“The great silliness of highly intelligent and perceptive people”


Portia from The Merchant of Venice—looking a bit like the way I imagine Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

In discussing the Bloomsbury Group’s enthusiasm for the ethical theories of G.E. Moore—his intuitionism, his utilitarianism, and his conviction that “personal affections and aesthetic enjoyments include all the greatest, and by far the greatest goods we can imagine”— Alasdair MacIntyre writes: “This is great silliness of course; but it is the great silliness of highly intelligent and perceptive people.” He therefore takes a careful look at sociological reasons that made Moore’s theories should be so plausible to Bloomsbury. He goes on to argue that Moore’s was a key influence on the emergence of emotivism (the theory that moral judgements are merely expressions of emotional approval or disapproval) as the dominant ethic of our time,  and then argues that the triumph of emotivism was due to the same sociological factors that made Lytton Strachey compare Moore favorably to all previous ethical thinkers, including “Aristotle and Christ.”

I am not going to go over MacIntyre’s argument (which is very much worth reading in full). Rather, I want to look at one of the most charming expressions of Bloomsbury ethics— Virginia Woolf’s novella Orlando. Orlando is the subject of countless dissertations and papers nowadays because it so perfectly expresses the ethical ideals of contemporary literature scholars. It is a remarkably artful and prettily written book about a somewhat effeminate Elizabethan courtier who is given unending youth, turns into a woman at some point, and then passes through several centuries passing the time with poetry and superficial love-making.

The ethics of Orlando express clearly what I think is the most fundamental error of so much modern ethical thought— an error which underlies the errors of emotivism. It is the error of thinking that since the good is what all desire it is desire that makes things good, rather than it being the goodness of things that cause them to be desired. (See Section 2 of my Josias piece on the good). Consider Woolf’s effusions on the subject of ‘natural desire,’ which are worth quoting at some length:

Behold, meanwhile, the factory chimneys and their smoke; behold the city clerks flashing by in their outrigger. Behold the old lady taking her dog for a walk and the servant girl wearing her new hat for the first time not at the right angle. Behold them all. Though Heaven has mercifully decreed that the secrets of all hearts are hidden so that we are lured on for ever to suspect something, perhaps, that does not exist; still through our cigarette smoke, we see blaze up and salute the splendid fulfilment of natural desires for a hat, for a boat, for a rat in a ditch…

Hail! natural desire! Hail! happiness! divine happiness! and pleasure of all sorts, flowers and wine, though one fades and the other intoxicates; and half-crown tickets out of London on Sundays, and singing in a dark chapel hymns about death, and anything, anything that interrupts and confounds the tapping of typewriters and filing of letters and forging of links and chains, binding the Empire together. Hail even the crude, red bows on shop girls’ lips (as if Cupid, very clumsily, dipped his thumb in red ink and scrawled a token in passing). Hail, happiness! kingfisher flashing from bank to bank, and all fulfilment of natural desire, whether it is what the male novelist says it is; or prayer; or denial; hail! in whatever form it comes, and may there be more forms, and stranger. For dark flows the stream— would it were true, as the rhyme hints ‘like a dream’— but duller and worser than that is our usual lot; without dreams, but alive, smug, fluent, habitual, under trees whose shade of an olive green drowns the blue of the wing of the vanishing bird when he darts of a sudden from bank to bank.

What a perfect expression of the dominant ethic of our day— desire as a dark river flowing where it will, and happiness consisting in following it along whatever route it happens to take, fastening on the objects to which it happens to lead. Not because those objects are themselves good and perfective of the one desiring, but simply because the happen to be desired.

The comprehensively destructive nature of this moral nihilism never clearly emerges in Orlando. Orlando rich enough in material goods and in habituation to older, more noble ideals, to preserve a semblance of good life. His/her tastes in “personal affections and aesthetic enjoyments” remain good. I wonder though what, if Orlando had been real, his/her thoughts would have been on the ever more aggressively ugly and base results of such ethical ideals on modern culture. Telling of one of Orlando’s actions (ironically one the better ones), Woolf writes,

here we could only wish that, as on a former occasion, Purity, Chastity, and Modesty would push the door ajar and provide, at least, a breathing space in which we could think how to wrap up what now has to be told delicately, as a biographer should. But no! Having thrown their white garment at the naked Orlando and seen it fall short by several inches, these ladies had given up all intercourse with her these many years; and were now otherwise engaged.

I’m afraid they fall rather more than a few inches short of veiling the culture of emotivistic hedonism. “For you flaunt in the brutal gaze of the sun things that were better unknown and undone; you unveil the shameful; the dark you make clear…”


4 thoughts on ““The great silliness of highly intelligent and perceptive people”

  1. I have a rather different notion of what desires are for, which I have expounded on elsewhere:

    “If one asks whether we desire too much, or not enough, I will say – we do not desire enough, and we do not desire as much as we should. We conform and mutilate our desires to fit the world and its dry doctrines; the world elevates perverse and worthless things, and the dry doctrines have no imagination. Therefore we fall into the delusion that we can have everything we want of ourselves and under our own power. If the sum total of what we want is money, power, sex – well, we can obtain such things conveniently in this world. If the sum total of what we want is a pharisaical piety, that can also be obtained conveniently without resorting to God. If our desires are absurd and impossible, however, then we recognize quickly that we are sunk unless God enter the picture, whether He tells us ‘yea’ or ‘nay’.

