The virtue of virtue

I, and perhaps many of you, came from a generation which was taught morals mainly as a series of rules – most of which were deduced from Scripture, and developed to cover almost every activity available to human beings. These were divided into two classes: mortal sins – whose potential punishment was Hell for all eternity, and venial sins which were not. This was summed up by a leading Jesuit moral theologian: “(The Church) indoctrinates its children during many years, until resistance to evil becomes an almost second nature… It says to the child: you must be good in the way
I teach you to be good, so that afterwards you may know how to be good.”

We might discuss the values and the dangers of such an approach but, over time, the emphases have moved in the direction of pursuing the virtues rather than focussing on lists of sins. The argument here is that it is better to work at becoming a good person rather than being fixated on avoiding this sin or that.

Ironically the ‘cardinal virtues’, as we call them, come originally from Aristotle. They lead us towards the good, and thus towards God. Not surprisingly they seem to have a slightly musty air about them attributable to their long history. This does not make them irrelevant since human nature has not changed since Aristotle; but the terminology lacks appeal.

So we get as a listing of the cardinal virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. They are called ‘cardinal’ because they are the “hinges” on which the multiplicity of other possible virtues turn.

But Prudence has a specific meaning – that of practical wisdom in our choices or, as St Augustine put it “..the knowledge of what to seek and what to avoid.”. It does not carry the common overtone of prudence in the sense of being cautious. Justice carries the feel of the courtroom; it is too large a word for our petty experiences. Fortitude is not a word in ordinary usage and does not readily suggest the determination to stick with the right thing despite opposition from within and without – in both large and small matters. And temperance sounds like avoiding hangovers; it has largely lost its original sense of finding the judicious mean between two possible extremes: courage, for instance, is the mean between foolhardiness and timidity.

These old fashioned terms, while understandable in their true context, do not readily convey their intended meaning. Perhaps we need some new names. I propose, merely as a first shot, Practical Wisdom, Fairness, Determination, and Balance. Others will perhaps have better ideas. Of course, even under new names, each virtue needs explanation and extension, but it is important that they set us off at least in the right direction, and are qualities which are recognizable to all as desirable.

Advertisements

About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries, virtue ethics. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to The virtue of virtue

  1. Barrie Machin says:

    My old fashioned interpretation of these important behavioural maxims is how to apply them to the modern day problems we seem to see daily with the many electronic distractions that cause such difficult problems even the very young face each day as they go on line via their smartphones and the like. It would seem the jungle they find themselves today in is even denser and more complex than seniors perhaps appreciate.

  2. Horace says:

    “(The Church) indoctrinates its children during many years, until resistance to evil becomes an almost second nature… It says to the child: you must be good in the way I teach you to be good, so that afterwards you may know how to be good.”
    I was brought up in a Catholic school and I hope that as a result – although I only remember one or two ‘rules’ that I was taught – I do know how to be good.

    Why the emphasis today on not having rules?

    My Father was an Anglo-Irish Protestant but he insisted that my mother and I (who were ‘Catholics’ and therefore must obey Catholic rules) should always attend Mass on Sunday – to the extent of taking us to the church, returning home to make breakfast, and collecting us from the church after Mass!

    • David Smith says:

      “Why the emphasis today on not having rules?”

      I think it has much to do with both the modern heavy emphasis on individualism and the modern reverence for spontaneity and efficiency. Rules slow down the individual, by making him think. Bad. Feel, don’t think. Once you’ve got your feelings in order, only then will it be time to unearth the words to justify them.

      Also, there’s the popular attitude that everything old must be discarded or, at the very least, modernized. Part of the impulse behind this attitude comes directly from the modern enthusiasm for science, which insists that new understanding must always replace old, outdated understanding.

  3. David Smith says:

    “These old fashioned terms, while understandable in their true context, do not readily convey their intended meaning. Perhaps we need some new names. I propose, merely as a first shot, Practical Wisdom, Fairness, Determination, and Balance. Others will perhaps have better ideas. Of course, even under new names, each virtue needs explanation and extension, but it is important that they set us off at least in the right direction, and are qualities which are recognizable to all as desirable.”

