064 After Virtue

During the 1990’s much as been written about “virtue.” William Bennett and others have vigorously called for a cultural renewal through a recovery to traditional “virtues.” Underlying much that has been written on this theme is a pivotal work by one of the world’s finest ethicists, Alastair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2d ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, c. 1981, 1984).

Though he writes as a scholar, MacIntyre’s concern goes beyond scholarship. The fate of the world, the well-being of mankind, rests in the balance. For we live in troubled times. Indeed, MacIntyre suspects we face the kind of disintegrating culture historians discern in the centuries which marked the transition from the Ancient to the Medieval World, an era of “barbarism and darkness” (p. 263). In our day, “the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us from quite some time” (p. 263). If there’s hope for us, it’s that another St. Benedict will emerge to begin the patient work of re-building civilization, a culture suffused with ethical virtue.

To build his case, MacIntyre mixes historical narrative and philosophical analysis. (Thus he gets criticized by both historians and philosophers!) He tries to show how the modern, Enlightenment-shaped culture has lost its moral integrity, which is painfully evident in the emotivist ethics so pervasive in the West. When school children are taught, in “values clarification” sessions, to decide what’s right–on a case-by-case basis–in accordance with their feelings, emotivism reigns. It’s as deeply rooted in our culture as PC and TV. Different folks have different feelings, so our culture lacks any ethical coherence, any rational rationale or objective standards.

“C.L. Stevenson, the single most important exponent of the [emotivist] theory, asserted that the sentence ‘This is good’ means roughly the same as ‘I approve of this: do so as well’, trying to capture by this equivalence both the function of the moral judgment as expressive of the speaker’s attitudes and the function of the moral judgment as designed to influence the hearer’s attitudes” (p. 12). Against such–and the related views promulgated by the likes of David Hume and G.E. Moore–MacIntyre protests!

To do so, he subjects emotivism to careful criticism. Underlying 20th century emotivism is the whole Enlightenment endeavor, clearly consummated by Kant’s ethics. Rejecting the teleological perspective of Aristotle and Medieval theologians such as Aquinas, Enlightenment thinkers reduced ethics to personal decisions when dealing with specific problems. Consequently, autonomous individualism now reigns. Every man is his own ethicist–as well as his own historian, theologian, etc. Thus: “Seeking to protect the autonomy that we have learned to prize, we aspire ourselves not to be manipulated by others; seeking to incarnate our own principles and stand-point in the world of practice, we find no way open to us to do so except by directing towards others those very manipulative modes of relationship which each of us aspires to resist in our own case” (p. 68).

A moment’s thought reveals the inevitable chaos concealed in such views. Nietzsche’s celebration of the “will-to-power,” the “might-makes-right” ethics of unhampered autonomy, represents the final gasp of an Enlightenment-nurtured “morality” turned “immoral.” In The Will to Power, Nietzsche declared: “A great man–a man whom nature has constructed and invented in the grand style–what is he? . . . If he cannot lead, he goes alone; then it can happen that he may snarl at somethings he meets on the way . . . he wants no ‘sympathetic’ heart, but servants, tools; in his intercourse with men he is always intent on making something out of them. He knows he is incommunicable: he finds it tasteless to be familiar; and when one thinks he is, he usually is not. When not speaking to himself, he wears a mask. He rather lies than tells the truth; it requires more spirit and will. There is a solitude within him that is inaccessible to praise or blame, his own justice that is beyond appeal” (pp. 257-258).

To ask if Nietzsche was right, to oppose the drift of Nietzschean ethics, forces one to examine the tradition Nietzsche (and the Enlightenment) rejected: Aristotle. In MacIntyre’s judgment there are only two options: Nietzsche or Aristotle! “For if Aristotle’s position in ethics and politics–or something very like it–could be sustained, the whole Nietzschean enterprise would be pointless. This is because the power of Nietzsche’s position depends upon the truth of one central thesis: that all rational vindications of morality manifestly fail and that therefore belief in the tenets of morality needs to be explained in terms of a set of

rationalizations which conceal the fundamentally non-rational phenomena of the will” (p. 117).

