Thursday, August 19, 2010

On Hitting a Squirrel While Lecturing Your Son about Good Citizenship

Mister O made a noise in class that sounded like a car horn beeping and so (inevitably) his green card was turned to yellow.  He felt the need to confess and was sorry as he was telling me about it in the car on the way home - probably especially since I heaved a huge exasperated sigh (third day of school and already demerits!).  The truth is, an enormous part of me thinks "A car horn noise in the middle of a school day can be a funny thing" - but another enormous part of me thinks "Ack! don't make car horn noises at school!"  So I'm trying to think of how to talk about this, and citizenship is really big this year at school and so I say "Well, Mister O, in what way do you think that making a beeping car horn noise takes away from good citizenship?" And we get into a little discussion about other people and their right to quiet so that they can learn, and about how we're all members of a community, and create one together, and a squirrel runs out and looks around, and I'm going maybe 15 miles an hour and so take a wide turn to get around it, and think "a little lesson in citizenship, a little preservation of the local fauna," and I look back in the rear view mirror and I've somehow hit the squirrel and it's hopping and wriggling all over the road and scampers off to the woods (to heal? oh please oh please), and I feel sick, and the conversation about good citizenship comes to an end.

Why does hitting a squirrel rob you of moral authority? I have a hard time with moral authority anyway (who am I to judge anyone ever?) but here,  I was completely devastated, and felt as though I had no right to tell anyone to do anything for the rest of the evening. Rationally speaking the one act (talking about good citizenship) had nothing to do with the other (hitting the squirrel), i.e., the one did not cause the other, and yet there was no way to blather on about being a good citizen after I'd bumbled my way across this poor squirrel.  I'm sure there's some philosophical proof that would get me out of feeling so awful.  Fermet's Theorem of Coincidental Moral Absolution, or some such. 

When Charles V had a bunch of Aristotle's texts (crucially, the Nichomachean Ethics) translated into French in the 14th century by Nicolas Oresme, he blew a lot of people's minds.  Aristotle has this idea that virtue can be learned. Simple - radical - revolutionary. It's the whole reason we have schools and education: we firmly believe, along with Aristotle, that you can learn to be good (do good, think well, improve, excel).  You no longer just have to rely on God's grace for your goodness; you can now cultivate your own goodness.  Now let's be clear, Aristotle had some pretty big caveats about who could and couldn't learn certain virtues (women and slaves, for instance, couldn't learn to be prudent - not enough reflection).  But the revolution remains: you can learn to be good.  Mister O is engaging in Aristotle's revolution and learning to be good (which for right now means not sounding off like a car horn).  Meanwhile, I'm caught in some quagmire of accident and irony that makes virtue a plaything of circumstance.

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