Virtues, Past & Present

The old ones are still the best ones

In November 1993 an unlikely book appeared at the top of the bestseller lists. William J. Bennett’s The Book of Virtues was a tome: 832 pages of moral instruction. People ate it up. Newsweek called it “just what this country needs,” and Time said it “ought to be distributed, like an owner’s manual, to new parents leaving the hospital.” Looking at a copy of The Book of Virtues today is like examining a relic from some forgotten age. You pick it up, turn it over in your hand a couple of times, and think, People were so different back then. How did they live like that?

The answer comes in a few different parts. First, it really was a different age. Think for a moment about two years—1971 and 1993. In 1971 America was still celebrating having landed a man on the moon. The Watergate break-in wouldn’t happen for another year. Vietnam was winding down. The Department of Education didn’t exist.

By 1993 the Department of Education was an entrenched part of the federal government, and it was the almighty Soviet Union that no longer existed. The Cold War was in the rearview mirror, and with it the space program had begun to wane; an entire generation had never seen a live moon walk, and no American would ever again leave low earth orbit. Instead of looking to the skies, we were looking into screens: The World Wide Web was migrating into common use with the creation of the web browser. The two Americas of 1971 and 1993 were quite different. And here’s the kicker: We’re as far away from 1993 today as they were in 1993 from 1971.

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Yet some human longings seem innate. The success of The Book of Virtues suggested that there was a latent demand for virtue then, which, at first glance, looks strange from where we sit now. Who would dare suggest today that parents be given a thick book of moral instruction for raising their children? But if you stare hard enough, the picture changes. If anything, we might be more puritanical and values-driven today than we were in 1993. We just adhere to different values. And boy, howdy, do we cling to them. People still believe in deep moral truths, you see. They simply apply those beliefs in the service of very different virtues.

The world is already en route to forgetting Donald Sterling. But the historical record will show that for two straight weeks in May 2014 he was the most important story, and the most reviled man, in America. Sterling was the 80-year-old owner of a professional basketball team, the Los Angeles Clippers. He had been married to the same woman since 1955, but around 2003, he began carrying on with a series of younger women. And by “carrying on” I mean buying them real estate and cars and bringing them to sit with him, courtside, to watch basketball games featuring the team he co-owned with his wife.

In 2014 the most recent of those girlfriends secretly taped a conversation with Sterling in which he said some not-very-nice things about African Americans. He used no foul language or racial slurs, but was demeaning and nasty nonetheless. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being your garden-variety bigot and 10 being a KKK Grand Wizard, Sterling was probably a 4. But the tape of that conversation became public, and the great machine that is American society lurched into action, its gears screeching and grinding. Television and radio hosts condemned Sterling; the public convened protests. Corporations that did business with Sterling’s team cut ties. The president of the United States—the president of the United States—interrupted an overseas trip to castigate Sterling at a press conference. And then the NBA announced that it intended to forcibly terminate Sterling’s ownership.

None of this is meant as a defense of Sterling. He seems by all accounts an unpleasant fellow who more or less got what he had coming. No, the point is to highlight America’s shifting emphasis on different virtues. Sterling’s infidelity and the public humiliation of his wife—the woman to whom he had been married for almost 60 years, who had borne him three children—was unremarkable. It was mentioned nowhere as a defect of Sterling’s character. His private, whispered racist thoughts, however, were important enough to elicit the displeasure of the leader of the free world. They were enough to cause his associates to expel him from their business and deprive him of his property.

In short, think of the litany of shame and approbation heaped on Hester Prynne and then multiply it by a thousand. Except that it wasn’t adultery that did Sterling in; it was racism. The scarlet “A” doesn’t exist anymore, but the scarlet “R” is very real indeed.

It’s clear that the problem isn’t that we no longer live in an age concerned with virtue. The problem is that we have organized ourselves around the wrong virtues.

Did I say “wrong”? Sorry. That’s so judgmental. So let’s call them, instead, the “modern” virtues. There are, by my count, seven cardinal modern virtues:


These are the characteristics modern society most prizes and has begun to organize its strictures around. Often with nonsensical results.

