Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Civic Virtue in under Western Eyes

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Civic Virtue in under Western Eyes

Article excerpt

IN PART IV of Under Western Eyes, the narrative circles back to Councillor Mikulin's interview with Razumov where the latter tries to defend his political neutrality and detachment from the conflicting claims of autocracy and revolution: "But Councillor Mikulin would have none of his arguments" (226). Mikulin tells Haldin's betrayer that he has seen his written confession of political faith that includes the dictum "Evolution not Revolution" (57) and challenges Razumov to commit himself wholeheartedly to the counter-revolutionary cause because, as Mikulin says, "abstention, reserve, in certain situations come very near to political crime. The ancient Greeks understood that very well" (226). The Russian bureaucrat is obviously exaggerating here to intimidate his young interlocutor: in ancient Athens it was indeed a punishable offence to neglect one's civic duties (Pol., IV.x.6-7), but there is no evidence that the Greeks viewed political reserve as a crime.

The nature of citizenship and the relationship of the citizen to the state was a matter of much debate between Classical philosophers and statesmen. In ancient Athens, citizens were expected to subordinate their private interests to the common good and serve the state in accordance with specific duties defined by law and taught by the city's institutions. Aristotle viewed morality as a matter of the societal order and the relation between citizens rather than merely between men. He agreed with Plato that only in the best city could the "good man" and the "good citizen" be equated (EN, 1.13 1102a7), and he further claimed that participation in public life was necessary for virtue, but conceded one exception: the intellectual life of pure theoretical thought (6.13. 1145a 69) to which Razumov also aspires. But even this, Aristotle says, must be accommodated for by the rulers, implying that there is nothing outside the state's jurisdiction. Socrates, on the other hand, distinguished between virtues learnt and practised in the city, such as courage and honour, from spiritual or philosophic virtues such as truthfulness and wisdom, implying that the latter are mandated by a higher authority and should take precedence ("Apology," 29d-e).

Socrates's distinction goes to the heart of the political matter in Under Western Eyes, for it raises the question of a hierarchy of moral obligations and, if there is a conflict between them, to which the citizen owes greater allegiance. Thus, in an autocratic regime such as Tsarist Russia, is abiding by the laws of the state always a citizen's primary duty, or can we imagine instances where the opposite may be true in obeisance to a higher law?1 As Razumov says regarding the assassination of the Minister of State: "it is a crime ... A murder is a murder. Though of course, some sort of liberal institutions" (28) would have rendered it unnecessary. Also, under what conditions is it a citizen's duty to participate in public life and when, if ever, is it more virtuous to withdraw? This essay explores the position of Under Western Eyes in relation to these ethical problems and considers how Conrad viewed different political systems through the prism of civic virtue, made topical in modern times most notably by Rousseau.

I

Although none of the great Greek philosophers were supporters of the Athenian model of direct participatory democracy, preferring elitist or aristocratic types of government such as that outlined in Plato's Republic, it is Classical Athens that has gone down in history as the ideal state. At its height, it was a slave-holding city with an all-male electorate of approximately 35-40,000 adults (Finley 1983: 59). Although the demos of Athens was conceived as the sum of its citizens rather than a mere political abstraction, the individual was considered important to the extent that the polis was collectively ruled. Where a city is governed by the many rather than the few, democratic or republican virtue becomes of paramount importance, as the city's prosperity is seen to depend upon its ability to inspire and sustain a spirit of service, duty, and lawfulness in the citizenry. …

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