Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Virtue is an old idea, pondered since ancient times, which has fallen somewhat out of fashion in favor of Tolerance. Speak not of Virtue, even as an ideal, for to do so invites charges of hatred, bigotry, arrogance, and so on. "Bring it on!", say I, for I will speak of Virtue, not just as an ideal, but as a prerequisite for the free society that the minions of tolerance past the point of apoplexy demand.

The seven virtues are traditionally listed as Chastity, Abstinence, Liberality, Diligence, Kindness, Patience, and Humility. But there are others, including but not limited to Honesty, Prudence, Integrity, Thrift, Loyalty, and yes, Tolerance. While some elevate Abstinence or Integrity above the rest, to do is no more proper than stressing Liberality or Tolerance. All virtues have their season, and to set aside one is to set aside all.

In a 2005 Independence Day essay appearing in the WSJ, Darrin McMahon wrote about the "Pursuit of Happiness" in the Declaration of Independence. Putting that phrase in some historical context, he argues that some early American writers did see Happiness simply as enjoying a glass of wine with dinner. But as a student of Aristotle and Cicero, Thomas Jefferson would have held Virtue to be something more,
And yet it is essential to appreciate that Jefferson also held strong views on what constituted the highest source of happiness, the purest pleasure of them all. "Happiness is the aim of life," he affirmed, "but virtue is the foundation of happiness." No 18th-century Founder--whether a Christian, a classicist or a cultivator of simple pleasures--would have disagreed.

Here was the common assumption--what Jefferson called a "harmonizing sentiment"--that united Americans in their differences through the magic of e pluribus unum, making one of many. For in Christian, classical or Lockean terms, virtue at its highest meant serving one's fellow citizens, working for the public welfare, furthering the public good. It followed that virtue was the indispensable means to reconcile the conflicts of individual interest. However else they might differ in their understanding of the critical phrase, early Americans could agree that by pursuing the happiness of others, they helped to ensure their own.

Modern Liberals, a segment which apparently includes McMahon, have taken"virtue at its highest" and turned it into a definition; all virtue consists in furthering the public good. But that defies the historical context of virtue, which is the product of both self-restraint and selflessness, leaning much more heavily on the former. Invoking Aristotle on Virtue without noting self-mastery is a fatal error. He knew, 25 centuries ago, that selflessness divorced from self-restraint is no virtue.

There are many practitioners of one but not the other, dictators and child abusers alike, who spill blood in the street or torture their young for the good of the rest. Deeming their cause to be just, they feel free to commit acts of horror in its pursuit. Too many dissenting voices, too many mouths to feed? Lessons must be taught, and without self-restraint, taught they will be.

While Aristotle's "perfected self-mastery" is perhaps not the highest virtue, it is an egregious error to disregard self-restraint completely. All virtue is some combination of forgoing a short-term reward that would lead to long-term harm and accepting a burden without recompense. Without self-restraint, one cannot forgo anything.

Psychologists call turning down a short-term reward in hope of a larger one "delay of gratification". Delaying gain is not necessarily virtuous, depending on the motivation, but virtues such as Integrity, Thrift, Honesty, and of course Chastity often require delayed gratification in their practice.

But what of Liberality? Liberality, or willingness to give, is different from the other virtues in that loyalty to a greater cause, principle, or most typically, to God, gives motivation to play the part that a higher ideal requires. And yet, Liberality is like the other virtues in the exchange of one good for another, better one.

Selfless giving for the common good may be considered by some the final result of Virtue, but only as a culmination and product of the others. If one gives selflessly but without Thrift, giving money to the rich and good conversation to the poor, what virtue is that? If you feed a child a bowl of soup, but display a lack of Kindness, Humility, Patience, Abstinence, or Honesty while doing so, who profits?

And noting that Selfless Liberality is a virtue of the highest form does not imply that it is the most fundamental virtue, but quite the opposite. Selfless Liberality depends on the other virtues, for without them it is mere bribery at best. And since it depends on the other virtues, it follows a fortiori that asking others to give is not the highest virtue; it fact, it may be quite wicked.

Yet there are many who believe that anything which furthers social justice is virtuous, and anything which does not further it is not virtuous. Seeking justice is a fine thing, but excluding the other virtues, and indeed attacking those who espouse Virtue in its historical sense, is often a self-serving exercise in clinging to personal peccadilloes. If I can't convince you of anything else, at least beware of the hypocrites who demagogue on justice for the oppressed while grabbing for themselves all they can.

The society and nation of justice and liberty we all seek to become must be built on a foundation of people. These people must behave in ways which do not violate each other's rights. That kind of order cannot be imposed, but must flow freely from them. We must become people who love Virtue, who thirst for it, who would rather fail than succeed without it. And thirsting for it, we will succeed; but first, we must agree on what it is.

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