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Prosaic Virtue and Poetic Goodness

by Mitchell Kalpakgian

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    In this article, college professor and author Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian examines the need for virtue to be accompanied by goodness in order to display the true beauty of the virtue itself. For example, one must be good as well as appear to be good so that beauty reflects goodness and goodness reveals beauty. Drawing from literary works of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Cardinal Newman, as well as the virtuous example of St. Francis de Sales (the saint of courtesy), Dr. Kalpakgian provides a clear explanation of this ideal.
  • Larger Work:
    Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  • Pages: 24 – 29
  • Publisher & Date:
    Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, January 2008

St. Thomas Aquinas described the beautiful as "the attractive aspect of the good," for virtue is not drab or plain but attractive, winning, charming and irresistible. Good morals express themselves in gracious manners, and beautiful manners reflect a noble mind, a charitable heart and the thoughtful consideration to please and honor others. When goodness becomes pompous, self-righteous, priggish or censorious, it loses its beauty and becomes repellent instead of alluring. The disciples who answered Christ's call when he invited them, "Come, follow me," were attracted not only to his moral teaching but also to the beauty of his goodness: "Immediately they left their nets and followed him" (Matt. 5:20). The early Christian community also radiated the attractiveness of goodness, inspiring the famous remark, "See how they love one another." Goodness, then, transcends keeping the letter of the law, fulfilling obligations and paying debts. While these duties reveal a sense of responsibility and a respect for justice, they fail to evoke wonder, inspire the heart or leave a powerful effect. The splendor of virtue performs the maximum, not the minimum, as Christ's miracles and sacrifice illustrate. True goodness possesses a poetic nature and never looks prosaic.

While the Pharisees honored the Sabbath, fulfilled the law, and prayed in the synagogues, they did not reveal the beautiful heart of the Prodigal Son's forgiving father or the generous charity of the Good Samaritan. While Malvolio in Shakespeare's As You Like It was an orderly, punctilious steward who obeyed orders with scrupulous diligence, he behaved with pompous gravity and lacked all sense of mirth, provoking Sir Toby's famous remark: "Dost think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" Malvolio's censorious faultfinding ("Have you no wit, manners, nor honesty, but to gabble like tinkers at this time of night?") spoils innocent revelry and cultivates no friendships. While Pamela, a simple maidservant and the heroine in Samuel Richardson's epistolary novel Pamela (1740), defended her chastity and boasted of her virtue, she resisted the seduction of the aristocratic lord for mercenary rather than moral reasons, so that she would receive his offer of marriage and gain the status of a lady. "Virtue Rewarded," the subtitle of the novel, insinuates that Pamela submitted only when the stakes were lucrative enough. In another unflattering image of goodness, Isabella in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure depicts the frigidity of virtue. While she appears noble in rejecting the lustful Lord Angelo's proposition to release her brother from a death sentence at the price of her virginity, she betrays her coldness in showing no compassion for her brother's cruel punishment and in passively resigning herself to his fate: "'Tis best that thou diest quickly." Thus the self-righteousness of the Pharisees, the pompous pride of Malvolio, the smugness of Pamela, and the frigidity of Isabella do not win anyone's heart or inspire emulation. Although these characters uphold laws and commit no mortal sins, they have no appeal because they touch no one's heart and evoke no one's admiration. Their self-righteous virtue remains restricted and limited, and their good deeds do not reveal the great love that evokes the wonder of the beautiful.

Virtue loses its radiance when it appears petty, niggardly or economical at the cost of charity or magnanimity. Christ's love knew no limits and abounded in the generosity of miracles, such as the miracle of the five loaves and the two fish when there were "twelve baskets full of the broken pieces that were left over" (Matt. 14: 20). Mary Magdalen's lavish anointing of the feet of Christ with rare perfumes earned her the praise of God: "She hath loved much." The virtue of knightly liberality gives and serves with unstinting generosity and sacrifice, as Chaucer's noble knights from "The Knight's Tale" illustrate. Theseus, the knight who hosts the tournament, "spared no cost in preparing the temples and the theater" to decide the contest between two rival knights both vying for the hand of Emily in marriage. Arcite, the victor who accidentally falls from his horse and suffers a fatal injury, magnanimously encourages his beloved Emily to marry his rival: "If ever you decide to marry, do not forget Palamon, that noble man." The greatness of virtue, then, transcends conventional morality as it surpasses narrow bounds and aspires toward the highest ideals. The beauty of goodness appears in a giving heart that abounds in inexhaustible generosity — an abundance that the hospitable hearts of Baucis and Philemon epitomize in Hawthorne's "The Miraculous Pitcher," as their home always welcomes travelers with profuse kindness. Their goodness is so beautiful and touching that the Greek gods traveling in the disguise of beggars call their food nectar and ambrosia and present them with the gift of the miraculous pitcher that always refills after it is emptied — a gift that corresponds to the generous hearts of the elderly couple who give without ceasing. Without this copiousness, virtue remains merely bland and colorless, rather than glorious and marvelous.

