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At the end of Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, Brutus and ­Cassius, the conspirators who had assassinated Caesar, are themselves dead. Brutus has, in fact, fallen upon his sword rather than face capture by the armies of Octavius and Mark Antony. Brutus was bad enough to betray and murder a man who had been his good friend, but he was not bad enough to be a successful rebel. He had parted company with his fellow conspirators, refusing to approve the killing of Mark Antony, and that sense of honor has now cost him dearly.

After his death, Brutus is praised in the famous words Shakespeare places into Antony’s mouth: “This was the noblest Roman of them all.” There are other ways we might have thought to describe Brutus—as traitor, rebel, assassin, for example—and no doubt one might have used such terms to characterize some of Brutus’s fellow conspirators. But not Brutus, at least according to Antony: “His life was gentle, and the elements / So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up / And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’”

If we ask for a reason why we should praise rather than dishonor Brutus, Antony points to a certain virtue he had displayed even as an assassin.

All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.

And Octavius agrees.

According to his virtue let us use him,
With all respect and rites of burial.
Within my tent his bones to-night shall lie,
Most like a soldier, order’d honourably.

In Dante’s Inferno, however, Brutus has a quite different final resting place. Not in the tent of one who would soon be Caesar, but in the nethermost region of hell alongside Cassius and Judas—all betrayers of those (whether in empire or Church) to whom they had been bound by special ties of loyalty. There seems on the face of it no reason to admire or praise them.

Perhaps we should remind ourselves that Brutus is not the only person who is placed by Dante in deepest hell but whose character may be more complicated than that location would suggest. The character of ­Judas has, after all, seemed baffling and mysterious to many who have puzzled over the gospels’ accounts of his betrayal of Jesus. So mysterious that, for example, Karl Barth could devote a searching forty-something page, small-print excursus in his Church Dogmatics to exploring the fact that—as Barth puts it—“the more profoundly and comprehensively we attempt to formulate the sin and guilt of Judas, the more nearly his will and deed approach . . . what God willed and did in this matter.” Judas hands over Jesus, but in so doing he simply does what God has already done. There is, Barth says, nothing here to “venerate” or to “despise”; we can only say that in the mysterious working of divine grace, “even Judas is not exempt from . . . positive service.” And we are tempted—perhaps very tempted—to see in Judas a tragic figure, a decent man caught up in fateful, mysterious events well beyond his ken.

Dante, however, does not seem to think of Judas that way. This is certainly not because Dante lacks any sense of the complexity and ambiguity of human character, any sense that there might be such a thing as a virtuous evildoer. At one point in the Inferno, Dante encounters the “false counselors”—those who had used their intellectual gifts to persuade others to engage in fraudulent practice. Among them is ­Ulysses, the brains behind the scheme of the Trojan Horse, who recounts his story to Dante. And in a passage that Dorothy Sayers called “perhaps the most beautiful thing in the whole Inferno,” a passage that is evidently Dante’s own invention and is certainly not found in Homer, Dante describes Ulysses’s last voyage. Ulysses has made it safely home from his years of wandering after the Trojan Wars. He has returned to his home and to Ithaca, where he is to rule. But in this invention of Dante’s, Ulysses explains why he could not remain there.

No tenderness for my son, nor piety
To my old father, nor the wedded love,
That should have comforted Penelope

Could conquer in me the restless itch to rove
And rummage through the world exploring it,
All human worth and wickedness to prove.

So on the deep and open sea I set
Forth, with a single ship and that small band
Of comrades that had never left me yet.

They set sail once more. They reach the very boundary of the inhabited world as they know it, and Ulysses urges his shipmates on, so that they may experience the unknown—an experience, as he says, of “the uninhabited world behind the sun.” “Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance / Your mettle was not made; you were made men / To follow after knowledge and excellence.”

So they forge ahead, only to sail into a storm that whirls the ship around three times, then lifts the poop deck high and plunges the prow down into the water. “And over our heads,” he says, “the hollow seas closed up.”

When we remember that Ulysses is in hell, that as a false counselor he has encouraged fraud, the point of this invented tale might at first seem clear. We might take it as a warning to Dante’s readers that, in the words of John Sinclair, “an eternal and insatiable human hunger and quest after knowledge of the world” may backfire on us. That hunger is vice, not virtue. A restless desire to know without limits, to sail uncharted waters, may subvert even the deepest loyalties of human life: to home, to wife, to father, to son. So we might take this passage as a warning. And yet, Sinclair immediately adds, “as we read it we forget the sin in contemplation of the sinner’s greatness.” A greatness that Dante is evidently quite able to savor and appreciate, and that, once again, may well strike us as tragic.

