“The silences” suggests a limitation where there isn’t any, a purity somewhat like the absence of mixture I am loathe to credit. And so there are taboo silences, like when your sister marries a black man, and these are closely allied with the silences of prejudice and bigotry, as when your uncle comes out from the pizzeria’s kitchen in back where you used to play with your cousins throwing pizza dough balls up onto the ceiling to see if you could get them to stick, dozens upon dozens of dough balls, and he says hello to all his relatives at the table, one by one, and asks how you’ve been, each in turn, lingering, his eyes kind, and then he skips, in silence, across his four-year-old great-nephew, the little dark-skinned boy who hears you pronouncing uncle so many times as if there is some natural connection here that does not quite connect, and so he asks, when his uncle has disappeared back into the kitchen, “Is he my uncle, too?”
This and other moments of this have made me want to be good, to try at least, and make me wonder now why I did not start writing a book with virtue, or rather the virtues at its heart, as that, I think, is where it should all begin. The medieval moralists, following Aristotle, emphasized their practice over their contemplation in the hope that the cultivation of habit would encourage the values themselves, not just the behaviors that made one look as if courageous, temperate, prudent, just, faithful, hopeful, and loving. Father Zosima says something like this in The Brothers Karamazov, when his visitor, beside herself with grief, admits that she has lost her faith. He tries many tacks but, when nothing works, says, act as if you have it, practice, behave as if, and it will come back to you. Your acting, he seems to suggest, will become the thing, and this must be what Plato was afraid might happen to his imaginary guardians in his imaginary state, if they acted the parts of scoundrels or weaklings or liars in a play, rather than only ever acting the one role he had assigned them—that of guardians.
The seven ideals thus resemble silences, voids that cannot be grasped, only traversed again and again, in the hope that the practice will bring one closer to them, the hope that, through behaving as if, long enough, as if will become, in the end, simply as. And the crossing, the melding of them all, together in one person—or rather one persona (for we all are just acting here)—becomes the ideal of an integrated, unified virtuous whole, an ethical purity made up of mixture.