The beauty of goodness manifests itself not only in charity, magnanimity and hospitality that surpasses limits and restrictions, but also expresses its attractiveness in manners, "the poetry of conduct" as C.S. Lewis referred to the virtue of civility.

As Henry Fielding writes in Tom Jones, one must not only be good but also appear to be good, so that outward manners complement good morals. Gracious civility, courteous words and refined conduct give morality a "poetic" quality that adorns virtue with beautiful apparel that is immediately striking and powerfully appealing. For example, the chivalrous Don Quixote was not only a courageous knight in battle but also a true gentleman in speech and action, always honoring women with decorous speech: "I beseech your ladyships, do not flee, nor fear the least offense. The order of chivalry which I profess, doth not permit me to do injury to any one, and least of all to such noble maidens as your presences denote you to be." In Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet, the epitome of courtesy, rejects the marriage proposal of the aristocratic and dashing Darcy because he offended her by his boorish conduct and deplorable manners, refusing to dance with her or exchange civil conversation. The bad first impressions he created made him appear ill-bred even though he later proved his noble character. Thus gracious manners correspond to beautiful clothing, the outward appearance or first impression that adorns, attracts and invites. Without affability or manners, the beauty of goodness resembles the lamp hidden under a bushel.

In The Idea of a University Cardinal Newman identifies the special marks of a gentleman who exemplifies the poetry of conduct. First, "he is one who never inflicts pain," a person who measures his words to avoid "whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast." Acting always with the utmost tact and respect for the feelings of others and thinking of pleasing others in every matter, the gentleman seeks to create a hospitable atmosphere: "his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home." He takes a personal interest in everyone: "he is tender toward the bashful, gentle toward the distant, and merciful to the absurd." At the same time he is not officious or intrusive as he lets the social flow of the occasion assume its own spontaneous direction: "he is mainly occupied in removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those around him." The gentleman possesses the art of conversation, the knowledge of when to speak and when to be silent, the ability to introduce general topics of conversation and to avoid personal matters and unpleasant subjects. He never dominates the conversation, resorts to gossip or speaks incessantly about himself: "he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome." The civility of a gentleman shuns aloofness, gloom, resentment or arrogance in his relationships. He remains always the magnanimous man who "interprets everything for the best" and seeks to make friends even of his enemies, observing the proverb that "we should ever conduct ourselves toward our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend." In the company of discourteous or unpleasant people he always maintains his composure. Always patient and forbearing, "He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice." In a word, the gentleman puts others first and places himself last; he honors persons with special marks of thoughtfulness and subordinates his own preferences, pleasures, opinions and convenience for the sake of the happiness of others. He brooks no pettiness, narrow-mindedness, vindictiveness or meanness, for his sense of what Newman calls "fastidiousness," or good taste, "becomes the enemy of extravagances of any kind" and "shrinks from what are called scenes." Newman's ideal of the gentleman, then, illustrates the importance of both being good in morals and appearing to be good in manners so that beauty reflects goodness and goodness reveals beauty.

St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), the bishop of Geneva who devoted himself to the conversion of Calvinists, impressed everyone by his civility, graciousness, amiability and charm. His exquisite manners illustrated that a drop of honey does more wonders for human relationships than a gallon of vinegar: "Nothing is ever gained by harshness." Cheerful and gregarious by nature, St. Francis enjoyed the company and conversation of kings, nobles, cardinals and ordinary people who all felt the beauty of his goodness — what one biographer calls his "never failing cheerfulness," "tremendous charm," "strong gentleness," and "social sensitivity and delicacy." This French saint, a master of savoir-faire, practiced the art of what St. Paul called the ability "to become all things to all people," adapting to the different temperaments and individual natures of each person. In fact, as a student at the University of Padua, he vowed never to avoid a conversation with anyone, no matter how unpleasant, boorish or dull that person was: "I shall never despise anyone, nor altogether avoid him, the more so in that it would give the impression of being proud, haughty, severe, arrogant, critical." Thus the art of pleasing conversation is one of the beautiful attributes of goodness. In his famous devotional classic, Introduction to the Devout Life, the saint of courtesy gives much practical advice about the importance of civil conversation and teaches that goodness is attractive because of its attention to little things. Loving one's neighbor as one's self demands that persons not ignore the company of others or avoid conversations: "To be too reserved and to refuse to take part in conversation looks like lack of confidence in the others or some sort of disdain." It is a person's duty to pay social obligations and not be accused of ill-breeding: "If people visit you or if you are called out into society for some just reason, go as one sent by God and visit your neighbor with a benevolent heart and a good intention." All these amenities give virtue an inviting appearance, natural appeal and irresistible charm.

