From Essays After Montaigne
The age we live in (at least our climate) is so dull and leaden, that not only the execution, but the very imagination of vertue is farre to seeke, and seemes to be no other thing than a College supposition and a gibrish word... It is an eare-ring or pendant to hang in a cabinet, or at the tongues end, as well as at an eare for an ornament. There are no more vertuous actions knowne; those that beare a shew of vertue have no essence of it: for profit, glorie, custome, feare, and other like strange causes direct us to produce them. Justice, valour, integritie, which we then exercise, may by others consideration, and by the countenance they publikly beare, be termed so: but with the true workman it is no vertue at all. There is another end proposed; another efficient cause. Vertue alloweth of nothing but what is done by her, and for her alone.
Our judgements are yet sicke, and follow the depravations of our customes. I see the greatest part of our spirits to affect wit, and to shew themselves ingenious, by obscuring and detracting from the glorie of famous and generall ancient actions, giving them some base and malicious interpetation, fondly and enviously charging them with vaine causes and frivolous occasions.
It's very hard to write of virtue just now--there's so little of it to be found anywhere in the public discourse. Our government has sought to deceive us about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's administration and the expected difficulty of removing it, and it hasn't provided a very convincing explanation of why this effort is necessary now and at this cost. Yet many protesting against the war are as likely to be motivated by ill-conceived conspiracy theories, naivete, or a deeply personal anger at President Bush--an anger that I must admit to sharing--as by any altruistic virtue.
The public debate over this war--much like the conduct of the Palestinian conflict--has become a case of the worst of both sides responding destructively, with no credible voice of reason or virtue to be found anywhere, nor does there seem to be any audience awaiting such a voice. The Pope has spoken forcefully and eloquently against this war, but he lacks credibility even among his own followers in this country. France, Germany, and Russia have taken diplomatic steps to prevent this war, but their commercial and political histories in Iraq, like the commercial and political histories of the United States and the United Kingdom, call their motivations into question, just as the motivations of the United States and the United Kingdom have been called into question.
I long for some person, some authority, to arise and provide clear leadership--someone who aspires to shared virtue. Where is our Mohandas Gandhi, our Martin Luther King, Jr.? I'm sure that someone will point out that King was no saint, that he was guilty of womanizing and plagiarism. I would counter that he was a saint precisely because he was able to do so much good despite his human flaws. I'm neither a plagiarist nor a womanizer, yet I haven't managed much by way of changing the world for the better. It would be difficult to dispute King's courage or the validity of his aspirations for this nation. Though he may not have always been a paragon of virtue, his pursuit of virtue as he understood it wasn't motivated by some other efficient cause. He overcame his defects and failings, where President Bush, for instance, seems to be motivated by his defects and failings.
Without such a virtuous figure, the current debate has devolved to negative attacks on motivations, rather than positive statements of aspiration. Both sides of the debate can tell us what they don't want and how following their opponents' course of action will lead to precisely that undesired outcome, but neither side seems to be able to tell us what they do want or how following their course of action will lead to that outcome.