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From The Plague, which will be published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

On the opening page of his famous 1981 meditation, After Virtue, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre asks his readers to imagine themselves living in the aftermath of catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters, blamed by the public on scientists, leads to widespread riots, with laboratories destroyed, instruments wrecked. The government that takes power abolishes science in schools and universities, and imprisons or executes those who practice it. By the time they realize their mistake, it is too late. Only fragments of scientific knowledge remain. MacIntyre’s startling hypothesis is that the language of morality has entered “the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described.” We are living in a world “after virtue,” where any clear moral compass has been lost.

Today it is clear that the march of so-called progress has been tearing the world we live in to shreds, that the good of human individuals, in Western terms at least, and the good of the planet are not—most likely never were—the same thing. How do you take your moral bearings in a world that has gone so awry?

In this morass, we might do worse than to take MacIntyre’s apocalyptic vision, however counterintuitively, as a guide. Only by recognizing the frailty of our morality, the unsteady hold we have on virtue, or even our perverse capacity, our readiness to embrace the worst on offer, is there the faintest chance of moving to a better place. Nothing is more dangerous than confronting a world full of fear, arms akimbo, with a boast. Or hanging on in the face of disaster to the idea that we each, individually, are good, that our perfection, lamentably unmatched by an imperfect reality, is something into which the ills of the time—pandemic, climate catastrophe, and war—unfairly encroach. According to such a mindset, the more insecure things appear, the more confident, assertive, and controlling we need to become in order to master both the world and ourselves.

There is only one step from here to what Simone Weil would call the exertion of force, a form of power whose sole function is to impose itself. Not once does she waver in her conviction that force in this sense, not least the belief in immutable strength which upholds it, will always be found at the opposite moral pole to justice. Being convinced we have moral ownership of the earth is the best way to make it uninhabitable. Perhaps the governments of the Western world are useless on climate because the very thought of catastrophe is so at odds with the idea of earthly power.

What happens, then, if we look to the places where moral failing and imperfection are not swept aside, but taken as the foundation, however unsteady, for another, more accountable, way of thought and of life? Even in the realm of Aristotelian virtue, to which MacIntyre makes his appeal against the chaos of the day, there is no guaranteed relationship between what passes for a virtuous action and its outcomes. Courage can sustain injustice; loyalty has been known to strengthen murderous aggression; generosity can weaken the capacity to do good.

Virtue, we might say, is a knife that cuts both ways, as Freud famously described the unconscious. He was warning against the risks of invoking the hidden depths of psychic life in the courtroom, as if an imperfect inner life—which must mean any inner life at all—could be summoned in law in order to establish a propensity to crime. For the same reason, he insisted that it was not the task of analysis to pass moral judgment on the nature of human drives which in themselves “were neither good nor bad.”

Even in considering the Second World War, where the moral distribution of vice and virtue are mostly seen as crystal clear, the waters are muddied. Weil was a pacifist until Hitler invaded Prague. She refused to grant her country the moral high ground as long as France retained its colonies, and for this she was branded a traitor. She was also accused of collaborating with Vichy. No one, she insisted, had the right to judge Philippe Pétain since everyone, herself included, however appalled by the armistice, was to blame. Some people, Weil continued, may have “honorable” motives “which are justified by particular situations” we will never know about. Others may be constrained by pressures no one could resist unless they were “heroes.” Most of those who judge have never been tested or tried.

Weil was neither indicting nor exempting herself, but rather occupying a middle ground where people, for whatever reasons, good or bad, equivocate. Those who accuse her of siding with Pétain have missed the point. Her support for the war then became unyielding—she would go on to join the Resistance. But she laid claim to neither heroism nor innocence. In fact, she believed herself to be worthless, spending much of her life, in the words of the Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito, in “an uninterrupted battle directed primarily against herself.” In Esposito’s reading, Weil read history from its dark side, in search of the “torn ‘heart’ ” beating from within “extreme ‘discord,’ ” a beat in which she never lost faith. Amid such discord, the strongest hope would be, in her words, “to kill as little as possible,” although Weil knew that the very fact of bearing arms wipes out all restraint. Violence always “obliterates anybody who feels its touch,” meaning victim and aggressor alike. For that very reason, the ability to recognize your own face in the enemy was, for Weil, the purest “triumph of love,” the “crowning grace,” like the mutual admiration of mortal enemies, Priam and Achilles, in Homer’s Iliad. What the poet of the Iliad sees and his characters do not is that the fact of death equalizes everyone in war, as in life. Winning is never just winning, since, by the mere fact of being mortal, everyone is heading for defeat.