    Therefore I make it a point to cultivate impossible desires and not extinguish them.”

    original source here

    Consider the rather odd but common and telling case of a young boy who wishes to be able to fly. The world has no hope of providing this desire even remotely in the manner that the boy envisions it; instead it tries to tell him: “what you want is a fast sports car; or a private jet; or to become a fighter pilot”. These are both inferior surrogates for the thing desired, and they are very likely purchased with one variety or another of evil. What the Catholic Church has to say to such a boy is less immediately clear, but certainly nowhere near as tawdry.

    To be honest, though, the proper way to settle this would be a philosophical discourse on the question of “whether our desires are created by God, or by devils, or by our own will”. My reasoning above tends to assume the first answer, that desires cannot be created without God’s involvement — I cannot cause myself to desire something else, and the devils can only sow confusion about acceptable and unacceptable means for a desire’s fulfilment. However, it is up to me to interpret my desires and determine the proper scope and means for their fulfilment, whether that is in this world, or the next. The problem is that our desires for created things are invariably composite ones:

    “However, in actual fact it is very rare that thing A is merely a way to get good B. Asserting that tends to become a kind of untruthful reductionism. It is more like thing A gives us some mixture of goods B, C, D along with inevitable disadvantages F and G. Thing A may not be the best way of getting these goods individually and a fertile imagination may produce many hypothetical other ways these goods could be obtained, possibly even without the attendant disadvantages.”

    original source here

    Thus there is such a thing as an education in desire, which does not consist in renouncing unsuitable desires, but in exposing and disillusioning unsuitable means for their attainment; and that is where the moral order comes in.

    Without the moral order we are therefore also sunk. The moral order has no hope of changing people’s desires; but people’s desires alone have little chance of being a reliable guide to right and wrong, nor even a reliable guide to their own fulfiment. For if we take the simplest apparent option for satisfying our desires, we are making many moral compromises in the process. When we replace less advantageous combinations of desired goods with more advantageous ones, we discover that many things are most properly enjoyed when they are shared; and that is a more difficult way of fulfilling one’s desires than solitary or egoistic fulfilment.

    A glutton, a lecher, a miser all desire merely their own good, considered in a very superficial manner; a well-adjusted person desires the good of his neighbour and of his entire society — a much more complex exercise in desire. By that logic, a saint ought to desire the good of the entire universe. This does not obliterate the desires focused on the person, but situates them in their broader context, with the purpose of desires being to bring things and persons together, not drive them apart.

    Thus, in the course of an education in desire, desire is made subject to the moral order, and tends to become extended towards a more complex set of goods and a wider range of subjects, and it is indeed probable that it takes on ‘more forms, and stranger’. But this strangeness is not arbitrary, but proceeds from the complexity and unpredictability of human nature (being both an image of God and a microcosm of Creation), coupled with the fact that the tendency of a fallen imagination is to become overwhelmingly lazy and unoriginal about what sorts of things it can or ought to desire. A fallen imagination is very unimaginative in its choice of desires, and so the desires of Heaven may well seem very strange to it indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is the error of thinking that since the good is what all desire it is desire that makes things good, rather than it being the goodness of things that cause them to be desired.

    Is that quite true? When God went about creating our reality and called it ‘good’, can we separate out:

         (1) how it was good because it was the product of God’s agápē
         (2) how it was good because of its inherent nature

    ? I’ve been reading John Milbank’s The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Debate Concerning the Supernatural, and I am becoming convinced that part of value is due to participation, and participation is a relational thing, which straddles (1) and (2). Relationship is neither moral internalism nor externalism. Another good, but really scholarly, book on this matter is Alistair McFadyen’s The Call to Personhood: A Christian Theory of the Individual in Social Relationships. He argues that one cannot define ‘person’ without ‘relationship’, and vice versa.

    I think we have to understand agapaō as “giving of the self”—an intrinsically relational thing—and not [merely] as “making better”, “caring for”, etc. John Milbank raises the idea of “an economy of gift-giving”, both in The Suspended Middle and Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. There seems to be something deeply right to this, as it raises the specter of a grace-permeated world. It is also a God-permeated world: every good and perfect gift is from God, with whom there is no shadow of turning.

    These are fairly new thoughts. One thing I am aware of: philosophy has historically been weak on relation:

        Philosophy has been a long time coming to grips with the category of relation. Aristotle said of relations that they were “least of all things a kind of entity or substance” (Metaphysics 1088 a 22). The tradition has tended to echo this ever since. The categories of substance (thing) and attribute (property) are long established, but not so the category of relation. It is not until the late nineteenth and the twentieth century with C. S. Peirce, William James, and Bertrand Russell that relations begin (no more than begin) to come into focus. (Universals: An Opinionated Introduction, 29)

    My intuition is that this is a Really Big Problem. Sadly, it’s still mostly intuition, at this point. It is aided by the Enlightenment idea that personal autonomy is to be sought and relationships with others instrumentalized—we’ve seen the fruit of this relation-weak idea.


    • Interesting points. Certainly there is a great difference between God and us. We love things because they are good, but things are good because God loves them. Similarly, we know things because they exist, but things exist because God knows them. I don’t agree though, that philosophy has historically been weak on relation. I think Aristotle has an excellent understanding of relation.


      • Do we only love things (and people!) because they are good? It strikes me that we can be conduits for the grace of God, and thus also love good into things (and people). 😀 I love interpreting 2 Cor 5:16 in this way. It is as if you are seeing the person as [s]he could be (≠ a clone of yourself!), and that very way of seeing has a transformative effect.

        Thanks for saying that Aristotle was good on ‘relation’ in philosophy. I will have to look into why D. M. Armstrong said what he said. Intuitively, he seems right, at least when it comes to dominant philosophy.

        P.S. Although I am rather new to the intricacies (I’m giving myself a sort of education these days), I am heavily inclined to eschew univocal metaphysics.


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