The Defects of His Virtues, The Virtues of His Defects

As everyone knows, the novel and film Schindler’s List tells the true story of how Nazi party member Oskar Schindler, though he came to Poland to exploit Germany’s conquest of her, saved over 1000 Jews from certain extermination by using what would uncharitably be called the skills of a con man. A line from author Thomas Keneally’s introduction stays with me: “this is the story of the pragmatic triumph of good over evil.” Usually, according to Keneally, novelists write about the triumph of evil, and they choose to be “wise, ironic, piercing, to avoid bathos” when writing about the good. However, Keneally tells his story with a minimum of irony.

In Oskar Schindler, a man of dubious ethics, we do see the triumph of good over evil, not only in that he saved many lives from the evil Nazis but also in that Schindler’s own life was redeemed. And this triumph is pragmatic, not only because we can measure it in lives, but also because it involves a man sliding into good, when so many men pragmatically slide into evil or at least moral compromise. The difference makes us reflect on the relationship of virtues and defects of character.

Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler
Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler

We can put a magnifying glass to this relationship by focusing on character development in literature. (Keep in mind that most people only know Schindler as a character in a story.) A character can have the virtues of his defects, like Schindler, or, as is more commonly the case, the defects of his virtues. Let us first examine the more common case, as it is more straightforward.

The easy example of the defects of one’s virtues from real life is someone who is so “nice” that he, or perhaps more often she, gets taken advantage of. Things in literature are more complex but follow the same pattern.

An illustration of this pattern from classic literature can be found in the character of Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Brutus is a Stoic, a man of high moral character, an “honorable” man, as Mark Antony repeatedly reminds us in his funeral oration over Caesar’s body. Yet, as every point in the conspiracy to kill Caesar and save the Roman Republic, Brutus, in taking the high ground, makes the wrong choice. For example, Brutus’s co-conspirator, Cassius, wants to kill Mark Antony, who is wily and dangerous. Brutus squelches this notion, saying that Antony is only Caesar’s limb, which will be harmless when the head’s cut off and that no more blood should be shed than is necessary. This is a fatal underestimation of Antony, who of course ends up leading the army that eventually destroys Brutus and Cassius. Brutus is, yes, an honorable man, but honor, at least the kind that Brutus values, is not always what is called for in realpolitik, and in this context, Brutus’ virtues contain a deadly defect.

James Mason as Brutus
James Mason as Brutus

An example from more recent literature can be found the character of Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Roark is the walking embodiment of the virtue of independence. He not only does not care what other people think; he does not even notice what other people think. For this reason, he can be quite naïve. He repeatedly helps his college roommate, second-hander fellow architect Peter Keating, with his design projects because he can’t let a bad building be built. This generosity, if that is the right word, gets him into a lot of trouble near the end of the novel but eventually he gains insight into philosophical truth and attains wisdom. But up until that point Roark’s virtues lead him to do bad things.

Gary Cooper as Howard Roark
Gary Cooper as Howard Roark

Giving a character the defects of his virtues is a good way to build a story around a basically good person, because the defects lead him into trouble, which creates narrative tension. If the author takes a dark, Byronic view of life, the defect can lead to the character’s downfall, although perhaps the virtues redeem the situation, at least in giving the character tragic dignity. If the author takes a more benevolent view, then the defect is a set-up for growth and the triumph of virtues through adversity.

But with Schindler, things are the other way around. Here we have defects that contain hidden virtues. Schindler was an operator, a schmoozer, a sybarite and a man who took advantage of other people’s misfortune. And of course, he was a member of the Nazi party. But these qualities are exactly what he needed to outfox his fellow Nazis. Schindler spent years conning the local Nazis into believing that his Jewish workers were needed for the war effort so that they would be spared from the Final Solution. Part of how he did this was by “partying” with the loathsome Nazi officer Amon Goeth. Part of it was that he was a good liar who inspired trust by displaying geniality. Again these are qualities that would well serve a con man.

That much is plain from the story. What is not so clear is why he did it. It appears that under that bluff bonhomie he did have a conscience and that despite his predatory tendencies he did feel compassion. We see this compassion most clearly in the scene in the story where he hoses down the train carrying Jews to their destruction.

But I have to wonder whether part of his motivation was that he relished the challenge. He was an adventurer in some sense, after all, rather like a pirate. Perhaps he enjoyed the scheming and the trickery. Perhaps he enjoyed walking the tightrope. Maybe he was the Reynard the trickster, who enjoyed fooling the foolish. He may have felt most alive when dancing along the edge. We’ll never know for sure.

One difference between the novel and the film is telling on this point. In the film version, right before he makes his escape, Schindler breaks down and cries. “I could have got more,” he sobs. If only he hadn’t held on to his fancy car and his gold Nazi party pin, he could have saved more lives. He feels guilty for his high living and probably also feels a release from the burden of his actions over the years.

This breakdown is not in the novel, which seems more reflective of the real man. Here Schindler coolly stashes diamonds in hidden compartments of his car and drives off. There isn’t the slightest suggestion of guilt. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Schindler probably felt pride in his accomplishment. Some of this is a matter of interpretation of course, but that is normal in literature.

