Why is Virtue So Unpopular? (Part 1)

In Friendship on September 17, 2012 at 7:12 am


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It would seem that virtue is not a very popular topic for the Modern or Postmodern person, why is this?  Max Scheler, brings up this topic in his essay “On the Rehabilitation of Virtue,” (Trans. Eugene Kelly. 2005, American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 79, No.1) mentioning how strange this is historically because the whole idea of virtue was “center stage” for the Greeks, the Romans and throughout Europe during the Middle Ages.  So many of the most important philosophers Plato, Aristotle, Philo, Cicero, Boethius, Augustine, Abelard, Aquinas, all had works on virtue and even in literature, morality plays of the Middle Ages tended to center around some virtue.  So, why is this the case now in philosophy and modern society?  Well, Scheler offers several answers to this question and then gives reasons for its renaissance.

Put quite simply, in the Modern Age many people tend to see virtue as just plain: difficult.  According to Scheler, “We understand it rather as a mere dark unfathomable ‘disposition’ and as a natural ability to act according to some perceived rules.  And it has become so unattractive because not only the achievement of virtue, but virtue itself is considered by us to be so difficult.”(p.22)  In one sense, there are so many barriers in the Modern mind, so bent on getting things done quickly, efficiently, and with immediate gratification, and with ever shortening attention spans it seems, to stay focused on developing a virtue over a lifetime just seems way out of reach for people bustling about in the world.  Additionally, as a consequence of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, the Modern person has become accustomed to thinking and behaving very independently, both privately and publicly and thus very skeptically, even cynically, about perceived “rules of behavior” suggested by anyone besides himself or herself.  And, who doesn’t want to do things according to whatever is “convenient for me”?  Scheler alludes to Kantian deontology as a source of the modern man’s discontent with virtue as something that always has to be done independent of the individual’s desire to do so, the Categorical Imperative.  However, Scheler says that nothing can be further from the truth, “…in fact only the lack of virtue, or vice, makes goodness a difficult and bloody affair, while its possession gives to every good action the free and spontaneous appearance of a graceful bird.”(p.22)  In other words, it is the virtuous person who is the most free!  The virtuous person lacks the predictable faults that make life boring and instead, the virtuous person has the power to be genuinely spontaneous and creative in each and every moment of life to achieve the good.  Scheler says that virtue “is the extreme opposite of all habit, and only the measure of virtue’s inward nobility can oblige us at all.”  The Greeks saw virtue as attractive as beauty, and that it was a skill of one’s inner character as a person, a quality to be sought after, not belittled like in the Modern Age.  Scheler says, “Its inward weight impelled one to an ever widening extension of responsibility, so the person who possessed it to its highest degree, that of holiness, quietly felt himself responsible for everything that happened in the entire world.”(p.23)  The very virtuous person becomes very holy because his or her entire life is oriented around Divine Service, service to God, according to Aquinas (Summa Theologica II:II:81.8) and a noble self-emptying to the service of others.  One might say that a virtuous, holy person has a genuine personal concern for each and every person he or she serves or could have served better.

Another curious thing about virtue today is that people seem to have forgotten that it is actually a power, a quintessentially human power.  Scheler says, “virtue…is a living consciousness of the power to do what is good, quite personal and individual.”  That said, it would seem that such a power would be extremely attractive to the Modern person.  Machiavelli was transfixed by power, but Machiavelli was only interested in the appearance of virtue, and when it was used for the sake of power, then that appearance was a “virtue” for him.

Fortunately, Scheler seems to be saying something very different, that virtue is a personal power unique to the individual person, not for anyone else or possible by anyone else.  He says, “Duties are transferable; virtues never are.”(p.23)  Other persons can do our duty for us, for example, when you call in sick to work, someone else may be able to do your job at work.  However, how well that person does his or her duty in your place is dependent upon his or her virtue ultimately, not simply their knowledge and experience.  Virtue is the power to do the good in each and every situation in life that you find yourself.  Scheler continues, “With the growth of virtue the effort becomes less, and with that it loses the ugliness lying in all strenuous effort.  Goodness becomes beautiful by becoming easy.”(p.23) People in the Modern or Postmodern Age are still interested in beauty, and arguably, beauty is more popular than ever, thus Aesthetics.  So, it seems that a solution might just be to just help people see that a beautiful soul never ages; and, if we just grow in patience, becoming virtuous gets easier and then the beauty of our goodness will endure into Eternity, where virtue is very very popular.

  1. Much like Chesteron said about orthodoxy (in Orthodoxy), virtue is truly exciting and adventurous! To live a virtuous life against the natural passions can often be a battle of truly epic proportions due to the fact that our very souls hang in the balance. As you stated, each one of us must fight our own battle for virtue (often times through heavy use of our greatest tool, prayer). I would say that, though to a certain extent, we must fight alone (no one can fully take our burden for us), we can aid others through prayer. By praying for those in need, we CAN make a difference.

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