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What Good is Virtue?

What Good is Virtue,

by Tim Erdel, Ph.D. and Alesha Seroczynski, Ph.D.

In this essay adapted from a chapel address given by Dr. Erdel at Bethel College, we will consider several questions: What is virtue? What are the seven virtues? Why become virtuous? And, what good is virtue? The context is understandably academic, although we have attempted to provide other examples whenever prudent.

The ancient Greeks (c. 500 B.C.) defined virtue in terms of excellence. A virtuous act was an excellent deed or accomplishment in any area of life—whether art, athletics, politics, warfare, religion, intellect, craftsmanship, or domestic duty. Over time, however, Greek thinkers began to focus more and more on virtue as moral excellence. Virtue (i.e., arête) became associated with what we now call ethics, or theories of right and wrong. And if virtue represented moral excellence, vice became the term to identify and describe moral evil. Yet, for a long time virtue was still a broad term for a wide range of moral excellences. For example, in his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle devotes the whole of books eight and nine to friendship, which I think he rightly numbers among the virtues.

In the process of thinking about virtuous acts and what it means to be virtuous, some Greeks began to realize that virtue is more than something we do, perhaps even more than the sum of what we do. Virtuous deeds by themselves do not make me virtuous. Among other possibilities, I might be a hypocrite who merely does virtuous deeds for public display and approval. Rather, if I am a genuinely virtuous person, I will do virtuous deeds as the natural consequence of my inner virtue. My actions will reflect my basic character. But what sort of person must I become to be a virtuous person?

After awhile, the Greeks began to focus on four basic character traits. Plato, who was Aristotle’s teacher, singled out four pivotal virtues in his Republic. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle further developed these four virtues, it is believed so that his own son would know how to pursue the virtuous life. These are: prudence (or wisdom), temperance (also known as moderation or self-control), fortitude (or courage), and justice. In the end, Greco-Roman civilization focused more and more on these four moral virtues, until they became known as the four classical or cardinal (i.e., cardo or hinge) virtues. We will briefly define each.

Of the four, prudence is the intellectual virtue. Prudence is rooted in my conscience, if indeed, my conscience has been properly developed. Prudence means I make wise decisions, including the decision to be virtuous and lead a virtuous life. If I am prudent, I will choose to be temperate, courageous, and just. I will also make good use of my time and resources, including the opportunities afforded to me as a student, employee, or child of particular parents. If I am prudent, I will avoid the vices of sloth and stupidity, that is, of laziness and foolishness. St. Thomas Aquinas believed that prudence is the cure for most other vices. For example, wisdom should keep me from coveting if I realized the grass really is not greener on the other side of the fence.

If prudence is the intellectual virtue, temperance or moderation or self-control is the emotional virtue, the virtue that corresponds with and controls our desires and appetites. If I am temperate, I will avoid such vices as gluttony (self-indulgence) and wrath (anger). I will also turn in my assignments on time because I am self-disciplined enough to do them instead of watching TV, playing video games, gossiping on the phone, working to pay for a car I don’t really need, or otherwise wasting my study time. If I am prudent, I will understand how precious time for study is. If I am temperate, I will discipline myself to use that time wisely. If I am prudent, I will recognize when my friends are about to do something stupid; if I am temperate, I will walk away. Prudence will help me distinguish between infatuation and true love. Temperance will keep me from acting like a fool, keeping my body under control when my hormones are screaming for selfish pleasure (i.e., eros, as discussed later in this essay).

For the Greeks, fortitude or courage is the volitional virtue, the virtue rooted in our will. Even if we understand what we should do and can control our selfish feelings, it still takes courage to actually do what is right. The courageous person avoids twin evils: on the one hand, the courageous person is not a coward; she never flinches from doing what is right, no matter what the odds, no matter what the cost. On the other hand, the courageous person is not rash, foolishly rushing into danger, taking unnecessary chances merely for the thrill of living on the edge. Fortitude allows one to push through pain and adversity, not in a perverse quest for a masochistic thrill, but to achieve a higher goal and do what is truly right and good. Many of the world’s oldest and most enduring stories are tales of courage, of great heroes doing their duty and overcoming impossible odds.