    I’d much rather stick with Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. When one undertakes to “improve” rules by replacing their words with the too-easy language of the current moment in time, they unavoidably take on new meanings, often (perhaps unintentionally but not necessarily so) significantly divergent from the original meanings. Retaining the original words means that the original concepts must be studied, thought out, thought through. Quick and easy are often the enemies of reflection, of deeper understanding.

  4. Nektarios says:

    Oh dear, here we go again, thinking that the pagan view of virtues is Christianity.
    If anything, it is thinking like it did in the Pharisees, Sadducees and the Scribes – it led to self-righteousness and pride.

    Our Lord told them they were sinners, and because they saw themselves as full of virtue, had become self-righteous that the Publican, the sinner and the harlot would enter the Kingdom of God before they would.

    On teaching the virtue of living a moral life the teaching comes apart because they have no power to bring it about. This is self- evident to all. The moralist is not interested in the whole man, just a dull conformity.

    Over the last 120 years or so we have away from the Apostolic Doctrine and teaching to an ever-changing body of ethics and morality, leading to confusion.
    So rightly so, they ask, why should I? And the moralist replies, ‘because we tell you to.
    This is the mess the world is in and the Church is in, having departed from the Apostolic Doctrine and Teaching.

  5. Nektarios says:

    Sorry, have missed out a word in the last paragraph.
    The first line should read:- Over the last 120 years or so we moved away from the Apostolic Doctrine…..

  6. David Smith says:

    Netkarios writes:

    “Oh dear, here we go again, thinking that the pagan view of virtues is Christianity.”

    I’m not clear here. What is “the pagan view of virtues” that we are mistaking for Christianity?

    • Nektarios says:

      David Smith

      It is generally taken from ancient times and the Greek Philosophers. Time to start reading
      up on the virtues, David?
      Why are virtues taken as Christianity? The moral philosophers ancient and modern say what these virtues are. It is ever changing scene depending on what is happening at any moment in time. However, the means to perform it is absent.

      Pagan views of virtues is really another name for self-righteousness. Also, it is in one’s own power to achieve. Clearly, it is not.

      True Righteousness is not self-righteousness or an ever-changing morality, but that of another – the righteousness of Christ alone.
      Trusting your soul to anything else does not bode well as all those who trust in their own ancient or modified versions of virtues can attest with their failure and sorrow.

      There is only one unchanging standard for all humanity and that is the Law of God.

  7. David Smith says:

    “There is only one unchanging standard for all humanity and that is the Law of God.”

    Sounds right.

    “Pagan views of virtues is really another name for self-righteousness. Also, it is in one’s own power to achieve. Clearly, it is not.”

    But I’m still not clear on what that means. What, more or less specifically, are these erroneous virtues? Why isn’t it within one’s power to achieve them? And what, again more or less specifically, are the virtues God wants us to aim for?

  8. Nektarios says:

    David Smith

    What is wrong with the thinking regarding the virtues? Nothing in themselves but when taken as our innate capacities, there are two main problems. It leads to self-righteousness and pride. The second is totally erroneous, and that is merit. That is merit to obtain Salvation and entry into heaven.
    It is in one’s power to live a virtuous life after a fashion, but it is kidding ourselves and others and there is no salvific merit in it and usually ends in failure, – it is not God’s way or method for us, therefore has no power.

    God does not want one trusting to ourselves regarding Salvation. It is God’s way in Christ or not at all. God’s method is not virtue as such, but holiness. Here God is at work to accomplish His will which is.’Be ye holy even as I am holy.’ It is Holiness in Christ, God wants one to understand and practice. For that one has to be a child of God and receive power to live that life of holiness.

  9. Iona says:

    Nektarios – or anyone else – could you then describe how we would see someone living, who was living a life of holiness?
    By attempting to practice the virtues, might a person be on the road towards holiness?

