Sunday’s Wisdom #136: Virtue in Extremis

“Only in darkness are we revealed. Goodness is not goodness that seeks advantage. Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit, without hope, without witness, without reward. Virtue is only virtue in extremis.”
– Nardole, quoting the diary of River Song, Doctor Who
Season 10, episode 6, “Extremis”

When I first heard this quote, I could see what they were saying, but it felt… incomplete.

Of course, it’s completely true, we can only claim virtue when we hold to it even in the worst and most desperate situation, at the end. If, in that final hour, we choose to abandon it, abandon the best parts of ourselves as well as everyone who needs us, that speaks volumes of what we lack. A commander in battle, for instance, is a truly pathetic creature indeed if he betrays his men and seeks only to save himself. Or someone who abandons a friend in dire circumstance.

In similar token, it is very easy for us to do the right thing when we can gain something from it, when we can be recognized for it, and when we can save ourselves through it. It becomes easier to justify doing something wrong when some or all of those are missing. If there’s nothing to gain, if we’re doomed anyway, and if no one sees, then who could ever judge us? The short answer to that is: ourselves. There is no escaping our own choices.

In the particular scenario of the episode this quote comes from, the Doctor finds himself in a situation where neither he nor anyone else in the world has any real hope. They are faced with a terrible enemy, and a terrible truth, that they cannot hope to defeat. However, there is one thing the Doctor might be able to do: warn the enemy’s next intended victims. And that is what he does. No one will ever know, there is nothing for him to gain, and he is lost to defeat already, but he still does what he can for others. It’s very impressive, a display of true nobility even in his final hour.

It’s true, we are revealed in the final hour as either virtuous of lacking virtue.

However… there are at least two things I would add to this.

The first is that, virtue is virtue in normal, everyday life as well.

It doesn’t have to be the end of the world or the end of our lives. Indeed, there are many instances where people turn around in times of crisis and do great, noble, brave things, but only out of regret of their pasts, or fear of ending their lives without one good deed to their credit. Virtue is a constant. It’s common. It’s ordinary. It’s unremarkable. It’s what we choose at any given moment on any given day.

It is much easier for a man to be a hero in the end if he has been a hero every day leading up to it. Every ordinary, everyday good deed is a stone laid in the foundation of who we are, giving our final decision ground on which to stand.

Virtue is only virtue in extremis, but virtue is also only virtue in the ordinary as well.

The second is that virtue can be reclaimed even when it has been lost.

How many stories of redemption are there? How many tales of forgiveness? Of honor restored? Of men and women who failed in a previous crisis, refusing to fail again?

I think this is simply because… we are human. We have faults and flaws and fears. We have the right to be afraid, and sometimes we make terrible mistakes. But while we may not be able to change the past, neither are we bound forever by it. We are not creatures forever locked into one state of being. We are more malleable than that. We can change. We can do better. We can have a second chance, rare as such may seem.

Virtue is only virtue in extremis, but virtue is also only virtue in the ordinary, and virtue lost can be regained by the sincere heart which chooses to do so.

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