The Seven Deadly Virtues
Eighteen Conservative Writers on Why the Virtuous Life is Funny as Hell
By Jonathan V. Last
Templeton Press Copyright © 2014 Templeton Press
All rights reserved.
The Seven Deadly Virtues And the New York Times P. J. O'Rourke
Before we consider what virtue has been up to lately, we should take a look at how vice is faring.
The conceit of every era is that people are more inclined to vice than they used to be. In The Clouds, first performed in 423 BC, Aristophanes has the personification of "Just Discourse" recount how vicious children are nowadays, compared to the youngsters of yore who "would not have dared, before those older than themselves, to have taken a radish, an aniseed, or a leaf of parsley, and much less eat fish or thrushes or cross their legs."
What Aristophanes said is true to this day. I've seen a child, sprung from my own loins, munch a radish. With crossed legs. And before I've even mixed a predinner martini. (Although, in fairness to our kids, we have trouble getting them to eat fish at all, or aniseed, or parsley—never mind thrushes. Their penchant for vice does not extend to calling first dibs on gobbling roast songbirds.)
The long-lost "Golden Age"—a time when people and things once were better—is a myth in every mythos. I'm willing to bet that Australopithecus shamed its biped brats with stories of noble hominids brandishing proper tails and blissfully living in trees.
That said, vice is doing very well these days. Note, for example, how practically everything featured in the New York Times Sunday Styles section is one of the seven deadly sins.
For starters, envy might as well be the section's title. There's not a person in the Styles section who isn't leading a life that's more celebrated, glamorous, rich, exciting, dramatic—or, at the least, more stylish—than our own. Every advertisement is a promotion of avarice. You could, I suppose, be charitable (charity is one of the seven virtues) and believe that the baubles being hawked are all meant to be given away as gifts to the poor—a Coach bag for the bag lady, a Montblanc pen for a homeless man to letter "Will Work 4 Food" on a piece of cardboard. But even if that were the case, a remarkable degree of avarice would have had to be practiced by the givers in order to afford such gifts in the first place. As for pride? Pride goeth before a New York Times wedding announcement.
Fashion, of course, is the handmaiden (excuse me, handperson) of lust. You might not think that, given some of the fashions you see in the Times. But then again, everything according to taste. The presentation of purple hindquarters excites the mandrill. And who am I to presume that Times readers are less sensuous than this noble primate? Then there's the sloth evident in just having enough time on your hands to bother reading the Styles section. But whatever else you want to say about the Styles section, you can't accuse it of gluttony. The people you see pictured are always beautiful and terribly thin. No, for gluttony you have to go over to the paper's "Dining Out" section. The portions may be small, but the prices are voracious. And as for wrath, well, just consult the Times editorial page. Or consult me after I've read it.
So vice flourishes. Does virtue languish in its shade? Gol durn right, it does, I say, stopping myself just short of committing the mortal sin of taking the Lord's name in vain. Not to mention committing the unforgivable sin against the Holy Ghost—despair.
I mean, who even remembers the names of the seven virtues these days? Well, except justice. That gets a lot of play. But as for the others ... I've never seen protestors marching through the street shouting, "No justice! No prudence!" Here, for the record, is the list:
These are the so-called Seven Cardinal Virtues. Although, technically, if you possess Virtue #5–Christian Division, only the first four are cardinal, so called because they were the principal virtues handed down from the ancient Greek philosophers. The last three—faith, hope, and charity—are theological virtues, supplied by the New Testament because the ancient Greek philosophers were hopeless logic-choppers who detested each other and had faith in things like a nature deity with a goat's bottom who played a wooden kazoo.
Not that there haven't been competing lists. The fourth-century Christian poet Aurelius Clemens Prudentius composed a different roster of "Seven Heavenly Virtues" in Psychomachia. (It was a medieval best seller.) Prudentius, despite his cardinal virtue of a last name, chose chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.
People will have their own partialities, of course. For my own part, I'm not so sure about diligence. It depends on what you're being diligent about. There is the kind of hollow, due diligence that JPMorgan Chase did on Bernie Madoff's transactions. Or, for those who like their moral turpitude without fear of an SEC investigation, there's the abhorrent manner in which a grown man "diligently" learns to master Grand Theft Auto V. But note that "self-esteem" doesn't make anybody's list.
