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Professor Simon Haines: Fostering Moral Values Through Poetry

Periodically on the Philomathia website, we will spotlight the work, research and thoughts of our distinguished faculty and fellows — providing them with a platform to share their expertise and insight in their own words. This is the first such post, coming to us from Professor Simon Haines at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Simon Haines. Photo credit: rthk.hk Simon Haines. Photo credit: rthk.hk

In addition to his duties as an English professor, Simon Haines is the Director of the Research Centre for Human Values, a Philomathia-funded program at CUHK. Professor Haines recently spoke at the 10th Anniversary Conference of the Asia Pacific Network for Moral Education. The conference was titled Shaping Educational Landscapes that Foster Moral Values in the Asia-Pacific Region, and was held December 4-7, 2015 at the University of Sidney (Australia.)

Here is an edited version of Professor Haines’ plenary address at the conference, entitled “Fostering Moral Values Through Poetry: a Hong Kong example.”

I have the honour of being the Director of a Research Centre for Human Values, generously funded by a philanthropic organization founded by a Hong Kong Chinese family, and our ambition is to foster reflection on values questions in the wider community, that is to say, outside the university itself. We invite lunchtime speakers from various professions such as accountants or architects or lawyers to talk to students on campus about values issues affecting them at work; and distinguished international figures to speak to professional audiences about values questions such as freedom of speech, rule of law, democracy and materialism, and the role of the humanities in society. So I wear two hats, as a literature professor and as an advocate for values discussion, where it has long seemed to me that the humanities have a critical role to play, which they have not always played especially well. But here, I hope to wear both hats at once, and talk about literature as a way of fostering value-awareness.

Getting to the roots of “values”

So what about this word “value”? We see it used, and over-used, in so many ways and contexts. We speak of Western values, civic values, traditional values, even corporate values. We might be able, in each of these cases, to make some sort of a list of what these values were though the lists would differ quite a lot depending on our cultural or linguistic backgrounds and would always seem incomplete in any case.

My guess is that for most of us there would be negative and positive elements in the list. Things we value and things we disvalue. Such as, on the positive side: honesty; benevolence or kindness to others; providing a home for one’s family; speaking up or standing up for what one believes in general. And on the negative side: don’t kill or commit violence towards other people; don’t tell lies about or vilify others; don’t steal; don’t take someone else’s wife or husband; don’t desire (secretly wish to take) other people’s property. Those disvaluations are all in the so-called “ten commandments” of the Old Testament, as it happens, but I imagine that most people, in most societies, would agree with generalized versions of them.

In Christian societies since about the fourth century AD there has been a list of generally accepted virtues, amounting to almost a code of values, and incorporating some of the older classical virtues from the Roman and Greek worlds. These include courage; fairness or justice; prudence (or what you might call good common sense); moderation or restraint; and of course faith in God. The corresponding vices or “deadly sins” consist mainly of the animal desires one is supposed as a human being to restrain: lust, laziness, greed, gluttony, anger; but also that immoderate obsession with oneself which is called pride; and envy, which is the excessive desire for what other people have. And while these Christian lists are of virtues and vices not values and disvalues, the implied value system would lie in thinking these virtues and vices were to be encouraged or discouraged.

Another layer of value, you might call it public value instead of private, civic not domestic, or in classical terms a value of the polis or civitas not the oikos or domus, has been added since the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.This public layer boils down to two cardinal political values. One is equality (ie before the law, leading to rule of law or positive justice; and before the state, leading to one person one vote, and majority rule). And the other is liberty, leading to the right to speak or remain silent, the right to remove a government and be protected from arbitrary behavior by government, the right to move around, own property and so on.

Here it is perhaps harder to say most people in the modern world would share the values, as neither equality nor liberty are practiced or approved of everywhere. Even the key classical Western thinkers such as Aristotle and Plato did not necessarily think that democracy or a republic were the best forms of government, for example. But the language of rights is certainly one that nearly everyone in the world recognizes or feels obliged to deal with at some level or other. We all speak of human rights even if we use the phrase in many different ways: and even if we deny that such things are “universal”.