If prudence is the intellectual virtue, temperance the emotional virtue, and fortitude the volitional virtue, then justice is the social virtue. Justice establishes social order and harmony by making sure things are as fair as possible in the world. Justice is a necessary check on selfish pride and self-serving egoism. Justice seeks the good both of the individual and of the greater society by respecting rights and resolving conflicts fairly and without bias. Justice is neither too harsh nor too tolerant; it is neither arbitrary nor disproportionate. Many religious traditions seek God’s justice, where they believe the good will be rewarded and the evil punished (of course, what God will judge as “good” and “evil” is a topic for another essay).

The Greeks thought a great deal about virtue. They soon came to realize that since virtue is rooted in our character, in the very essence of our being, one does not acquire virtue overnight. Nor is virtue just a talent or a gift with which we are born. We come into the world with the potential to be virtuous, just as we may be born with the potential to be an athlete, an artist, or a scholar. But, according to Aristotle, unless we devote ourselves for years to developing virtuous habits—the way a great pianist devotes himself to years of scales and arpeggios or a great scholar devotes herself to years of study and learning—then we have no hope to be virtuous. Dispositions cannot be easily or quickly changed, and virtuous development requires active discipline over time. In the Christian New Testament, the Apostle Paul speaks of enduring like a good soldier, training like an athlete, of running without quitting the race, of waiting patiently like a hard working farmer whose crop comes only in due season. These are all metaphors for the work necessary for virtuous character development.

Long-term, careful training in virtue is required because, somewhat ironically, most of the important ethical decisions we make throughout a day have to be made within micro-seconds, in the course of doing all sorts of other things. A person who has to repeatedly figure out the next moral step in the midst of the rush and tumble of life is going to be as lost as a week-end jogger in the Olympic games or a country fiddler in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Unless we are already well on our way to being prudent, temperate, courageous, and just, we will never be ready or able to take our stand in the crucial hour of moral crisis. Unless I am prudent, I will never recognize a critical moral decision for what it is. Unless I am temperate, I will simply pursue my own pleasure. Unless I am courageous, I will flee from the costly demands of doing what is right. And unless I am just, I will have no sense of obligation to do what is right by others.

The writers of the Christian New Testament were not as concerned with a systematic theory of ethics as the Greek philosophers were; but they still clearly affirm all four cardinal virtues. Over and over Christians are admonished to use their minds and make right choices—prudence. As mentioned above, Paul urges us to control ourselves and train like athletes—temperance. Jesus never flinches before his enemies, and many after him calmly face martyrdom—fortitude; in contrast, we are told in Revelation 21:8 that cowards will be cast into a lake of fire. In addition, Christians are repeatedly admonished to have right relations with God and with each other—justice.

But the Christian writers went beyond the four cardinal virtues and gave special emphasis to three additional virtues: fidelity (i.e., faith), hope, and charity (i.e., love). These later became known as the “theological virtues,” and in St. Thomas Aquinas’ tome Summa Theologica (i.e., the sum of my theology), he urges us to seek and cultivate these virtues as diligently as we do the cardinal four. Christians have traditionally believed that these three virtues, at least in their fullest form, are gracious gifts from God, the result of the work of the Holy Spirit in individual lives. New Testament writers, however, also urged us to seek and cultivate these virtues. They clearly believed that we are not only passive recipients of them and our ability to intentionally practice them develops our virtuous character as much as the cardinal four.

Faith consists of strong beliefs or conviction, of personal and heartfelt trust, and of absolute, unconditional commitment. True faith is rational, neither credulous and superstitious, thereby believing too much, nor skeptical and dismissive, thereby believing too little. Faith shields us from the vices of heresy, idolatry, and infidelity. Faith is often most associated with religious traditions; and for the Christian, true faith expresses itself in concrete acts of obedience to God and in good works on behalf of our fellow human beings and of God’s creation. Faith in other, more concrete entities is possible—although the practice of other virtues (e.g., prudence and temperance) keeps such faith from becoming idolatrous. For example, we can have great faith in the stock market’s ability to provide a secure financial future for us, although we have seen the vice of such misplaced fidelity over the past year or so. We may also have faith in relationships, and our mutual commitments of trust guard us against the temptation to violate that fidelity.

