378 Endangered Virtues

  Michael Phillips is a Christian novelist who recently published Endangered Virtues and the Coming Ideological War: A Challenge for Americans to Reclaim the Historic Virtues of the Nation’s Christian Roots (Sterling VA:  Fidelis Publishing, c. 2023; Kindle Edition).  ”Rapid changes” around the world deeply concern him.  The culture war is very real and its outcome “will determine our future and that of generations to come” (p. 10).  It looks much too much like the pre-Civil War 1850s, when it was still a  war of words rather than shells and bayonets.  Today’s combatants are traditional Christians who are assailed by cultural and political progressives ruthlessly determined to destroy them.  We need “to be wise thinkers to properly absorb and respond intelligently to the important idea-crisis that is overtaking us.  We cannot take ideas haphazardly as they come, catching them, as the late . . . Francis Schaeffer once said, like measles.  We have to be aware of how we think, aware of our presuppositions and worldviews, and the implications of both.  Too much is at stake to be sloppy thinkers” (p. 11).  As Christians we need to be ever perceptive, discerning the spiritual dimensions to the cultural conflicts we face.  Unfortunately Phillips identifies the problem without providing much help resolving it, other than living godly lives.  To better grasp what’s needed requires a more adept, and well-grounded, thinker, Alistair McIntyre.  

   When I began teaching Ethics fifty years ago I used textbooks that addressed various issues by contrasting positions and encouraging students to analyze and formulate their own views.  The professor’s task was to clearly explain what a variety of philosophers thought while allowing students to freely pick and choose the views they preferred.  Then came Alistair MacIntyre’s After Virtue:  A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame Press, c. 1981)!  Reading this book changed my approach to the course and led me to make Aristotle’s Ethics the basic text used every semester, supplemented by more modern (and more popular) readings.  “Simply put,” McIntyre said, “the moral life aims at virtue” (p. ix), and he sought to determine how we become ethical persons rather than asking how to answer ethical questions.  Along with Josef Pieper, he upheld the “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).

This is no purely “academic” question!  The fate of the world, the well-being of mankind, rests in the balance.  For we live in troubled times.  Indeed, MacIntyre suspected we face the kind of disintegrating culture historians describe in the centuries which marked the transition from the Ancient to the Medieval World, an era of “barbarism and darkness” (p. 263).  Today “the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us from quite some time” (p. 263). He tried to show how our modern (Enlightenment-shaped) culture has lost its moral integrity, collapsing into the emotivist ethics widely evident 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.  Since different folks have different feelings our culture lacks any ethical coherence, any rational rationale or objective standards.

Emotivists believe that saying “this is good” merely means “I approve of this and want you to feel likewise.”  So relativism reigns and everyone makes up his own rules.  Autonomous individuals insist on it.  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).  Friedrich 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.”  A moment’s thought reveals the inevitable chaos concealed in such views, but Nietzsche discarded reason as well as morality, so we believe lies as well as behave immorally.

But not so fast said MacIntyre!  There is an ancient and eminently defensible ethical philosophy with roots in Aristotle and Aquinas.  To doubt Nietzsche, to oppose the drift of his antinomian ethics, forces one to examine the tradition Nietzsche (and the Enlightenment) rejected:  Aristotle.  To MacIntyre 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 through the centuries 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, but in fact he may be the wisest guide through the tar pits 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.  

     MacIntyre’s 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.

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        John H. Garvey served as president of The Catholic University of America from 2011 until 2022.  Earlier he served as dean of Boston College Law School after teaching law at the University of Notre Dame.  Throughout his distinguished career at all these institutions he was constantly concerned with moral formation in the educational and legal world and routinely devoted his commencement remarks to the importance of the classical virtues.  He recently compiled his addresses in The Virtues (Washington, D.C.:  The Catholic University Press, c. 2022).  He begins by citing a review of Thomas Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons in The New York Times,noting that Wolfe had “located one of the paradoxes of the age.  Highly educated young people are tutored, taught and monitored in all aspects of their lives, except the most important, which is character building . . . they find themselves in a world of unprecedented ambiguity . . . where it’s not clear if anything can be said to be absolutely true.”

Garvey gave the speeches and wrote this book to say yes, some things are absolutely true and should give you guidance throughout your life.  Unfortunately, the history of Harvard reveals a different trajectory.  Chartered in 1636, over the centuries Harvard had three mottos:  Veritas (“Truth”); In Christi Gloria (“for the glory of Christ”); and Christo et Ecclesiae (“for Christ and Church”).  But Harvard has changed.  Christ is no longer honored, nor is any truth considered absolute.  Harvard and other universities certainly provide a moral education, but it’s a libertine celebration of individual freedom to do whatever one feels.  And, like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, students mainly “want to be amused.”  Thus, in the infamous words of the late Supreme Court Justice Kennedy in Planned Parenthood v. Casey:  “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of they mystery of human life.”  On the other hand, John Paul II insisted real freedom is not casting off  restraints but doing what’s right.  So Garvey says:  “The virtues are habits that channel our freedom in the direction we ought to go.  They are principles of action that move us to do good things.  ‘Only virtuous people are capable of freedom, Ben Franklin says” (p. 15).  And virtuous people become so by forming good habits, developing a “second nature” that enables them to almost instinctively.  Just as we develop the ability to play the cello  through painstaking practice, so we develop our moral character through  the disciplined doing of right things.