Anyway although all this is a somewhat Western picture, influenced by the classical world of Greece and Rome, by the Bible, and by the Enlightenment, I still think much of it is more widely shared today, especially at the level of personal values, and at the level of claimed “human rights”. And all of this, together with its analogues in other cultures, makes up a large part not just of the “values world”, but of the human world: since the recognition of values, that there are such things and that we live by them, is a large part of what being human actually means.

Drawing clarity out of ambiguity

In the English language, there is an interesting kind of ambiguity in the very word “value” itself. The word “value” arrived in the English language in the very early 1300s or late 1200s, from French. The French word it was an adaptation of was valoir. And the sense of valoir that first came into English, by just a short head, according to the OED, was money value: exchange value, or how much an item for sale is worth. Yet the deeper and older sense of the term, which the French one also had but which apparently didn’t find its way into English till just a bit later, was derived from the much older Latin term.

The Latin term was valere, which gives us “valour” and “valiant” and “valid”, and basically meant to be strong or healthy or flourishing. That’s why I mentioned the Greek term for flourishing and well-being, eudaimonia, just a minute ago. The existence of a clear value system seems to offer evidence that a society is strong, flourishing and healthy.

There seem to me to be two conclusions we can draw from this history of the word value. One is that we need and look for strength and health and flourishing and well-being. To say we “value” them is really to say that they are what we mean by value. The other is that esteem valuing can quite easily slide over into money or exchange valuing. The token of health and success that it’s easiest to see and measure is financial. To have “done well in life” or “succeeded” so often means financially. Especially, perhaps, in Hong Kong!

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with financial success, obsession with it can leave us with an unhealthy lack of regard for everything else that goes to make up value and flourishing. Such an obsession also, as a by-product, leaves us with a slightly unbalanced respect for anything that can be measured or quantified, like money or material goods can. Quantity is about measuring, numbers, counting values. Quality, the opposite term to quantity, is about something much deeper and broader and more intangible, something like judging or estimating of value. True evaluation is more moral than monetary, even if it can sometimes include financial success or other measures of value.

This built-in conflict at the heart of the term “value” does have one benefit, though, which is to remind us that values themselves are always in conflict. In fact “conflicts of values”, which we tend to see as a bad thing, are actually built in to all values thinking and discussion. Values are part of the moral world, not the scientific world, and they don’t have neat boundaries or certainties or clear ways of determining or proving rationally who is right. Even though there are many areas of shared value in the world, value systems are all a bit vague and unspecific, maybe too are matters of unspoken practice or even shared objects around us, mountains or buildings or historical events, as much as written codes: and so there are often big conflicts at the borders of either the practices or the codes. And these can affect all of us in our daily lives, as we live increasingly in multi-value globalized societies.

On a much bigger scale, a civilizational scale, Western society itself is actually built on the foundations of at least two huge values clashes. One is between the Old Testament and the New. Let’s oversimplify: Old Testament morality is founded partly on a code, the Ten Commandments: “thou shalt not kill” or “commit adultery”, and so on; and partly on ancient moral understandings, such as “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. The New Testament is founded on such teachings as in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says that Christian morality isn’t just about killing or committing adultery, but also about wanting to; and that instead of an eye for an eye, you should turn the other cheek to someone who harms you. Mercy and meekness matter more than the letter of the law and revenge. Intention matters as much as action. These were huge, almost incomprehensible changes in values that Jesus was asking for (despite saying he had come to fulfill the law and the prophets, not destroy them); the two sets of systems were more or less incompatible or incommensurable. And yet the Christian societies of the West somehow lived with both.

The second gigantic clash was between classical values, as they were revived in the Renaissance, and Christian society, where the values of meekness and mercy and turning the other cheek and loving God were utterly inconsistent with the values of strong states and leaders and loving your city. This is why the political philosopher Machiavelli is so important, arguing that Christians make terrible citizens and leaders even if they’re nice people, and that the virtues needed by good leaders are definitely not Christian ones. Much longer ago, this conflict between religion and the secular state was enacted in the Greek tragedy Antigone. Which matters more, the play asks, religious and family piety, or civic loyalty and the state. But again the two value systems eventually co-existed, more or less. Greek society adapted. So did the West.

