Judy Bachrach's Mutability Canto

Judy Bachrach | Posted on 05/24/10

There's a fair part of me that wishes virtue had stood still and stopped mutating, oh....around 1970. I read now, for instance that former Baywatch babe Pamela Anderson has written to KFC to beg for improvement in the lives and deaths of its chickens - and has also asked Kentucky's governor to remove a bust of Colonel Sanders from the state capitol building. I know it's considered virtuous these days to worry about the fate of chickens. And to be honest, I can't imagine why. They taste good.

"How are you?" Lucretia's husband asked her. (He might have spared her the reply, since she had just sent both him and her own father a frantic message, declaring, "A terrible thing has happened!").

"Very bad," said the ever-patient Lucretia. "My body is greatly soiled, though my heart is still pure, as my death will prove."

She had been raped at knife-point, she said. Husband and wife both knew the monster, Sextus Tarquinius, who had not only attacked but also blackmailed her. He had evidently been so overpowered by her beauty and (this is the part I find especially impressive) industry -  Lucretia evidently liked to stay up late, busying herself at her spinning wheel - that evil Sextus T just couldn't help himself: workaholic Roman matrons drove him mad with lust.

And with that, this paragon of virtue, who would ultimately become a model to all girls of ancient Rome, plunged a knife into her heart. You can read her unhappy story in Livy, although frankly there isn't much more to add, except that a really great thing happened because of this rape: an outraged group of Lucretia's admirers fought and vanquished the royal family of her aggressor; Rome became a republic as a result; and in hindsight, as the story intends to remind us at every turn, what was pretty bad for poor Lucretia (i.e., too much chastity and honor) was just fabulous for the state.

Virtus it was called back then. And I mention it only because it is thought, despite its occasional differences, to be a distant ancestor of the quality we moderns claim to prize most: the ever-changeable, mutating phantoms of righteousness, ethics, and propriety that we shove into a large glittering gift box and call virtue.

Back then, virtue was not its own reward (it never is, by the way). Moreover, among the men of ancient Rome, the quality of virtue did not (surprise!) include chastity.  It was more an adherence to a short list of stalwart traditions, which might make a lot of you out there smile and nod sagely on reviewing them: strength, courage, a dedication to civic duty and home.

By which I do not mean the Roman senators learned to cook like Julia.

No.

In fact, among the ancients, the virtuous passion for the homeland is best exemplified by Romulus, who murdered his own twin brother when Remus trespassed on his property. (The quote: "So perish whoever else shall overleap my battlements!") This, by the way, was considered a particularly virtuous moment and an important historical precedent for other venerated events: the rape of the Sabine women (which occurred when Rome was short of wives) and the destruction of Carthage. Virtue back then meant getting whatever you felt the state needed in whatever manner deemed practicable.

But why concentrate on Romans, with their empire and their slaves? (Slaves, by the way, were a group that might include one's own children, who, if unwanted, were often sold off.) Let's go back even further to another paragon of virtue: Abraham, founder, we are told in the Old Testament, of monotheism; a guy who smashed idols....

And was well on his way to doing the same to his only son, Isaac. ("Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about," God is said to have ordered him.  At which point a docile Abraham actually made his son carry the wood that would, he thought as the two trudged up the mountain where the sacrifice was to take place, ultimately be used to broil Isaac's corpse.)

Now think a moment about this examplar of obedience. Let's say you meet someone on thebus who informs you God has just told him to murder his only child. Would you:

a)     Think it was time to call 911

b)    Congratulate yourself on having met a wonderfully virtuous person

c)     Hope that some big-horned ram comes along and - PETA alert! - turns into an acceptable Isaac-substitute in the burnt offering department

If you chose b and c, you're right in line with the notion of virtue as it was construed back then. If you picked a, it means you are simply closing your eyes to the mutable nature of values.

And while we're on the subject of burnt offerings, let's come a bit closer: think of the virtuous Thomas More, yes, Saint Thomas, under whose esteemed chancellorship six heretics were burned (no utopias for them...). Let's, for that matter, consider More's own fiery fate, when Henry VIII, Defender of the Faith, as he was once known, decided his former chancellor's virtues constituted an impediment to a fruitful monarchy.

I know what you're thinking now. What do all these deeply misguided figures of history have to do with the rest of us? Just because they had the wrong idea  -- or rather, an outdated idea - of what true virtue entails means nothing. We of the twenty-first century have made enormous strides since the bad old days when Lucretia's only recourse was suicide. If we kill a sibling over a parcel of land no one considers us a hero. Also, we of the West like to pride ourselves on our religious diversity: we prefer not to broil.

On the other hand - and speaking of broiling - there's a fair part of me that wishes virtue had stood still and stopped mutating, oh....around 1970. I read now, for instance that former Baywatch babe Pamela Anderson has written to KFC to beg for improvement in the lives and deaths of its chickens - and has also asked Kentucky's governor to remove a bust of Colonel Sanders from the state capitol building.

I know it's considered virtuous these days to worry about the fate of chickens. And to be honest, I can't imagine why. They taste good.

 

 

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