The Ancient Modern

Haunted by Virtue /  Joshua Alan Sturgill

Without virtue, there is no compassion.
Without virtue, there is no privacy.
Without virtue, there is no freedom.

Madame de Lafayette’s 1678 novel La Princesse de Clèves describes the plight of a young woman caught in a cosmos of concentric circles. Not those of the Ptolemaic cosmos, which spread out and upward toward the Infinite, but of circles confined to the customs and prejudices of a dying culture. These circles collapse in on themselves. Beginning with the French court, they are progressively smaller and smaller until the each character of the story is caught in his or her own self-reflective circle, like a cage in which each is trapped, alone with nothing but the animal of his or her untamable opinion.

As I read this carefully-crafted story (considered by many to be the first psychological novel) I could not help wondering how the story would have unfolded if there was no scandal, no petty jealousy, no boredom and no lust for listening to private conversation. Obviously, there would be no “story” at all in the sense that we’ve come to recognize. The plot of this novel is driven precisely by the characters’ lack of virtue.

While modern storytelling (think of a Netflix series or a blockbuster film) holds lack of virtue as normative, de Lafayette presents us with a world that was once virtuous, a world that virtue had passed throughpeacefully like rain or with the violence of a forest fire. What is left when her story begins are the ashes of virtue: law and desire. Not, however, Law and Desire as virtue’s children: Law the ordering of society toward freedom and Desire the longing for peace and truth. What remains in the background of the narrative is an echo’s echo: law as mere contract and judge, desire as boredom and thrall to immediate pleasure. Virtue haunts but does not inhabit the souls of this novel.

In a world post-virtue, real desire is impossibledesperate Desire for good or evil, totally, with all heaven and earth in mind. Saints, who once struck down the pillars of social illusion with their all-too-human presence, are now legendary, dismissed to a comfortably mystic distance. Sinners, whose knowledge and hatred of the good were immense and equally directed toward self-destruction, are now comic stage devils with horns and red tails. In La Princesse, we have only the little goods and little evils of a world at the edge of its usefulness, exhausted and primed for burial by revolution. We see court intrigues and court liaisons and alliances which are meaningless even to those who contrive them.

But what if real Desire, somehow, sent its sapling growth into the soul of a person living in a virtueless cosmos? There would be no cultural nourishment, no pedagogy, no training or opportunity for that virtue to mature. The inner conflict of that person would be unbearable: to see virtue when no one else does, to have virtue be mistaken for madness. This is the fate of the Princess herself, the sole character who follows her virtue without compromise.

History hunts for virtuesometimes to stamp it out, sometimes to fall in front of it and beg for mercy. Great courage and great crimes alike are remembered, rewarded, stifled or enshrined. This is the mysterious affinity between virtue and death at the heart of every great Philosophy, from Plato to St. Paul to the Bhagavad Gita.

Are virtue and death combatants or lovers? Virtue seems at times innocent of deathand then suddenly unmasks death at its most horrifying. Death honors virtue, removing it above the tide and sealing it like a book. Or, death marches against virtue with an army of petty prejudices and demands, ready to explode into violence and genocide.

Perhaps outward splendour and refinement were at their height in King Henry’s day. But that day was already the evening of the Virtue that had made France great. A greasy, self-righteous twilight had settled over everythingto muddy the splendour and vulgarize the refinement. Manners and custom, law and order, divorced from their sacred function of revealing Virtue in everyone, had degenerated into rules for separating one man or one class from another.

Title and rank (preeminently King and Priest) were once gifts of the Eternal to comfort and guide its troubled and time-bound reflection. But title can become a source of pride, inspiring indulgence where it should inspire responsibility.

At the end of the novel, like Rome, like royal France, the two main protagonists suffer different fates. The Duke de Nemours fades away. He leaves nothing for himself or for the reader. His looks and his passions, through “time and absence,” die ahead of his arbitrary and unremarkable death. We mourn for him only if we, like him, mistake our emotions and opinions for absolutes.

The Princess, in contrast, makes a choice for virtuean extraordinarily difficult choice, given the context in which she makes it. Madame de Lafayette has few words to describe the end of her heroine’s life, yet hidden in what she does say is better praise for the Princesse than any number of chapters devoted to specific acts or themes. What we read is that the Princesse “left behind inimitable examples of virtuous conduct.” What does this mean, except that the Princesse quietly escaped from her false and virtue-less surroundings? This is an epitaph worthy of a hero, of a great soul.

Some critics have seen in the Princess and her choices a kind of suicide. The Princess has no glory or self-fulfillment that they can see or understand. She simply retires into a quiet life. I would assert, however, that if we read the end of the novel as a suicide or defeat, this may be because we ourselves live in an age without virtue and can’t imagine (and won’t allow) anything supermundane to disturb the little causes and little desires that pleasantly distract us from our mortality.

Even a cursory consideration should show us that the decision of the Princesseretreat from society, pursuit of peace at the local level, recourse to a religious meditation or vocationare and were, historically and genuinely, the very opposite of suicide. She does not need or require violence, anger, isolation. She demonstrates enough life to build a bridge between life and death. The bridge is Virtue, so built that we might cross the chasm safely, unrelenting, undisturbed, and full of vision.


All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2020 by Joshua Alan Sturgill. All rights reserved.

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