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The Relativity of Virtues - Essay Example

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This essay describes the goal of a higher life is final; however, the forms of human life including morality are ‘initial’.The term virtue often denotes moral excellence or righteousness and entails behavior of high moral standing. Vices refer to behaviors that are deemed immoral or evil…
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The Relativity of Virtues
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The Relativity of Virtues In the Circles, Emerson links morality with his metaphysics of process. He theorizes that life has a higher purpose that is to pass into higher forms. The goal of a higher life is final; however the forms of human life including morality are ‘initial’ (159). The term virtue often denotes moral excellence or righteousness and entails behavior of high moral standing. Contrarily, vices refer to behaviors that are deemed immoral or evil. According to Emerson, the term virtue refers to a trait of character that allows us to be or act in a more perfected fashion. On the other hand, vices are ‘forms of old age’ that we cast away so as to conform to society’s definition of virtues. Resultantly, all virtues are ‘initial’ (Emerson 163). This means that virtues are intended to be the beginning of an action or a transition to a new level of character.
Emerson states that “the virtues of society are vices of the saint” (Emerson 163). This means that human beings tend to conform to the behaviors and actions that are perceived to be virtues in the society. As a result of this conformity, people fail in developing self-reliance and may perceive actions or behaviors that are not identified as virtues in their society to be vices. For example, during the era of slavery, a person who spoke of compassion or equality for the slaves can easily be dubbed a villain. However, the belief that all human beings are equal and have a right to be free is a virtue. Therefore, the person that the society dubs a villain owing to his support for the abolition of slavery is, in fact, a saint in his account. Emerson challenges reciprocity in the society that defines what actions are virtues and what actions are vices.
Emerson states that the terror of reform “is the discovery that we must cast away our virtues, or what we have always esteemed such, into the same pit that has consumed our grosser vices” (Emerson 163). Reform in the society brings about change for the purpose of improving the human life. The actors of change in the society identify an issue or issue that is an impediment to their wellbeing and act towards changing the issue. Emerson observes that the strength of a reform movement is the continual desire for the better. However, according to Emerson, this desire for change is a weakness as reform seeks amelioration of the outward circumstances but fail to achieve full independence for the inner life. The terror, therefore, comes from the realization that the only way to achieve a change of the outward circumstances means abandoning the attributes that one is most proud of in oneself, into the same pit that we discarded the vices.
Emerson observes that the process of moral reform has some social and personal effects. According to Emerson, moral reform is highly individualistic and requires that a person identifies their moral flaws and seek to change oneself. Once the individual awakens their moral lethargy, then the perception of social evils becomes possible. The personal effect of abandoning moral flaws and perceiving social evils is then articulated in the context of civic discourse. As a result, the individual engages in a collective effort to extirpate the evil that in turn leads to societal reform. Emerson was confident that through a combination of personal self-examination and public discourse a society can successfully correct its moral failings.
Work Cited
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and English Traits by Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Five Foot Shelf of Classics, Vol. 5 (in 51 Volumes). Cosimo, Inc., 2010. Read More
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