This leads MacIntyre to argue on behalf of Aristotle, whose ethical ideas have thrived in Greek, Muslim, Jewish and Medieval Christian circles. Each of these cultures rooted the virtues in “a cosmic order which dictates the place of each virtue in a total harmonious scheme of human life. Truth in the moral sphere consists in the conformity of moral judgment to the order of this scheme” (p. 142). Aristotle represents a “pre-modern” way of thinking which may in fact be the wisest guide through the thickets of what many call “post-modernism.”

To Aristotle, “Virtues are dispositions not only to act in particular ways, but also to feel in particular ways. To act virtuously is not, as Kant was later to think, to act against inclination; it is to act from inclination formed by the cultivation of the virtues” (p. 149). A good man doesn’t “follow the rules” but becomes the kind of rightly-educated person who habitually, naturally does what is right.

Just as we learn to play the piano or throw a baseball by working with a teacher, so we learn to act ethically through discipline, instruction, habit. Thus: “A Virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods” (p. 191).

We learn about the virtues primarily through stories. Children need to hear stories which praise good and condemn evil. We all need, to live virtuously, a steady diet of uplifting, challenging, admirable examples. We need Bible stories, King Arthur stories, Jane Austin stories, C.S. Lewis stories. The stories we tell, the songs we sing, the heroes we acclaim, the villains we despise, fundamentally shape our ethics.

Though not tightly structured, though filled with meandering excursions into darkened alleys which happen to fascinate MacIntyre, though open to challenge on many matters (both factual and interpretive), After Virtue rewards reading and re-reading. It provides the reader with many penetrating insights into the essence of “modernity” and some powerful suggestions as to the course we should take if we care for the welfare of coming generations.


Gilbert C. Meilaender, one of America’s finest ethicists, focuses on some enduring issues in The Theory and Practice of Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, c. 1984). Though coherently arranged, the book appears to be a collection of articles, engaging various thinkers (Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, et al.) addressing the topic. “Simply put,” he says, “the moral life aims at virtue” (p. ix). Thus the first chapter addresses “Thinking about Virtue,” seeking to determine how we become ethical persons, rather than asking how to answer ethical questions.

This leads Meilaender to carefully examine the work of Josef Pieper, the 20th century Thomist whose The Four Virtues provides their definitive exposition. In sum: Pieper “adheres to an older view which held that our intellects are not to be creative but to be conformed to the truth of things–and that such conformity is increasingly possible only as we grow in virtue” (p. 23).

If growth in virtue is possible, the ancient Platonic question appears: can it be taught? As Meilander dialogues with Plato, he discovers that a proper education (outlined in The Republic) incubates virtue, but it cannot be transmitted as is information. Thus story-telling, helping the young envision how to live, enables virtues to develop. So too mathematics, with its precision and objectivity, nurtures a healthy stance toward objective reality.

What was not allowed, by Plato, was the study of dialectic! Interestingly enough, the “Socratic method” which is so widely praised and imitated, even in elementary schools, would not be allowed by Plato until one’s character has been developed. The goal in education is not to skillfully debate positions, to shrewdly argue, but to find objective truth. As Plato said: “when they themselves refute many men and are refuted by many, they fall quickly into a profound disbelief of what they formerly believed. And as a result of this, you see, they themselves and the whole activity of philosophy become objects of slander among the rest of men” (The Republic, 539b). Thus Socrates and Glaucon agree to keep the young from arguments lest they imagine “truth” is nothing more than personal opinion.

Plato’s position has been assailed by many contemporary philosophers, especially the American Richard Rorty, who argues that philosophy is “participating in a conversation” rather than seeking to find truth (which cannot be found). To Rorty, “doing” philosophy is an interesting avocation, not a Socratic “love” with life or death implications. Rorty, with Sartre and others who find no room for a Creator, asserts the world is malleable, subject to man, not a created reality independent of him.

Yet to humbly submit to the Creator is Socrates’ goal; as he said to Theatetus, our deepest challenge is “becoming like the divine so far as we can” (176b). Thus, Meilaender says, the true philosopher undergoes a demanding, disciplined regimen. Until you’ve mastered the arts of dribbling and passing, of shooting free throws and jump shots, you cannot play basketball games. So too, it’s only as you mature as a virtuous person that you’re able to see the Good and to be good. Consequently, “for Plato the goal is nothing less than holiness, likeness to what is good” (p. 68).