Hope is an attitude of positive expectation about the future; such expectation is often, but may not necessarily be, based on experiences of the past. Hope is an anchor in the bedrock of truth. Hope protects us from the twin vices of despair and self-delusion. There may be times in your life when you are tempted to be either unnecessarily discouraged or naively optimistic. Hope helps us look reality in the face and smile with knowing recognition. We are not fooled into thinking life is easy, but neither are we tricked into giving up before the game is done.

Paul wrote that the greatest of the three theological virtues was love—but not just any kind of love, but agape love. Unlike contemporary Engligh, the Greeks had several words for love, including three that capture a continuum of the expression of love in relationships: eros, phileo, and agape. Eros is a selfish love, a love that is all about the seeker with no regard for the receiver. Our term for sexual desire, erotic, derives from this self-serving pursuit of sexual needs. In contemporary society, things that are erotic have little to do with a deep, lasting, loving relationship.

According to the Greeks, phileo is a friendship or brotherly love, and was one most valued by Greek philosophers. A phileo relationship is about both parties: you and me. The relationship is mutually satisfying and reciprocally rewarding. In our culture, we find this word in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love (phileo=love; adelphos=brother), so named by William Penn in an effort to promote religious and ethnic tolerance. As a Quaker, Penn had experienced religious persecution and wanted his colony to be a place where anyone could worship freely despite their religion. Penn’s position led to significantly healthier relationships with the local Native tribes than most other colonies had.

It was not the Greeks, but Christian writers who introduced into Greek culture the concept of agape, or selfless, sacrificial love. This kind of love is all about the other, seeking nothing for itself. Agape love forgives wrongs committed against me, and even reaches out in compassion to my enemy. Christians believe that agape love is transformative; it certainly astonished the Roman empire and changed the behavior of many persons throughout the history of Christianity. Because of agape love, Patricius returned to his captors in Ireland as the missionary Patrick, intent on converting a nation with love. Because of agape love, Anabaptists refused to bear arms when they were persecuted by Roman Catholics and Protestants for their faith. Agape love transformed the lives of St. Augustine and St. Francis of Assisi, and has made Mother Teresa a symbol of virtue in the 20th century and a beacon of hope for the 21st.

So far this essay has attempted to give basic answers to two questions: What is virtue? And, what are the seven virtues? We have suggested that virtue is moral excellence in one’s character, an excellence that comes only after long training and careful cultivation of virtuous habits. There is, however, another pair of questions that should be considered: Why become virtuous? And, what good is virtue? The answers may be both more obvious and more obscure than we like.

List of seven were popular in the Middle Ages. They were drawn from the medieval understanding of nature, from the Bible, from classical literature, and from early Christian thought. In addition to the seven virtues, the seven vices (sloth, anger, cowardice, pride, idolatry, despair, avarice), and the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, wrath [from the Devil], avarice [from the world], sloth, gluttony, and lechery [from the flesh]), there were the seven days of the week, the seven planets (the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), one planet for each of the seven spheres, the seven ages of man, the seven pillars of wisdom, the seven candles on the menorah, the seven petitions in the Lord’s Prayer, the seven sorrows of Mary, the seven last words on the cross, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments, the seven parts of the mass, the seven seals of the Apocalypse (also known for its seven churches, seven trumpets, seven vials, seven angels, and seven dooms), the story and feast of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, the seven liberal arts (grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy), and all the other lists of seven which gave order and symmetry to the medieval universe.

Are the seven virtues simply part of that massive symmetry, a finely ordered worldview which inspired great art and poetry, but was in the end a woefully naïve and misguided fiction? Are the seven virtues as misbegotten as medieval alchemy, magic, and astrology, the Crusades, the burning of heretics, and the notion that the sun rotated around the earth? What good is virtue in this new millennium, over a thousand years removed from the so-called Dark Ages, over two-thousand years removed from the ancient Greek philosophers who birthed the concept of virtue? Do we need virtue today?