Sometimes we need heroes who do great deeds, not out of a sense of nobility or altruism, but simply because they enjoy the thrill of the chase. Oskar Schindler seems to have turned his keenness for living, which had been directed at scheming, boozing and womanizing and incorporated a better goal of saving lives.

The hero who performs great deeds out of zest is a familiar figure, at least in popular culture. (Think Robin Hood.) But zest is a morally neutral category. One can murder zestfully as well as save lives zestfully. Up until the time he started saving lives, Oskar Schindler’s zest seems to have synergized with his moral defects (and he remained a philanderer even as he saved lives). But when he decided to do good, his zest largely repolarized and became a tool of virtue. I would venture a guess that Schindler found it more satisfying to be zestful in this way, but the emotional quality is largely the same. This suggests that character is as important as abstract morals, at least in many cases.


The real Oskar Schindler

The view that the high rises from the low is well-known: It is the notion that unites Nietzsche and Freud. But I am not claiming that Schindler sublimated primal urges that were naturally crude. I am saying that personality is made up of half-conceptualized, half-realized virtues and defects that thrust against each other and that when integrated by good or evil intentions can form an exquisite whole. This is the stuff of literature, and I would assert that we need literature as well as philosophy for an understanding of character, in both the sense of characters in literature and the sense of ethical character. But that is the subject of another essay.

Oskar Schindler never did anything else great for the rest of his life. In fact he was a failure in business and at his marriage. He was dependent on the gratitude of those he had saved. But for a few terrible, yet glorious years, Schindler realized himself as few of us do.

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life.

3 thoughts on “The Defects of His Virtues, The Virtues of His Defects

  1. Thank you for an excellent article. It takes us well beyond the common observation that most people are a mixed bag of good and bad qualities to the more subtle observation that in some individuals virtues and defects may be closely and inseparably intertwined. Both Brutus and Schindler are, I think, well-chosen examples of the opposite ways this may be so, helping to clarify and support your thesis.

    But I’m not quite convinced that Howard Roark serves as a very good example of someone who has the defects of his virtues. Roark, after all, is supposed to represent ideal man, and an ideal man — in Ayn Rand’s moral universe — may make errors but he does not have defects, least of all ones bound up with his virtues. Rand is too much of a moral absolutist, I believe, to allow for such an interpretation, especially in regard to the virtue of independence. At the time she wrote The Fountainhead, independence, closely fused with integrity, was for her the primary virtue and the quality that most fundamentally distinguished her ideal man.

    A clue to Rand’s own thoughts on this is given in her Journals note that “while Howard Roark, at first glance, is monstrously selfish and inconsiderate of others — one sees, in the end, his great consideration for the rights of others (when they warrant it) and his ruthlessness only in major issues” (p. 87). This, to me, does not suggest that she thought of Roark as a developing character whose early defective independence is gradually corrected as he matures and grows in insight. Instead, she seems to have thought of him as a man whose moral perfection is there from the start, but that — “at first glance” — may appear defective. This is reflected in the novel, where our first impression of Roark is that of an egoist who may seem to totally lack any kind of social sensitivity or care for other human beings. But this is an impression we are asked to modify in the course of reading the novel as other aspects of Roark’s character, such as his kindness and his generosity, are gradually disclosed. Although it’s true that Roark grows in insight, this does not mean that his character changes in any significant way. Rather, it’s the reader’s perception of his character that changes. From our limited and in part defective impression of Roark’s egoism in the opening parts, we are in the end led to a fuller understanding of the benevolent nature of his egoism.

    I believe this manipulation of the reader’s response is quite deliberate on Rand’s part. Since her aim in The Fountainhead was to present in the figure of Roark a new — and, as she well knew, highly controversial — conception of moral egoism, it serves as a strategic device for bringing the reader not only to a greater comprehension of this new moral ideal but also to greater acceptance. By leading us to correct our first impressions of Roark as socially inconsiderate, she simultaneously challenges us to correct our acceptance of the traditional conception of egoism as cold and ruthless selfishness.

  2. Thank you, Kirsti, for your thoughtful reply to my essay. My full rejoinder will come in the form of another essay, which I wrote 20 years ago, which I will transcribe and post as time permits. But for now, let me respond to a few specific points.

    Our primary issue is whether Rand’s moral absolutism would allow her to portray a moral flaw in her heroes. Certainly by the time she wrote Atlas Shrugged, Rand had become rigid in her distinction between immorality, which she saw as rooted in evasion, and error. But I do not think she had attained that degree of rigidity while writing The Fountainhead.

    Take for example the behavior of three of the novel’s supporting characters: Dominique Francon strives to destroy Roark’s career, Steven Mallory attempts to murder someone, and Gail Wynand is little short of a monster in the pleasure he takes in bringing great men to ruin. And yet these are sympathetic characters. Perhaps we could excuse Dominique, who acts on a twisted and neurotic form of idealism, but there is no way that Mallory or Wynand would pass muster in the moral universe of Atlas Shrugged. It seems clear to me that Rand modified her standards of what was morally acceptable or at least pardonable between writing the two novels.

