Book Review: The Other Side of Virtue

Oct 4, 2008
I finished reading The Other Side of Virtue by Brendan Myers sometime in August, and I just couldn't write it up at the time. Now I'm back in school and back into the swing of writing about difficult things, so here goes.

I'd heard good things of Brendan Myers before in my poking around at various forms of Celtic Neo-Paganism, so when The Wild Hunt did a writeup of this book, I was intrigued. For people who want books that go beyond Paganism 101: this is one of the guys to keep your eye on. (Though you could argue that an ethical structure ought to be part of 101, in reality, it pretty much isn't.)

What Myers has written here is more a theoretical book than a practical guide: not a criticism, but an observation, for people who might want to pick it up. It's a work in progress, a starting point for other Pagans to look at and start figuring out how to make it work in real life. Fair enough. I hardly expect any one person to come out with a synthesized Theory Of Pagan Ethics just like that.

I'd caution against using it as an only source for an ethical system, though. (I'd caution against using anything as an only source for anything.) The first section of the book is dedicated to historical examples of how people have theorized ethics and virtue, from the heroic model of chiefdom societies like the Celts to the social model of Classical Greece and Rome, up through the Romantics and Humanist ideas of The Good Life. It's an impressive span to cover, and you can see where his specialty is -- that is to say, it's not in anthropology, which is my specialty, and every once in a while Myers makes some broad sweeping statements that made me cringe. Overall it's a pretty good analysis, but it's better if you keep in mind the idea of ancient Greece instead of trying to equate Heroic Greece with Celtic society in general.

This is also not, I repeat, not the book to read if you're currently struggling with depression. "I recognize that depression is a medical condition," he writes on page 222, "not a deficiency of character. But I do wish to suggest that an ability to imagine a future, an ability to discern a purpose for one's life, can have a therapeutic effect on those who find their lives very difficult to bear." I've never been suicidal myself, but I have been profoundly, awfully depressed, and that sounds a lot like "just snap out of it" to me. That, coupled with the "Spirit" passage starting on 193, was what put me off this book for several months.

That said, what I do think Myers does very well is present a vision of virtue that doesn't exclude people. That doesn't mean he's come up with a way to look at the world that means that everyone is virtuous: far from it. But he's come up with a way to look at the world that means that people who disagree, people who are in active opposition, hell, even people who flat-out hate everything that the other stands for, can both be virtuous at the same time. Virtue, in Myers's conception, is in the way you look at the world, not in the ideas you have about it. Virtue is when you look at the world and think, "That is so fucking awesome. I have got to be a part of that." And that, I think, is an excellent place to start.


Anonymous said...

Personally I think it's the perfect book to read if you have depression: he doesn't say "just snap out of it", but rather he says you should do the hard work of pulling yourself out of it, by finding a reason to live, and a way to respond to the problems of the world with dignity and heart.

Actually the parts you point to, concerning that point about depression, suggest to me that the author probably has clinical depression himself. He probably wrote this book as part of his own healing process. Just a thought.

Jenavira said...

Different strokes for different folks, I guess; I was in the throes of clinical depression at the time I finished this book, and it was like a kick in the teeth because I'd been fighting it for a year, had seriously changed my lifestyle in the process, and still wasn't not depressed yet. Now that I'm in a much more stable frame of mind, I agree that the model of the world he offers is a great one, but it was emphatically not helpful for me at the time.

Another example of the strange idiosyncracies of the human mind...