In particular, because dress and language especially manifest the beauty of goodness, St. Francis does not overlook the importance of clothing or the propriety of words. Because improper dress shows a lack of respect to others and insults their dignity, humans are obligated to present themselves in company in a tasteful and elegant manner: "It is a sort of contempt of those you associate with to frequent their company in unbecoming attire." Beautiful dress is perfectly compatible with modesty, and elegance complements simplicity: "I would have devout people, whether men or women, always the best dressed in a group but the least pompous and affected." Modesty of speech, which reflects purity of heart and sensitivity to the feelings of others and avoids giving offense, must accompany modesty of dress: "be careful never to let an indecent word leave your lips." This tactfulness of speech and tastefulness in dress forms the foundation of all social life, cultivates true friendships, and develops affectionate hearts. Goodness is beautiful when it communicates kindness and love and spreads happiness: "How good it is to love here on earth as they love in heaven and to learn to cherish one another in this world as we shall do eternally in the next!"

In order for goodness to be beautiful, it must not only convey the generosity of real love, the magnanimity of nobility or the thoughtfulness of gracious courtesy, but also possess a quality that Shakespeare's fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream epitomize — a love of goodness for its own sake. In Shakespeare's comedy the fairies play for the sheer love of it and revel like children who relish fun as end in itself. When they leave their frolics of the night at the appearance of dawn, they adorn the world with the jewelry of dewdrops: "And I serve the Fairy Queen, / To dew her orbs upon the green." This playful, spontaneous lightheartedness of the fairies captures the essence of goodness as an act of joy and love that also leaves something beautiful in its wake. In the play the fairies heal all complications of human relationships with gentleness and delicacy. Because Hermia will not marry the man chosen by her father Aegeus, he threatens his daughter by invoking the law of the land. Theseus, the Duke of Athens, threatens Hermia with two draconian measures:

Upon that day prepare to die
For disobedience to your father's will,
Or else to wed Demetrius, as he would,
Or on Diana's altar to protest
For aye austerity and single life.

When Oberon, the King of the Fairies, overhears the problems of the lovers as they flee into the forest at night to evade the rigid severity of the law of Athens, he commands Puck, "that merry wanderer of the night," to anoint the eyelids of the sleeping lovers with the love juice of the wild pansy. With lighthearted mirth and the gentle touch of a few drops of a magical potion quietly placed on the eyes in the silence of sleep, Oberon cures the rift between father and daughter with the playful spontaneity of creative fun — not with threats and punishments. The fairies' painless healing touch alleviates the lovers' problems with the soothing medicine of laughter, a more powerful remedy than the harsh, cruel measures proposed by the father and the duke. When Theseus discovers the reconciliation that has occurred, he marvels, "How comes this gentle concord in the world . . . ?" Unlike the oppressive letter of the law that threatened Hermia with the ultimatum, "Either to die the death, or to abjure/ Forever the society of men," the comic spirit of Oberon and Puck in their fairy-like mirth and graceful movements that "hop as light as bird from brier" bring the enchantment that dispels gravity and gloom from the atmosphere. Doing good in the darkness of the forest while the lovers are asleep and hiding in the secrecy of night, the invisible fairies play as they heal and do good; their virtue is silent, not obtrusive or officious; it is lively, not perfunctory. When playfulness accompanies goodness, it charms and enchants. This magic of the fairies beautifies the world and adorns it with the dewdrops, pearls, rubies and "fairy favors" they leave behind as they do good mysteriously and anonymously — giving without expecting to receive, giving without being seen, noticed or rewarded. This pure, mirthful spirit of goodness produces the beauty symbolized by the radiant atmosphere of the fairies who dwell "by fountain clear or spangled starlight sheen."

In order for goodness to be attractive, then, it must be beautiful and evoke wonder and admiration. Generosity in all its forms, manners toward all people and on all occasions, and the pure enjoyment of doing good for its own sake give virtue a luster that the mere performance of duty does not radiate. As Cardinal Newman writes in his commentary on Aristotle's Poetics, "With Christians, a poetical view of things is a duty — we are bid to color all things with hues of faith, to see a Divine meaning in every event, and a superhuman tendency." He explains that Christianity itself is poetical: "Revealed religion should be especially poetical — and it is so in fact. While its disclosures have an originality in them to engage the intellect, they have a beauty to satisfy the moral nature." Thus the miracles of Christ that multiply the loaves and the fish, the forgiving heart of the father of the prodigal son who orders a banquet, the liberality of a knight who does not count the cost, the generous hospitality of Baucis and Philemon who welcome all travelers, and the saint who vowed never to avoid anyone in conversation, all possess this "poetical" quality. When goodness is beautiful and poetical, Newman explains, "it presents us with those ideal forms of excellence in which a poetical mind delights, and with which all grace and harmony are associated." The poetry of conduct, then, involves adornment and refinement, dressing up in words, deeds, manners and clothing that express dignity and give virtue its best appearance so that goodness is not prosaic but glorious — inspired by the highest ideals and not by the lowest common denominator.


Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian, a college professor of English who has taught at Simpson College (Iowa), Christendom College (Virginia), and Magdalen College (New Hampshire), is currently professor of humanities at Wyoming Catholic College. A contributing editor of New Oxford Review, he is the author of four books: The Marvelous in Fielding's Novels (University Press of America, 1981), The Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature (Neumann Press, 2000), An Armenian Family Reunion (Neumann Press, 2004), and Wisdom Ever Ancient, Ever New (Neumann Press, 2008).

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