Virtue Revisited

maryloulogsdon2“Freedom works only in a culture already committed to virtue; it cannot work otherwise.” Aristotle

Freedom is a word we Americans like to bandy about. Freedom to carry guns, to practice our faith, to speak, to assemble, to pursue happiness. Our freedoms are many; any attempts to limit them are met with strong resistance. While we are committed to our freedoms, I wonder if we are committed to our virtues.

Even the word virtue has a quaintness about it, smelling a bit like rosewater as it sits upright on a straight backed chair, drinking tea from a hand-painted cup nested in its matching saucer. Virtue partners with vice as though on a teeter-totter: more virtue, less vice; more vice, less virtue. In our straight-laced parlor, vice is relegated to the spittoon in the corner, out of sight, left to others to clean up.

I find myself considering virtue as an antidote to election year antics. When I was growing up, adults were encouraged to model good behavior so that kids would learn by example. We would occasionally hear, “Not in front of the children!” Now I see people acting like “naughty” children, seeing who can be meaner, cruder, more antagonistic. When leaders act like children, where do children go for role models? I vote for re-engaging virtue in the national conversation.

Ben Franklin was a proponent of developing and practicing virtues. He saw virtuous behavior as the path to excellence, enumerating virtues he thought would keep him on the right track. He began with 12–the first was temperance, the last chastity. A Quaker friend suggested he also address his pride, especially apparent in his flamboyant conversations. He listened and added humility, expanding his list to 13.

Like Aristotle, Franklin believed that excellence is not an act but a habit. To build his virtue habit, Franklin listed his virtues on a ledger with columns corresponding to days of the week. Each week he would work on a specific virtue, tallying his use of it at day’s end. After 13 weeks he began again at the top of the list. It was his daily inventory.

What virtues might be on my list? Kindness. Patience. Generosity. That would be a good trio to begin. It is not that I think myself unkind, but I wonder how often I really practice kindness – to my family, friends and strangers. I have a dear friend who is a model of kindness. For instance, she has discovered my favorite retro-candy is Dots, the chewy domed primary-color candy I ate at the local movie house during Tarzan matinées. Every once in a while, when I drop by or pick something up or meet for a walk, I find a mini box of Dots in my pocket. I break into a smile. Not because I desperately want the Dots, but because I am so enchanted with her kindness. And I feel seen. Maybe the heart of kindness is seeing and being seen. I would like to build the virtue of kindness.

Aristotle defined virtue as a point between the absence and excess of a trait. He says the place of greatest virtue lies not in the exact middle, but at a golden mean sometimes closer to one extreme than the other. With regard to kindness, the middle lies somewhere between rudeness and over-indulgence. Generosity lies between miserliness and being profligate, patience between being short tempered and totally available. I see that same golden mean in my own gifts and deficits. While being orderly and organized is a strength, it can tilt toward perfectionism and become obsessive and strangling. Virtue lies somewhere in the middle of extremes.

Aristotle also says that virtue is acting “at the right times, about the right things, towards the right people, for the right end, and in the right way. . . … the intermediate and best condition, and this is proper to virtue.” (Nicomachean Ethics) It takes an inner knowing and a sense of balance to choose how to act now, in this circumstance at this time.

Virtue is more like a principle than a rule or a law. Laws are loaded with “shalt nots.” They feel like fences, walls, barriers. Principles are expansive with elbow room and a sense of spaciousness. Laws are limited and cumbersome as they try to detail all conceivable conditions. Principles look toward possibilities. Laws define the legal good. Principles seek a common good. Peter D.O. Smith in “ Virtue Ethics: An ancient solution to a modern problem” says, “A rules based system can only adapt to new circumstances by adding new rules, something that becomes intolerable in the long run.” To move beyond a rules based system we must commit to virtue.

A few more of Benjamin Franklin’s virtues are frugality, sincerity, moderation. Don’t those have a lovely ring to them?

Julia Annas, in Intelligent Virtue, explains that virtues are a template for flourishing, in that to become a virtuous person is to become a flourishing person. It is a move away from hedonistic happiness to the prosperity of living well. This is a radical shift from the idea of happiness that depends on outside circumstances or goods, to an inner sense of well-being. Rules are imposed from the outside, virtues are lived out from the inside.

I am drawn to the virtue of restraint. There are many, many places to practice this polite virtue: in conversation, in activity level, in on-line posts. Restraint offers me the opportunity to listen before I speak–to really listen, to consider how what I am saying or posting might sound to someone who thinks differently from me, to stop to breathe before I add one more thing to my calendar or buy another sweater or eat the rest of the cookies. Restraint might let me check out what I am feeling before I splash it on everyone else.

What might our campaign season look like if it were seasoned with a bit of restraint, humility, temperance, frugality, or moderation? What if we were to curtail our freedom just long enough to grow the virtues that can support it. I think I will commit myself to kindness, patience, generosity and restraint during this election year. What about you?


Mary Lou Logsdon is a spiritual director and retreat leader. She teaches in Sacred Ground’s Spiritual Direction Training Program and can be reached at logsdon.marylou@gmail.com or 651/583-1802.

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