For example, the writer Mary Eberstadt notes that we live at a bizarre moment when it is nearly impossible to speak with any moral judgment about sexual practices—but a great deal of moral and philosophical energy is spent on the subject of food. You wouldn’t dare say that someone ought not put this part there with that person. And you wouldn’t say it because (a) your peers would think you a troglodyte and (b) you don’t really think it’s wrong. It’s just a lifestyle choice. Maybe it’s not for you, but who are you to judge? Food, on the other hand, is different. It’s morally elevated to eat organic grains and eggs that come from cage-free hens. You’re a better person if you only eat locally grown produce. A better person still if you don’t eat meat. And the best people eat with one eye always— always!—on “sustainability.” Whatever that is. On the subject of food, some lifestyle choices are better than others. And we’re not afraid to say so.

Actually, there is one—and pretty much only one—judgment that you can make about sex, and it is this: Imagine that you’re in college and one Saturday morning your roommate comes home and proclaims that she just slept with some guy she’d never met and whom she never intends to see again. Could you suggest to her that this might be a suboptimal life choice? Why no, no you could not.

Imagine, however, that your roommate came home and confessed that she slept with some guy she’d never met and that they had not used “protection.” Well, that’s a different story. You could lecture her. You could shame her. You could gather your friends and stage an intervention, explaining that this is a terrible, awful thing to do. Downright irresponsible. Something that just isn’t done, because you could get a disease. Sexual morality is now a function of health outcomes.

And not just sexual morality. Consider smoking. Over the last 30 years, an overwhelming moral consensus has emerged concerning smoking. Where people once smoked on airplanes and in movie theaters and in bars and at home during dinner, today smokers are treated as if they have a terrible and highly contagious disease. They can’t smoke in public buildings or often even in public spaces. Smokers are the new lepers, except that no one would look down on a leper as being morally repugnant. Why the reversal? Because it is now universally agreed that smoking is disastrously unhealthy. And healthy living is a cardinal virtue, something to be pursued at all costs, not merely because it is prudent, but because it is good and right.

Yet, at the same time that smoking tobacco has become verboten, smoking marijuana has been gaining wider accept-ance. How could this be? It’s not like getting stoned is good for you. No, the emerging moral acceptance of marijuana comes because health is trumped by another of the modern virtues—freedom. Because today we tend to believe that people ought to be able to live however they like, and that societal norms should have little claim on them.

You can see the tensions inherent here. Why should freedom be a virtue when it comes to reefer but not Lucky Strikes? For that matter, why should health trump freedom in one context but not another? But these tensions aren’t unique to the modern virtues. Certainly, the classical virtues are often in tension, too. It can be devilishly hard discerning, for instance, when prudence should override perseverance. Or vice versa.

The real problem with the modern virtues isn’t that they’re contradictory—the classical virtues can be just as confused. And it isn’t that they’re somehow “wrong” as virtues. Equality, authenticity, a devotion to physical health, and even nonjudgmentalism can be fine things, taken in right measure. No, the modern virtues fail because, for the most part, they concern the outer self, the human façade, the part of ourselves that the world sees most readily—while the classical virtues form an organizing framework for our inner selves .  .  . for our souls, if you believe in that sort of thing. And it turns out that when you scale people out to the societal level, the superficial moral framework of the modern virtues turns out to be an insufficient organizing principle. When it comes to virtue, the old ways are still the best ways.

If you’re looking for a good explanation of the old ways, you could do worse than Alasdair MacIntyre’s summation of Aristotle. Here’s MacIntyre explaining what virtue really is:

The virtues are precisely those qualities the possession of which will enable an individual to achieve eudaimonia and the lack of which will frustrate his movement toward that telos. .  .  . For what constitutes the good for man is a complete human life lived at its best, and the exercise of the virtues is a necessary and central part of such a life, not a mere preparatory exercise to secure such a life. .  .  . Virtues are dispositions not only to act in particular ways, but also to feel in particular ways.

