Monday, June 24, 2013

Who Defines Virtue?

Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. –St Paul

In thinking about our legends and legacies, as well as about being the kind of people who inspire others to say, “You make me want to be a better man,” I started thinking about virtue. We don’t hear much about virtue or moral excellence today. In fact, when we do it is usually used pejoratively. Snit-like: “Well, aren’t you the virtuous woman.” But for thousands of years, understanding the nature of virtue was thought to be of paramount importance for living the good life, and, thus, experiencing true happiness.

Back in the antique days of Greece (also known as Classical Antiquity), the philosophers wrestled with the nature of virtue and what comprised the virtues that all other virtues hinged upon. Their considerable thought brought some of them (cf. Plato and Cicero) to these four virtues: Temperance, Fortitude (Courage), Justice, and Prudence. Hundreds of years later, St. Augustine defined these virtues, thusly: (T)hat temperance is love giving itself entirely to that which is loved; fortitude is love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object; justice is love serving only the loved object, and therefore ruling rightly; prudence is love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it." (De moribus eccl., Chap. xv)

So. What Augustine is saying is that, when you get down to it, virtue is basically all about love: living in love, and being directed in thought, word, and deed, by love for God, others, and self. In saying this, however, Plato and Augustine understood the nature of love, not as something to be defined by each individual, but something with a given nature whose reality was to be discovered and followed after. Today, however, we demand freedom to define love, and thus virtue, in any way we wish.

When the ancient philosophers like Plato and early Christian writers such as Augustine wrote about being truly free they were referring to the freedom to realize our proper essence: actualizing who we were created to become. Freedom was not about having an unrestrained will, but a will directed by those virtues proper to our created essence. The freest life, then, was a life lived before the gods (Pagans), the Good (Plato), or God (the Christians). Today, however, true freedom is seen as the ability to “do whatever I damn well want to.”  I guess this is why we don’t hear much about virtue today.

On second thought, there is one sacred “virtue” to which our culture does adhere: every man and woman’s right to decide what “morality” best fits themselves. When a culture does away with God, it inevitably adopts some form of nihilism or hedonism, where there is no transcendent Truth, and no Ultimate Authority who defines the nature of “goodness,” much less the true nature of “love.”  Love is whatever I say it is. Here the “virtuous” Ideal is personal autonomy, where my choices are my choices because they are my choices. How’s that for a philosophical foundation for morality!  

When I speak of seeking to live a virtuous life, I am coming from the point of view that virtue is not something we define, but a way of being that is defined by God (See The Life of Christ and The Bible), and is the only way to realizing our true created nature, and, therefore, the only way of experiencing true happiness. To state this in the negative, not living a virtuous life leads to misery. (See American culture.)

However worthy and noble your dreams and vision for your life are, the question here is, by what standard of morality are you living as you are seeking to fulfill your vision? How are you demonstrating virtue or moral excellence in word, attitudes, and deeds? Remember the words of Christ, people: What good will it be for you to gain the world—to realize all of your dreams and visions--but lose your soul. 

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2013

1 comment:

  1. Great perspective on Freedom...discovering one's own essence truly is freedom, not just going out and doing whatever the hell you feel like doing.