* * *
Virtues are hard to tabulate because being good is an inversion of Tolstoy's maxim about families. Indecencies are all alike; every decency is decent in its own way.
And inversion is just the word for virtue's current state. Virtue has by no means disappeared. It's as much in public view as ever. But it's been strung up by the heels. Virtue is upside down. Virtue is uncomfortable. Virtue looks ridiculous. All the change and the house keys are falling out of virtue's pants pockets.
1. Prudence has become such an object of scorn that a call to violate it is the motto of the world's most famous sneaker company. (Perhaps you ought to think it over for five seconds first. "Just do it" ranks second only to "Watch this" on the list of phrases most commonly heard before gruesome accidents.)
People will name their children anything these days. Anything. It wouldn't surprise me to find out there are half a dozen boys in my son's fourth-grade class named Aurelius. But there's no girl named Prudence in any grade school in America, even though "Dear Prudence" was a Beatles song that sucked—which is usually enough to send American parents into a nomenclature frenzy. (See the half-dozen boys in my son's class named Jude.)
Why is prudence so unpopular? Because it's become synonymous with an unhealthy inhibition resulting in psychologically damaging exclusionary behavior toward those with a healthy lack of inhibitions. How accepted is the shaming of prudence? These days, no politician, pundit, celebrity, public intellectual, mainstream Protestant minister, or Reform rabbi can rebuke any type of personal behavior without the disclaimer, "I'm no prude, but...."
That is, unless the personal behavior in question can be construed as exclusionary, racist, sexist, homophobic, insensitive, exploitative, or right-wing extremist. In which case no prudence will be exercised in branding the person whose personal behavior is in question as one or more of the above. The majority of voters in "red states" are also fair game.
But the truth is, prudence is the first of the virtues. You can't name one good thing that's been done that couldn't have been done better with more prudence. (Except for my wife marrying me.)
2. Justice is justly sought. But justice is also what everybody claims he wants but nobody seems happy about when he gets it. It's the "Aw-I-don't-want-anything-for-Christmas" present of virtues. And it's the one virtue that's better when we practice it on others than when others practice it on us. As a priest friend of mine says, "I don't know about you, but on Judgment Day I'm going to be praying for mercy, not justice."
3. Fortitude is quaint. We praise the greatest generation for having it, but they had aluminum siding, church on Sunday, and jobs that required them to wear neckties or nylons (but never at the same time). We don't want those either. Instead of fortitude we seek help from others. There's nothing unvirtuous about that. But when help isn't forthcoming, fortitude is what we used to need. Now we need to complain. The lionheart has been replaced by the caterwaul: "She's so brave to be talking about this." Instead of holding onto our courage, we share our fears. Lacking prudence, we prize impulsiveness. And sharing is such a generous impulse.
4. Temperance has become a twelve-step program. We praise it unstintingly, thirty days a month, while we're at Promises in Mailbu. For the rest of the year, well ... temperance doesn't make good reality TV. Or garner YouTube hits for celebrities. And temperate political speech is an easy way to lose a political primary.
I'm no prude, but ... as described in the Catechism, temperance "ensures the will's mastery over instinct and keeps desire within the limits of what is honorable." Yet mastery is nowadays unacceptable in the home and the workplace, at school, and anywhere else except among consenting adults in one of those West Village dungeons you see profiled in the Times Sunday Styles section every so often. And as for the rest of what the Catechism says about temperance? Instincts are good things. Desires must be fulfilled. And "limits of what is honorable"? That's so judgmental.
5. Faith, however, should not be tempered. Or should it? There's such a thing as a surplus of faith, and we've got it. Faith in ourselves is an article of faith, and we have the utmost faith in the businesses and industries devoted to this faith—psychiatry, psychology, therapy, counseling, self-help books, and motivational speakers.
We have faith in man and all his works (unless they have a large carbon footprint). And all his empty promises, too. Indeed, the more empty the promise—free health care!—the more faith we seem to have in it. So, for instance, a Yale University website says 70 percent of Americans have faith that the climate is changing. As well they might, since a sign has been given unto them. The climate changes every year, getting warmer in the spring and colder in the fall. And of course we have faith in all sorts of things we see on the Internet.
