Where Is the Virtue?

Barb Wire

By Anthony Esolen

Our culture has become soft. We suppose that sex is too trivial to require virtue, yet we also believe it is so significant that to suggest any restraint upon its consensual exercise is an affront to the most important fount of human dignity.

A sentinel watches upon the battlements. The air is raw and cold, and it seems to have penetrated to his knees and ankles and the shoulder upon which he rests his rifle. But he paces his rounds, hour after long hour. He peers into the little glooming light showing in the east. He turns again and faces the west, where the clouds are just beginning to reflect the slightest tinge of purple. He listens. All the sounds of the darkness are familiar to him, and bespeak the order of the early dawn. A thrush trills from the copse beside the river. The swallows have left their roosts and are beginning to twitter as they fly. A cock from a nearby farm crows. Yet if he hears a single sound made by man—a footstep, the roll of a wheel—he turns, his eyes narrow, he shifts his hands along the rifle, and he listens. He is a good sentinel.

The Thomistic understanding of virtue is straightforward enough. A virtue is a habit, what Aristotle calls a second nature. It is difficult to attain—hence, its association with manhood, which is what the Latin virtus literally means. It involves the perfection of a faculty, like the deep knowledge in the hands of a master craftsman. Therefore its definition cannot be arbitrary; it is bound up with the faculty in question, and the work to be done.

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Since human beings are not robots, and since they find themselves always in situations that call upon many faculties at once, the virtues are bound together, and not only coincidentally. The root of the good sentinel’s virtue is to be found not in his eyesight, but in his piety. He desires to defend his city, because he loves it. If he were only a hireling, he would not expose himself to any risk beyond the literal specifications of his employment: he would watch, according to contract. When the wolves come, the hireling runs away.

But because the good sentinel loves his city, he calls up a host of subordinate virtues to support his piety. He calls upon self-denial. He is sometimes sleepy, but he never winks. He is often hungry, but he puts it out of his mind. He is often weary, but he does not flag. He calls upon foresight. He makes sure that he is physically and mentally ready to begin his watch, and orders his day accordingly. He calls upon industry and humility, as he considers that no work, no matter how small, is beneath his care, if it bears upon his duty. Other men may instruct a page boy to clean their rifles. He cleans his rifle himself.

Maybe it is easier for people who regularly face danger, or who must fight to wrest a living from the stubborn earth, to remember what the virtues are. It certainly is a commonplace among the pagan philosophers, and then among the Christian fathers, that one of the dangers of wealth is a softening or decay of the moral fiber. The rich—and, compared with almost anyone who has ever lived on earth, we Americans are all rich, even most of the relatively poor among us—neither face the immediate necessity for virtue, nor the immediate danger of vice. Their souls can be vitiated long before they notice the demise of their culture.

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The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

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