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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Saturday, May 27, 2006

Virtue is of so little regard in these times that true valor is turned bear-herd

Posted by John Holbo on 05/27/06 at 12:06 AM

I have a question about the history of the English language. When did ‘virtue’ - the word - retire from the broad field of usage it still enjoys in, say, Shakespeare, so that it never appears outside lady’s bedrooms? And when did it start having to fight to keep itself from being silly? I am sure that someone has written well about this - and not just in a Bill Bennett-y way. And obviously I know there is a thing called virtue ethics, for example. That’s sort of why I’m interested. I understand that bedroom farce, once it gets the upperhand, is a harsh semantic mistress. Still, it was once such a useful word; you’d think it could fight back. It meant so many things, allowed so many useful conflations of goodness/excellence/power, not to mention all the philosophy. Following up on Sean’s post, management consultants could use the hell out of it if didn’t make them sound like some hand-wringing vicar, lecturing young ladies about premarital sex. See this J&B post for minor visual inspiration.


I don’t have an answer to your question, exactly, but surely Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding must take some share of the blame. I’m thinking Pamela/Shamela and “vartue,” in particular. There’s lots of stuff on the eighteenth-century British novel and its feminization of virtue, which is a big part of what you’re talking about.

I’d also speculate that the Scottish Enlightenment’s emphasis on benevolance rather than more classical notions of conduct would have tended to evacuate the term of its more masculine senses.

By Partial Viewer on 05/27/06 at 02:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, partial. I do think it’s clear there isn’t really going to be AN answer. It’s a rich tapestry of factors (he drawled complacently.) For that reason I would be curious to read someone’s careful 100 page treatment of its fate over the last 4 centuries, if that has been written.

By John Holbo on 05/27/06 at 04:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I guess he’d be a quasi-relativist branch of the “virtue ethics” school you’ve already mentioned, but doesn’t Alasdair MacIntyre have an extended treatment of exactly this historical issue in “After Virtue”? I don’t have it with me, but one of the chapters is titled something like “From the Virtues to Virtue and after Virtue.”

By on 05/27/06 at 04:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I probably should look at MacIntyre again, rd. I haven’t for years. I’m sort of suspicious that he wouldn’t be the one to get this exactly right, though no doubt he’s worth reading.

By John Holbo on 05/27/06 at 06:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It was for queries such as this that the OED was invented.  It’s not infallible, of course, but it’s usually in the right ball-park.

virtue: 1.‘the power or operative influence inherent in a supernatural being’ [examples from c.1250 to 1850]; ‘an act of superhuman or divine power’ [from c.1300-1526]; 2.a.‘conformity of life and conduct with the principles of morality; voluntary observance of the recognized moral laws or standards of of right conduct; abstention on moral grounds from any kind of wrong-doing’ [lots of examples here, from 1225 to the present]; b. Personified as such [from 1402-1860]; c. Chastity, sexual purity [only a handful of examples, dating from Shakespeare’s Much Ado in 1599 through to 1885, but presumably there are examples much later than that.] There’s also virtu and vertu, usage of which date from Richardson in 1722 and which mean ‘a love of, or taste for, works of art or curios’.

Is it one of the words Williams treats in his Keywords book?  My copy is at work and I can’t remember (though I don’t think it is).

What interests me is the way the Latin vir, ‘man’, has melted away and dribbled out of the meaning.  In Rome ‘Virtus’ originally meant ’manly qualities’ and specifically ‘strength, vigour, bravery, aptness, capacity, worth, excellence’.  Which is a long way from the boudoir.

By Adam Roberts on 05/27/06 at 07:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Looking at my last comment it doesn’t seem very clear to me.  What I meant was (a) I’m assuming the feminizing of virtue into a matter of purely female sexual chastity (Fielding’s whole ‘vartue’ joke in Joseph Andrews is that if we apply the same standards to men it just looks stupid) begins with Shakespeare; and (b) it’s hard for anybody very much embedded in Latin to treat in a purely feminise a word that originally meant ‘Iron John-like’.  But John (Valve-John, not Iron-John) was, I suppose, actually asking: when did the feminized sexual meaning supersede the manly one; and I’m not sure what the answer is.  Mid-19th-c I’d guess.  I’d peg it to a decline in the teaching of classical languages.

