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Virtue is Like Jazz Improvisation

March 12, AD2014 13 Comments


What exactly is virtue, and what does it mean to live a good life? Once again, the Catholic tradition views this question much differently than the modern world does, and the modern world seems to be struggling with its solution. Therefore I think the question deserves a second look.

Two Views of Virtue

The Rationalist View. Modern styles of thinking view moral virtue as taking place at a fixed point in time. The focus is never on you as a deciding person, but on your decision rule. It doesn’t matter how one has lived his life, what matters is whether the rule is rational enough. I’m thinking of an algorithm, for example, for deciding whether it is better to enlist in the military or to stay home and care for your dying grandmother.

The right decision, says the decision-rule approach, is to calculate the pros and cons of both, to add up the score, and to go from there. The score is given according to some pleasure-pain dimension. Serving in the military protects the lives and well- being of millions of people, while serving your grandmother protects only one person. On the other hand your grandmother is more vulnerable, so perhaps the good that she receives is in some sense greater in quantity. Is this not the archetypal form of moral debate in the world today?

Such a style of reasoning inevitably leads a culture to believe there is no right and wrong answer to moral questions because all disputes come down to whose rule is most “rational.”

The Catholic View. While modern styles of moral judgment focus on the decision at a fixed point in time, the classical Catholic view of virtue sees moral judgment as flowing from a process of acquiring habits, a process that takes place across a real person’s life. In the present moment there is a decision to be made and an action to be taken. But your preparation for moral action, your preparation as the person who makes the decision, does not depend solely on whether you are rational or intelligent, or scientific. Of course, your decision should follow the rules of reason because we are made to be rational. But the moral strength of your choice and your action derives as well from who you have become as a person. Your character, your virtue, is what disposes you to act rightly. But this means your choices don\’t take place on the spur of the moment. They flow from your assimilating the wisdom of timeless truth and putting it into practice day after day.

This is revolutionary because it is true.

Existentialists and artists sympathize more closely with the Catholic view than to the synthetic models of modern rationalist thought. Twentieth century philosopher Jean Paul Sartre famously denied that there was anything to choose between enlisting in the military and staying at home to tend to a sick family member. He poked modern ethicists in the eye by proclaiming that there is in fact no quantifiable criterion for right and wrong in the moment, there is only your free choice, your will to create your life as you choose.

Put aside the atheism of Sartre’s view. He is much closer to the Catholic position than he is to the method of the bureaucratic ethicists of today. He utterly rejects the idea of a decision rule based on quantities. His focus is always the concrete human being in the here and now. Only an authentic person can make a moral judgment, this job can’t be performed by an equation, or a government committee, and for heaven’s sake not by a political party.

Because he was an atheist, Sartre struggled with the consequences of this idea of how to justify one’s decisions in life. If there is no criterion for good in an absolute sense, how do we avoid spinning helplessly in life without ground or bearing? He gave what many consider a hint at his answer at the end of his classic novel Nausea. Having painted a literary landscape describing various attempts to find grounding in the world, and having come to the conclusion that none of these attempts have authentic meaning, Sartre ends his story without a real ending, in a nightclub with Jazz music playing a popular song. One reviewer asked, does this mean that he sees us as artists, who give the world a form though our skills, our talents, our lives?

When I read Sartre’s Nausea in college and I had the exact same reaction as this critic did. I was not an atheist. I was disposed to understand Sartre’s work dispassionately because I had studied existentialism from a Catholic perspective and because I was myself a Jazz musician. The perfect storm. Here is what I came to.

The Artistry of Moral Judgment

I was better at teaching music than playing it, though I played fairly well, so I taught guitar to pay my way through graduate school. That\’s right, eat your hearts out. I rented a studio in a very hip local music store. I could play any guitar I wanted from the wall, and I could listen to fabulous musicians practicing in their studios throughout the day.

I taught according to the old school method, which means I insisted my students read notes, play scales, and analyze what they were doing. There was a dash of theory but mostly relentless practice. Some students confided to me that this note reading business simply had to go. One young fellow declared, apropos of nothing, that he wanted to be the Stravinsky of guitar. He said, \”I want to make my own rules, man!\” I still smile at his infectious enthusiasm.

Is this not in fact the defining character of youth in every age? Forget tradition, they say. This is the new age, we must leave behind the Galileo trials and the Crusades and all that. Let’s move forward not backwards! If we could just purge the old influences once and for all and let people think for themselves, the world would be filled with new and exciting ideas.

What my ambitious guitar student didn’t know was how actual musicians really practice their art. There are timeless truths to be assimilated, and they must become habits before free expression is even possible. I can still hear the sound of a certain avant-garde saxophonist who rented a studio where I worked. He played along the edges. He could build long, relentless phrases of great complexity. His particular genius was strong punctuation, and startling dissonance. It was all unscripted, every solo was an act of creation. You felt like he was making it up as he went, yet it had an underlying form, it felt like a conversation.

The solos themselves are not what made him good. Remember, I said that the Catholic tradition views virtue as extended across a lifetime. What happened before the solo? That’s what really matters. This particular saxophonist would practice his scales like a schoolboy every day, reading notes from a music stand. These were the old fashioned do-re-mi scales. He worked through every one of the modes, major, minor, relative minor, and all the exotic variations in between, in every key, one after another, for hours. These are the — dare I say it again? – these are the traditional musical foundations, and he knew he had to master them if his solos were to have any coherence or originality.

I remember my own epiphany, my first insight into this important life lesson when I bought a music book written by guitarist Joe Pass. He is considered by many in my generation to be the greatest jazz guitarist who ever lived. I opened the book to see that he had written out in great detail, notes and all, the theory behind what he was doing. His solos, brilliant and spontaneous as they sounded, were, for lack of a better word, prudent. Every passage from one phrase to another had a hidden structure. There was a reason why one could substitute an A minor 7th for a C in a chord progression as long as you didn\’t overdo it. There on the page I saw the phrases he played, which I had known until then only by sound, and which I now recognized as making perfect sense in the context of musical theory.

Before you can improvise your way in life, you have to achieve mastery over the received tradition. The principles and the rules matter, you must confront them. Not for the sake of some empty rite of passage, but rather because unless your practice is grounded in the intellectual and moral tradition, your spontaneous act isn’t spontaneous. It’s just incoherent. It’s whatever happens to be on your mind. In fact, it’s likely to be nothing more than a very confused reenactment of an old idea that came in and out of fashion centuries ago.

We impoverish ourselves and our culture when we abolish all remnants of the past. You can’t have Bartók without Beethoven, or Stravinsky without Strauss. Becoming a virtuoso means you have to have an honest encounter with the wisdom and the philosophical principles that preceded you. Take tradition and make it new in the concrete decisions of your life. And in between the times of those life-changing decisions, practice the small decisions every day, make them in light of reason and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Develop good habits, and when the time comes, you’ll know the right thing to do, you will have become an artist.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Jeff McLeod holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. He works as a data scientist, researcher, statistician, psychometrician, and software developer. His passion is to express the tenets of Catholicism without compromise, faithful to the magisterium, in confident dialog with the modern world. In his spare time he is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychology at St. Mary's University of Minnesota, and teaches at the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute in St. Paul. He and his lovely Catholic convert wife have been married for 25 years and share their home with two exceedingly accomplished children.

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