Alberto Moravia’s most famous novel, Two Women, published in 1957, is a tale of iniquity in which no one is spared, told from the point of view of two women, a mother and daughter. Set during the Second World War, the novel turns on the question of what happens to women, as guardians of virtue, when history tears up the rule book. To begin with, the mother, Cesira, believes her daughter, Rosetta, to be a saint. Convinced that they will soon be returning to their home on the outskirts of Rome when the U.S. Army arrives to liberate them from Fascism, they escape to the countryside, bathed in the glow of Rosetta’s goodness and their own hopes. They are trying to join Cesira’s parents who live in the mountains. What they find is squalor, abandoned and bombed-out villages, putrefying land underfoot, crime, and wanton death.

It is not often that a story of war, whether as fiction or non-fiction, is told through the eyes of women. Nor for any such story to include the rape of a daughter as witnessed by her mother, and then to track its devastating effects. Rosetta is brutally assaulted inside a disused church, while her mother, fending off her own attackers, somehow manages to escape. Confounding every cliché, Rosetta is sexualized by her experience: “Something hitherto unknown to her had entered into her flesh like fire.” In search of pleasure, she barters herself to a run of local desperadoes, evacuees, one of whom she comes to love, and who abandons her, a loss to which she reacts without lament. When Cesira realizes what is happening, she attacks Rosetta, seizes her, throws her down on her mattress and showers her with blows, while screaming, “I’m going to kill you.”

In the mind of her mother, Rosetta has turned from saint to a common “whore”; but the hardest reckoning takes place between Cesira and herself, as she discovers that she is capable of uncontrollable violence toward the person she loves most in the world. Something unknown has also entered her flesh like fire—in her case, the desire to kill. She had already understood that such violence is not alien to human conduct but is simply unleashed by the permissions of war. It is something that erupts when laws, respect for others, and fear of God have been suspended, and men act without restraint. To that extent, war changes nothing.

Cesira is the moral barometer for a world whose measure cannot be taken. Waking from a dream in which Nazis and Fascists were being shot, she is appalled to find herself enjoying “the destruction of other people with the same feeling with which one enjoys the coming of spring and flowers and fine weather.” How can it be, she asks, that a “ferocious Nazi,” a man they encounter by chance in the mountains, “who found a special kind of enjoyment in burning people alive with a flamethrower,” could also show himself to be attuned to injustice? (He challenges a lawyer to justify the ample provisions of his table when peasants are dying of hunger.) How could Rosetta turn so resolutely from virtue to vice, throwing herself into each with equal, perfectly devoted commitment?

The hardest lesson is the danger of ever believing in purity or perfection—your own or your daughter’s, or that of anyone else—however closely you might hold them within your most fiercely guarded and intimate inner space. The idea of perfection is a decoy. Cesira explains the moral of her own story:

In short, it is almost better to be born imperfect and gradually to become, if not perfect, at any rate better, than to be born perfect and to be then forced to abandon that first transient perfection for the imperfection that life and experience bring with them.

Better to start with imperfection, which leaves room for growth, than with stultifying virtue from which there is no clean exit (a point which feminism has been making for centuries). The delusion is to believe that moral purity and perfection are possessions, that imperfection is shameful, that violence is a spanner in the works, rather than part of the inner portion of everyone. By itself, awareness of this will not be enough to save us. But making space for such precisely imperfect knowledge within the scope of human understanding will surely slow things down. It might just help prevent the spread of devastation as it travels with such indecent haste across our futures.

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October 2004

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