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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Private virtue, public lies

The latest play to be streamed this pandemic was Shakespeare's Coriolanus, which I studied for A Level a long long time ago. I remembered then the ambiguous feelings that arose in me - the admiration for Coriolanus, pity too, as well as frustration and disapproval. He's a war hero, patriotic and valiant, but entirely without public feeling. He loves Rome, but not the Roman people. He's noble in battle, but stuck in a vision of his own nobility. He fights with pride, dedication, disregard for his own safety and condemns the cowards who won't take the risks he takes. The glory and the honours are, in a sense, a by-product of valour. He feels he deserves the honour, but will not seek it through flattery, politics, bullshit. He shows disdain for the people - and will not play the role of a politician, asking for their votes with sweet words. He has a fierce conception of his authenticity and will not bend.

Just this rough sketch is enough to sense that aristocratic disrespect for the populace which is his undoing - that and his stubbornness, his rigidity. And yet isn't there something to admire in his refusal to lie and to pretend?

I was listening, before I started watching, to the latest episode of the Very Bad Wizards podcast, where they discussed the famous paper by Harry Frankfurt, 'On Bullshit' which is freely available here. The bullshitter, according to Frankfurt, has a completely cavalier attitude to truth. Whereas the liar is seeking to conceal a truth, the bullshitter basically doesn't really care. We know and they know that what's being said is a fabrication and a pretense. The truth of the matter is irrelevant.

Coriolanus will not play that game. The tribunes and the people would know he was just saying the right thing to curry their favour; they'd know that privately he had no regard for them and hated having to act a part; it would be pure bullshit. And he won't, can't do it.

This makes one think of modern day politicians, of course. And not just about how much they may or may not be bullshitting, but about that divide between public and elites. Can words, pretenses, breach the divide? Coriolanus thinks that the fact he has fought for Rome, bears scars from battles, that should be enough. What contemporary analogy is there? Few politicians have truly suffered for their state. Although the cynic could say that Coriolanus was acting out of his own pride. That I deny: he stands up for an old ideal of virtue. The root of the word is the Latin vir, which means man. That became virtus, manly attributes of valour and courage which then extended into merit and finally into the idea of moral perfection.

As in Greek tragedies, where the moral code of the Homeric sagas was being contrasted with the ethics of the polis, we see in this play another clash of cultures.

And how was this being played out or reflected in Shakespeare's England? In truth, I don't know. England had a Parliament - but the members were hardly the common people. The public did voice their dissatisfaction in riots against the enclosure of common land. This was a reaction against rich landowners fencing off pasture that was traditionally used as common grazing. Interestingly, it's something Thomas Cromwell strongly opposed. Early in Henry VIII's reign, tens of thousands of religious refugees flocked to England. Mainly, the country was happy to welcome them, though there were occasional riots against rich German merchants, apparently.

During Shakespeare's time, in the last decade of Elizabeth I's reign, there was great volatility - high prices, food shortages, heavy taxation and major wars against both Ireland and Spain. This seems a good comparison with the world of Coriolanus - where the public want corn and Rome is fighting a series of wars. There was a period of further immigration and that contributed, no doubt, to a rise in vagrancy. Scarcely subsistence level wages hardly helped. The 1590s were marked by social disorder and protest.

So where are Shakespeare's loyalties here? He doesn't make Coriolanus entirely unsympathetic, and the tribunes' political machinations as well as the malleability of the public's affections don't make the citizens exactly heroic. He makes us think, question, wonder if we've got it right, if we don't need to see things from the other perspective, if we don't need to accept wrong on both sides.

Mind you, Coriolanus's mother comes across as a particularly unpleasant figure - a Lady Macbeth who's had a son. And would rather he came home from war in a coffin than dishonoured, yet would have him bullshit to the people for the sake of power. In her is painted a picture of the irredeemable elite.

Coriolanus is a man between worlds and, as time marches on, his values are no longer fitted to the society in which he lives. His values had their flaws - that inexcusable elitism most critically - but the fierce drive to be honest, that, perhaps, is something we lose to our cost.

Now, yer man Coriolanus banished himself from Rome and joined his enemies after his mother had persuaded him to do the flattery bit and he'd flunked it and the people had rebelled. Anyway, then she speaks to him in the enemy camp. Though he can resist the allure of state, wife and child, he can't refuse his mother and agrees not to wage war on Rome. So he's killed by the other side. Clearly, listening to your mother is a tactical error. Though one could argue she reminded him of his duty to motherland as well as mother. Anyway, as in previous discussions of tragedy on the blog, we see the conflict of value systems, with rights and wrongs liberally interspersed on all sides.

This is what Peter Singer seeks to address in Practical Ethics - a logical, reasoned, almost mathematical calculation of how to deal with ethical issues. It's very persuasive. Like Coriolanus's mother. But I'm left wondering, as before, how practical it actually is.

I mean, what is the greatest happiness for the greatest number - which can be taken as the guiding principle for hedonic utilitarianism? What are each person's preferences, needs and desires - the guiding idea for preference utilitarianism? Of course I know what happiness feels like, I know what suffering feels like, I know what I desire (usually wine) and what I need (likewise), but can I universalise those feelings? How do you weigh in the balance mental and physical suffering? What's worse, chronic pain for a month or acute pain for two days? It depends on who is answering and what they have experienced, are experiencing, can imagine and so on.

Singer's logical arguments have weight. They stack up. They seem unimpeachable. But at the end you might think, well, I don't care. How will you make me? For example, if all people gave a proportion of their salary above what is required to survive, starting at 1% and very gradually going up to I can't recall how much, then every year we could raise something like six times more (I think that's the figure) than is required to lift everyone out of worldwide poverty. The excess could provide education and public health services and so on. Now, for sure, we don't 'need' that 1%, while those who are dying of starvation do need it. But I want to give my 1% to save animals. So make me swap to people if you can! I may be morally wrong, in fact, Peter, you've convinced me that I am: but I don't care - and it's my preference and it makes me happy to give to the WWF and Compassion in World Farming. The latter is even more questionable, because I don't even approve of farming animals really - but I do think that while they are being farmed they may as well be made less miserable. And, according to strict utilitarian principles, my actions may be helping to perpetuate farming by making it marginally less egregious. Indeed, the zillions of animals in the future should bear more moral weight than the billions being poorly housed, badly treated, horrifically transported and monstrously slaughtered right now. I am being illogical. And yet...

Well, maybe I will move the donation from Compassion to PETA. But...

There's something - now this is an awful and morally abhorrent admission - PETA seem so kind of self-righteous and Compassion seem to be in the real world and so...

You see? There's so much more playing into a person's decisions than logic. Maybe that's far from ideal, but it's all too real. And something about the force of being in this world, right now, has even more weight than all those carefully stacked premises and conclusions.

That said, I can see how he gets to all his conclusions - even infanticide (yes, really - I'm not going to try to sum it up or I'll risk being lynched, if I'm not risking that already, but if you read the book you'll see that there are certain circumstances in which, if one follows the course of all the premises and conclusions, this becomes a moral possibility); to live according to them, though, that is a different matter entirely.

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