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“And if anyone loves righteousness, her labors are the virtues,” the author of the Jewish Book of Wisdom assures us. “For she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for men than these.”

Though the word has more significance today than it did a decade ago in the western tradition, the term “virtue” remains a difficult concept for the modern mind to grasp, as the radicals of the 1960s and 1970s viewed it as elitist and oppressive. When we come close to discussing virtue today, we usually poorly substitute the term “values.” Again, this is changing, but a generation of influential and well-meaning persons still embrace the notion of values as somehow objective.

Virtue, according to the ancients, involved duty, loyalty, mercy, justice, and, ultimately, being willing to lay down one’s life for one’s beliefs, the greatest of all sacrifices. One understood that one lived in a community and worked for the common good (the res publica). Plato defined virtue as “conformity to a standard of morality.” Cicero wrote in his On Duties that one “must believe that it is characteristic of a strong and heroic mind to consider trivial what most people think glorious and attractive, and to despise those things with unshakable, inflexible discipline.”

Furthermore, he wrote, one must “endure reverses that seem bitter” and “to endure them so that you depart not one inch from your basic nature, not a jot from a wise man’s self respect.” John Adams, one of the greatest of the American Founding Fathers, differed little in his understanding of virtue: it is, he argued “a positive passion for the public good.” Further, he claimed, it can serve as “the only Foundation of Republics.” The Christian understanding of virtue parallels the classical understanding nicely, though it focuses on the gratuitous nature of grace rather than of the demands and exercise of the will. St. Paul tells us in his first letter to the Corinthians that the three great Christian virtues are Faith, Hope, and Charity. God distributes these, then, according to His Will. “For just as in a single human body there are many limbs and organs, all with different functions,” St. Paul wrote, “so all of us, united with Christ, form one body, serving individually as limbs and organs to one another.” Gifts such as teaching or speaking “differ as they are allotted to us by God’s grace, and must be exercised accordingly.” Our gifts should be for the common good, the Body of Christ–that is, the Church. God distributes the gifts through the economy of grace.

When we consider the various ideologies of the previous century, a return to a true understanding of the liberal arts and a reawakening of virtue seems the only viable alternative. Many figures in the western tradition have led the way: Moses, Aristotle, Cicero, Jesus Christ, St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Sir Thomas More, George Washington, John Adams, Russell Kirk, Josef Pieper, and Pope Benedict XVI. They have left us a profound moral and intellectual patrimony. All virtues lead to Love, which is the unifying virtue.

Thomist Josef Pieper explained in his essay, “A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart,” that the seven virtues work in harmony with one another. 

First, the Christian is one who, in faith, becomes aware of the reality of the triune God. Second: the Christian strives, in hope, for the total fulfillment of his being in eternal life. Third: the Christian directs himself, in the divine virtue of love, to an affirmation of God and neighbor that surpasses the power of any natural love. Fourth: the Christian is prudent; namely, he does not allow his view on reality to be controlled by the Yes or No of his will, but rather he makes this Yes or No of the will dependent upon the truth of things. Fifth: the Christian is just; that is, he is able to live “with the other” in truth; he sees himself as a member among members of the Church, of the people, and of any community. Sixth: the Christian is brave, that is, he is prepared to suffer injury and, if need be, death for the truth and for the realization of justice. Seventh: the Christian is temperate; namely, he does not permit his desire to possess and his desire for pleasure to become destructive and inimical to his being.

For Russell Kirk, all virtues led back to the first, Love. As he told the national convention of Chi Omega sorority women in 1954:

At the back of every discussion of the good society lies this question, What is the object of human life? The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition; or success; or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He believes, instead, that the object of life is Love. He knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love ever can reign in this world of sorrows; and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt. He has learnt that Love is the source of all being, and that Hell itself is ordained by Love. He understands that Death, when we have finished the part that was assigned to us, is the reward of Love. And he apprehends the truth that the greatest happiness ever granted to a man is the privilege of being happy in the hour of his death.

St. Paul stressed the necessity of love as the highest virtue in his letter to the Christians at Corinth. Each of the other six cardinal and Christian virtues serve as both a means to point to love, and as a smaller piece of the complex of virtue, each held together by love itself. Love, in reality and symbol, serves as the only possible cornerstone for the universe.

Virtue and character have significantly fallen in importance to us moderns. Our increasingly democratized age regards them as elitist, and distrusts those who preach them as too self-righteous, too stern. Guardini prefaced his 1967 book, The Virtues, with a caveat: “The word probably affects us strangely, perhaps even unfavorably; it is like to sound old-fashioned and ‘preachy.’”

Still, its only real alternative, ideology, is certainly not old-fashioned; in fact, it propels modernity; its price has been exorbitantly high.

Indeed, we would do well to follow their lead and heed their advice. If we had listened, and if the western world had had a better understanding of tradition and right reason in the twentieth century, governments may not have murdered nearly 200 million of their own citizens. As it is, the killings fields, the holocaust camps, and the gulags of the previous century remain a silent monument to the arrogance of unrestrained man, the insatiable lust for power, and the depravity of all ideologies. Our society must recognize that the only real alternative to the follies of the twentieth-century is an anamnesis of the liberal arts, the teaching of virtue, and the recognition that man is fallen but created in the image of a transcendent mercy and supreme beauty. 

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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1 reply to this post
  1. Thanks for this, Brad.

    I'm wondering, though, what you mean by saying that ideology is the only alternative to virtue? I take ideology to be an epistemological phenomenon, a problem with the way we know, while I understand virtue as a habitual way of acting–something informed by reason, but not essentially epistemological, in the way ideology is. Do you think of the two in a different way?

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