Even though the warlike Romans understood every victory as a divine confirmation of their character, virtue in fact has very little to do with what the gods think. Virtues are specific to cultures. Barbaric virtues have been challenged by competing ethical organizations like the Stoic virtues of honor, integrity, simplicity, loyalty, and moderation, or the Christian virtues of selflessness, compassion, reverence, humility, faith, and hope. There have been other articulations of virtue as well. Humanism and the Enlightenment advocated the virtues of fraternity and equality before the law. Environmentalism has used all of these articulations at one time or another in its increasingly desperate effort to gain moral traction. What these forms of virtue have in common is that, unlike the Barbaric Heart, they are concerned with articulating a sense of the whole.
For the Barbaric Heart, on the other hand, there is nothing that is as real as the self-interested Ego, His Majesty the Sovereign Self. What else could care so blindly about “winning”? But it also feels, at some dark recess of the heart, how pathetically empty this Self is. So the Barbaric Heart grasps at things to fill that emptiness. The histories of ancient warfare always claim that the surest inducement to the warrior to fight was the prospect of being able to cart off the enemy’s silver and gold (and women). Plates, jewelry, the objects in temple shrines, precious ornamentation applied to buildings, anything that glittered. With such a prospect at hand, death meant nothing. Through the “right of conquest” (the unwritten law of the ancient world that trumped all written laws) the warrior might at last feel full and real. He might also participate in glory. Why, he could even become virtuous in this way (or, as we still say, a “hero”).
Ironically, through this logic the Barbaric Heart also committed not only itself but all of the human and natural world to what the Greeks called tragedy. Tragic fate, for the Greeks, was the understanding that once you put a certain principle in motion, that principle would play itself out. Completely out. And so, as in Aeschylus’s tragedies, humans pursue what they perceive to be their own interest only to become “the slave of their own destruction,” an apt expression of our current situation on multiple fronts, economic, military, and environmental.
What is tragic is that the bloody end, “the great wound swimming upwards” like a shark (Aeschylus again), is unintended but no less inevitable for that. We don’t intend that the pursuit of personal wealth should lead to the bankruptcy of an entire nation, but bankrupt we are. We don’t intend that our strategic military actions should lead to an endless and uncontrollable spiraling of violence, but it does. We don’t intend that the pursuit of our happiness should lead to the extinction of animals, desertification, drought, famine, mass human migration, violent storms, but all that is presently “swimming upwards” regardless of what we intend.