Commentary Magazine


Virtue

To the Editor:

James Q. Wilson’s perceptive essay, “Tales of Virtue” [April], is marred by a minor error and a major historical untruth. The error: Horatius guarded the bridge, not Horatio (who appeared in Hamlet and later as Hornblower, but not in ancient Rome). The untruth: Father Maximilian Kolbe did not sacrifice himself for a Jew but for a co-religionist with a family. This is important because before his incarceration, Kolbe had been a rabid anti-Semite, the author and editor of numerous written attacks on Jews. What he did finally may count as heroism, but he does not deserve to be placed among the righteous Gentiles.

George E. Ehrlich
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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To the Editor:

James Q. Wilson is disposed to reconcile “strict behaviorism” with his views of developmental psychology, together with his philosophically confused ideas regarding the epistemology of our beliefs about ethics and morality.

No reasonable person who has worked with children at a clinical level (Mr. Wilson has not) is a “strict behaviorist,” and no one who is a “frequent contributor” to COMMENTARY, who writes in an ostensibly learned vein, should exhibit such an abysmal misunderstanding of Kant.

Nowhere does Kant say or imply that you can only be said to have acted morally if you can honestly declare that you didn’t enjoy a minute of it, as Mr. Wilson maintains. What Kant said is that

in order that an action should be morally good it is not enough that it conform to the moral law, but it must be done for the sake of the law, otherwise that conformity is only very contingent and uncertain; since a principle which is not moral, although it may now and then produce actions conformable to the law, will also produce actions which contradict it.

Mr. Wilson says that “self-command is about growing up and becoming mature.” It is a sad commentary on COMMENTARY that this passes for serious discourse.

Hal J. Breen
Phoenix, Arizona

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To the Editor:

It should come as no surprise that in the current alarm over the collapse of moral values a comforting literature should suddenly arise to offer us hope. In James Q. Wilson’s recent work, The Moral Sense, and now in his article, “Tales of Virtue,” he offers us hope in his reassuring appraisal of William J. Bennett’s The Booh of Virtues, a foray into fables and legends dealing with great moral teachings.

These seductive appeals to give meaning to conscience in our daily lives are, of course, commendable. The task of civilizing us, however, seems gravely complicated by noting the alarming collapse of all human decency in such a sophisticated culture as Germany under Hitler. Thousands upon thousands of ordinary Germans—shopkeepers, schoolteachers, doctors, lawyers, even academics—joined a passionate crusade to slaughter millions of innocents for failing to measure up to a barbarous test of ethnic purity. All this within recent memory; all this in a society that gave us Goethe and Beethoven. . . .

And now, at our own doorstep, how do we countenance the face of ugliness in the rabid anti-Semitism among young American blacks who applaud Louis Farra-khan? . . .

Charles Ansell
Sherman Oaks, California

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To the Editor:

James Q. Wilson has, with insight, shown many dimensions of William J. Bennett’s achievement in The Book of Virtues. Mr. Wilson has grasped the essential quality of a narrative of virtue, as opposed to a didactic recitation or dogmatic proposition. Bennett knows that the moral tale must be just that; a story of human dimensions, so as to activate our emotional and experiential resonance with the lesson learned.

Mr. Wilson also finds the important difference between virtues such as self-discipline, universally evident when realized, and the book’s absent virtue, justice, which requires demonstration and argument to be understood as such. . . .

Nevertheless, there is an accomplishment in Bennett which even Mr. Wilson has missed. I am referring to the act of reading the book itself. Mr. Wilson asks how it could be that moral stories become effective in our lives. The stories serve best when, in a nightly gathering, an adult reads them aloud to youth. This is not an incidental feature of their worth.

A gathering of family for a purpose is a ritual, which itself has moral power. Children delight in the familiar tale repeated, because the form of enactment and the willing submission of the parent are themselves values in which the child might participate.

This dimension could be called the book’s “meta-message”; in the familial reading is an experience of communion in learning and discovery, in reassurance and restoration.

Lastly, one should contrast this form of moral socialization . . . with the prevalent form in most children’s lives. Television is a medium of dominance, not interaction. The child is assaulted and wheedled by sensation, and not for his own best interests. Passively observing, the child becomes a receptacle, not a participant. . . .

A reading, by contrast, is alive with interchange: facial expression, social interest, concern, delight, all of these pass between parent and child during the mutual engagement with a text. . . .

Moreover, the information load is vast, for the parent’s tone of voice and performance stance enable a “commentary” on the action to accompany the content of the tale itself. Thus, even a depiction of cruelty or a tale of fallen character can serve a moral purpose, because from its reading we engage in a practically talmudic responsiveness to its meaning. . . .

Bennett has written a fine book. It stands ready . . . to work for us as a wise servant.

David W. Murray
Fairfax, Virginia

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