Virtue is not a common word in our culture. It sounds somewhat “antique.” For some, it has very little meaning, or a meaning far removed from its original. Within the Christian tradition, however, there is a very long history of the study of virtue. Until the Protestant Reformation, thoughts about what was good and what it meant for a person to pursue the good, were almost exclusively thought of in terms of virtue. In recent years, there has been something of a rebirth in the study of virtue, led particularly by theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas and others. I studied under Hauerwas at Duke back in the 80’s. It made a deep impression on me and has ever since marked my understanding of what is meant by a “good person.”
Last Sunday, the reading from St. Luke’s gospel, in the King James translation, had an interesting use of “virtue.” It is from the story of the woman with the issue of blood, who was healed when she secretly touched the robe of Christ as He walked by:
And Jesus said, “Somebody hath touched me: for I perceive that virtue is gone out of me.” (8:46)
Here “virtue” is used to translate the word dynamis, “power.” It captures something of an older, more proper meaning of virtue. Virtue is the “power” of a person to do the right thing in a given circumstance. That power is rooted in “character,” the formation of the personality such that its habits tend towards doing the right thing. In the classical period, this was especially an interest of Aristotle (cf. his Nicomachean Ethics). It passed into popular culture particularly in the thought of the Stoics, a philosophical school that likely had an impact on the shape of early Christian thought. Their burning question was not simply “what is the right thing?” but “what kind of person does the right thing?” and “how does one become that kind of person?”
For Christian thought, the movement towards virtue was easily taken up in the understanding of the Christian life as a constant transformation into the image of Christ, the true incarnation of the virtuous person. Some of the vocabulary of the Stoics became the vocabulary of Christian theology, particularly as it sought to articulate the Christian pursuit of the image of Christ.
This concept has largely been lost in the modern world. We do not think about acquiring virtue, nor do we hold up as models, persons who exemplify virtue. From the point of view of the ethics of virtue, we are a particularly “vicious” society, that is, we are ruled by the “vices.” You cannot base a culture on the manipulation of consumer desires and produce virtuous people. Instead, you produce people who, even when they do the right thing, often do it for the wrong reason and in the wrong way. Almost every consumerist instinct is antithetical to the virtues.
After his election in 1929, President Hoover, speaking to a group of advertisers and public relations men, said: “You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving ‘happiness machines’ – machines which have become the key to economic progress.”
He was articulating something that had come about in that decade, the application of the science of psychology to the formation and management of human desires. Advertising changed from being information-based to desire-based. We have never looked back. After what is now nearly a century of desire-based culture, we have become deeply enslaved by our passions and increasingly alienated from the older cultures of virtue. We not only shop based on our desires, but pray and worship in the same manner. Contemporary Christianity has become alienated from the virtues and champions the management of desires under the guise of “evangelism.” You cannot save people through their passions. They become the prey of demons.
But there are virtuous people among us. I know such a man.
He earns his living with his hands in the manufacturing sector of the economy. He has some education, supplemented by a life of reading. He is married and the father of children now grown. He lives in a modest home. His technology is always a bit out-of-date. He is not without sin, but the larger things in his life have been settled and those failings of note are long ago repented. He’s never held particular positions of leadership, but every leader he’s ever been with has wanted him on his side. If he tells you what he thinks, you can be sure that is his honest opinion.
He believes in God and practices his faith, though people would probably not describe him as pious. On some level, he probably thinks of himself as much less successful than he had meant to be as a young man. He doesn’t actually realize that the economic strictures in his life, having been patiently endured, have made him a virtuous man.
He’s not terribly self-absorbed. He does not often think about what might be wrong with himself or the world around him. If he were your friend, you’d be glad of it.
He is nobody’s hero. If his character were placed in a television show, he would doubtless be a foil for many jokes. His steady predictability makes for very little drama, and perhaps an easy target.
He’s not terribly unusual. I suspect that his numbers are greater than I imagine. His virtue, strangely, almost guarantees that he will go unnoticed. I wish he were a member of my parish.
Aristotle described a virtuous man as “great-souled” (megalopsyche). He made a very careful study of what was required for virtue, and, interestingly, included “luck” as an important component. Christianity eliminated that aspect, but we could put God in its place. We are not born virtuous – it is acquired. Environment, family, school, culture, friends and general circumstances all play their part. Wealth is not required (and, to a large extent, is problematic for acquiring virtue).
Hauerwas describes virtue and character as the result of “practices,” any number of regularly engaged in actions and activities that form and shape us. That my example works with his hands is likely quite important. Were he employed in the money-world, his road would have been far more dangerous. In point of fact, he has worked since he was about 12 years old. The steady practices of the workplace, and the straightforward honesty required by concrete materials, have doubtless been important in the virtue that is now his.
My father began his life of work at age 4. For the son of a sharecropper in South Carolina during the Great Depression, working in the fields was a requirement dictated by necessity. When I think of my father’s virtues, most of them are those that were forged in his work (he was an auto mechanic). Hauerwas’ father, whom he also references, was a brick mason.
Manual labor is not utterly required for virtue, but it is probably more important than many think. There is a reason that the Amish and Mennonites prefer manual labor in their lives. Their religious discipline has taught them that virtue is best formed in that arena. Orthodox monastics have found the same thing to be true.
What we know for certain is that the desire for pleasure is corrupting and destructive of virtue. It is a root of addiction and almost every vice. St. Paul famously said that the “love of money is the root of all evil.” That is true primarily because money is the currency of pleasure. The fathers described our fallen state as a pendulum that moved between pleasure and pain (hedone and odyne). Pleasure, they observed, often begets pain which drives us to seek more pleasure. The wisdom of both the Stoics and the Christian fathers is that only a willingness to endure pain, at some level, is able to nurture virtue. We are not called to love suffering, but to flee suffering can be among the worst choices in life.
The acquisition of virtue in the spiritual life is the fruit of spiritual labor, nurtured by the Spirit. Fasting, prayer, generosity, simplicity, honesty, patience and thanksgiving in all things are not the stuff of happiness machines. They are the stuff of the Kingdom of God, where virtue is revealed in its true glory.