Ancient Virtues and Modern Sins

by Victor Davis Hanson

PJ Media


Aside from courage — the essential trait without which, as the ancients insisted, all other virtues are impossible — candor is now the most appreciated. Herman Cain came a long way, despite not knowing much of anything about foreign affairs and with a past that could not stay in the past. Why? He was blunt-speaking, and so often could cut to the quick. “9-9-9” was at once clear and concise, and that even trumped the fact that Cain himself did not know all the details of his own nostrum. And when he was not, or could not be, candid about his past, he faltered.

Crazy Ross Perot capitalized on that virtue as well — for a time, until he was not forthcoming about his contradictions. The more complex present society, the larger the bureaucracy, whether corporate or government, and the less likely we are to encounter clarity. And we miss it so these days, especially in matters of taboo race, gender, and class. Read a Reuters or AP story about a flash mob, copper wire theft, rape or murder and one infers Martians did it; read the posted Internet comments below and they are right out of the Roman Coliseum, so tired is the reader of mush. Candor was the great attraction of Achilles in the Iliad. John Wayne mastered the trait in his Westerns. Reagan for a while enjoyed candor. I greatly admired his “Evil Empire” references. Was it not both an empire and evil?

The secret to candor? The willingness to place honesty over comfort, or a sense of allegiance to truth of the ages rather than the lies of the present. Candor need not be rudeness, though it can be, especially if one is in a superior position. Churchill told generals critical of Montgomery that their anger derived from the fact that the obnoxious Montgomery was “better than you.” I remembered my father lamenting about someone he found wanting. “He’s weak and I told him so” is what he would say. My grandfather would say of a nephew or cousin gone bad, “He was no good, that’s all there was to it. Bad from the beginning, bad to the end.” What a way to cut out one hour of sociological and psychological mish-mash. The antidote to groupspeak is candor, a virtue never more missed.


Irony is not sarcasm, much less nihilism. Rather it is a way of tolerating absurdity and appreciating that the world seems to have a pulse of its own, a karma or nemesis that evens things out. Obama is an ironic candidate, though he has no sense of irony himself. Do you remember December 2008 when the Left openly worried that something might happen that would prevent our deliverance from the messianic president-elect? Instead, Obama has done more to harm Keynesian economics, the entire notion of “green,” big government, race relations — the list goes on — all those areas that he bragged he would embrace. That’s ironic — so is the editor of Harvard Law Review confusing Britain with England, Austria with Germany, or 50 with 57. So is the big critic of Guantanamo saving Guantanamo. So is Predator-in-Chief expanding targeted assassinations ten times. Yet editors often worry about irony, as if you are being mean to express it or the reader will not appreciate your intent.

I remember an academic colleague (well, more a rival or an enemy) with a nice sense of irony. I just had a root canal and was in pain, and explained it was probably from years of eating too many raisins off the shaker (they are far worse for the teeth than candy, and shaking 200 tons of raisins a year can give you a lot of cavities). He did not smile, but observed, “But, of course, raisins are deadly for raisin farmers” and walked off. I replied, “Well, raisin growers usually try to buy their raisins in the store.”

I admire Charles Krauthammer precisely because he usually offers an ironic remark each week or two that sums up the present absurdity in a rare fashion. David Brinkley had the same gift, but to a lesser extent. William F. Buckley was ironic. Great presidents like Lincoln and Jefferson were too. Is there some sense of fatalism in the ironist? That even he does not escape life’s contradictions, or rather especially he does not escape them?

Physical Strength

Out postindustrial age deprecates strength or relegates it to the gym where muscles are cultivated rather than earned through filthy hard word. But being strong is an ancient virtue and not always apparent to the eye. Think Ajax of literature or Herakles of myth. One never values strength enough until it is missed: a wind takes down a tree, blocks the driveway, and you find you cannot quite handle a big chain saw. You are leered at by a huge punk in the store. A child is trapped and someone needs to lift off a weight. A lawn mower falls out of your truck in traffic and you can’t put it up by yourself — all the things that are not supposed to happen in the age of Facebook and Google.

