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Drama and virtue

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 12 October 2016

All competent drama is a meditation on virtue. This is true of the earliest drama of Ancient Greece to the plays of Shakespeare to the long format drama of modern television. Indeed, the potency of drama may be measured by how deep is the analysis of the human dilemma in relation to virtue. We learn from Tony Soprano in the Sopranos and Walter White of Breaking Bad and from Francis Underwood in House of Cards and from Alicia Florrick in the Good Wife what it means to live a non-virtuous or virtuous life and its consequences.

There is something deeper here than characters living up to or neglecting moral standards, drama may not be reduced to an argument about right or wrong, good or bad, it is much more complicated than that and this is why good drama is so compelling. Virtue is not simple and it may not be reduced to personal choice as if we consciously make ethical decisions every moment of our lives.

Rather, virtue, or it's lack, is a matter of the gods, acknowledged and unacknowledged, that take up residence in the human mind. Walter White justifies his actions as providing for his family after his death from cancer. In the last episodes we learn that his motivation was simple pride in his ability to produce a pure chemical substance. Tony Soprano's life is justified by family and friendship all of whom he betrays. Francis Underwood is bound to come to grief because he lies and schemes and murders to reach the Presidency and Alicia Florrick, wends her way through a cesspool of competing self interest, opportunistic players, deviousness and plotting to arrive at something we might call "good".


The interesting question in all of this is whether the dramatists are pointing to something that is intrinsic to human flourishing or wether they are stringing us along with a sentimental and comforting morality tail that tells us that the good always win out and the bad suffer?

What is up for grabs in all drama is how characters negotiate what Stanley Hauerwas has called 'the grain of the universe" a metaphor derived from carpentry. While modern liberalism insists that no such grain exists and that it is up to the individual to exercise his own will, narratives of the human indicate otherwise.

The narratives of Jesus contained in the gospels dominated the culture of the West and gave an account of how the grain of the universe runs. This produced a civilized Europe complete with monasteries, universities, hospitals, schools and just civil government.

The gospels formed the basis of modern drama in that it explored the human heart. Rather than being a witness to the existence of the supernatural, the gospels exist as drama. We find the exercise of compassion, forgiveness, pathos, irony, betrayal and friendship. This outlines the grain of the human universe; that we find the meaning of our lives in the person next to us and not in our self seeking.

Thomas Hobbes, a key figure in the English Enlightenment, challenged this view of the world. Hobbes, gave an account of human circumstances as being the war of all against all using violent nature as his model. He formulated an anthropology in which each individual was self-interested and hence in competition with all around him. His solution to how a civil society could exist in such circumstances was that government should have a monopoly on the use of violence in order to keep natural chaos in order.

All of the long form dramas introduced at the beginning of this essay display the existence of this anthropology. Tony, Walter, Francis and the lawyers in The Good Wife are all isolated actors who ruthlessly pursue their goals and are only limited by the law.


Couple this view with John Locke's championing of natural rights and you have the recipe for the disaster we now experience in our societies. This is a disaster that is acted out in our politics, our artistic life and our private lives. We now no longer have a consensus on what pertains to the good life. Rather, society is atomised, broken down into individual wills that see no grain in the human universe at all. Natural rights have displaced virtue.

Hobbes and Locke established a view of humanity that was directly in opposition to that formed in Christianity in which the essence of the human was not violence and competition but generosity, cooperation, friendship and self-giving.

The dramatist's view of humanity and its circumstances is directly opposed to the inheritance from the English Enlightenment. In their quest to write "true" stories, dramatists examine the human heart and the behaviour that results. When characters give in to Hobbes "war of all against all" and do whatever it takes to achieve advantage, they act against the grain of the universe, they destroy the possibility of friendship and community and they suffer the consequences.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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