Virtues demand the highest of us

By  Ian Hunter, Catholic Register Special
  • November 21, 2008
{mosimage}In the Oct. 18 Register appears a picture of some high school students holding up giant letters spelling out DIVERSITY. Now “diversity” is one of those weasel words, so beloved of multiculturalists, that frequently conceal animus towards religion generally, and hostility to Catholicism in particular. 

The accompanying article, by Sheila Dabu, raised concern about a $2-million Ontario Education Ministry initiative called “Character Development.” There is reason for concern.
Consider this quote:
“The term ‘character’ is derived from an ancient Greek word meaning ‘to inscribe,’ reflecting the conviction that character is not innate, but rather is instituted through the influence, example and guidance of the people around us. One of our great responsibilities as adults and citizens, therefore, is to ensure that we teach our children, by word and deed, the values that will help them develop into men and women of character.”

The speaker was (then) U.S. President Bill Clinton inaugurating “Character Counts” week. We know that the Devil can quote Scripture, so perhaps we should not be surprised to hear Bill Clinton speaking of character.

Like “character,” another word much in vogue is “values.” Every Canadian politician bangs on about “Canadian values”; just what these are — apart from being nice, giving up smoking, supporting the CBC and medicare — I have never been able to decipher.

What is the difference between “virtues” and “values” and does it matter?

For two millennia, philosophers measured both individuals and societies by the criterion of virtue. Plato and Aristotle talked of four cardinal virtues: justice, wisdom, courage (or fortitude) and moderation (or self-control). The individual who exemplified such virtues was the good citizen; the society in which such individuals predominated was the good society.

The triumph of Christianity, from the fourth-century reign of Constantine the Great, brought to the forefront Christian virtues. What are the Christian virtues?

Well, I count 10 different places in the New Testament that list virtues, a total of 19 virtues in all: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, self-control, truth, innocence, humility, charity, compassion, purity, justice, piety, integrity and fortitude under persecution.

These Christian virtues may seldom be fully attained, but they set a standard of individual aspiration.

“Values,” on the other hand, are slippery eels. They refer to whatever the speaker, at that particular moment, thinks to be worth extolling. Values, in other words, are relative.

Alas, even some churches are not immune to “values” talk. One hears sometimes from the pulpit (although it makes my flesh crawl to hear it) vapid talk about “Christian values.” We should all scream out: “Christians do not have values; they strive for virtues.”

The point is this: “values” is a corrupting word for a corrupt society. Values exist only if there is someone to value them; they are self-dependent, self-referential.

Virtues, by contrast, exist because they are attributes of God. Virtues are not dependent upon our existence. We did not create them. Virtues are inherently meritorious whether the speaker acknowledges them or not, whether 50 per cent plus one vote for them or not. Virtues are what we are, what we do; your virtue is your character. It does not depend upon what you say you value, but what you are.

The challenge is greater if we speak of virtues rather than values. Virtues are not boy-scout pledges or spiritual bromides. They are simple, they are uncompromising, they demand the highest of all of us. When the Bible talks about virtues it talks about the soul of a person, what he is when all pretense and all humbug have been stripped away.

David Aikman, who was once senior foreign correspondent for Time magazine, wrote a book called Great Souls: Six Who Changed the Twentieth Century. Aikman set out to discover which men and women had had the most profound impact on the last half of the 20th century; he discovered that the overriding quality marking each of his subjects was one particular virtue. Here are Aikman’s subjects and the virtue he identifies with each of them:

Billy Graham — salvation; Nelson Mandela — forgiveness; Alexander Solzhenitsyn — truth; Mother Teresa — compassion; Pope John Paul II — human dignity; Elie Wiesel — remembrance.

Aikman writes that each of his subjects exemplified that one particular virtue so faithfully that “its importance for the entire human race is likely to resonate not just into the next millennium, but for as long as the human race continues to survive and keep records of its history.”

So, please, no more “values” talk; no more palaver about how “values” build “character.” Catholics should talk of “virtues” and how virtues build souls.

(Ian Hunter is professor emeritus in the Faculty of Law at the University of Western Ontario in London.)

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