As a Christian, Garvey begins by focusing on the “theological virtues” basic to the Faith.  By grace, believers are given the faith, hope, and love needed to partially restore what was lost in the Garden of Eden.  We do not manufacture them—they come to us from another realm of reality.  Faith enables us to believe in God’s revelation.  Faith is  never blind—it actually “enlarges our field of vision” to include invisible realms of reality.  It enables us to grasp and cling to God’s Word.  Just as I believe in the theory of relativity because Einstein demonstrated its truth (not because I understand it) so too I take God at His Word because I trust Him.  Hope places our ultimate joy in heaven alone.  It “is the virtue that connects our desire for heaven with God’s promises.  It links our deepest longing for happiness with God” (p. 45).  Love (or charity), the finest of all the virtues, puts God first and enables us live out the Gospel.  “These three virtues are the heart of the Christian life.”  They bring a bit of heaven into our daily lives.  

Conjoined with the theological virtues are the “cardinal” virtues routinely cited by Plato, Ambrose and Aquinas:  Fortitude; Justice; Temperance; Prudence.  They are acquired by human effort though they certainly need God’s sustaining grace to develop.  First and most important is Prudence, the foundation of the other virtues.  It finds wise ways to get to the right end.  Given what seems to be a necessary choice between two apparent goods, prudence prescribes the best one.  At times it seems as if we must choose the “lesser of two evils,” and prudence helps us weigh the options and do what’s best in the situation.  We need to know ourselves, with all our strengths and weaknesses, so we need prudence to discern how to think and act well.  As the great novelist Flannery O’Connor once said:  “The older I get the more respect I have for Old Prudence.”  Justice assumes Cicero’s declaration:  Non nobis solum nati humus (“We are not born for ourselves alone”).  We live a common life and need to rightly interact with others.  Doing justice means giving others what is due them.  Cicero insisted we do so only as we see justice as doing the will of God in our world.  To do so requires Courage or Fortitude.  It’s on display in heroic figures such as Joan of Arc and George Washington.  But it’s equally present in parents getting out of bed and going to work every day to support their families.  For most of us courage emerges in small ways—just getting doing what’s needed at home and in church, telling the truth, treating others kindly.  Tearing down things requires little fortitude, but building up institutions or persons really does.   Temperance, said St. Benedict, requires “moderation in all things.”  It’s not a headline-grabbing virtue but it really matters when living a good life.  It’s important, rather paradoxically in a culture committed to being amused, because it enables us to really enjoy the good things in life.  As Fulton Sheen said:  “happiness comes from self-possession through temperance, not from self-expression through license.”  

In addition to the supernatural and cardinal virtues, Garvey reminds us there are other “little virtues” worth commending.  St. Thomas Aquinas said the “entire universe, with all its parts, is ordained towards God as its end, inasmuch as it imitates, as it were, and shows forth the Divine goodness to the glory of God.”  Nothing is so small that if fails to celebrate God’s Being and Goodness.  So practicing the “little” virtues are ways to glorify and worship God.  Small traits such as “gentleness, modesty, and humility are ‘graces which ought to color everything we do,’” said St Francis de Sales.  So Aristotle praised wittiness and liberality, Ben Franklin touted cleanliness, and constancy loomed large in Jane Austen’s fictional universe.  There are appropriate virtues for individual callings and stages of life.  

Consequently, Garvey considers some of the virtues most needed by younger folks who, John Paul II said, deeply desire for truth.  They want to know what makes life meaningful, what gives one purpose and direction.  They want to know what career to follow, what person to marry, what worldview is worthwhile.  Youngsters easily substitute enthusiasm for wisdom, making horrendous mistakes.  But there’s much to praise in enthusiasm and the willingness to commit to high ideals and social change.  What they need is to “cultivate:  docility, humility, honesty, industriousness, studiousness, modesty, and silence” (p. 95).  Reading these brief sections, imagining how the students Garvey addressed might have responded, makes for enjoyable reflections.  

Docility means to be teachable.  Contrary to the “hermeneutics of suspicion” derived from Freud and Nietzsche, docility encourages listening (especially to the elderly and the witness of tradition).  Said Aristotle:  “we ought to attend to the . . . saying and opinions of experienced and older people; because experience has given them an eye to see aright.”  Consequently:  “We call the University our ‘alma mater’ (our nourishing mother) because we trust that our professors are feeding us the truth.  We call the Church our Mother for similar reasons” (p. 105).  Humility allows us to rightly appraise ourselves, above all acknowledging God as Creator, imploring His aid in the many areas it’s needed.  Honesty, Garvey says, evaluating lawyers, is one of the two things that make good ones—trials and the judicial system ought to discover and uphold truth, dispassionately and without favoritism.  Modesty may apply to dress or comportment, but it’s essentially behaving appropriately, not making a spectacle of yourself.  

