Review: The Other Side of Virtue

Followers of the major monotheistic religions occasionally trot out the idea that only their traditions offer true ethical systems, while presumably everyone else is devoted to thievery, murder, incest, cannibalism, and failure to pay parking tickets.

Such an attitude is unhistorical, of course. Socrates, Confucius, Epictetus . . any pre- or non-Abrahamic figure might as well have never lived, you would think.

Hence I have been reading and enjoying Brendan Myers’ The Other Side of Virtue, which while admitting that “some values really are ‘out there,’ beyond the self and are not a matter of personal opinions and preferences,” approaches the topic in a “poly” way, not relying on one man’s claimed revelation but on a wide variety of ancestral teaching, poetry, philosophy, and tradition.

In an easy-going historical exposition, Myers lays out how for Heroic societies (which still live in our own) “the chief virtue was Honour, the quality for which you earn the respect of your peers.” He continues, “To writers in the classical age, and the Renaissance, the chief virtue was Reason. For Romantic writers, it seems to be the sincerity of one’s passion and the beauty of one’s creative work.”

Although it covers ideas and thinkers both ancient and modern, what places Myers’ work firmly in the Western Pagan tradition comes at the end, when he reminds us of the importance of free choice in living the good or virtuous life:

The creation of eudaimonia, the good and beautiful destiny, begins when you declare that your life shall be meaningful and worthwhile. It begins in the pursuit of a life that could stand as a model for others, and perhaps ought to be remembered by future generations.

It is hard to do justice to The Other Side of Virtue in a blog post. Perhaps my one quibble is with Myers’ creation of what I think is a false dichotomy between “cold duty” and “beauty.” In that dichotomy his writing resembles Emma Restall Orr’s, which is unfortunate. He rather slights the (later Roman) Stoic school of philosophy with its emphasis on civic life, although not as thoroughly as she does.

If I say, “Honor the gods and do your duty,” I can interpret “duty” broadly and flexibly, not militaristically. There is the duty of a student (to study), the duty of a parent, the duty of a citizen, and so on.

But that is a minor quibble, for I see much to admire in The Other Side of Virtue and urge you to buy and read it. It is a pity that the book lacks an index, however.