We have faith in government, although we may deny it thrice before the cock crows—and more often than that after a couple of drinks. But the very size of the Leviathan is a mark of our faith. The U.S. government dwarfs the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine or any megachurch. Tithing? Government lays claim to 40 percent of our entire GDP. And, as for government services, daily attendance by Americans is almost 100 percent. Church is just once a week, and less than one-third of us go that often.
There is one sort of faith that's on the wane in America. More than one-third of us aren't certain about the existence of God—or say we don't know, or don't believe in Him at all. At least that's according to the Pew Research Center, in whose polls we have faith.
6. Hope ... and change! That pretty much tells us where this virtue has gone—down the rabbit hole of wishful thinking. Hope was not always so faint a word in the English language. The root meaning is "expectation of a thing desired." In the Book of Common Prayer during "The Order for Burial of the Dead," the presiding minister says, "the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection." He doesn't mean, "Wouldn't it be nice if ...?"
But hope has been out of artistic fashion for more than a century. It's hard to think of a great modern novel, play, or poem that ends on a hopeful note. Or even begins on one. Take the first line of "The Waste Land," for instance: "April is the cruelest month." Excuse me, Thomas Stearns, Mr. soon-to-be Anglican convert, did the Easter Bunny skip the Eliot household? The Great Gatsby concludes with F. Scott Fitzgerald declaring, "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." And smack into the dock, no doubt. Even when he was a lad taking sailing lessons, there was no hope for Scotty.
True, the last words of dialogue in Henry Miller's Death of a Salesman are from Willy Loman's wife, who says, "We're free.... We're free...." But Miller isn't proposing an ontological truth in order to refute determinism. He's just being fashionably ironic. What Linda Loman is talking about is how the final mortgage payment on the house was made the day of Willy's funeral.
If you judge by the number of apocalyptic movies released lately, there's no hope in popular culture either. Somebody's probably working on an end-of-the-world remake of The Sound of Music.
DOE, endangered species deer
RAY, the earth collides with sun
ME, the only person left
FAR, Zombies! I'd better run
SO, what am I going to do?
LA, the town this crap comes from
TEE, been there, got the shirt too
Which brings teens back to see ...
Movies like this over and over again.
7. Charity, however, we do not lack. As long as it's tax deductible.
Or go to any wedding. No matter how godless is the couple, the groomsmen, the bridesmaids, or for that matter the officiant, you'll be forced to endure a bowdlerized version of 1 Corinthians 13 that goes something like this:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, and have not Amnesty International, I am become as sounding brass. PETA suffereth long, and is kind; Doctors Without Borders envieth not; the Sierra Club vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up. Planned Parenthood is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; UNICEF beareth all things, believeth all things, endureth all things. And now abideth Nature Conservancy, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, these three; but the greatest of these is United Way.
Of course, usually the Revised Standard Version of the Bible is used, with the word "love" in place of "charity." They're not the same thing. In Greek (which was the language of Saint Paul in his letters to the Greeks in Corinth) there are four words for love. Eros is love in almost the only way we talk about "love" anymore except (let us invoke the virtue of hope) when we say we love our children. In that case, we mean storge, or affection. "I love you, dude," is philia, or friendship. The word Saint Paul uses, however, is agape, the unconditional love of God and all his creation. Invoking the virtues of hope and faith, let's suppose that's what they're doing at the United Way.
Which points to the nonprofit nature of practicing the virtues in the modern world. Virtue survives. It just doesn't provide modern Americans with the minimum compensation that they feel is necessary to meet their basic needs.
Prudence keeps you out of the stock market. Justice costs like heck in legal bills. Fortitude is expensive, what with the cost of mixed drinks these days. Temperance, ditto, what with the cost of Promises in Malibu. Faith is broke—broken when the Democrats caved in on a budget deal that didn't extend unemployment benefits. He who dines on hope is sure to lose weight. And charity begins at home. This is why you're still living in your mother's basement.
The wages of sin may be death, but the wages of virtue are $7.25 per hour. Unless Congress changes the law. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Seven Deadly Virtues by Jonathan V. Last. Copyright © 2014 Templeton Press. Excerpted by permission of Templeton Press.
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