ORDINARY VICES by Judith N. Shklar
Kirkus Star

ORDINARY VICES

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Meditations for modern liberals: a superb, closely reasoned, deeply humane essay on the problematic consequences of ""putting cruelty first""--i.e., of following the kindly skepticism of Montaigne, Montesquieu, and others in political and social life. In Of Cannibals (I, xxxi) Montaigne calls treachery, disloyalty, cruelty, and tyranny ""our ordinary vices."" After adding hypocrisy and snobbery to that list, Shklar (Political Science, Harvard) notes that until the Enlightenment cruelty and its various by-products received surprisingly little attention in the great philosophical (Aristotle) or theological (Aquinas) taxonomies of evil. Machiavelli exalts the practical value of cruelty (as do terrorists both in and out of office), while Nietzsche, by excoriating hypocrisy as the worst of vices, envisions a liberating, cleansing role for cruelty. To all this Shklar says a firm No, insisting that we must combat cruelty as our worst enemy, because it engenders fear, which ia the ""ultimately evil moral condition"" and makes it nearly impossible to avoid other, lesser vices. Yet putting cruelty first, while admitting that no government or group or individual can do without it, inevitably raises inner tensions and foments the most universally scorned modern vice, hypocrisy. Citing the suicidal, anarchic sincerity of Molière's Alceste, as opposed to the forthright ""acting"" of Benjamin Franklin, Shklar bids us drop our ""obsession with openness"" and the ""traditional horror of the hypocrite."" Snobbery, though morally cruel, is just about unavoidable, while hypocrisy actually ""bolsters liberal democracy"" by easing the pressures created by ideological conflict, the gap between rhetoric and reality, etc. Shklar, in other words, defends a classical agnostic, melioristic, utilitarian position. But few political philosophers have her clean prose style, her broad range of literary reference, and her relentless logic. A first-class performance.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1984
ISBN: 0674641760
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press