There’s a lot to unpack in those 88 words, even if you remembered what eudaimonia is. (Don’t worry, I didn’t either.) But overall, it’s a fine working definition of virtue: Virtues are the internal qualities that allow us to be our best selves and enable us to lead complete and fulfilling lives. When you think about virtue in that sense, you really understand why the modern virtues are so inadequate. Being your authentic self and living a physically healthy life are clearly second-order goods. To be your best self and live the most fulfilling life, it’s far more important to exhibit, say, charity and courage.

Yet extremism in pursuit of virtue can easily become vice. Which is to say, no single virtue is, on its own, necessarily virtuous. Hope is essential for the human spirit, yet when it stands alone it turns its bearer into a Pollyanna. Charity—one of the greatest of the virtues—is sublime, yet if you have nothing but charity, you might well become gullible. Curiosity is wonderful; without it we’d still be living in caves and clubbing large animals with sticks. But curiosity run amok, and unleavened by other virtues, turns you into a gossip. Or worse. Dr. Mengele was a curious sort.

I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but history is full of monsters created by manias for a single virtue. Robes-pierre, for instance, was devoted to justice. When he unleashed the Terror it wasn’t an accidental byproduct of his wild pursuit of virtue—it was his object: “Terror is naught but prompt, severe, inflexible justice,” he wrote. “It is therefore an emanation of virtue.” Yikes.

Virtue is additive. No single virtue is sufficient in and of itself, and each one, taken on its own, is corruptible. Yet each virtue becomes more valuable with the addition of others. And for any single virtue to be brought to its full bloom, it must be surrounded by its sisters. Courage and prudence: Together they give people the spine to do great things. Integrity and forbearance: Without them, no society can function. Chastity and temperance: All right, let’s not get carried away here. The point is, when a man has cultivated the virtues as a class, then, and only then, does he become a man in full.

Of course, not everyone can be expected to cultivate all of the virtues at all times. We have to muddle through as best we can and pick our spots. So how do we keep our imperfect devotion to virtue from becoming malformed? In Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander books, Stephen Maturin, a physician, philosopher, and spy, notes that virtue should always be commingled with humor. This observation is, I think, the best engine governor we have for virtue, to keep it from pushing the needle across the line and into the red zone. I’d bet just about anything that Robespierre never laughed about justice.

All that philosophical stuff is nice enough, but this is America, where we love winners. So what you’re probably thinking right about now is: Fine, no single virtue is good enough on its own. But which virtue is the best? Who’s the king of the virtues?

Picking a favorite virtue is like picking a favorite child: It’s the kind of thing you’re supposed to pretend not to do—but everyone does anyway. We can toss chastity and temperance out of the ring straight off, obviously. They’re important, in their way, but exactly no one is going to make them contenders for the title. Same for thrift and simplicity. Nice to have, but not first-tier virtues. Fellowship is fine, but a luxury. And justice? It’s the virtue we’d much rather have done unto others than practiced on ourselves. No thanks. Aquinas called prudence the queen of the virtues, saying that she gently guides all the rest. And Aristotle deemed courage to be the first virtue, because it makes all the others possible.

Good points, all of them. And you probably have your own favorite. But I’m with Cicero, who declared, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” It is the alpha, the point from which all virtues must begin. It is gratitude that allows us to appreciate what is good, to discern what should be defended and cultivated.

You need not believe in God to pursue the virtues (though it certainly helps). Yet if you do believe, then your first instinct in all things must be gratitude: for creation, for love, for mercy. And even if you don’t believe, you must start again from gratitude: that a world grown from randomness could have turned out so fortuitously, with such liberality. That the Hobbesian state of nature has been conquered. At least for a spell.

Gratitude, as Yuval Levin has argued, magnifies the sweet parts of life and diminishes the painful ones. It is the wellspring of both humility and ambition, the magnetic pole for prudence, the platform for courage, the inducement to charity and mercy. And in addition to everything else, gratitude is the engine for progress: We build not because we are dissatisfied with the world as it is, but because we are grateful to all those who have built it to this point and wish to repay them by making our own contributions to their work. Work for which we should be grateful.

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. This essay is adapted from his introduction to the new book The Seven Deadly Virtues: 18 Conservative Writers on Why the Virtuous Life Is Funny as Hell (Templeton Press).

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