Barbara Kay: A defence of the classic virtues
Larry Gotham stops to place flowers at a memorial outside the Emanuel AME Church June 19, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina.
After last month’s massacre of nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., Americans braced for more racial upheaval. Instead, wonderment dawned at the calm, as dignified words of forgiveness and the commitment to racial harmony was displayed by survivors and Charleston citizens alike.
Reporting on the phenomenon from Charleston, Wall Street Journal commentator Daniel Henninger posed the question of where “the remarkable spirit of conciliation” came from. The obvious answer seemed to be Christianity. But, Henninger says the humility and magnanimity didn’t arise from religion alone: “It came from their habits of religion.” In the North (and he might have added, north of the North — Canada), “we are rapidly becoming unchurched, secularized. Which raises a question: Where will a predominantly secularized society learn virtue?”
Henninger’s question struck me with a certain force. I see “habits” I don’t like in our public discourse: amongst those who dominate public discussion of events, I see habits of unbridled righteous anger, intellectual complacency and indifference to spiritual growth, even of the humanistic sort. The very notion of humility is culturally defunct.
Evidence supports my observation. In 1950, according to polls, only 12 per cent of teenagers believed themselves to be “very important.” By 2005, 80 per cent of teenagers believed it. In 1976, “being famous” was ranked 15th of 16 possible life goals. By 2007, 51 per cent of young people stated that fame was one of their main goals in life, with almost twice as many girls preferring a career as a celebrity’s personal assistant to being president of Harvard University.
These statistics come from New York Times columnist David Brooks’s recently published book, The Road to Character. The book emerged from Brooks’s growing revulsion at being “paid to be a narcissistic blowhard.” That too struck me with a certain force. A life in journalism is necessarily a life engaged with the rapidly shifting surface of events, cultural trends and social ephemera. We are often so busy marshalling evidence for our pet theories and opinions, we forget that we have — or should have — our character and inner growth to attend to.
While “correct” thinking on social issues looms large in contemporary culture, correctness is not virtue, nor has it much to do with personal character. It takes no special effort to hold opinions. But virtue is inseparable from personal actions and relationships.
The four virtues that Socrates’ contemporaries assumed as paramount were: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.
The idea of virtue as an accessible ideal for everyone has been pushed aside, I think, because the word is often associated with the theological virtues of “faith, hope and charity,” and religion has become a culturally tainted source for values. But in fact the historical notion of virtue predates Christianity. In classical times, the word “virtue” was interpreted as “human rightness,” and therefore a state all reasonable people aspired to.
The four virtues that Socrates’ contemporaries assumed as paramount were: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. And even though these virtues are rarely spoken of today, they are foundational stones, along with the Bible, of what we might call the Western conscience.
Prudence is the mother of the other virtues, and a sine qua non, not only for self-betterment, but for becoming a force for good in others’ lives. Prudence is often mistakenly aligned nowadays with avoidance of action, but in its original sense, it means the “perfected ability to make right decisions.” Indeed, most of the Ten Commandments are exhortations to both morality and to prudence. Prudence looks both ways before crossing streets, but we would have no need of it if we were not intending to cross — that is, take action.
Prudence is dependent on open-mindedness, for the prudent person must be able to take advice out of a real desire for understanding (thus necessitating humility). Prudence confers objectivity in unexpected situations and therefore displays a constant readiness to ignore the impulsive, appetitive and egoistic self. Prudence is necessary for justice, the basis for a good communal life, for the principal characteristic of justice is the capacity to turn one’s eyes away from one’s own urges and prejudices.
Only the prudent can also show fortitude, for genuine bravery presupposes a just cause, necessitating the capacity to evaluate where injustice dwells. Temperance, the most emotionally and sexually charged, and the most-often ridiculed of the virtues, is nevertheless also necessary for a good life, just as banks are necessary to keep rivers running to the sea, and it hardly needs saying that without prudence, there can be no temperance.
When the virtues are no longer ingrained in a society as habits, civilizations are ripe for decline and fall. It all begins with humility, a habit the religious Charleston survivors had internalized to meet the tragic moment they endured. They have much to teach all of us, churched or not, and the prudent amongst us will learn and grow from their example.