My Swedish grandfather was sort of famous for his bodily strength. I remember him at 79 picking up a huge air compressor with his knees, thighs, and his arms and sort of waddling across the barnyard with it. It weighed over 400 pounds He once picked up a young hog and slung it on his back like a puppy. Frank Hanson did not look that strong — almost six feet about 240 pounds — but we tend to think power is in the evident muscles rather than disguised in the back and belly. Just having him around was a relief, like an extra car battery in the trunk. There has never been a moment in my life when I felt I needed to speak more cleverly; but lots when just a little bit more power would have made all the difference between accomplishment and failure.

Readers, you agree with me. What is this strange attraction for these new reality shows about burly, raucous, and often obnoxious truckers, loggers, fishermen, miners, and bail bondsmen, if not their ability to pit physical strength and courage against the wild bunches? We don’t watch real TV about classicists finding a new emendation to Archilochus or a tort lawyer finding a new twist to a case. We even tired of body building contests, where men are oiled and sculpted, as if huge steroid-induced muscles are the same as the back of a pipefitter. Physical power at work is what we admire, and the more so, the less we seem to have it.


No wonder the Greeks made her a Titan goddess. Of course, there are all sorts of manifestations of memory, short and long-term, names or facts. But when one meets someone with an all-purpose memory, it can be quite astounding, especially in this age when everything is teleprompted or iPhoned.

When I see an occasional acquaintance of 20 years past, and he immediately begins talking about shared experiences as if they were last week’s, I’m impressed. But I also admire those who can conjugate a Greek verb in all its 300-plus forms, or find a house they have not visited in 30 years. Memory is not just recollection, but the ability to fathom what was said and what was not, and to recognize the fragility of memory. I, like all of you, admire Newt Gingrich’s instant recall of facts and ideas. But aren’t we also worried that he seems not only not to remember some of the strange things he has said and done, but does not seem aware that he is not aware of them — or that millions remember more about his past than he seems to?

I don’t trust those who forget the past, and offer the banality, “Look ahead. Don’t dwell in the past.” But memory is a second self, the Virgilian notion that when one does something unusually good or enjoys a rare moment it will be enshrined, and in the distant future will bring delight to recall it. I wrote about that in Fields Without Dreams [1], moments of hard work when we knew we would recall them in the future. One of the real treats of living is remembering one’s parents and grandparents, now long dead. Sometimes a talk in the vineyard with your grandfather about the Great Depression, selling grapes with your mom at farmer’s market as she discussed a death penalty case, watching your dad trancelike expound on a harrowing mission over Kobe bring comfort, a sort of key to a lost world — and can be so real that you can hear their speech, a dialect that is not found today in the world of Valley Girl talk. I watch good Westerns just to hear the accents that bring with them memories of the way Americans used to speak.

Without memory we are nothing. That is what scares me about the present electronic age: everything is the next nanosecond; the last one had become absolutely nothing.

The Mechanical Mind

A neighbor I know can take apart almost anything and improve on it when he puts it back together — hydraulic pumps, generators, locks, anything. In today’s world “they” make and fix things. We simply buy them, expect them to work perfectly, and then toss them when they are outdated or not up to snuff. The result is a new helplessness and dependency, and more, not less, respect for the mechanical mind. A contractor I often hired can look at my sagging porch and sees instantly what a perfect one would be, and exactly what would be needed to create it and how long and at what cost. The more we are regimented consumers, the more we admire those who can figure out how things we use work. Fixers are the sorts of folks that save us. They invent oil fracking and things like CDs. I used to love to go into in a local machine shop and see an old welder custom fabricate a sprayer part, as if he were Michelangelo. All those machines they insert in our arteries and noses are ingeniously crafted.

All of us would have liked to have been more candid, to have had a sense of ironic perspective, to have greater power in our bodies, to have far better recall, and to see how things work and how to fix them or improve them, the traits the speeding modern world ignores. But these are the ancient virtues that we have nearly forgotten in our obsessions with GPA, SATs, PhDs, and brand names like Harvard, Stanford, or Yale. How absurd we have become, as if a monster of a man who can pick up an ax like a toothpick is not more impressive than the BA in anthropology, or a student who can identify Balboa, the Versailles Treaty, and Kursk is not more impressive than one who expounds on the construction of gender in post-industrial Michigan or ethnic stereotyping in television advertising.

Also, Video: VDH Takes PJTV “On the Farm” [2]

URLs in this post:

[1] Fields Without Dreams

[2] Video: VDH Takes PJTV “On the Farm”:

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

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