Vice and sin are sexy.
Character and virtue… not so much.
But where’s the line between them? What exactly is a virtue? Can it be taught? Are good, and bad, behavior hard-wired in us?
Loyal Busted Halo readers know me as the author of the Pure Sex, Pure Love dating and relationships column. And while researching trends in mate preferences and marriage is still a big focus of me, I’ve always had another academic love: self-improvement, character and the quest for a virtuous, fulfilled life.
And would you believe… there’s a big, venerable foundation devoted to the study of just those things? The John Templeton Foundation is devoted to studying “big questions” of human purpose and ultimate reality. Founded by Sir John Templeton in 1987, the Foundation’s motto is “how little we know, how eager to learn.”
A few years ago, the foundation started a magazine called In Character: A Journal of Everyday Virtues — and I was an instant fan. The concept was simple: Each issue was devoted to a single virtue — like honesty, humility, wisdom, courage, grit, thrift and modesty — and prominent thinkers would comment on its importance in our day-to-day lives. When the magazine went online, I became their daily blogger on vice, virtue and issues of character in the news.
Living a life of faith means living a life of integrity and character (and having a sense of humor when you trip and fall into the vice camp with a loud thud) so I’m thrilled to bring these blog posts and thoughts to Busted Halo in a new series called Virtue/Vice.
What are virtues?
Philosophers, social commentators, economists and psychologists have written eloquently on the modern definitions and applications of virtues, and most of this gets above my pay grade pretty fast. We know good character and virtue when we see it. It’s behavior that helps us achieve our true, honorable goals. It’s action that brings us closer to God.
And for this one, I’ve got a pretty simple answer: Yes.
But to practically define virtue — and how to apply it in everyday live — has always been a bit trickier. The four classical or “cardinal” virtues are prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude. The seven Western virtues expand to include hope, faith, love and swap in courage for fortitude. In their exhaustive handbook of virtues, psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman list 24 character strengths, expanding the discussion of courage to include honesty and perseverance, and temperance to include self-control.
Philosophers will debate the roots and original purposes of these virtues: Aristotle argued that virtues were practical and necessary for citizenship, but applied no moralistic sense of good and evil, while Christianity would assert that virtuous behavior was necessary for more than just better government, it was crucial for everlasting salvation. But if we all agree that there are some good traits — or even essential characteristics — for a fulfilled life, the question then becomes… can virtues be taught?
And for this one, I’ve got a pretty simple answer: Yes.
Helping yourself learn virtue
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis famously suggests that adults can live a more virtuous and Christian life simply by “acting as if” they were Christian: “Do not sit trying to manufacture feelings. Ask yourself, ‘If I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?’ When you have found the answer, go and do it.”
Lewis believed that it was possible to train the habits of faith and virtue. We must be continually reminded of what we believe, he argued, and must “make some serious attempt to practice Christian virtues” for at least six weeks.
This practical approach to virtue has been embraced by self-help authors for centuries, most notably Benjamin Franklin. Franklin is credited as being foundational to American values and character, a marriage of the practical and democratic Puritan values of thrift, hard work, education, community spirit, self-governing institutions, and opposition to authoritarianism both political and religious, with the scientific and tolerant values of the Enlightenment. And Franklin clearly believed virtue could be taught.
According to Walter Isaacson’s 2003 biography of Franklin, he was “the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become.” Isaccson wrote:
His morality was built on a sincere belief in leading a virtuous life, serving the country he loved and hoping to achieve salvation through good works. That led him to make the link between private virtue and civic virtue and to suspect, based on the meager evidence he could muster about God’s will, that these earthly virtues were linked to heavenly ones as well. As he put it in the motto for the library he founded, “To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine.” It is useful for us to engage anew with Franklin, for in doing so we are grappling with a fundamental issue: How does one live a life that is useful, virtuous, worthy, moral and spiritually meaningful? For that matter, which of these attributes is most important? These are questions just as vital for a self-satisfied age as they were for a revolutionary one.
Over the years, Franklin created a list of virtues by which he thought it best to live. These virtues consisted of temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility. “Search others for their virtues, thy self for thy vices,” he once wrote.
To help himself adhere to these virtues, Franklin placed each one on a separate page in a small book that he kept with him for most of his life. He would evaluate his performance with regard to each of them on a daily basis. He would also select one of the virtues to focus on for a full week. Despite this effort, he often failed in his quest. As C.S. Lewis quipped, “The main thing we learn from a serious attempt to practice the Christian virtues is that we fail.”
But practice is the key: To acquire a virtue, Aristotle explained, is to acquire the habit of exercising the virtue. Most of us know what is right. It’s the doing that’s difficult.
Virtue/Vice in action
Over the next few months, I’ll blog about news events, books, scientific and psychological research and my general musings about character, virtue and vice in our everyday lives. Can magnets change our internal moral compass? Do hormones impact our sense of trust? Where do we see good sportsmanship? What does the latest Gallup research tell us about modern wellbeing and how can we live the virtue of thrift without feeling poor? I’ll feature charter schools that are teaching kids self-control from an early age, and ask questions about the personal lives of pop culture icons. It’s all fair game.
And as always, let’s make this an interactive give-and-take: Share your stories, experiences and struggles with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. What’s your vice of choice? How do you hold yourself accountable when it comes to good character? How do you live out the core principles of your faith in your everyday life? Why does it seem that vice so much more fun than virtue?
Yes, words like character and virtue sound very serious. But trust me, this blog won’t be dull. As Moliere said, “I prefer an interesting vice to a virtue that bores.” Amen to that!