The Adverse Effects of an Excess in Virtue

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I have always known virtue to be what good, true men aspired for and lived their lives in accordance with. That being said, I was in utter shock when I came across the renowned philosopher, Aristotle’s teaching which states that if virtues are taken to extremes, they can become vices. Initially, I could not understand his adage because of the fact that virtue is always associated with positive effects. I have learned recently, however, through my studies of Dante’s Inferno and Racine’s Phaedra that an excess of virtue does indeed come with negative, adverse effects. To illustrate this, we can take a look at Dante’s Inferno, specifically at the characters of Paolo and Francesca. When she lived, Francesca was forced to marry an aged, deformed man. Though she remained faithful to this man, she always had a secret love and passion for his brother, Paolo. Her love for Paolo was virtuous in itself, as he “made her heart burn with joy so strong” (Inferno, Canto V, lines 93-94), until one afternoon in which Paolo and Francesca let their love for each other come to excess. On this afternoon day, Paolo and Francesca read of Lancelot, and in one particular section of the story, they felt as if the story was speaking to their own secret love. In that moment, they were “defeated” (Inferno, Canto V, line 119), and let their excess of love for each other overtake them, when Paolo kissed her. Without their knowledge, Francesca’s husband was watching their every move, and thus proceeded to immediately kill them in his anger. Without having an opportunity to repent for what they had done, their overflowing love “gave them both one death” (Inferno, Canto V, line 95), and thus damned them both to eternal punishment and suffering. Dante encountered the lovers in the Second Circle of Hell, where those who “suffer here who sinned in carnal things – their reason mastered by desire”

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