ἀρετή and Apology

Sometimes I suddenly feel the urge to make this blog into one of those blogs wherein I actually discuss what’s happening in my life. Well: it’s still February (it seems as if it’s been February for a very long time), the sky outside my west-looking window is a rosy-grey, and the bare branches of the trees are taunting me with their lack of buds. It’s the weekend after the second week of classes, and I haven’t been sleeping well, and I could be working on my thesis or reading Descartes or Beckett or learning some more Greek verbs, but instead I’m clinging for dear life to my appealingly aubergine teacup and turning up the volume as loud as it will go on Leonard Bernstein conducting the first movement of the Pathètique. Since fall classes ended, I’ve really only been listening to classical music, and there are a few things I keep coming back to: the Art of the Fugue, Tallis’ Spem in Alium, this or that Vaughan Williams, the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, the Chopin Nocturnes, the Pathètique. Sometimes, pretending that I’m an intellectual from an age before pop music grounds me. It makes it easier to believe in the whole, the good and the beautiful, in knowledge for its own sake, in moral imperatives and self-bettering. But then sometimes the search for ἀρετή—one of this week’s Greek vocab words—needs to go down different timelines. Sometimes what we’re tested on isn’t our knowledge of history—or the classics—but our knowledge of ourselves. Yes, I know I sound cryptic—let me explain.

So there’s a fable in my family, one I’m especially proud of, of “the time when I stopped the battle.” I was five, it was “Camp Castle” summer camp, and amidst all the dressing-up and kings and queens and whatnot there was this game whereby if you accumulated a certain number of points for good behavior and “chivalry” you could become a knight and then, hurrah, you could ride into battle on the final day of camp. Now, a good left-wing child raised on the Weavers’ version of “Down By the Riverside” and Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, I respectfully declined, and carried on quite happily with my turn at being queen for the day and getting to serve the medieval-themed snack (usually cheese and crackers, for some reason). And then it was circle-time on the final day, the day of the battle, and some kids started handing out weapons, and one dropped a purple cardboard dagger in my lap. I had no idea what it was doing there. I handed it back—surely it was a mistake—but a teacher told me I had been drafted and was now being called up (or, you know, age-appropriate words to that effect). So I did what any sensitive five-year-old conscientious objector would: I started crying, and then I stood up and gave a speech about how war was wrong and I was going to have no part in it. This being Montessori school, the teachers realized I had a point and cancelled the battle. When my parents picked me up, they were so proud.

We told that story again and again in my house, and I told it again in one of the essays I included with my Princeton application. In that essay, thirteen years later, I wrote about how I could only hope and strive to have the courage of my convictions that my five-year-old self had. Somehow, though, I sense that I’ve never quite attained that level of courage and independence again. I’m not so much of an iconoclast, these days. I’m non-confrontational. I don’t like to stand out. I sit in the corner and read a book, sure, but I don’t exactly burn my draft card.

Witness last night at 11pm, when—not really knowing what I was getting into—I agreed to join a team of members of my co-op to play intramural laser tag. I’d never played laser tag before, thought it might be a mildly entertaining new experience, and hied myself naively down to the recruiting office (err… replied to the recruiting email). But there are a lot of things I should have done since I sent that email last week. When I saw a poster for the laser tag tournament that showed people on an obstacle course firing what looked like guns at each other, I should have backed out. When I showed up to the gym last night and saw camouflage everywhere and ROTC recruiting, I should have offered to watch my friends’ coats and quietly step back. When someone put a heavy plastic toy that looked for all the world like a machine gun in my hands, I should have put it down on the ground and left. I don’t care if it’s just a beam of light: I am ashamed to look my five-year-old self in the eye and tell her that I aimed a gun at a member of the Ballroom Dancing Club and pulled the trigger.

I lay awake long into the night, nauseous and wracked with guilt that, more concerned with being a good sport and a fun person than with my core principles, I hadn’t said no at any point. My mind raced through other memories: the occasional first-person-shooter video game at a friend’s house in high school, sure, but also every other time when I should have uttered a serious moral objection and didn’t. How are the five-year-olds going to know that it’s okay to stand up in circle time and stop the battle if the 22-year-olds don’t show them how to do it?

Ancient Greece being ancient Greece, I have learnt a lot of words in the past four chapters about war. I can send men into battle and destroy the peace and order the strangers to free the brothers from the island so that they may write books about war. Maybe, last night, I just got a little carried away. But I shouldn’t let myself forget that the reason I decided to learn Greek in the first place is what Plato has to say about love.

I was going to try to draw this post to a neat conclusion with a tidy didactic moral lesson, but I’ve realized that I don’t know what the lesson is. I suppose that’s because I’m too young, still, and because the balance between love and war is one which entire civilizations have failed to strike. But a five-year-old could do it—which I suppose means that there is never any excuse for a 22-year-old. It is always imperative to try to be better, and more virtuous—and, contra my common-knowledge understanding of ἀρετή, being virtuous needn’t include being a hero in battle more than it should being someone who is kind and able to love.

And so I’d like to offer a public apology to my five-year-old self: I am most heartily sorry. Tomorrow, I will try to be as good and as strong as you were.

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