    It might be objected that Dominique, Mallory and Wynand are not supposed to represent Rand’s view of the ideal man. But we have to ask how Roark, our ideal man, could love such people. If Rand’s view of morality was the same in both novels, then Dominique perhaps, and Mallory and Wynand for certain, would be evil and Roark would be sanctioning evil. Of course, sanctioning evil is not necessarily immoral in itself—it can be the fruit of error. But it is not intimated that Roark is making a mistake. Rand in the earlier novel simply has a different view of what is acceptable.

    But does Roark have any defects that Rand would agree were defects? I should clarify that the concept of the defect of one’s virtues does not imply that the defects are defects of morality as such. Brutus is not immoral for sparing Antony, just extremely imprudent. (Other Shakespearean protagonists’ virtues, such as Macbeth’s ambition, do tend them toward unequivocally evil acts, but this pattern does not apply in all cases. As another example of a virtue that leads to imprudence but not to immorality I would name Hamlet’s thoughtfulness.)

    The defect I write about in the original essay is Roark helping Keating with his designs. Perhaps Rand does not intend us to see this as a moral defect: Where Roark puts his energy is his own business. But as I do not have to tell you, the author’s private intentions are not the final heuristic for interpreting the text. What Roark does, by any unbiased standard, is professionally unethical and morally questionable. It is a moral defect. We do not know for sure whether Rand saw it this way or not, but in a sense, that does not matter. If we like, we can, for the sake of argument, assume that Rand did not see it as a moral defect, but as an example of a virtue “overshooting” its goal in a given context. That would still be a kind of defect, one which gets Roark in trouble later.

    I agree with you that Rand would be loath to have any defect stem from Roark’s primary virtue of independence. But it is not from independence that Roark’s defect flows. Independence and a passion for his work only set the stage for Roark’s defective actions because they make him naïve and untheoretical in the early portions of the story. The virtues that lead him to design for Keating are his unwillingness to see a bad building built and I think a bit of sympathy for Keating. Roark’s primary virtues only prepare the ground.

    I suppose that means that the “tragic virtue” that causes Roark to suffer arrest and near-imprisonment is at least indirectly his passionate independence. Rand might not have intended The Fountainhead to be read this way, but sometimes the work is more subtle than its author, at least more subtle that the author’s conscious aims.

    We could probably pursue these issues further by considering the Nietzschean residue in The Fountainhead, but that may be the stuff of another discussion. I will transcribe my essay about Roark’s development as a character as soon as I am able.

  3. Kurt, I fully agree that Rand’s moral absolutism is less rigid in The Fountainhead than in Atlas Shrugged and that this enabled her to create morally more complex characters in the earlier novel. I also agree that Roark’s willingness to help Keating design his buildings is a grave error, with disastrous consequences for both of them. But I fail to see that that this error constitutes a moral defect. To suggest this is to suggest that Rand in The Fountainhead failed in her aim to hold up, in the figure of Roark, an inspiring image of an ideal man by creating — contrary to her intentions — a morally flawed man. I don’t think this is the case. Far less do I see that his “defect” of helping Keating in his work is grounded in his virtue of independence, even if only indirectly so, by setting the stage for his defective actions.

    My chief problem with this latter argument is that it rests on a, for me, rather curious claim that his willingness to help Keating springs from his being socially naïve. In support of your thesis, you then make the further, also somewhat curious, claim that this naïveté in turn springs from his virtue of independence, since this virtue, together with his passion for his work, has caused him to be unreflective in his relations with other people.

    I see very little in the novel that supports this interpretation. The fact that Roark does not spend much time or effort thinking about other people does not make him naïve. It is part of his superiority, springing from an intuitive understanding of other people that makes it unnecessary for him to give them much thought or consideration. Even in the opening chapters Roark is presented as a man who understands people very well, recognizing that in some fundamental way they differ from him. He has, for example, no difficulty seeing right through the social vanities of Keating or the doctrinaire conservatism of the Dean, even though he has yet to discover the unifying principle that explains, in philosophical terms, their particular flaws: the absence of self that characterizes the second-hander. Moreover, by the time Roark agrees to help Keating design Cortlandt Homes, his most serious mistake, he has attained a maturity and an insight that makes it very difficult to see this as a result of his social naïveté and so indirectly his independence.

    Your argument that one of his reasons for helping Keating is his unwillingness to see a bad building being built is much more to the point here. Roark’s decision to design Cortlandt Homes does arise from the architectural challenge it poses for him. So in this regard, you could say that it is a decision directly grounded in a virtue, namely his passion for his work. But this hardly supports your more radical contention that it is a defect indirectly related to his virtue of independence. As I see it, it has more to do with his making a faulty decision which is consistent with his character and his deepest values and so morally grounded. The fatality of his decision, however, rests on an intellectual error: his failure to see that he is in effect assisting Keating’s parasitism, combined with a failure to foresee the consequences of his act. It is only when he sees these consequences that he recognizes the gravity of his error.

    I shall look forward to your essay on Roark’s development. I fully agree that Roark in the course of the novel does develop — although not in the way you have indicated in your arguments above.

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