How, we might wonder, is it that Ulysses’s proud description of his last voyage—a voyage that leaves behind the deepest human ties in order to scratch that “restless itch” for human mastery, a tale told by one who quite literally is damned—how should this tale have been made so enticing and compelling an account of the human need “to follow after knowledge and excellence”? The goods of life are not easily reconciled, and evil may be done with great dignity and appeal—done even bravely and sacrificially by those we can hardly help but admire.

Perhaps, however, what we admire is not virtue but alluring vice. Although Augustine may never actually use the term “splendid vice,” he certainly has a concept that deserves the name. So, for example, while granting that “true virtue” is not possible apart from worship of the true God, he knows and can speak of a “virtue which is employed in the service of human glory.” It may not be true virtue, but men “are of more service to the earthly city when they possess even that sort of virtue than if they are without it.” It may not make them saints, but it surely makes them, he says, “less depraved men.”

And when in book 1 of the City of God he tells the story of Marcus Regulus—who urged his fellow Romans not to accept the terms of peace offered by the Carthaginians and then kept the oath he had made that he would return to Carthage if those terms were not accepted, and who was then horribly tortured to death—it is clear that Augustine simply cannot withhold his admiration. The ancient Romans were “certainly right,” he says, “to praise a courage which rose superior to so dreadful a fate.” Noble Romans such as Regulus “were fighting for their earthly ­country; the gods they worshipped were false; but their worship was genuine and they faithfully kept their oaths.” Something like such splendid vice—with all its tragic ambiguity and ambivalence—is what Dante must also have had in mind when he invented that last voyage of Ulysses.

It is time to step back from these—to me, at least—striking examples of what we might call virtuous evildoers and make clear what I do not mean by this notion and what problem I am not worrying about. I do not have in mind the standard sort of utilitarian question: Shall we do what might usually be thought of as evil because in these unusual or terrible circumstances, doing so would lead to the best consequences on the whole? After all, if we really think in utilitarian terms, one who acts in the way that, however seemingly problematic, promises to produce the best possible outcome is not an evildoer at all.

To be sure, the temptation to reason in utilitarian ways is often understandable, and it points to some troubling questions that others have noted: Does the moral world of our everyday experience make coherent sense? Is it actually possible to make the good and the right fit together in this kind of world? But my problem is a little different, having to do less with the coherence of the moral universe and more with the complexities of human character—with the fact that evil may be done in strikingly virtuous and honorable ways. The vicious may at least seem to be virtuous—and not only in separate moments but in one and the same moment. Vice really may be splendid, or so it seemed to Augustine and seems to me (to go from the greater to the lesser). So, for example, General Erwin Rommel, while pursuing the war aims of Hitler’s regime, nevertheless burned an order issued by Hitler in 1942 calling for all enemy soldiers caught behind German lines to be summarily executed. Are we not inclined to praise him for this, even while regretting or deploring his willingness to put his training and skill in service of the German war effort?

I take that example from Michael Walzer, whose writing has often displayed a keen eye for such moral complexities, and from whom we may take yet one more example. As an illustration of a terrorist who nevertheless adheres to a code of honor, Walzer points to Camus’s play The Just Assassins.

In the early twentieth century, a group of Russian revolutionaries decided to kill a Tsarist official, the Grand Duke Sergei, a man personally involved in the repression of radical activity. They planned to blow him up in his carriage, and on the appointed day one of their number was in place along the Grand Duke’s usual route. As the carriage drew near, the young revolutionary, a bomb hidden under his coat, noticed that his victim was not alone; on his lap he held two small children. The would-be assassin looked, hesitated, then walked quickly away. He would wait for another occasion. Camus has one of his comrades say, accepting this decision: “Even in destruction, there’s a right way and a wrong way—and there are limits.”

Here again we may find ourselves admiring a man who is prepared to do a deed from which we might well recoil.

Although my reflection on this problem of the virtuous evildoer is about to take a theoretical turn, it is worth at least noting that thinking about the problem might teach us some useful practical lessons in our current cultural climate. The state of ­Maryland recently removed from its statehouse grounds a statue of Roger Taney, who had been chief justice of the United States Supreme Court in the years before the Civil War. Taney, who was a Roman Catholic, did not support the Confederacy, but he was the author of the Dred Scott decision, which held that a black man, even when living in a free state, was not entitled to his freedom, and that African Americans could never be citizens of the United States. Commenting approvingly on removal of the Taney statue, Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, Illinois, asked why we as a people should “honor . . . in a place of prominence” someone like Taney. “He was apparently,” Braxton observed, “a very good Catholic, a very good person in many ways, but this is . . . a flaw at the foundation that feeds all of the rest of this.” A great enough flaw, evidently, to downplay the adjective “virtuous” and underscore the noun “evildoer.”

