Wednesday, April 13, 2005


When I first started this blog, one of the topics I intended to write about was virtue. (See the blog tagline at the top.) I haven't done a whole lot of that until last night when I wrote about respectfulness, and it seems this week is an appropriate week to make a theme of it. Historically, Catholics have had a lot to say about virtue, and lately everybody has had a lot to say about Catholics. I have some things to say about the Catholic church and the moral teachings of the late Pope, but out of due respect, I am refraining from criticism of past Popes and speculation about future ones during the novum diales, the official 9-day period of mourning. (An aside: tradition such as the novum diales, or the Jewish sitting shevah -- 7 days of mourning -- are quite practical and comforting. People who have recently suffered a loss are distraught enough without having to fret about whether they're mourning too long or not long enough. It's nice to have a clear guide about what is appropriate, and avoid unseemly questions of oneself or of others.) Thus, it seems an appropriate way to honor the novum diales by contemplating virtue this week.

One of the compelling things about virtue is that it is a positive aspiration ("strive for this") rather than a negative prohibition ("thou shalt not that"). As I wrote last night, virtue is about building character through practice over time. Cultivating virtue is a worthy lifetime project, while obeying prohibitions gives little guidance for what we should do once we've avoided doing what we shouldn't. Virtue is by its nature much more challenging than avoiding prohibitions, requiring much more judgment. Most "shalt nots" are pretty cut and dried. You murder someone or you don't. You commit adultery or you don't. There are no shades of gray in prohibitions. Virtues require judgment, and are always shades of gray. While you can't be "a little bit adulterous", you can be somewhat charitable, moderately patient, mostly faithful, and sometimes prudent. Dave Jansing, in an excellent essay recommending virtues for the modern gay community, has this to say about virtue:

In the recent past, we have heard a lot of talk about "moral values". It's clear that in many cases, the term "moral value" was used as a way of judging others, used as a way of sizing people up to see if they measured up to a certain standard. Instead, we might choose to think about "moral virtues". As such, a contemplation of virtue calls us not to judge others but to examine ourselves.
Whereas "values" are often yardsticks used to measure others, and "morality" is often a club used to bludgeon others, virtues are a mirror that calls us to look at ourselves, and they are works of art that inspire us to live better. As Dave writes, virtues are a calling to be good people.

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