Is Virtue Rewarded?

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

Is Virtue Rewarded?

The other day, Jerry brought me a book for nighttime reading titled Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. It’s an 18th century classic by Samuel Richardson but that’s not why he gave it to me. He knows I like happy endings and figured, with this book, the happy ending is already guaranteed in the title! With 160 pages read so far, I’ve got about 343 pages to go before we get to the happy part and, meantime, the perils to which our heroine’s virtue is exposed leave me beside myself with worry by the time we turn lights out.

Is a woman’s virtue rewarded? And, by the way, what do we mean by woman’s virtue nowadays?

At the hairdresser’s recently, I told Jennifer Kelly, my great “hairapist,” that I was getting bored to tears by magazines about hair, and did she have any gossip mags? She brought me Glamour, which seemed to have the right mix of cosmetic advice, human interest stories of great-looking celebrities struggling bravely with fatal illnesses, and cheap-at-the-price therapy for today’s woman.

I was curious to read the therapy article, which happened to be about sex. As I expected, it told women to be their authentic selves in this department too, not just slavishly to keep up with the Joneses.

So far so good. It turns out that the Joneses (i.e. the other girls) are doing stuff that calls for whips and chains. The writer of the article kindly assures her readers that — if they want what the writer terms “vanilla sex” — they should have the courage to follow their star all the way to vanilla.

Holy moly!

Whips and chains?

Porn is the new normal? What wrong with this picture?

The philosopher of art Leo Bronstein used to say, “For young people, never an idea without sex; never sex without an idea.” If Leo was right, what idea is being expressed here in Glamour magazine?

Oh by the way, let’s forget about whether Abbie is “uptight.” I believe that question was better framed by the boys who used to ask, in my dating days,

“Whassa matter? Yah frigid?”

To which the right answer (if I could have thought of it then) would have been:

Only for you and your boorish classmates – buster!”

I suppose that we can shrug off that time-worn, manipulative manner of stifling thought in a woman, even when it comes disguised as stylishly “contemporary.”

Back to my earlier question: what’s wrong with this picture, the one with the whips and chains?

Whips and chains, ladies, are not romantic. Romantic is … who is she? — that unforgettable mystery lady who embodies fulfillment – in this world and beyond the world?   Romantic is the knight’s persistent purpose to become worthy of this ideality shimmering in loveliness. Romantic is Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Romantic is Dante’s Beatrice. Romantic is not whips and chains.

What are they trying to tell us about ourselves with this whips and chains business?

First, that we are too boring to excite interest as who we are. We need help from the Marquis de Sade. Help from the pathetic marquis? Have you read about his actual life story? He can’t help anybody, believe me.

Second, the message is, we should have “the courage” to smash bourgeois values. Courage? How much courage does it take? From what I read in Glamour, it looks like it’ll take more courage to fend off the long-distance, vicarious attempts from the sad marquis.

Okay, so de Sade himself wasn’t so happy. Maybe that’s irrelevant. Why are we being asked to follow in his footsteps by smashing the bourgeois norms? What’s the specific way it’ll make the world better or make our particular lives better?

Well (we are now being briefed to believe) in the midst of a panoramic struggle between the Oppressed and the Oppressors. And the Oppressor is loaded with bourgeois values that we have to oppose.

Right. And the Oppressor has great teeth. Does that mean we should never see a dentist? Would our cavities undercut his values? Or erode his teeth? Help me out here. I am getting dizzy.

Well, to put matters more simply still, won’t the boys (and the girls) not like me if I don’t at least pretend to epater le bourgeois (to shock the holder of middle class values)?

In this column, we are committed to avoid giving advice. I won’t say anything about how to solve your problems. My personal advice and a token can just about get you a ride on the Lexington Avenue subway. However, I do have one tip, which could be of generic use.

It belongs to the feminine element in the world to want to be pleasing and attractive. There are many paths to this desideratum but none of them involve following the latest fad blindly. Do that and you’re letting yourself be pushed around. That’s not attractive.

In the early days of the women’s movement, directives would be issued coming from self-appointed spokespersons for official feminism. Like other women who were fervent for their own liberation, I would be keen to pick up every pronouncement from these newly empowered sources. Some were truly helpful and well motivated. Some were just the old cattiness or bullying behind the new pretext. After a while I learned to tell the difference. When I came across the catty or bullying directives, my comment would be:

If I want to be pushed around

I can find a man to do it.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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