If you’ve had any kind of education at all, you’ll be familiar with the three “theological” virtues:
…and if you managed to graduate high school without being incarcerated for a major felony, you’ll probably know about the “cardinal virtues:”
I shan’t expend server space expounding on what each of those lovely words means. Regular Gentle Readers of Liberty’s Torch will already know all that, and the rest of the world can consult an online dictionary. Suffice it to say that there’s little argument over the value of the virtues tabulated above. Most of us have been cuffed about the head and shoulders by our parents (or assorted authorities in loco parentis) on those occasions when we’ve failed to practice them.
But there remains a question that’s been on my mind these past couple of days: Is the cultivation and practice of the virtues sufficient to make one “virtuous,” or is more required?
Clearly, one can practice a particular virtue at some times but fail to do so at others. Even the best of us are sinners; that comes from our human partiality and fallibility. While we are made in such a fashion that we can become saints, none of us is entitled to that status while living.
Yet I’m sure most would agree that a “saint,” however one approaches the concept, must be (or have been) a man of virtue / “virtuous man.” Questions such as “When?” and “How much?” are regarded as gauche, especially after the venerated figure has gone to his reward. As Catholics like to say, every saint has a past. Some saints had rather colorful pasts, which they enjoyed even in the awareness that the fun had to come to an end if they wanted a pleasant afterlife. (“Grant me chastity and constancy, but do not grant it yet.” – Saint Augustine of Hippo) But what, then, constitutes the virtue, distinguished from the practice of any or all of the virtues, that made for their sainthood?
This isn’t just word-mincing. There is a distinction. Grasping it may be critical to the human future. I think it’s indispensable to the American future, but that’s a subject for another essay.
The practice of the various virtues – the seven tabulated above, and many others – is situational. We may do so in some situations but fail in others. Indeed, that’s human fallibility at work. By contrast, virtue – that which characterizes the virtuous man – is of a more extended nature.
Aristotle was of the opinion that we can become virtuous by the regular practice of the virtues. There is much truth in this, yet it is not a complete prescription. The virtuous man doesn’t merely practice the virtues situationally. Even if he racks up a completely unblemished record in that regard, there’s more to his possession of virtue than those situations and his decisions and actions within them.
Virtue arises from a combination of the will to practice the virtues and the awareness of one’s fallibility. The virtuous man not only knows what the virtues are; he is also humble enough to accept that he will sometimes fall short of them. While he acknowledges the virtues and does his best to practice them as required, he accepts the probability of failure and the necessity of repentance.
Men fail of their aims. Some do so rarely; others make a career out of it. Even one who aims to practice the virtues at all times will occasionally fail to do so. All of us miss important points. All of us misinterpret our contexts. And all of us are tried beyond our strength, or what we imagine our strength to be, from time to time.
This has an important implication: It is possible to possess virtue / be virtuous, even if one fails to practice the virtues in particular situations. The awareness that one has failed is one key; the willingness to admit it, repent of it, and resolve to do better in the future is the other.
Yes, every saint has a past…but every sinner has a future. Awareness of and humility about one’s sins is the fuel that can propel us from one state to the other.
As I’ve said at other times, I write these pieces for my own benefit, as a form of conversation with myself. (It gets me fewer odd looks and “Are you feeling all right, Fran?” inquiries to write them out than to mutter them audibly.) Having written them, I sometimes post them in the hope that they might prove useful to others. That’s why I call them “ruminations.” (You don’t want to see the ones I decide not to post. Trust me on that.)
Not many persons want to be evil. Most of us want to be good, even if we’re aware that we have a long road to travel to reach that state. “Being good” is approximately synonymous with “being virtuous:” i.e., possessing both the will to practice the virtues and the humility required to admit to (and repent of) one’s departures from those standards. For one can have an unbroken record at practicing the virtues yet be an unmitigated bastard at heart. Imagine a man incapable of admitting to any shortcoming and willing to discard any of the virtues “if something big enough comes along.” If “something big enough” should never come along, was he virtuous after all?
And now, it’s time to scandalize my Gentle Readers with a fictional citation from a writer few persons would consult as an authority on the virtues or virtue:
“When you bought me, you treated me very bad,” [Oksana] said. “Why did you do that? The Keldara women, they say that you are a very nice man.”
“I am a very bad man who tries to be nice,” Mike said, not turning away. “This is the truth. I did what I did because if I did not, the men in the room would have suspected I was not who I said I was. They would have thought me soft, a weak man who could not be a slaver because I was too nice.”
“Did you enjoy it?” Oksana asked.
Mike looked at her for a long moment, then shrugged.
“Yes,” he answered, simply, still staring her in the eyes. It was as if there were only two people in the room. “I would not have done it if I didn’t have to. But, yes. I am not a nice man. I am a very, very bad man who has chosen to be nice most of the time. I do many things that are for the side of what I call ‘good.’ But many of them are very bad things, like what I did to you. I do them for good reasons. But my bad side enjoyed it very much.”
“You tell me this even though you want me to do something for you,” the girl said wonderingly.
“If you do this, you are like a soldier that works for me,” Mike said, shrugging. “I must be honest with my soldiers, with my troops. I must be honest and loyal with them as they are honest and loyal with me. If I don’t, it doesn’t work. I have shown them my bad side and my good. They choose to believe I am, at heart, a good man. I don’t argue it with them. Maybe they are right and I’m wrong. But the things that I do are as much to make up for my bad side as they are for any other reason. Perhaps that makes me good. I don’t know. All I know is that I must be honest.”
[John Ringo, Choosers of the Slain]
In that snippet is more insight into the essence of virtue than can be found in the writings of many a “moral philosopher”…and all the politicians who’ve ever lived.
May God bless and keep you all.