Maybe Chief Justice Taney is a relatively easy mark. I do not know how best to deal with the many public monuments honoring men who have played significant roles in our history while also displaying what to us now are, to put it gently, feet of clay. But I am certain that if we may only honor those of ­unblemished character, we will save a lot of money on monuments. So, for example, while the near reverence shown the memory of General Robert E. Lee has probably been overdone and must be in part a product of the lost cause myth of the virtuous South, should we dishonor him while honoring General Philip Sheridan who, under Grant’s command, ordered his troops to burn the crops in the Shenandoah Valley, famously saying that he left it so decimated that even a crow flying over the Shenandoah would have to carry its own provisions? A public culture that lacks any sense of splendid vice can, I am afraid, hardly avoid a too-simple vision of the moral life, a vision that divides the world into the virtuous and the vicious. But such a vision is more likely to invite hypocrisy than insight.

I turn now to a theoretical issue that is, I believe, lurking in the problem of the virtuous evildoer. In “The Problem of Thor Bridge,” one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Dr. Watson describes in the following way a Mr. Neil Gibson, who has come to consult with Holmes: “His tall, gaunt, craggy figure had a suggestion of hunger and rapacity. An Abraham Lincoln keyed to base uses instead of high ones would give some idea of the man.” Now here’s an interesting ­question: Can we imagine a man with Lincoln’s virtues, but with those virtues “keyed to base uses instead of high ones”? Is that possible? This, of course, is the very old question of the unity of the virtues. Are the virtues one? Must a person who possesses one virtue necessarily have them all? Or if we lack one, must we lack all? Can we have them piecemeal?

Whether or not Augustine developed precisely a notion of splendid vice, that way of thinking seems clearly connected to a belief that the virtues are one—and that we cannot really have any of the virtues apart from the others. For according to that view, unless our loves are rightly ordered toward God, every­thing else in our character must inevitably be distorted. Even the self-sacrificing courage of a ­Marcus Regulus is only a pale imitation and, in the end, a deceptive imitation of true virtue. And from that perspective, we can perhaps appreciate why someone might think that even though Thomas Jefferson was willing to pledge his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor in defense of the country whose Declaration of Independence he penned and which he served with great distinction, his manifest moral flaws make him an unfit subject for public esteem. Even his best and most notable traits are, in the end, vices, not virtues.

Such judgments may seem harsh, but they flow consistently from the concept of splendid vice and the unity of the virtues. From this perspective, what looks like courage in the service of an unjust cause is a false courage. Conflicts within the moral life are not tragic; they do not result from the fact that the goods of this life cannot be reconciled. They flow from the flaws in our character. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves,” Cassius says. Had ­Lincoln’s character been keyed to base uses rather than high ones, he could not have displayed the virtues we ascribe to him. Not if the virtues ­really are one.

If so, there can be no willingness to forget the sin in contemplation of the sinner’s greatness. Regulus is not to be praised. The soldier who fights bravely in an unjust cause is not courageous. Treating others justly because we are too proud to be seen doing ­otherwise is not true justice. We cannot develop virtues in order to pursue vice. We cannot, for instance, act with genuine temperance and self-control if our goal in acting that way is simply to become as wealthy as possible.

We may well think that such a harsh view is counterintuitive, perhaps even bizarre. For taken seriously, it would mean that none of us is truly virtuous. But that is, after all, what the Psalmist says: “No man living is righteous before thee.” And St. Paul seems to be on board with the same idea. There’s something to that. If my love is not steadfastly directed toward God, the whole of my character can hardly help but be disordered. That is one angle of vision.

But there is also another angle. Even in the dark of night, as Helmut Thielicke said, not all cats are gray. Even granting that the best of our virtues is always tainted, it still seems possible to make ­distinctions. Augustine praised Regulus and other ancient ­Romans; he did not so praise the Romans of his own day who no longer suppressed many vices in service of Rome’s glory. Or as Michael Walzer writes with respect to the rules of war and the belief that war is hell, “even in hell, it is possible to be more or less humane.”

