“We are apt to judge things by mere appearances, and those deceive. This isn’t always because people want to deceive. It is a feature of our frailty, sinful or not. We are imitative creatures. In our dress, our walk, the lilt of our speech, our choice of words, our posture, and even in things we think are solid results of our dispassionate thought, such as our politics, we are in part play-actors.” Anthony Esolen[i]
We have managed to place as the pinnacle of human morality something ill-defined we call “nice.” As in “She’s a nice person.” or the universal anodyne conversation concluding, “Have a nice day.” What does that mean? Why not, “Have a day full of wonder and joy and meaning.” Or “Have a day without stress or turmoil or pain or panic.” Or if you have truly caused me pain or disillusionment or great inconvenience, “Have a terrifying day when someone drops a piano on you from a great height.” Wouldn’t a little honesty at least be an improvement?
Nice has ousted virtue, and it’s a whitewashed, formless, artificial sweetener substitute like Coffee Mate or pickleball or synthesized Bob Dylan tunes on hold. Now before you are outraged and respond with, “Wait a minute, what’s wrong with nice?”, let me clarify. Nice is fine, so are crisp, hot, salted McDonald’s French fries when we are achingly hungry, but is it the best we can do? Nice is an improvement over nasty just as civility would be an improvement in our public discourse, especially political speech and social media posts. Nice is better than irritable, rude, mean, bullying or drivers in Boston[ii]. But it is not heroic, is not very challenging, is not more than a superficial communal construct or even much better than not spitting in the soup. “Nice” is a lukewarm, whimpering standard with “standard” as either a measure by which to gauge our conduct or a flag under which we can march into battle.
To be nice is to expect nice: a social contract quid pro quo. Please don’t hurt me, and I’ll try very hard not to hurt or embarrass or challenge you. I’ll leave you alone to whatever vices you want to pursue so long as I don’t have to see them, or they don’t directly affect me in my living room or bedroom, and you leave me to follow my predilections. To seek to live virtuously is different than aspiring to be nice. Virtue has no immediate expectation of reward; it is lived for its own sake. The classical Greek philosophers like Aristotle or medieval geniuses like Thomas Aquinas would tell us that to be virtuous, to know, seek and live the objective right is the beginning of the path to human happiness. Nice doesn’t make you happy, nice merely allows you to be less memorable when gossip circulates at the coffee shop. Virtue is sometimes visible and memorable, but not always. Sometimes it is most vital when no one sees it at all or ever will.
Too often our civility, our niceness, is merely imitative so that we will be liked. Nothing wrong with being liked, and strangers will speak well of us, but it is not enough. Not nearly enough. Serial killers can be nice, until they are not.[iii]
“The doctrine of virtue… has things to say about this person; it speaks both of the kind of being which is his when he enters the world, as a consequence of his createdness, and the kind of being he ought to strive toward and attain to– by being prudent, just, temperate, and brave. The doctrine of virtue is one form of the doctrine of obligation, but one by nature free of regimentation and restriction” Dr. Josef Pieper, “The Four Cardinal Virtues,” Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc, 1954
Dr. Pieper wrote brilliantly of the cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, courage and justice. Prudence in judgement and behavior, temperance in demeanor and our daily interactions, just and fair in our assessments and courageous, not fearless, but in the face of our fears. Many other virtues can lend understanding to the cardinals [iv], standards by which we can not only pattern our actions and our speech, but our thoughts and our will, our habits and our consciences. Over our lifetimes habits become our character and our destiny, so developing those habits of virtue forms us, either accidentally as circumstances channel us or deliberately, as we choose and battle to attain.
None of us, especially your faithful blogger, is faultless in this pursuit, but we can aspire to an ideal instead of a deadening, tepid nonentity like niceness. As the marksmen will tell us, “Aim small, miss small.” To be most fully human in the image of our Creator is a heroic challenge and worthy of a precious lifetime: a quest without equal and uniquely ours with our individual quirks, weaknesses and flaws. Nice is irrelevant when one is on a great journey and mission. Our journey, our mission, our one life is an arduous and imperfect quest that, if achieved, will leave us spent, scarred, battered and fulfilled.
When Bilbo and Frodo confronted evil in the epic quests of their lives in Tolkien’s “Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, they were imperfect and sometimes irresolute heroes, but in the end heroes nonetheless. As we can be. Our victory is not in fearlessly charging into the fray heedless of the risks, but in persisting through the hundred decisions we make daily to do or not do, to say or not say, yes, even to think or not think – or at least to linger in those thoughts. Nice is not an idea large enough to forge our armor and our weapons for the epic, unique quest that is our one life. Virtue is.
“Tolkien’s work illuminates how moral weakness is the real problem of the human condition, not moral dilemmas and uncertainty. The latter are rare, the former is ubiquitous. I rarely do wrong because I do not know what is right; I often do wrong because it is fun, easy, or otherwise attractive.” Nathanael Blake[v]
[ii] Last fall I was confused at a rotary in the Back Bay of Boston. The layout had changed since the last time I had circumnavigated this roundabout; I slowed for a few seconds and had to make a decision. And we had Rhode Island plates. A couple of guys in a black BMW careened around us; fists with one finger prominently extended instantly shot out of both the driver’s and passenger’s window, and the driver screamed angrily that I was a “f’ing moron.” Not just a garden variety moron, so I took some consolation in that. Rita and I both burst out laughing, which probably confirmed their assessment.
[v] “Living With Morals: A Review of The Fall of Gondolin”, Nathanael Blake, Public Discourse, November 1, 2018