Everyday heroism and the value of fiction

My first article for MercatorNet for 2017 is inspired by my past year of writing fiction. I’ve been working on a middle-grade fantasy novel, and have learned so much along the way…it’s completely transformed my appreciation of fiction.

Today’s article is a reflection on heroes and villains, and how they mirror our own struggle with vice and virtue:

We can even see the conflict between the hero and the villain as a symbolising the struggle between our own virtuous and vicious inclinations. On one level we can see ourselves in either the hero or the villain, but on a deeper level we already contain both villain and the hero in ourselves.

Fiction can lead us through this journey, this struggle, in a way that non-fiction cannot. Fiction is figurative where non-fiction is literal, obscure where non-fiction is clear, and imaginary where non-fiction is factual. But it is precisely these apparent deficiencies that allow fiction to go deeper than our literal, factual minds can follow.



The lost vision of our ethical heritage

I never had much time for ‘ethics’ until I came upon the natural law tradition.  I’ve since learned that ‘virtue’ is of course inseparable from the path of spiritual development, and so it is frustrating to find time and time again that many people relegate ethics to questions of political control and permission.  Ethics is much more than that; however much we fall short of the ideal, it is surely better than rejecting the ideal entirely?

My latest piece on MercatorNet attempts to clarify some of the context and purpose of natural law theory, for those who are interested:

While it may be feasible to reach a conclusion on the basis of non-heredity and rarity, the fact is that natural law does not approach attraction or desire from quite the same perspective as something like the loss of a limb. Rather, the whole point of natural law theory as an ethical system is to guide and inform those who are not content to accept their own desires at face-value, but who wish to shape their desires according to a more complete understanding of what it is to be human, with the goal of what Aristotle enigmatically terms eudaimonia – a term not entirely captured in the translation “happiness”, but which is often rendered “flourishing”, and in a literal sense implies the protection of a benevolent spirit.

A man of many parts-time

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m balancing freelance writing with PhD studies and an eighteen-month-old son.  That’s three part-time activities which, I suspect, potentially add up to more than one full-time life.  It’s all held together at present in a state of delicate balance, easily thrown out by the slightest change.

If, for example, my wife gets an extra day of work one week, I pick up an extra day of caring for our son – an activity that dominates and drives out all other thoughts.  This past week I’ve effectively had three days of child-care.

My studies are likewise susceptible to dramatic challenges and change: for the past six months or so I’ve been reading and commenting on a history of free will from Aristotle to Augustine.

It’s an excellent book. The author delves into the origins of the ‘free will’ notion, overturning in the process some long established conventions.  He shows that Aristotle did not have a notion of the free will, the idea instead originating in Stoicism and subsequently read back into Aristotle by later generations.

Frede challenges the received wisdom that St Augustine was the original source of a ‘new’ free will concept, showing instead that Augustine’s view is largely derivative of the contemporary Stoic perspective.  For example, Augustine’s strong dichotomy of the free versus the enslaved; the idea that though we are still responsible for our exercise of will we are nonetheless no longer free; the view that God has the ability to arrange things such that He can direct our unfree will; all of these are present in the Stoicism that pervaded the Roman world in Augustine’s time.

I’m still not clear on the context and implications of all this, but it is startling to recognise how deep an influence Stoicism has had on the development of Christian thought.  It is not unusual to see Western Civilisation as a Judeo-Christian-Hellenic composite, but it was not clear to me how influential Stoicism in particular had been.  One might almost wonder whether Christianity took on board Stoicism, or Stoicism took up Christianity.

Frede’s text is scholarly and not light reading, but I’ve learned a great deal from it and will undoubtedly continue to refer back to his work as I progress.

But having recently reached the end of the book, I now have to progress on my own through the continued free will debate.  Instead of having that path clearly marked by such a prestigious scholar as Frede, I’m now proceeding one step at a time, testing the ground as I go.

This stage is far more challenging, mostly because this entire PhD project is full of uncertainty.  As a student, one is in the position of not knowing the final outcome, what one’s final work will look like, or even the direction in which it will turn.  It’s particularly hard for me, I believe, as a melancholic to determine the ‘ideal’ level of detail or amount of effort to dedicate to any particular step.

So as I move on to Thomas Aquinas’ theory of free will, I’m learning the limitations of my own knowledge, but also the limits of intellectual habits: second-guessing myself is an unacceptable delay when there is so much work still to be done.  Likewise, my desire to get right to the very heart, or to the roots of each question is impossibly idealistic.  I do not have time to learn ancient Greek and master Aristotle; I must learn to rely on the work of other scholars, even if this leaves me with a sense of doubt.

Ultimately, as my supervisor reassured me, it isn’t my job to master all these topics, but to gain a working knowledge of the Western free will debate, in order to apply its lessons to the less familiar context of the Chinese philosophers.

Juggling these three part-time occupations will always provide a challenge, and I have to prioritise the duties of a stay-at-home dad over the responsibilities of a PhD student, over the opportunities of a freelance writer.  But even in this order of priorities new challenges and possibilities emerge.  I can’t get my son to help me with my PhD, and I can’t turn my PhD into a study of child development, but I can write more about my PhD and my experiences as a stay-at-home dad on this blog and in my articles.