Ours is a violent age. The early 20th Century saw the horrors of trench warfare, poisonous gas attacks, and the merciless slaughter of the Armenians. The monstrous evils of Communism, fascism, and Nazism came to power in the wake of the Great War; and, by World War II, atrocities reached almost inconceivable levels, especially with the Holocaust. That war ended with the release of two atomic bombs, so by mid-century we were confronted for the first time with the very real potential for global annihilation. Genocides continued throughout the second half of the 20th Century, in Cambodia, among tribal peoples in Central Africa and in the Amazon rain forest, among the Kurds, and in the Balkans. Bombs, perhaps even nuclear ones, and bio-chemical weapons are now within reach of every world leader as well as every subversive terrorist. Guns allow school children to act out their video fantasies and mow down classmates. Advances in medicine facilitate millions of abortions, while more and more highly educated professionals advocate infanticide and euthanasia. What good is virtue in the face of vicious violence harnessed to technology?

On a less violent level, the simple act of turning on the television invites a flood of advertisements designed to turn us into greedy, covetous, idolatrous materialists. Commercials bombard us shamelessly with appeals to pride, envy, and lust. Was the great battle of the last century—the battle between Communism and capitalism—in reality merely a battle between two forms of godless materialism? In between the advertisements, of course, we find comedies that all-too-often degenerate into cynical sarcasm or cruel parodies. In addition, so-called adult programming celebrates evil openly and calls it good. To explore the Internet without a firewall is to risk bombardment by unsolicited pornography. Governments, which should promote justice and the general welfare of all, now use their access to media to promote gambling. Everywhere we turn, new technologies seem to have compounded the opportunities for human evil.

Of course, vice and vicious acts began long before modern technology. The very Garden of Eden failed to keep Adam and Eve from deliberately choosing evil. Their son Cain reaffirmed their choice when he murdered his own brother, Abel. By the time of Noah, God was ready to destroy the whole world for its rampant, unchecked viciousness. In fact, the technology of building an ark became God’s means of salvation for Noah, his family, and all of creation; so we cannot pin the blame for the world’s wickedness on the rise of technology. But when vice is harnessed to technology, it multiplies the possibilities for evil until evil threatens to overwhelm us.

The irony is that virtual vice sometimes seems more fascinating and attractive than real virtue. That’s because it is—as fiction. The almost universal testimony of writers down through the centuries is that it is much easier to portray vice than virtue. Dante, Marlowe, Milton, Goethe, and a host of others figured this out long before Hollywood. If you could choose between programs called Miami Virtue and Miami Vice, which would you watch? All too often the attempts to create and portray good characters seem fake and unreal, superficial and artificial. It is very hard to convey goodness without descending into banal moralizing or saccharine sentimentality. In part, this may be because it is far easier to write about or to portray something we truly know from experience. Sadly, Hollywood knows far more about vice than virtue; and the inability to portray virtue convincingly may in part reflect the limits of our insight into virtue. It may also say something about the true character of our hearts, and about the nature of temptation and our inability to overcome it.

However alluring vice is in fiction, in Hollywood, or in virtual reality, the cold sober fact is that vice is vicious. In real life, vice hurts others and destroys us from within. Who wants a selfish slob for a roommate, a thief for a neighbor, a teacher who arbitrarily plays favorites, a lazy business partner, a cowardly teammate, an egomaniac for a boss, abusive parents, a mentor who gossips, a greedy lawyer, a doctor who cheats, a corrupt judge, a racist cop, an adulterous pastor, an embezzling banker, an unfaithful spouse, or deceitful children? In real life, we would prefer to stay as far away from vicious people as we can. Proud, self-centered people who live in a universe of one might be dismissed as interminable bores if their narcissism were not so dangerous to those around them. There may be some temporary comradery in gluttony or smoking or drinking or other addictions; but in the end, the life of an addict is horribly self-destructive. Who of us really wants to keep company with hate-filled bigots, or people who take cruel pleasure in violence, rape, sadistic torture or murder? Hollywood may try to entertain us with virtual vice; it may even reward a film like The Silence of the Lambs with its highest honor for artistic achievement. But there is no pleasure when three of your closest friends are carved to death on the south side of Chicago. Their obituaries celebrated their virtuous lives, not their horrible deaths.