I’d like to see the book John-Ho! wonders about here; both for ‘virtue’ and for ‘piety’, something which, as any students of the Aeneid know, meant something rather different in its original Latin form ‘pietas’.  ‘Virtue-ethics’ sounds a believable sub-discipline of philosophy; but ‘piety-ethics’ really doesn’t; although in fact an ethics based on pietas would probably have a lot more going for it than one based on manliness.

By Adam Roberts on 05/27/06 at 07:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

When did the word begin to have fight to keep itself from silliness?  I don’t know, but it’s clear Austen’s uses of it are increasingly larded with irony.  Perhaps she associates the idea of virtue with the eighteenth century novels she thought unnatural as well as with the Hannah More school of thought.  P&P might be a transitional text.  Among other things the novel draws out the way the literary tradition insists more exclusively on female virtue than does social reality (ie the Richardson-Burney novel enshrines the double standard).  In P&P you have the genuine (but temporary) social disaster brought on by Lydia and Wickham - “a couple who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue” - and then you have Mary Bennet fatuously bringing out, at the most inappropriate moment, this quotation of Burney: “Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable—that one false step involves her in endless ruin—that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful,—and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.”

After P&P the novels seldom mention the word “virtue” except as a kind of idealised romantic fiction - mostly benign and comic, sometimes damaging in that it creates unrealistic expectations.

By on 05/27/06 at 10:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

when did the feminized sexual meaning supersede the manly one...

The feminized meaning surely never entirely superseded the masculine version; indeed, those who use the term without irony today are more often than not Victor Davis Hanson types mulling over the decline of valor in the modern age. Or so it seems to me. There is the conduct book tradition to consider, of which Bennett is the heir; I don’t know a great deal about this, but I’m pretty sure that many were published for both boys and girls throughout most of the nineteenth century. “Virtue” and like terms in this context seem inherently musty and silly because the heavy-handed didacticism seems to reek of hypocrisy, but I’ve no doubt that many people believed sincerely in ideas and behaviors they thought of as being exemplary of “virtue” through most of the 19th century, at least.

This notion of feminine virtue (that virtue=chastity), on the other hand, was always already laughable, as Fielding knew well. What’s giggle-worthy in the term nowadays is in large part its association with deceit; a woman’s virtue is something she always claims but could always be lying about. Restoration comedy makes much of this--the false pretence of chastity/virtue is the key joke at the heart of many of those plays.

I don’t believe the book John wishes for has been written, but there’s ample research out there that would make a synthetic study relatively easy to write. With any luck, someone’s already at work on it.

By Partial Viewer on 05/28/06 at 02:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In the U.S. I think the shift happens pretty quickly over the first couple decades of the 19th century-- once the neoclassicism of the 1790s falls away and civic republicanism gets pretty well forgotten, phrases like “manly virtue” fade from view; military service becomes pretty infrequent between the Revolution and the Civil War (the US fought the War of 1812 on a comparative shoestring), and service in arms was central to the traditional version; and the Second Great Awakening contributed to a comparative elevation of chastity and sobriety among the virtues.  By Tocqueville’s time I’d say the linguistic shift is pretty complete in the U.S., and that even in the 1820s the older usage was probably dying out fast as the members of the revolutionary generation died out.

By Jacob T. Levy on 05/28/06 at 05:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Really going out on a limb here, but many of the women novelists of the late eighteenth century had next to no classical education.  Maybe that’s a contributing factor.

By on 05/28/06 at 07:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I miss it a great deal whenever I have to speak English.  It is one of these (many) things which seem unsayable in English—either on political grounds, or on the grounds of having been murdered by by academic (over) analysis.

By Gawain on 05/29/06 at 11:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Related: Nietzsche’s and Ezra Pound’s “virtù”. Get rid of that sissified gewgaw at the end of the word, add an upthrust accent, and the word’s cleansed of those nasty feminine associations. (And loaded with male hysteric associations, but wuddya gonna do?)

By Ray Davis on 05/30/06 at 10:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Confucianism could not subsist without the concept expressed in English as ‘virtue’. (’Honor’ is already taken. Whatcha gonna call it? ‘Probity’? ‘Rectitude’? Hardly.)

OTOH, Confucius said: “I have never seen one who loves virtue as much as he loves sex.”—Analects 9.17

By nnyhav on 05/30/06 at 03:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My guess is that, in the American context at least, some of Linda Kerber’s work on American women in the Revolutionary era and the Early Republic is relevant here. But I can’t come up with a more specific cite. Sorry.

By eb on 05/31/06 at 01:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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