Over the past few years, the topic of virtue has moved out of the shadows and back into public discourse. One force behind this retrieval of virtue from the dustbin was the publication of William Bennett's The Book of Virtues in 1993.
Bennett's weighty 820-page book of old stories, essays and poems which illustrate different virtues has been bought by hundreds of thousands of people. It even spawned a lavishly illustrated Children's Book of Virtues which re-presented a few of stories for bedtime reading to the kids.
One of the favorites in our home is the story of The Boy Who Wouldn't Say "Please." This is the story of a "please" -- an elf-like creature -- who lived in a rude little boy's mouth. The "please" suffered so greatly from lack of use that he went to live in the boy's brother's mouth.
Bennett believes that by telling these sorts of stories we carry out a form of moral education. By being educated in the virtues, people will be more likely to live virtuous lives.
So, if virtue is now "in," will society soon experience a flowering of virtue? Will rude waiters, people living common law and greedy Wall Street speculators become a thing of the past? Not likely. Moral education is an art, not a science, and a most imprecise art at that. You can't cause other people to be good; that's something they have to take on for themselves. And, as Mark Twain once dryly noted, "Virtue has never been as respectable as money."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church's section on the virtues -- both human and theological -- comes shortly after its discussion of the passions. Indeed, traditional philosophers saw the virtues, especially the four cardinal virtues -- prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance -- as particular ways of harnessing human desires, of bringing them under the direction of reason.
One of the sadder sights is that of someone whose desires are unharnessed. He is attracted first in this direction, then in that. There is no reasoned pattern to his life because he is a slave to ever-changing desires.
Indeed, public discourse over especially the last 30 years has tended to extol passion and spontaneity and to denigrate anything which would temper the attractions of various pleasures. By falling prey to an untempered spontaneity, our society has seen, for example, huge increases in pre-marital sex and skyrocketing levels of consumer credit.
Both of these phenomena -- and many others stemming from the same root -- have had severe negative consequences for society as a whole. Virtue and vice are the characteristics of individuals but they have significant consequences for society as a whole.
Philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers once recalled how one of her university colleagues denigrated any emphasis on "bourgeois virtues." Students, she felt, do not need virtue, all they need is a lively social conscience. The colleague's view began to alter when she learned that half the students in her class on social justice had plagiarized their answers on their final exam.
The practice of individual virtue contributes to the common good. If people do not lead virtuous lives, the fabric of society begins to unravel. But if people do lead good and holy lives then the common good is strengthened. You can count on people telling the truth, obeying the law, not cheating on their spouses, and doing their jobs conscientiously and without taking bribes.
These are all things you take for granted until they are not there. When they do disappear, no social program, government edict or business deal will make things better. The integrity of those things has been eroded too.
When passion or desire begins to win out over virtue, society is in a lot of trouble. It is on a downhill slide which is not easy to reverse.
The Catechism says that it is difficult for men and women, whose lives have been "wounded by sin," to maintain their moral balance. Education, deliberate acts of virtue and perseverance are helpful in forging a virtuous character. But our greatest help comes from the Lord and the grace he offers. The Catechism recommends that to become more virtuous, "Everyone should always ask for this grace of light and strength, frequent the sacraments, cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and follow his calls to love what is good and shun evil" (no. 1811).
Religion should never be the handmaiden of politics and government. Nor do we love God in order to achieve a supposed higher good of doing what is right. Rather, because we love God, we want to live out that love by doing good.
However, widespread religious faith does make for a better society. It spurs people to rigorously examine their own lives and to strive to become more virtuous. And when people are virtuous, society itself is better for all.
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