Franke: Virtue’s disappearance in our public character


In 1993, William Bennett published an impressive anthology of essays, fables, poems and other writings titled “The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories.” This is an excellent reader for children of all ages, especially for bedtime stories. Adults may think this book below them but I would still encourage reading it and thinking deeply on the morals taught therein.

Here’s the problem: One can only pursue virtue if one believes in natural law and objective truth. Note, though, that one’s choice to believe or not has no relevance to the existence of these eternals. Reality is not something created in the psychic self; it is transcendent to human thought. Only the most self-absorbed can supererogate to themselves the authority to decide this. Arbiter of the Universe is a title that comes by self-anointing. Leave God out of it, or so they think.

The ancient Greeks had a word for this: hubris. We still use that word because no other civilization has come up with a better one. “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” I have never discovered who first wrote this, but it must have been one of the Greek playwrights. I asked a friend, a professor of theatre, but he couldn’t find it. I’ll credit Euripides until someone proves differently.

The Greeks saw virtue as the practice of temperance, prudence, courage and justice. One certainly sees a dearth of those characteristics in today’s public discourse, despite what the social justice warriors claim for their motivation. And while I lean more Platonic than Aristotelian in my thinking, Aristotle had it right about virtue being the opposite of vice. Vice to Aristotle was an extreme of either deficiency or excess. My corollary to Aristotle’s premise is that a deficiency of virtue leads invariably to excess, and not excessive good.

Bill Bennett had a clear concept of the manifestations of virtue in his book’s organization. Each chapter focuses on a distinct facet of the virtuous life: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty and faith. Compare Bennett’s list to St. Paul’s from Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Just coincidence? I think not.

Would that we all align our thoughts, words and actions with these lists. Virtue would prevail.

Instead, we have “values.”

I spent my career in higher education administration and was subjected to an unending parade of lectures, seminars and consultant presentations about the importance of helping students determine their own values. This followed the situational ethics mantra which was all the rage among my generation of college students back in those heady days.

The underlying premise for this exercise, although seldom acknowledged back then, was that values were personal and therefore subjective. That left no room for acceptance of any universal or objective truths to establish the basis from which these values would be drawn. Natural law has no place in this philosophy. Unless, now get this, one subjectively chooses values in the belief that they are objectively universal. I subjectively declare universal values, but only for me. Huh?

If young people could clarify their own subjective values, we were told, they would lead a self-actualized lives of worth and satisfaction — Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs satisfied. Everyone happy, everyone fulfilled … at least in his own mind. But what happens when my personal values conflict with yours in such a way that one or the other must desist? Without a standard of universal truth, who decides? The strongest? The fittest, as social Darwinists would prefer? Or simply survival of the nastiest as our current societal norms endorse?

There must be something better. There is: virtue.

In his impressive analysis of classical liberalism, “The Conservative Sensibility,” George Will made a poignant comment about our current fixation on values with this statement: “Adolph Hitler had scads of values. George Washington had virtues.”

If virtue is to be denied, the virtuous must be brought down. And so it is today with George Washington and others of his stature.

Our first president is no longer an icon; he just can’t pass woke muster. Certainly he was not perfect but who is? That is the sorry condition inherited from our first parents. Still, any reasonable person can see Washington for what he was and what he did. One need not subscribe to the Great Man of History theory to recognize his uniquely essential contribution to our independence and new government.

Let the current mob dismiss him for his past sins. Going back to George Will, he also reminds our current morality judges who haughtily dismiss everything past that in a few decades or centuries, they will find themselves as the morally deficient and canceled past. Hubris in spades.

Those pesky Greek gods are still at work.

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