The word “Virtue” can smack of the pious or sentimental, smoked with the incense of sentimentality. I think, though, that it can be understood quite broadly, as a category of language essential for not only critical evaluation but for critical understanding. Aristotle famously writes that happiness is the highest human good, and that a life of happiness is a life lived in accord with the virtues. That has struck many as silly, since a hedonist fulfilling nothing but desire might be happy too. But, in my willful, and perhaps perverse, certainly naïve, reading of Aristotle, I think there is a question not of whether the hedonist is happy but of whether their happiness is that which is the highest human good. Human goodness must be accounted for, not merely affirmed, and in his formulation, Aristotle seems to me to be suggesting not a definition, but a structure that such an account must take: if happiness is the highest human good, then a defense of happiness as good will necessarily depend upon reasoning about, and in the terms of, the virtues. The virtues become, then, a domain of logos related to human goodness. What of beauty? Even here, I think, that virtues are a bedrock: suppleness that avoids laxness is to be praised for what it affords on account of compassion, charity, or something else that a situation demands.
Virtues are the constitutive elements of any account of goodness, a lexicon—and more than that, a region of thought and discourse—that will shift from era to era, culture to culture; but more than that, to be self-conscious of one’s actions as good, one must be self-conscious of, and in, virtues. Virtue ethics is not the sole guide to good conduct; utilitarianism or deontology, with its rights and duties, are no less helpful. But the arbitration of borderline cases presented by either will depend on intuitions, and on the level of description that itself draws on a language of virtue and its absence.
As broad and general as such a claim is, it is nonetheless modest: any account of goodness by way of virtues, however they are specified, is necessarily incomplete and situational. No one virtue can account for the entirety of goodness; nor can any virtue be understood fully apart from the situation in which it arises. A virtue is essential to describing, reasoning about, and arguing over goodness but it also, by its nature, demands further goodness, reasoning, and argument, and likely the enumeration and elaboration of additional virtues.
Here, I’m suggesting that virtues are essential to an account of the human goodness that is inherent in works of literature—and other works of art. Criticism is, at its roots, attending to the goodness of a work of art in terms of both how it art illuminates, apprehends, and judges virtues, and in terms of how a work of art embodies and exemplifies virtues. Lest I seem to be saying that all literature is a celebration of virtue, I should explain: literature is about virtue in the sense that it is about the circumstances that foster and stymie, that extinguish and kindle, actions and characteristics that might be thought virtuous, as well as about what it means to possess or lack different virtues; it can bring virtues and their conditions into light in a new perspective. Others might think that I am suggesting that literature be thought of in terms of a timeless list of virtues—quite the opposite is true. Virtue is not opposed to ideology, but is essential to it; ideology legitimates power, and one way it does so is to establish beliefs about what counts as virtuous, as good. Works of art can be thought of as symptomatic as well as diagnostic of ideology in their scrutiny and embodiment of virtues alike.
I’ve taken for granted that the notion that the goodness of a work itself needs to be accounted for in terms of virtue is less controversial than the claim that it is somehow “about” virtue. But here again, I am appealing to the sense that to think a work worthwhile, valuable in some way, is to judge it in terms of human behavior—to recognize that, whether individual or social, it is a consequence of human action—and so again, we are in the realm of virtue; and personifying language, the text and its intelligence, gets us no further, since the very category of language for describing such personified goodness is that of virtue. F.H. Bradley’s thought that literature gets the conditions of its judgments within the judgments themselves is a handy guide to interpretation; making sense of how judgments are apt for their conditions, as applied to the work. But it does not go far enough because it does not assess the judgments themselves, or describe the constituent element of judgment, and to do so, to assess human judgment, is to draw on virtue.
The greatest danger to this line of thought grows out of a confusion between writing as a moralist and writing moralistically. Writing as a moralist, though the term is outdated, stands at the heart of criticism; writing moralistically does not. One can lean towards an external or internal perspective on human goodness, asking more how a virtue is experienced from within a life giving more weight to how it evolves situationally, among individuals—but in any case we are in the usual situation of interpretation, bound by our own horizons of understanding and describing virtue, even as we seek to move beyond ourselves.
For as long as I’ve read William Empson I’ve struggled to conceive just what he means by “values.” The phrases “code of values” and “system of value” are frequent in his writing, and both assume something that must have been common currency once; however Empson may have defined the terms, I think it is easiest to think of them as an elaboration of virtues, as centering ultimately on human conduct and its goodness. Empson’s purpose when appealing to such codes or systems was usually pluralist: there are many codes of values, and reading works of literature allows us to appreciate that. He is saying that there are many ways of discovering and embodying virtue, within and between culture, and that works of literature remind us of it, both in what they show, and in demanding that we recognize what they exemplify.