The Virtue of Adversity

An essay on Aristotle’s Politics, addressing the question: Are people more driven to be just and restrained in times of tribulation but more easily swayed away from virtue in times of leisure?

Historically, societies have reacted to trials or prosperity in many different ways, due to culture or circumstance; however, some patterns can be established.  As a whole, societies are indeed more restrained in troubled times and more easily swayed from virtue in times of leisure.  However, on an individual level people need an impetus to become more restrained, such as a law, tax, or oration aimed at incentivizing virtue.  When there is no motivation, people – and by extension societies – are not likely to change.

Traditional wisdom holds that society must sacrifice in war.  Wars were once strictly of survival: tribe against tribe, kingdom against kingdom, fighting for resources, or hegemony, and sometimes moral or religious superiority as well.  World War II was the last such war of survival and in America represented the greatest moment of societal sacrifice.  Americans were faced with rationing and the draft.  They were asked to follow the war and do all they could to ensure American victory over an existential threat.  People were profoundly affected by the war and maintained their frugality even when the economy was recovering from the Great Depression.  My grandmother, born in 1939, says she remembers collecting scrap metal with her kindergarten classmates – necessary for the recreation of the American naval superpower – and the return of the soldiers a few years later.  Most of the men in her town went off to fight – except for her father, who as a farmer was an essential worker – and her sisters all married soldiers.  The war permeated all aspects of society as World War I and the Civil War had.  However, this war made America stronger economically and in the international arena.

After WWII, America was suddenly flush with pent-up demand and the economy entered a boom period.  Americans were certain of their superpower status and, beyond the theoretical, almost metaphysical threat of the Soviet Union, had unquestioned military, economic, and moral domination of much of the world.  A consumerist culture arose in this time of prosperity, and alcohol, cars, and the latest technology became status symbols rather than the Victory gardens and stamp albums of the past five years.  While this period certainly did not represent the downfall of American society, it was a step away from the spirit of the last decade.

However, the model does not seem to apply to the past ten years.  Despite two wars and a couple of recessions, America has not sacrificed.  The difference is that our society is not fighting this war: our professional military and the Pentagon are.  We have not been asked to sacrifice; rather, after 9/11 we were asked to spend and some even got tax cuts.  We were told that it is un-American to sacrifice: that as a global superpower, we should be able to raze and rebuild a couple of countries without breaking a sweat.  Americans have lived as though we’re in times of leisure while we’re very much not.  But no war can be fought without some sacrifice at home, at the very least in taxes – and we have yet to fully realize the price.

While societies must be restrained – or at least undergo an economic contraction – under adverse circumstances and tend to expand or relax during prosperity, on an individual level it’s difficult to say whether virtue is correlated with adversity.  There are always those who sacrifice for others out of altruism, and those who are selfish in any situation.  But when thrust into a state of nature, most people reveal their true character.  In a country devastated by war or natural disaster, every individual must make a choice as to whether societal (or national) or individual survival is more important.  Some people will scavenge and steal for themselves and their own families, while others will seek to knit together some portion of society.  Some people will be restrained and just in distribution of scant resources and in protection, while some will seek to gather as much of both to themselves as possible.  Likewise, in times of leisure some people will take advantage of their financial and physical security to seek to improve their virtue, while others will move away from the virtue of a good citizen and buy that second car, or increase the amount of ice cream they can afford to buy on a shopping trip.

It’s the impetus that determines whether people will be more virtuous in troubled times.  In times of leisure or prosperity, there is very little incentive for societies to adhere to rigid standards of virtue, as virtuous as those standards may be.  In troubled times, people are more willing to sacrifice, but will not do so without an impetus or incentive.  Leadership ultimately determines the virtue of a nation or community.

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