Let us remind you what you already know from your own experience: We need virtue now more than ever! We need it not because we are necessarily worse off than ever before, but because we live in an age where it is possible to multiply evil in ways that earlier eras could scarcely imagine. An ancient warrior might kill several people in hand-to-hand combat—if he was almost superhuman in strength and skill, perhaps several dozen in a day. But a modern bomber could kill hundreds or thousands in an instant with far less effort or danger to himself. If he is a truly vicious person, a sociopath, he may think no more of it than if he had wiped out an opponent in a video game. An ancient king who was the richest man on earth might, in his lustful chauvinism and political machinations, maintain a harem of a thousand women. But today an ordinary blue collar worker addicted to pornography may live in a world of virtual vice, flooded with the images of thousands and thousands of real, live men, women, and children. Are these persons somehow less victimized just because their bodies are now displayed around the globe in a virtual reality rather than the private chamber of a powerful king? Without virtue, will not our civilization crumble under the vices of materialism, violence, and pornography?

Polls from the Gallup organization tell us something fairly interesting about long-term trends in American society. For a number of decades U.S. citizens have become increasingly religious, at least according to certain basic criteria such as church membership. But, at the same time, the U.S. population has become far less moral by traditional standards. If this is true, it is not a new problem. Jesus Christ was surrounded by extremely religious, yet exceedingly immoral people. Even the religious leaders of his day were blind to their sins of materialism, idolatry, injustice, greed, neglect of the poor, and sexual immorality (remember that Jesus addressed the religious leaders when he challenged those without sin to cast the first stone upon the woman caught in an adulterous relationship; many scholars believe they even set the woman up in order to trap Jesus with his own words—a double vice of deceit and sexual abuse).

Even apart from these larger issues, we also desperately need virtue in order to make our ordinary, daily lives civil, decent, and bearable. None of us really want to live in a family, a dorm, or in a marriage where vice has overtaken virtue. None of us want to work in an environment of distrust, hostility, back-stabbing, or corruption. Unless we work hard to cultivate the virtues, both as individuals and as communities, we will lead lives immersed in, and surrounded by viciousness.

From time to time we may feel trapped by our circumstances and tempted to turn to mind-numbing vices, including virtual vices, to escape our difficulties. We may also turn to vice in order to avoid the harsh reality about our own characters—characters running low on virtue. There is no future in vice; there is only a moral, psychological, and spiritual wasteland. Nothing will help you build a healthier, more robust sense of identity than a virtuous character. Nothing will undermine your self-worth or destroy your identity like vice.

We need virtue because we live in an age of evils bigger than Goliath. Who will step forward to slay the new giants? We need virtue because our culture encourages us to bow down and worship the false gods of materialism and sensuality. Who will be Daniel and dare to stand alone?

The real heroes of the last century tower over other people because of their virtue. Churchill raised his courageous voice in stubborn defiance against the Nazi onslaught. Gandhi stubbornly insisted that freedom could come without violence. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison because he refused to accept the great evil of Apartheid. Mother Theresa ministered over half her life in the slums of Calcutta. Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges and Martin Luther King, Jr. and a host of ordinary people sat and sang and prayed and marched and went to jail so that the United States would at last begin to confront its horrible patterns of discrimination and racism. And each of us has personal heroes, humble men and women whose inner strength and virtue was light and salt in a dark and decaying world.

Why be virtuous? What good is virtue? We are indeed a sorry people if we have so lost our way that we even have to ask such questions. May each day find us walking in the light.

3 comments on “What Good is Virtue?

  1. Amber Snipes
    April 13, 2012

    That was intense, thank you for opening my eyes!

  2. Cynthia
    April 28, 2012

    Perfectly said. That was great!

  3. John Cleary
    January 20, 2013

    Ditto, ditto and more dittos’s… oh my heavens, can it be true… “all roads lead to Rome?”

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