What is virtue? The Oxford English Dictionary defines virtue as “behaviour showing high moral standards”; with an article (that is, “a virtue” or “the virtue”), it’s “a quality considered morally good or desirable in a person.” Another way to think of virtue is goodness as a collection of habits, goodness as a result of education, training, and discipline (that is, self-control). As we transition from the seven capital or “deadly” sins to the seven cardinal and theological virtues, we should discuss our present-day need for the “goodness habit.”
The Telos of Virtue
Virtues are habits because they’re principles which inform our actions and behavior. Consider the Boy Scout Law: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” Each of these adjectives is chock-full of values which demand particular responses to different situations. Moreover, they encompass a way of life that Lord Robert Baden-Powell, a British general who served in the Boer War, believed were necessary not only to soldiers but to citizens as well. As such, they helped ground several generations of boys and girls in a solid sense of good character.
“Without the aid of trained emotions,” wrote C. S. Lewis, “the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was skeptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat,’ than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers” (The Abolition of Man, 33-4). Part of a good education, said Aristotle, echoing Plato, is “having been definitely trained from childhood to like and dislike the proper things” (Nicomachean Ethics 2.3.2). Consequently, training in virtue is inseparable from and indispensable to our moral formation.
For Aristotle, the end (or telos) to which virtue is ordered was eudaemonia (lit. “good soul”; cf. Nic. Eth. 1.8), often translated as happiness but better understood as a state of flourishing, much like psychologist Abraham Maslow’s self-actualization. Unlike happiness, eudaemonia isn’t an emotion but rather a state of being — a pinnacle of moral and spiritual excellence achieved only through effort and living a moral life. Where happiness is subjective, transient, and dependent on happenstance, eudaemonia has nothing to do with luck; it persists through both good fortune and misfortune. Where Stoic virtue simply endures evil, Aristotelian virtue strives to subdue it.
For Christians, however, the end to be achieved is union with God. This is something we can’t achieve by ourselves or solely by our own efforts. The Aristotelian pursuit of eudaemonia, then, is uncomfortably similar to the Pelagianism suffusing our age. Nevertheless, in adapting Greco-Roman philosophy to Christian moral doctrine, the Church Fathers and Doctors all saw the utility of virtue as “a good habit consonant with our nature” (St. Augustine). Like St. Paul, they all saw righteousness as something in which one is trained (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16) rather than something that develops of its own accord.
“The Tragi-Comedy of Our Situation”
Then what prevents us from adopting the classical virtues and teaching them in our schools today? One major obstacle can be summed up in the popular saying, “People ought to be able to do whatever they want, so long as no one else is harmed.” We continue to parrot this libertarian pseudo-truism despite the ever-growing pile of laws, regulations, and judicial decisions defining and proscribing different ways of harming others. We even have difficulty recognizing these actions as embodying a moral imperative because, for all practical purposes, morality has come to mean “stupid rules that keep me from doing what I like.”
However, our rejection of the idea of a common ethos is only skin-deep, even opportunist. The entirety of our culture wars is, in fact, a struggle between two social supertribes who live in different, fundamentally post-Christian moral universes, both of which are trying to impose their ethos on the other. Educators who have never read the Nicomachean Ethics and dismiss Aristotle as a Western patriarchal slavery apologist nevertheless try to teach their students to like and dislike what they consider “the proper things.” That’s your irony supplement for the day.
And all the time — such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. … In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests [i.e., magnanimity] and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. (Lewis, 35)
Part of this major obstacle is the secondary yet common equation of virtue with chastity, especially with virginity. Put differently, virtue is considered tainted by its connection with a sexual ethos our culture has largely rejected, especially so far as that ethos is perceived to support the political, social, and economic oppression of women and the LGBTQI community. For instance, agenda-driven psychologists have redefined, demonized, and pathologized virility (that is, manliness or masculinity) as an “ideology” celebrating the worst traits men display. What little many people know of virtue is therefore lopsided and incomplete, and therefore ignorantly dismissed as “irrelevant.”
Faith and Truth as Virtues
As a society, though, can we afford such a philistine rejection of virtue education?
Consider the interconnections between truthfulness and faithfulness. In English, faith and truth are almost interchangeable; you can be true to your beloved and faithful to your friends with little to no loss of meaning. A truthful person is someone on whose word you can depend, someone who will live up to their bargains and do what they’ve promised: they are reliable and therefore trustworthy. They admit their errors and their failings; they don’t pretend to honors they haven’t achieved or knowledge they don’t possess — they are honest. These are not only admirable qualities but also socially useful, stabilizing values.
Contrast this to the current dystopian state of affairs, in which distrust is rampant:
A 2017 RAND Corporation study, Truth Decay, found that Americans had the least level of trust in their government and social institutions of the 28 nations they surveyed. Most Americans believe the truth still matters, according to a Marist poll, but expect people to lie to them at least some of the time. Another study connects the average citizen’s tendency towards dishonesty by the prevalence of corruption in its government. Another study that was done by the communications marketing firm Edelman, according to The Atlantic, found that “America is now home to the least-trusting informed public of the 28 countries that the firm surveyed, right below South Africa.”
Since man is a social animal, one man naturally owes another whatever is necessary for the preservation of human society. Now it would be impossible for men to live together, unless they believed one another, as declaring the truth one to another. Hence the virtue of truth does, in a manner, regard something as being due. (Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 109, A. 3 ad 1; emphasis mine)
As Catholics, to live our faith authentically, there are certain virtues we must not only preach but practice. Like the seven deadly sins, I believe these virtues have gotten scant attention over the last few decades, perhaps because certain educators and theologians have considered virtue ethics to be obsolete if not regressive. However, we’re no longer in a social or cultural position to afford chronological snobbery. Our church and our society need virtuous people now more than ever. There are few if any traditional virtues that can’t be transplanted into our modern era to produce a healthier culture.
In following articles, I’ll discuss the seven habits of good Christians; that is, the four cardinal and three theological virtues of Christianity. But there are other virtues which oppose the deadly sins. As well, there are other virtues which, while not being specifically Christian, nevertheless find roots in natural law and are socially beneficial. As I’ve written elsewhere, the kind of young people whom we need for the future leadership of the Church will come from parishes whose members and families are consumed by zeal for the house of the Lord (Psalm 69:8-13; cf. John 2:13-22) — exactly the kind of parishes in which virtue training should be welcome.
Goodness is more than an emotion, or a self-image, or an arid, abstract value. It is a way of life. (Or, as Lewis put it, it is the Tao, the Way.) As a way of life, it requires certain habits of mind and emotion as well as of physical action, a way of thinking and reacting to the world around us. But, though it’s rooted in natural law, it doesn’t come to us naturally. It must be learned, which means it must be taught. And the best way to teach it is by living it ourselves.