Conflicts of values: a foundation of Western civilization

You might almost say that Western civilization is built on these conflicts of value. Values pluralism, identified by Isaiah Berlin, is the name for living with values that look completely inconsistent; and it might be seen as a strength, in the way that hybrids are often stronger than pure breeds. But of course to some people this values pluralism looks like weakness not strength. And surely there are some values a society can’t live with, especially if they are ones that call for the destruction of the society’s own core values, or even of value itself.

Explaining all this to a younger generation is surely part of the activity of fostering values-health or well-being. (“Foster” by the way means “feed”; it’s connected to the words “fodder” and “food”. This is a Germanic term too, by the way.) Young minds need food to grow as much as young bodies. Moral growth needs food. But here you might say, surely to be a good person you don’t need to read or reflect on moral problems. There are lots of very good, kind village people who can’t read. What you need are good habits. The kindergarten teacher is probably the most important values mentor in most lives, after your mother. She may teach you to read but she also more importantly tells you not to hit others and to wait your turn and not shout.

But true moral growth probably needs both elements. Being a good person must in the modern world eventually involve reflection and argument, which means language. It just isn’t possible for everyone to live a good life in a small isolated community without conflict. Resolving conflict can’t just mean breaking off all contact with others. It must involve speaking if it isn’t a matter of fighting. That means it must involve some sort of education, which literally means “bringing out” or “leading forth”, through a process of reflection, the previously unconsidered grounds of your behaviour or your beliefs, and of others’ behaviour and beliefs, in words. My own view is that it involves a progressive extending and deepening of your moral vocabulary, so that as you come to understand more and more terms, your values world gets richer and denser. Exercising and refining your values language, your moral vocabulary, is an essential part of moral growth. Not just an accessory to it. You learn not just not to hit people, or not to shout: nor just that “violence is bad” or “honesty is good”, or “respect others”, like a sort of code of conduct. You also learn about the meanings of courage and brutality and gratitude and nobility and malice and deceit and sympathy and prudence and courtesy and resilience and cruelty and resentment and honour and redemption and so on and on. Not seven deadly sins and seven cardinal virtues: but hundreds and hundreds, constituting between them the ancient and dense values communities we were all born into and have inherited.

Just as being happy is not the same as knowing that you are happy, so part of leading a rich values life is knowing that you are leading one, and having the resources to say why. As the ancient Greek saying had it, better to be a discontented Socrates than a contented sheep. Fostering growth when we’re talking about human beings not plants or sheep means fostering the mind not just the body, and that usually means language.

Illumination through poetry

And now here are two examples from poetry, which is language at its most powerful and reflective: examples which are exactly about moral growth from education and about resolving conflict through language.

Here are two poets from the same remote little island on the far western edge of the ancient world. No people have more right to complain or resent the English than the Irish, who are so close to them and were occupied and oppressed for so long. The native language of Ireland is Gaelic, it should be remembered, not English. The twentieth century in particular was a time of serious political and religious strife in Ireland, especially in the 1920s and the 1970s. This included internal sectarian conflict, a civil war of Irish against Irish, as much as Irish against English.

The two poets, both Nobel Prize winners by the way, were of course very aware of all that. The first was named William Butler Yeats and he is unarguably one of the greatest English language poets of the twentieth century. The other one was born in 1939, the year Yeats died, and himself died just two years ago; his name was Seamus Heaney.

Heaney was born a Catholic in the Protestant province of Northern Ireland, still part of Great Britain today, so he was from a minority family within a minority province. He lived through the so-called “Troubles” of Northern Ireland of the 1970s, really a sectarian or religious civil war as much as a political or national one. He was often asked to take sides but he never would. Instead in his poems he returned again and again to the way people commit brutal violence against each other in the names of barely comprehensible ideologies and hostilities. Catholic versus Protestant on one level, “territorial piety” against “imperial power” on the other (it sounds like Antigone all over again). In fact Heaney came to see Ireland herself as a kind of dark bloodthirsty goddess with an insatiable hunger for human sacrifice.

