“Moral good is a practical stimulus: it is no sooner seen, than it inspires an impulse to practice…” Plutarch
Experience shows the tremendous power of simply seeing moral good enacted. This, in part, is why they say you never know all the effects of your good action. Who knows who has seen it and will never be the same again?
We underestimate the importance of our being exposed to moral excellence—especially in a world that relentlessly parades moral failure. At issue here is not ‘hiding’ from moral failure, or building some kind of fantasy world of moral purity. The reality is this: by nature the main way we come to understand a good human life, and are moved to form an intention of living one ourselves, is in seeing it done. In reality and in art.
Happiness is powerfully undermined today by the fact that moral turpitude is taken, explicitly or implicitly, to be the norm.
Two significant signs and causes of this are in what we consider ‘news-worthy’ and in how we entertain ourselves. Let us focus on the second; and let us set aside the distinction between entertainment and leisure (though it is certainly worth making—see below). Watching movies is a significant part of our entertainment. What kind of discernment do we exercise in judging movies and deciding what to watch?
How art relates to ‘reality,’ and how to judge art is of course a complex subject, one not to be over-simplified. But in view of Plutarch’s critical insight into human nature, we can make one important conclusion. Art can and should be judged with the standard of how it helps us see, or not, a truly good human life.
A distinction here is fitting: how people actually live versus how they should live. One might ask: If art in some way imitates reality then shouldn’t it reflect the way people actually live? Again, this is a complex question to which the answer must be ‘yes’ to some extent. But the distinction here needs to be made with nuance.
One can think about and describe how people ‘actually’ live, while abstracting from any moral lens. But in reality, this is analagous to describing an apple tree in abstraction from how and whether it can produce apples. In other words, not to see and include the moral dimension in human life is always to omit an essential aspect of what is really there.
I am convinced that one of the most deleterious aspects of contemporary entertainment is how it regularly makes human life seem to be ‘real,’ to be what it is, apart from moral standards—or in any case traditional moral standards. Here, for example, is a young professional whose sexual practices are utterly disconnected from the drama of his life as portrayed in a film. The problem with such entertainment goes far beyond simple ‘bad example.’ It warps our perception of the reality of being human.
Virtuous characters are perhaps seldom portrayed because of a general lack of imagination and vision of them. Lack of experience of such people in real life leads to a lack of portrayal in art, and vice versa. A vicious circle, literally. This is not to suggest that only virtuous characters should be portrayed. Moral drama can be messy; but genuine moral drama is always in the context of the truth of human life.
What to do? We can begin by attending to what is in our power—our own choices. Plutarch’s insight is implication rich, and it gives us direction. We can put a priority on forming our own vision in two main ways: our immediate contact with reality, and our mediated contact through art.
The importance of the latter must not be underestimated. We can improve our diet, exercising vigilance and discernment at the gate of our soul. There are so many truly great stories—oral, written, and audio-visual. And these can “inspire an impulse,” in us and others, to enact the kind of life that is human life indeed.
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Image: Gary Cooper in the classic High Noon. I have a series of several short videos (6-8 minutes each) in Concepts Made Clear, distinguishing leisure, amusement (entertainment), and work. Your feedback is always welcome. Become a LifeCraft member to access all videos. Here is the one on amusement:
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