion that he had that I didn‟t have, there was no act he had done that I couldn‟t potentially do, and there was no lose of awareness of others that I could not have fallen into.” Health promotion is thusly the desire and labor for safety, strength, joy, awareness, and relational harmony, but also as well as for enemies… as such provides for greatest prospects of adaptation to change. Sinful indulgence comes from greed (wanting what you don‟t need), hatred (jealousy over what you can‟t have or can‟t face), and ignorance (never an excuse). While all religions involve mankind reaching up to God, only Jesus was about how God reaches down to us. “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “All is vanity.” Solomon is fully convinced that there is no solid happiness to be found in this world, but that there is a world to come wherein God will pronounce people to happiness or misery respectively, as they made their choice and acted here. And, that true religion is the only way to true happiness. “A man is not happy because he knows much; but because he receives much of the Divine nature, and is, in all his conduct, conformed to the Divine will. “They who have read many books are more exalted than such as have seldom studied; they who retain what they have read, than forgetful readers; they who fully understand, than such as only remember; and they who perform their known duty, than such as barely know it. Sacred knowledge and devotedness to God are the means by which a man can arrive at beatitude.” - Institutes of Menu, c. xii. Inst. 103, 104. Those things we hold most dear are those things God gave us. Being called untalented, unintelligent, unattractive, unfaithful, or having an unpleasant personality is far more offensive to us than hearing that we are unsure of our beliefs, unclear of our goals, disorganized in our efforts, uncertain of where we would stand, are without a long range plan, or incorrect in our world view. The first four of Matthew‟s Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12) deal with personal qualities: humility, penitence, self-control, and a desire for righteousness. These are the sources of inner peace. The second group deals with social qualities: mercifulness toward others, purity of heart or reverence for personality, peacemaking or solicitude for others, and self-sacrificing loyalty to righteousness. These are the sources of social rest. Thus, the blessings of the kingdom are social as well as individual. Happiness, like character, is the fruit and not the object of our endeavor. The qualities described in the Beatitudes, in fact, are called “the salt of the earth,” and “the light of the world.” The happiness of those with such qualities is not, then, in themselves or for themselves alone. Their mission is for the hope of the entire kingdom. Page 5 of 5