Meilaender concludes: “Successful moral education requires a community which does not hesitate to inculcate virtue in the young, which does not settle for the discordant opinions of alternative visions of the good, which worries about what the stories of its poets teach. In short, there can be little serious moral education in a community which seeks only to be what we have come to call ‘liberal.’ For moral education requires that virtuous exemplars be presented the young, not that a thousand choices be given” (p. 72).

Such exemplars come not from the folly of “values clarification” in public schools! Meilaender devotes a chapter to examining the inherently flawed agenda of Lawrence Kohlberg’s influential hypotheses. Posing questions children barely understand, concocting dilemmas they will never face, cannot but confuse and undermine moral standards.

What’s needed is a theological orientation Meilander finds rooted in the works of Martin Luther, Augustine, Aquinas, and John Henry Newman. What’s needed for virtuous living is the inspiration and guidance, the empowerment and direction of God, who graciously gives Himself to believers. As Luther’s Small Catechism declares: “All this he does out of his pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness on my part. For all of this I am bound to thank, praise, serve, and obey him.”

Thus Meilaender says: “Gratitude to God for life itself and for the blessings enjoyed in life–gratitude to others for their gifts–is a fundamental Christian virtue, a basic characteristic of Christian existence” (p. 156). The ancient attitude of pietas, the gratitude of a child who knows he can never repay his parents for the gift of life, underlies the life of virtue. Pietas–gratitude–toward God, humble joy as beneficiaries of the gift of life, gives shape to the lives of good people. The gratitude attitude, the spontaneous joy of giving thanks, pervades the ethos of Christian virtue.


Josef Pieper has written some of the most clear, concise, persuasive explanations of Thomist philosophy of this century. The Four Cardinal Virtues (Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 1966), translates and makes accessible four slim treatises published separately in Germany: Prudence; Justice; Fortitude;

Temperance. In my judgment, congruent with Meilander’s, this is the finest discussion of these virtues available.

The ancient and medieval philosophers who set forth the doctrine of “virtue” immeasurably enriched the self-understanding and potential development of our species. To preserve the truths they discerned, to involve our children in the cultivation of what’s truly best for them, is one of our greatest obligations as parents and teachers. Thus we need to correctly define and carefully consider the importance of the virtues.

Prudence, Pieper says, is the pre-eminent virtue. Without it–the Truth underlying goodness–the ethical enterprise falters. The intellectual structure so carefully described St Thomas Aquinas declares “that Being precedes Truth, and that Truth precedes the Good” (p. 4). To do good we must first see Truth. “Prudence is the ‘measure‘ of justice, of fortitude, of temperance” (p. 7). A prudent person humbly opens his mind to the Truth of God disclosed in all that’s Real.

Through contemplation, knowing truth about what is, one is prepared to act appropriately. To know the end one should pursue, to know the proper means to employ in realizing that end, demands prudence. “Bonum hominis estsecundumrationem esse“–The good of man consists in being in accord with reason” (p. 24). As Jesus said: “he that doeth truth cometh to the light” (Jn 3:21).

Whereas Prudence directs our attention to the Truth of Reality, the second virtue, Justice, focuses our minds on others. Justice impels us to give others what’s due them. As St Thomas said: “‘Justice is a habit (habitus), whereby a man renders to each one his due with constant and perpetual will'” (p. 44). What’s due others is their defined by their rights, given them by creation. True rights are inalienable not because they have not been self-created or state-granted but given us as persons by the Creator.

Unlike the supernatural virtue of Love, the cardinal virtue of Justice treats all others as strangers; it’s committed to even-handed, dispassionately fair treatment. Lady Justice, blindfolded with balanced scales in her hands, properly symbolizes this virtue. “All Ten Commandments are praecepta justicae” (p. 62). It’s the most evident mark of a good man who does his own work well and treats others in accord with the truth.

Justice takes three forms: “firstly, the relations of individuals to one another (orde partium ad partes); secondly, the relations of the social whole to individuals (ordo totius ad partes); thirdly, the relations of individuals to the social whole (ordo partium ad totum)” (p. 74). These three are often labeled reciprocal, distributive, and legal justice, to which Pieper devotes several enlightening chapters. We live well in societies where such justice prevails.

