Can We Talk About Virtue for a Moment?

There’s loads of talk in the media and online about “polarization,” and I think it’s the right time to bring up virtue.

Many of us have been trained to think of “virtue” as the opposite of “vice.” That’s an imperfect comparison because, in reality, virtue lies between the extremes of vice on either end of the spectrum. Aristotle and later, St Thomas Aquinas, called this idea “The Golden Mean.” I think the idea illustrates the need for mature thinking and restraint – don’t let the pendulum pull you to vice.

Virtue Isn’t Inaccessible

Some often think of “virtue” as some sort of antiquated and inaccessible ideal – not applicable to the “real world” or only applicable to someone else. But virtue is not merely for saints and firefighters. All of us benefit from a society that embraces virtue with people who try their best to be virtuous. The Cardinal Virtues of Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude seem like they’re difficult or even from another time – but these are things we do every day.

When we make smart decisions about money or choose to hold our tongues instead of saying something mean, or even something as mundane as choosing the apple slices instead of fried potatoes at Chik-Fil-A, we’re using Prudence. Athletes and students exercise Temperance all the time when they choose to study or work out instead of sit on the couch and watch TV. Justice happens when we repay a debt or give someone credit for a job well done. Fortitude is when we show moral or physical courage in the face of adversity. Good people and even not-so-good people do these things all the time.

Back to the Golden Mean

In an age of extremism as an attempt to get attention for ourselves and our causes, we need to re-learn the value of the Golden Mean. Virtue lies between twin vices, not at the opposite end of them.

For example, “Courage” lies between the extremes of “Reckless Abandon” and “Cowardice.” It’s equally wrong to have complete disregard for your own safety and the safety of others, as it is to cower in safety while others are in need of your assistance. It’s not virtuous to take unneccessary chances, or refuse to risk yourself to save others, but it is virtuous to act when others need you.

The Middle Isn’t Moderate

We love to contrast the “Moderates” with the “Extremists,”  but I say a pox on both their houses. “Moderates,” at least the ones who seem to bend to the winds of society, stand for nothing. Their “True North” is whatever is popular at the moment. “Extremists” are grown up children clamoring for attention by banging on doors and attempting to shout people down. Neither of these examples strikes me as a particularly virtuous.

A virtuous person attempts to find common ground with others, but never compromises their core values. They don’t fall for the twin temptations at each end of the spectrum. It’s perfectly acceptable to advocate passionately for things we believe in. Where we cross the line is when we descend into vice in the service of our positions. That’s a line we cross at our own peril. Compromise and working together is virtuous, but we must never sacrifice principle on the altar of compromise.

Paraphrasing Aquinas, when we do Good and reject Evil we elevate ourselves and those around us. Truth and Good are objective realities – such things are not subject to opinion polls or how many “Likes” we get on our tweet.

Until we recover the idea of Virtue with a Capital V, we can never hope to live in a just civilization. For Aristotle, “Virtue” was the way mature, well-formed humans lived in harmony with others. Aquinas added a Christian view to that idea, living in harmony with others and God, but the idea is the same: grown-ups need to act like, well, grown-ups.


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