The contrast between these two ways of thinking—between a concept of the unity of the virtues and a belief that we can acquire and possess the virtues piecemeal—will be apparent if we consider two ways we have of describing the relation between our natural virtues and the grace-given virtue of love for God. On the one hand, we may say that the grace-given virtue of love “presupposes” and does not invalidate the presence of our natural virtues. Hence, they must really be there to be presupposed. They are drawn up into a life directed toward God, but they are virtues even apart from that.

On the other hand, we may also say that when these natural virtues are drawn up into a life directed toward the love of God, they are transformed and perfected. And if in need of transformation on the way to perfection, they must to some degree be deficient and distorted—not the genuine article but more like splendid vice. There is a mystery hidden in this notion of perfection, a mystery that should keep us from being too confident about our supposed virtues. As Josef Pieper put it: “It is simply in the nature of the thing that the apprentice can have no specific idea of what the perfection of mastery looks like from inside, and all that [it] is going to demand of him.”

We are likely to think—I myself often tend to think—that an air of the tragic permeates this discussion. A great man like Regulus serving a false god. An honorable man like Rommel caught up in the wrong cause. The noblest Roman of them all a garden-­variety assassin. A man as honorable as ­Robert E. Lee putting his skill in service of an evil regime. Ulysses’s brave search to see and know what no human being has ever seen stained by a willingness to leave behind those who love and depend on him. Judas’s necessary participation in God’s redemptive handing over of his Son to those intent on destroying him.

There would be something wrong with us if we were entirely unmoved by such examples, but we should not merely wring our hands and bewail our fate. We pay a price for savoring the tragic too much. And the price we pay is that we lose the sense that we are always “on the way” in life—and that to seek virtue is to embark on a journey that requires more than just the piecemeal acquisition of certain character traits. It requires a transformation of who we are. To put the matter more theologically, we might say that the unity of the virtues is an eschatological possibility—the end of the journey, not a rest stop along the way. And it should be no surprise that when we forget this, our public life becomes increasingly shrill, driven by a desire for purity here and now.

One final example: In “After Ten Years”—the famous “reckoning” addressed to his fellow conspirators—Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “the great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts.” Among those concepts that had become unraveled in Bonhoeffer’s ­experience was that of virtue. He was not prepared simply to criticize his fellow Germans who had supported—and even died for—the Nazi regime. “Who would deny,” he writes, “that in obedience, in their task and calling, the Germans have again and again shown the utmost bravery and self-sacrifice”—surely estimable virtues. They took their calling as citizens of the German realm seriously and tried to live it out faithfully. And yet, Bonhoeffer says, something was lacking in these virtuous Germans. They could not see the need for “free and responsible action, even in opposition” to what they took to be their calling. And, hence, they served evil.

But it was not only those “other” German citizens who had become virtuous evildoers. In what is surely the most famous passage from “After Ten Years,” Bonhoeffer wonders whether the (in his mind) ­necessary evildoing in which he and his fellow conspirators have engaged can possibly be the work of virtuous people.

We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open. . . . Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, and straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?

How striking, as one scholar has put it, referring to Bonhoeffer’s famous early work The Cost of Discipleship, that “the theologian who wrote arguably the twentieth century’s most influential book on the Sermon on the Mount is not able [now] to let his ‘yes’ be yes and his ‘no’ be no.”

Much of Bonhoeffer’s theological reflection was necessarily focused on this problem. How ought Christians live responsibly in a world that seemed to offer only tragic choices? Just to immerse themselves in the world, accepting its mix of good and evil—just to act as virtuously as they could in such circumstances, but to do so without any sense of being on the way—was to believe in a God who could do no better than the tragic. Yet, of course, to try to live only in the light of God’s ultimate judgment would be to act as if this evil world were not even now a fit place for virtuous human habitation. Yet it is. So Bonhoeffer writes in his Ethics:

In Jesus Christ we have faith in the incarnate, crucified and risen God. In the incarnation we learn of the love of God for His creation: in the crucifixion we learn of the judgment of God upon all flesh; and in the resurrection we learn of God’s will for a new world. There could be no greater error than to tear these three elements apart.

The story of that man Jesus, in these three acts, is not a tragedy, though it makes place for the tragic. It does not depict a world forever condemned to display, at best, virtuous evildoers. But, of course, it also does not “solve” the problem of the virtuous evildoer, if by “solve” we have in mind a theoretical solution. Rather, it invites us to enter into this story and live within it as faithfully as we are able. “Christian life,” Bonhoeffer writes, “is participation in the encounter of Christ with the world.” So to participate is to be on the way toward a day—and a new creation—in which the virtues truly are one, and virtuous evildoers are no more. 

Gilbert Meilaender is Senior Research Professor at Valparaiso University and a fellow of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.