Industriousness makes good use of your time, investing your life in healthy and worthwhile things.  Studiousness “moderates our natural desire to know,” keeping from unwise excesses.  Silence tempers the tongue!  So it’s the kind of temperance and recommended by Ben Franklin as the second of his thirteen virtues.  “Speak not what may benefit others or yourself; Avoid trifling Conversation.”  

Turning to Middle Age, Garvey notes this is the time when we do most of our life’s work and shoulder major responsibilities, including marriage and family as well as occupations.  It’s a strenuous time but potentially packed with joy and satisfaction.  What we need in these years are truthfulness, patience, generosity, meekness, constant, and hospitality.   “Above all,” wrote Dostoyevsky, “don’t lie to yourself.”  Tell the truth.  Don’t “live by lies.”  Basically, “Patience waits for the right means to do what is good.”  Off-the-cuff remarks (or emails), thoughtless actions, premature judgments all reveal a lack of patience.  Generosity means not “random acts of kindness” but thoughtful, loving things done for another person’s well-being.  Meekness enables us to restrain anger and keep control of our passions.  Constancy keeps us at our post, even when it’s not pleasurable.  Hospitality, evident in Mary and Jesus at the marriage in Cana, “creates the circumstances for the social dimension of love to flourish” (p. 144), and will be perfectly on display in heaven!  

Considering Old Age, Garvey thinks it has important purposes and requires significant virtues.  It’s a time for Repentance, coming to terms with failures early in life.  Speaking for himself, he says:  “I have learned that repentance is the duct tape of family life.  It can fix anything” (p. 152).  How many parents and children could be reconciled if only they repented!  Gratitude distinguishes happy old people!  It’s not an emotion evoked by passing celebrations, but a constant doxology—“praise God from whom all blessings flow.”  And Mercy, both accepted and given, ought to mark old age.  It’s a “grandparent’s virtue.”  Magnanimity enables the elderly to give, at times lavishly—and many of them have at last the means to do so.  Gentleness is much needed in a world filled with conflict and tension.  It’s a kind of charity that softens the blows and eases the sorrows of a fallen world.  Benignity (not a familiar word to many of us but meaning kindness) may well be uniquely evident in the elderly.  

Finishing his admonitions to virtue, Garvey praises Wisdom (one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit), Peace (primarily peace of soul), and Joy (a lasting satisfaction, unlike passing pleasures).  Above all, “try to find God in all things.”  The Virtues contains much to be praised—many illustrations and eminently comprehensible injunctions, all rooted in the great virtue tradition in ethics.  Would all universities in America had men such as Garvey leading them!

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Years ago I attended a scholarly conference and shared a dinner table with a young theologian, Matthew Levering.  In subsequent years he has published a number of scholarly works and joined an elite corps of gifted Christian thinkers.  Recently he published Dying and the Virtues (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 2018).  The great Church historian Jaroslav Pelican once said:  “The core of Christian faith is pessimism about life and optimism about God, and therefore hope for life in God.”  How well we have lived certainly becomes manifest in our hour of death.  So, the author asks:  “What would it look like for a dying persons to have been ‘hid with Christ in God’ and to ‘blossom’ on Christ’s grave?  My answer involves what I call the virtues of dying” (p. 4).  These virtues, he says, are “given by God” and totally dependent upon Him.  He believes “these virtues exhibit that ‘it is only the cross of Christ that makes ultimate sense of human death, without which dying would be merely ‘the great wrecking ball that destroys everything’” (p. 5).  

Beginning with the “most excellent” of the virtues— Love—Levering cites Joseph Ratzinger:  “‘man’s longing for survival’ has its roots in ‘the experience of love,’ in which love wills eternity for the beloved and therefore for itself’” (p. 13).  Having loved—and lost a loved one—almost automatically prompts one to hope for life everlasting wherein love endures.  Musing on this leads the author to ponder the message of Job, who “repeatedly returns to the question of whether God intends to annihilate him” (p. 15).  In the end Job finds assurance in the goodness of his Maker and the confidence that inasmuch as his Redeemer lives forever so shall he!  When we love we long for more time with our beloved.  Thus the virtue of Hope rightly focuses on eternal life.  Generally speaking, people who pathologically fear death have no hope for life after death.  But Christians who have (as St Paul prescribed) died to the world and come alive in Christ face death peacefully.  The third of the supernatural virtues is Faith, the confidence that God is and will do what He said.  We who have walked by faith will pass through death’s valley relying on the One who designed and sustained us.  We’ve learned to “let go and let God” do His perfect will, enabling Him to work through us, perfecting such virtues as penitence, gratitude, solidarity, humility, surrender, and courage.  Death will be our final test, a step from mortality to immortality, from earth. Now that Jesus has arisen, we need not fear the grave.  Ultimately, says Levering,  “To understand our dying as an act of grateful living chraracterized by virtues, we need Christ” (p. 164).

Levering brings impressive erudition (35 pages of endnotes; a 27 page bibliography) and helpful illustrations to his discussion, making this a fine addition to the virtue tradition.  Not an easy read, but good things often cost us something.  

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