    • ignatius says:

      Iona,
      Pope Francis has recently penned a letter ‘Gaudette et Exultate’ which deals with the very subject of ordinary holiness. It is beautiful in simplicity and is available in print or can be perused on the Vatican website. In short, yes, the simple practice of everyday virtue is a road to holiness.See Mark ch12 v28-34

  10. Nektarios says:

    Iona

    Every true Christian is holy and lives a holy life. A holy life is Christ’s life in us. Christ’s life in us is not a patch of the old nature but a new creation altogether.
    Practising the virtues or attempting to practice the virtues is a false holiness and is of our old nature trying by another route to gain access into heaven through some merit gained by practising the virtues.
    God has not only called His people to be holy but makes it so.

    Do Christian fall down from time to time, certainly. We have to battle with sin, the flesh and the devil
    daily. Our failure so often should keep us humble. We realise that our righteousness is not our own but imputed to us by the finished work of Christ.

    Remember the old hymn: ‘My Faith is built on nothing less than Jesus and His righteousness,
    I dare not trust the weakest frame but wholly trust in Jesus name.
    On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand,
    All other ground is sinking sand.

  11. galerimo says:

    It’s hard to engage with the topic of “the virtue of virtue”, without thinking, – bollocks.

    Think virtue and think a fundamentally male way of being in the world and ordering behaviour. Think of the origins of the word itself in masculine qualities of uprightness, valour, honour, probity and strength. Army stuff.

    Man up is a popular way of calling on someone to behave with virtue – and usually some sort of clever assertion making sheer aggression.

    Being “VIR-ish” is no longer a welcome aspect of humanity in our current culture. All men are labeled as rapists. “They rape us with their eyes, their laws and their codes”. (Marilyn French). Codes, no doubt, of virtue and morals.

    This is a time when “virtuous men” are being outed for oppressing women in ways that were accepted as valid currency in a male dominated world.

    It was once considered honourable, to be prominent in public life as a politician, a church man, or a top executive in banking or media; all positions considered to be the reward for meritorious, high achieving virtuous behaviour.

    Jesus’ language borders on the inappropriate as he deals with the appearances of virtue in the lives of religious exemplars. Bullies exploiting the vulnerable and all the while under the guise of virtue. Me Too Jesus.

    There is a really strong feminine quality to those beatitudes that He presents as ways of showing up in our world and engaging with it. Being Bless – ed is more about receiving gifts from a loving God than cultivating high minded achievement through habitude.

    A healthy state of wellbeing (blessed) is the gift of a generous God. It’s never merited. When we are open to receiving our fulfilment as human beings, it comes to us all, under the offer of gift, in the turmoil of ordinary living.

    Keeping focus on the person who is blessing us, Jesus, as we navigate our lives, this is our “way”. It’s more of a female style of receptivity than a mode of chivalry akin to Knights of the Round Table codes of conduct.

    Less Aristotelian Thomism and more of The Way, The Truth and The Life.

    To uncover the virtue of virtues receive the gift of it by your own personal connection. Connect with the one who is poor in spirit, who knows what it is to mourn, is a model of meekness in the face of powerful forces, internal and external. Stay personally close to one who hungers and thirst for righteousness when you do too.

    It’s just not possible to be that close with Him and not experience mercy, that’s what you do too. Get a clean of heart from getting close to His clean heart.

    The peacemakers are always profoundly feminine. Women are good at it. Mothering is great practice. This way of being close to Him is not primarily about getting peace; it’s about making peace.

    And who on earth knows more about being persecuted for the sake of the truth. Be with him.
    Finally the question of correctly understanding the cultivation of virtue is the same problem as the fish has when it sets off in search of the ocean.

    Once we recognise where we are as disciples and embrace that personal relationship, we are blessed with all that our “virtue” has to offer, for we are blessed with his presence.

  12. Nektarios says:

    galerimo

    Ah, you are on the right track. Excellent!

