The Awesome Virtues

virtueEspecially in these later years of a life rich with experience, direct and vicarious, I am struck by the living and quite tangible reality of truths once often learned by rote in the abstractness of catechetical instruction. What is virtue?—we might have been asked—and what are her major types? If they are natural and supernatural, theological and moral, how are we to understand this basic distinction?

Many at Notre Dame, like myself, have scholarly interests in moral and political philosophy and especially in the pre-modern classics of our Western heritage, including the Book of Wisdom. In these sources we regularly encounter one form or another of the basic natural virtues: prudence, justice, courage and temperance. But it is not to the written accounts of these cardinal virtues that I wish to draw attention; it is rather to their splendor and attractiveness when we find them gracing our fellow human beings.

The analysis and savoring of appropriate philosophical texts may give us names for what we see, may give us tools to explore the subtleties of these virtues, of their ranges of application and of their interrelationships. Yet it is the wonderful personal experience of embodied virtue that activates our natural attraction to the good. This we all share; it is not in any way the preserve of professional scholars of the natural virtues, though writings in the tradition of virtue discourse may help us understand better what affections are at work in us in this being drawn to the good and the beautiful. One might say that the draw to the splendor of virtue represents a coming together of implicit aesthetic and moral judgments.

It is the embodiment of virtue in the persons of literary and historical texts that often make those more fruitful encounters with virtue than what happens when we philosophically describe and analyze human excellences. Such encounters, whether with Achilles, Antigone, Cato, or Caesar, will nearly always entail some attraction and some repulsion, for human virtue is rarely, if ever, without some sensed defect. These encounters then are like those with the persons around us in the here and now. Such experiences leave us aware that those basic virtues need each other to be truly a fulfillment of our overall human potential. The lesson seems to be that no virtue finally can stand alone. Thus the rage of Achilles goes beyond prudent measure, and without what we come to call temperance and justice, his courage is less than simply admirable.    

Perhaps in our tradition, the fullness of virtue only revealed itself over time as we sought to understand the personifications of human excellence that entered our lives. Then that original notion of the very concept of virtue, the Latin “vir” for manliness and chiefly physical courage, would be the first manifestation of human excellence, set to be expanded as history unfolded.  More likely, however, we humans have carried within us, as one precious gift of our Creator, a sense of a whole or integral human goodness. We are wired and attuned for this goodness.  The presence of the moral virtues are signs of this goodness achieved in some measure. This is what draws us to personifications of this good, however incomplete they be. This is what makes possible a working out of laws and standards applicable to all nations and all times.

Splendid as our natural potentials are when fleshed out in the due measure of virtue, there is yet a need to consider those theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. How do they fit into a picture of excellence that humans might strive to, might hope to have? These I am calling the awesome virtues—they are less concrete and tangible than the natural virtues, more elusive, even mysterious, clearly more beyond us in certain respects; after all, they are called the supernatural virtues. These virtues can easily seem beyond our experience and thus left aside from our ordinary natural consciousness. Do they make any kind of difference? Or are they a classic instance of something learned in catechesis but never brought home in our experience as a living reality? Dry knowledge? They may seem even more remote and strange, shrouded in mystery, when we consider that they have been understood in our Christian tradition as gifts from on high.

Consider these experiences, shared I find among thoughtful and sensitive students and faculty in a university community like ours. What allows one person to walk with ease and joy in the light of faith, finding that “the yoke is easy, the burden light,” while another whose intellect and accomplishments and natural virtues we admire must struggle so? What draws us to tears when a classmate so talented and so admirable and with an apparent great future sinks into alcoholism, drug dependency, or other forms of despair? Why can they not find “hope,” we wonder? And what is it too that draws us to another kind of tears when we encounter the joy of personal and family reconciliations and instances of self-sacrificing love?  Like the natural virtues, these virtues appear to interpenetrate and are mutually interdependent. A living faith entails hope, and such hope fosters the charity that brings happiness. Let me suggest that we are wired for the fullness of virtue. It is where we are called, but this fuller gracing of our persons is not so much the fruit of our own efforts as it is for the natural virtues. It is rather more the free and unmerited gift of God. How do I know? I have been told, and it makes an awful lot of sense.

It seems that to be fully human is to be graced with the divine, to be renewed as the image of God. In that way I would understand the observation of Saint Irenaeus that “man fully human is God’s greatest glory.” Not mere humanism, splendid as are the virtues it nourishes, but something more. And so, in the words of a familiar hymn, “Set your hearts on the higher gifts.”

Walter Nicgorski is a Professor Emeritus in the Program of Liberal Studies, a Concurrent Professor of Political Science, and a faculty advisor to the Irish Rover.

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