Fortitude, or courage, is the third cardinal virtue. “The virtue of Fortitude keeps man from so loving his life that he loses it” (p. 134). Thus it neither flees in battle nor takes foolish risks. The courageous person willingly risks his life when the cause is just, when there is good reason. “‘It is for the sake of the good,’ said St Thomas, ‘that the brave man exposes himself to the danger of death'” (p. 122).

Yet though we often illustrate this virtue by celebrating military heroes, “Endurance is more of the essence of fortitude than attack” (p. 128). To patiently endure, to stand firm in the midst of criticism and adversity, reveals true courage. To rear children, to work faithfully for a lifetime, to serve a congregation, may easily demand more fortitude than daring exploits on the battlefield or a momentary stand which leads to martyrdom. As St Teresa of Avila noted: “‘an imperfect human being needs fore fortitude to pursue the way of perfection than suddenly to become a martyr'” (p. 137).

Finally, there is Temperance, the fourth of the Cardinal Virtues. Unfortunately, the word “temperance” has been reduced, in modern times. to issues dealing only with food and drink. Rightly understood, Temperance applies to all of life, rightly orders everything in its proper place. It is the only virtue which focuses exclusively on one’s self, and it demands “selfless self-preservation” (p. 148). In Pieper’s summary: “chastity, continence, humility, gentleness, mildness, studiositas are modes of realization of the discipline of temperance; unchastity, incontinence, pride, uninhibited wrath, curiositas, are forms of intemperance” (p. 151).

Chastity means rightly ordered, healthy sexuality. All God created, including sexual desire, is good. So understanding our divine design, following God’s law, rightly orders our sexual instinct. If a person lives “‘in accord with reason, he is said ‘to keep himself in himself.'” Unchastity destroys in a very special manner this self-possession and this human ‘keeping of oneself in oneself'” (p. 160).

Since Temperance, like all the virtues, is a habit, a persisting disposition, Thomas taught that one’s will, one’s intention, is more important than perfect performance. Thus “‘he who sins from lack of control is quick to repent; and repentance is the repudiation of sin. On the other hand, he who sins from a deep-rooted basic attitude of intemperance directs his will expressly toward sin; he does not repent easily; indeed, ‘he is happy to have sinned, because sinning has become ‘natural’ for him'” (p. 164). Sins rooted in infirmitas, weakness, may plague virtuous persons. But their will, their commitment to God, remains fixed.

This is evident in Pieper’s discussion of humility, as aspect of temperance. Humility has nothing to do with self-abasement or an inferiority complex. In fact, it meshes with the “high-minded man” praised by Aquinas. Such persons despise “small-minded” evil-doers. Neither fear nor flattery dislodge them from a commitment to truth and justice. Humility primarily stands revealed in one’s attitude toward God, not man. “That which pride denies and destroys, humility affirms and preserves: the creaturely quality of man” (p. 191). The surrendered will, the willingness to will God’s will, denotes true humility.

Interestingly enough, there is a healthy “wrath” to Temperance! “‘The power of anger is given to sentient beings so that the hindrances may be removed whereby the force of desire is impeded from striving toward its object, whether because of the difficulty of achieving a good or because of the difficulty of overcoming an evil.’ Wrath is the strength to attack the repugnant; the power of anger is actually the power of resistance in the soul” (p. 193). As St Gregory the Great declared: “‘Reason opposes evil the more effectively when anger ministers at her side'” (p. 194).

Musing on this, Pieper looks at modern society and concludes: “Only the combination of the intemperateness of lustfulness with the lazy inertia incapable of generating anger is the sign of complete and virtually hopeless degeneration. It appears whenever a caste, a people, or a whole civilization is ripe for its decline and fall” (p. 197). A sexually liberated, hyper-tolerlant society is doomed to self-destruct!

Having read Pieper’s treatises many times, I’m always impressed by the perennial freshness and fecundity of his thought. He has immersed himself in the works one of the greatest of all saintly doctors, Thomas Aquinas, and he thus helps readers to probe the “permanent things” we need to live well.