  13. Nektarios says:

    Here are the various definitions of virtue:

    virtue
    /ˈvəːtʃuː,ˈvəːtjuː/Submit
    noun
    1.
    behaviour showing high moral standards.
    “paragons of virtue”
    synonyms: goodness, virtuousness, righteousness, morality, ethicalness, uprightness, upstandingness, integrity, dignity, rectitude, honesty, honourableness, honourability, honour, incorruptibility, probity, propriety, decency, respectability, nobility, nobility of soul/spirit, nobleness, worthiness, worth, good, trustworthiness, meritoriousness, irreproachableness, blamelessness, purity, pureness, lack of corruption, merit; More
    2.
    (in traditional Christian angelology) the seventh-highest order of the ninefold celestial hierarchy.

  14. Nektarios says:

    Were you wondering what the ‘More’is with the meanings above, her it is:

    principles, high principles, ethics
    “the simple virtue and integrity of peasant life”

  15. G.D says:

    ‘Whatever was an asset to me I now count as loss. Everything that I regarded as an asset I now regard as rubbish for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count everything as less compared to the surpassing excellence of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having my own righteousness from the law but that righteousness which comes through faith in Christ’. (Phil 3:7-9)

    Presumably including ‘virtues’ ….. Which of course leads to a life lived in the named virtues.

  16. Nektarios says:

    Pursuing virtue is not Christian or Apostolic teaching.
    Here are some meanings of the word ‘merit’.

    merit
    /ˈmɛrɪt/Submit
    noun
    noun: merit
    1.
    the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward.
    “composers of outstanding merit”
    synonyms: excellence, goodness, standard, quality, level, grade, high quality, calibre, worth, good, credit, eminence, worthiness, value, virtue, distinction, account, deservingness, meritoriousness

    THEOLOGY
    good deeds entitling someone to a future reward from God.
    plural noun: merits
    verb
    verb: merit; 3rd person present: merits; past tense: merited; past participle: merited; gerund or present participle: meriting
    1.
    deserve or be worthy of (reward, punishment, or attention).
    “the results have been encouraging enough to merit further investigation”
    synonyms: deserve, earn, be deserving of, warrant, rate, justify, be worthy of, be worth, be entitled to, have a right to, have a claim to/on, be qualified for
    “the accusation did not merit a response”
    Phrases
    judge something on its merits — assess something solely with regard to its intrinsic quality rather than other external factors.
    “a proposal should be judged on its merits when it comes forward for approval”

    • David Smith says:

      galerimo wrote:

      “The peacemakers are always profoundly feminine.”

      Only if you narrow your definition of “peace” to only those actions people who belong to the female sex (or “gender”) can make.

      If one does that, however, one’s living inside a belief bubble, and belief bubbles are by definition always in tension with and in opposition to the universe outside them. As such, they’re at war with it. War is not peaceful.

  17. ignatius says:

    David Smith
    Yes, I agree with that ..soldiers can also be peace makers, in fact they often are. I work in a prison and am often moved by the kindness and tolerance show by those (often ex military) who work there in difficult circumstances. I don’t think it is especially wise to assume that ‘peacemakers’ need to be essentially feminine.We do have a good phrase.’.the just man’

  18. G.D says:

    Galerimo said ‘feminine’ not female. …. ‘It’s more of a female style of receptivity’ … men can also embody that trait. …. Some females i know (mothers for one) can be just as ‘hardline’ in peacemaking as men, but retain what’s seen as ‘feminine’ style. As indeed some men do.
    (It’s a balance/integration of masculine/feminine ‘energies’ maybe?).

  19. ignatius says:

    GD,
    Yes I know, but I simply don’t think that this kind of ‘binary’ distinction helps or is even accurate..To be merciful is quite possibly as much a masculine virtue as a feminine one..Using the distinction between masculine and feminine buys into an unhelpful categorising, mercy is mercy, kindness is kindness and tolerance is tolerance even though the outer form of expression may differ.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s