In one of his most famous poem sequences Heaney has a vision in which he meets the ghost of a famous man in the underworld, the world of the dead. He is echoing other such famous moments in Western literature, as when Virgil in the Aeneid meets the ghosts of Achilles and the Greek heroes, or when Dante in Inferno meets the ghost of Virgil. In Heaney’s vision the ghost is that of James Joyce, probably the most famous Irish writer of all time and one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

His voice eddying with the vowels of all rivers

came back to me . . .

. . . and suddenly he hit a litter basket

with his stick, saying, ‘Your obligation

is not discharged by any common rite.

What you do you must do on your own.
The main thing is to write

for the joy of it . . .
Let go, let fly, forget.

You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’
It was as if I had stepped free into space

alone with nothing that I had not known

already. Raindrops blew in my face
As I came to and heard the harangue and jeers

going on and on. ‘The English language

belongs to us. You are raking at dead fires,


rehearsing the old whinges at your age.

That subject people stuff is a cod’s game,

infantile, . . .

. . . it’s time to swim

out on your own and fill the element

with signatures on your own frequency . . .


So the advice being given to this living Irish poet by his famous dead compatriot is: for goodness’ sake forget about being from a “subject people”; it’s for stupid codfish to worry about that kind of thing. Get on with your work, and above all take possession of the English language. Make it yours. Ireland has its own language, yes. But, Joyce is saying, if you want to be truly great, then instead of wasting time and energy in resentment at being “colonized” by this world language, turn the table on it, colonise IT, own it, turn it to your advantage. Ireland, the Irish, can have two languages now.

I can tell you, that for Hong Kong students this is advice they like very much to hear. The English language doesn’t belong to England, or even America, or anywhere else, but to them: to anyone who chooses to speak it, to adapt it, to transform it. They aren’t any kind of subject people or colony. Time to swim on their own.

The other poet, Yeats, lamented the civil war that happened after Ireland had achieved independence—the war that was still festering when Heaney wrote: between Catholic and Protestant, North and South. He watched from his tower window as young men killed each other, and he wrote poetry about it:

Last night they trundled down the road

That dead young soldier in his blood:

Come build in the empty house of the stare.
We had fed the heart on fantasies,

The heart’s grown brutal from the fare,

More substance in our enmities

Than in our love; O honey-bees,

Come build in the empty house of the stare.

The “stare” is a bird, a starling; and the poet’s tower room was the empty nest where he was now building his poem. The ideologies of the civil war are empty fantasies which have made the human heart brutal, and they have made us far more obsessed by the things we hate than the things we love. The only thing to do in response, he advises, is to write, to build, to bring forth the sweetness of honeyed language from our industrious and harmonious hives, to show all this violence for the madness it really is.

Yeats and Heaney both came from the same violent and oppressed little country, and they both reached the same conclusion: let it go, translate the violence into language as a way to transform it into growth and health and strength and value. And when Heaney gave his Nobel prize lecture in 1995, 20 years ago, he talked about all this. He talked about Ireland’s bloody history over the centuries and especially in his own lifetime, as violence produced violence in 25 years of “life waste and spirit waste”, bringing the “hardening attitudes and narrowing possibilities that were the natural result of political solidarity”. About how he himself had to learn to let this go in order to write in his own voice. He quotes the very same lines from the Yeats poem I just quoted, and talks about how many Irish people said them aloud at the time of the Troubles.

Hunters and gatherers of values

Yeats’s work does what the necessary poetry always does, which is to touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic nature of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed. The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.

We live now in times of violence and wrongness all over the world. And yet as Heaney says in that wonderful expression, we are still “hunters and gatherers of values”. An educational landscape that includes Machiavelli, Antigone, the Old and New Testaments, Yeats and Heaney, which is to say a humanities landscape, is bound to foster moral values by encouraging its students to reflect on the values they hold and others hold, not just as a system of practices and beliefs and codes they unthinkingly exist in, but as an inheritance, a rich moral life-world they fully inhabit through thought and through language.