I’m finishing up a book on the Seven Deadly Sins and their “contrary virtues” — finishing writing one, that is. I’d much rather do that than read one, just as I’d rather talk than listen. (I find this argument reassures my freshmen rhetoric students.)
Tracing the spectrum of virtue to vice requires a delicate moral calculus, and as Barbie said, “Math is hard!” As all good Thomists know — which means that nowadays it’s practically a secret — you can’t just take a vice and look for the “opposite,” then tag that as a virtue. Otherwise the contrary virtue to Lust would be Frigidity, and the cure for Wrath would be a steady course of cringing, fawning Servility.
Instead, we seek what Aristotle called the “golden mean,” which you might think would sit at a comfy midpoint between two extremes, making it easy to calculate. And, of course, you would be wrong. The answer to a clash between fanatical faith and violent atheism isn’t lukewarm religiosity — no matter what your RCIA facilitator taught you during the puppet shows. Those who follow Goldilocks’s recipe for heating up their souls will end, as Dante predicted, sloshing around outside the gates of Hell, trying to con the bouncer that their names are on the guest list.
No, the virtue that hangs in tension betwixt two opposite vices in some sense stands above them, reconciling the partial truths they exaggerate in a higher synthesis that points toward Truth Himself. So someone striving for the virtue opposed to Envy shouldn’t single out people he secretly despises and hope that they in particular might prosper, instead of his friends and family. That mental maneuver is so common nowadays it has a name: multiculturalism.
Instead, we should strive to practice Kindness by cultivating the virtue of Magnanimity. Taken literally, this means we should expand our souls, instead of countering little bits of meanness with random acts of kindness that lead to visualizing whirled peas. If Envy amounts to looking at others and feeling inferior, then wishing to drag them down, Magnanimity requires that we expand and elevate the objects of our attention and, in a high-minded spirit, wish the best for everyone — even (not especially) our enemies. And the best thing for anyone, of course, is eternal salvation. So that’s the place to start, by “praying for those who persecute you.”
Which is just what Christ did on the cross, and the greatest saints did in their dying gestures. I’m thinking here of Edmund Campion, perhaps the greatest soul in the history of Great Britain. As Evelyn Waugh recounts it, Campion was a stellar Oxford scholar, poet, and playwright, who showed the same youthful promise as John Donne. Had Campion been likewise willing to apostatize, there is no telling what masterworks he might have written. And which of us wouldn’t rather end up in the Norton Anthology than the Roman Martyrology?
Well, Edmund, for instance. Young Campion gave up a cozy college sinecure paid for by Protestant nobles and left Elizabeth’s England to join the Jesuits. Even as the “Virgin Queen” all-too-literally tightened the screws on Catholics and sent “priest-hunters” to scour the country, Edmund trained for a mission he knew would almost certainly end on the scaffold — with his entrails drawn slowly out before his eyes . . . You get the picture, which is one I should like to hang in my local Episcopal parish, but it ain’t magnanimous to kick folks when they’re down.
While he might have served the Church with a nice, clear conscience sending eloquent pamphlets across the Channel — the sane course of action, in my travel-size souled opinion — Campion could not forget the hundreds of thousands of English Catholics who lived deprived of Holy Communion and Confession, paying massive fines rather than go to Protestant services, watching the Faith of their fathers slowly strangled at the hands of political hacks. While he recognized the quite legitimate good of keeping his organs inside his body, Campion’s soul had grown too large for his good health. If saying Mass or shriving souls was now an act of treason, he decided to make the most of it. He returned in secret to England on June 24, 1580, and started his underground ministry, aware that he might quickly be arrested. If that happened, he would be tortured by Elizabeth’s highly efficient secret police, who in such cases racked captive priests for “confessions” admitting that they’d been sent by the pope to assassinate the queen. (Few rulers have deserved it more, but that’s for another article.)
Not certain of what he might end up inventing under torture, Campion composed what we’d now call a press release and had it sent all over England shortly after his arrival. This document, now called “Campion’s Brag,” makes bracing reading — at least for those of us whose experience of “persecution” consisted of getting shunned in gothic dining halls for writing pro-life op-eds in the student paper. In it, he expresses the humility in which every Jesuit once was trained: “I would be loath to speak anything that might sound of any insolent brag or challenge, especially being now as a dead man to this world and willing to put my head under every man’s foot, and to kiss the ground they tread upon.” You’d think that would put the reader off his guard, until you came to the passage where he challenges any and every Protestant intellectual in the country to open debate:
I know perfectly that no one Protestant, nor all the Protestants living, nor any sect of our adversaries (howsoever they face men down in pulpits, and overrule us in their kingdom of grammarians and unlearned ears) can maintain their doctrine in disputation. I am to sue most humbly and instantly for combat with all and every of them, and the most principal that may be found: protesting that in this trial the better furnished they come, the better welcome they shall be.
Then he raises the reader’s anxiety by threatening a flood of men who will follow in his wake:
Many innocent hands are lifted up to heaven for you daily by those English students, whose posterity shall never die, which beyond seas, gathering virtue and sufficient knowledge for the purpose, are determined never to give you over, but either to win you heaven, or to die upon your pikes. And touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league — all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practice of England — cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God; it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted: So it must be restored.
This brashness was enough to make the document a national sensation, and kick off the witch hunt that ended with Campion’s arrest within 13 months. Eager to gain a celebrity convert, Campion’s old patrons arranged for him to meet with Queen Elizabeth herself. She intimated that he’d be made a bishop, given an income, a wife, and a palace, if only he’d renounce the silly business about the pope. Campion graciously urged the queen to save her soul instead.
After that, the petty Anglican appointees enjoying the pulpits and priories built by their Catholic ancestors vented their spleen by forcing Campion to engage in debates, just as he’d challenged them. Before each event, he was tortured for days at a time. Then he’d he appear alone, physically broken, dressed in the Tudor equivalent of an orange prison jump suit, to face down teams of Oxbridge academics (complete with their books) in public disputations about the Faith. And Campion still won — or at least the Anglicans thought so, since they canceled the debates and sped up the process leading to his execution. He was convicted in a trial that would have made Joseph Stalin smile.
It was then that the last part of “Campion’s Brag” came into play, the sentiments he’d repeat upon the scaffold, when he would not pray with the Anglican chaplain furnished — although he would pray for him. As Campion had written, so he died:
If these my offers be refused, and my endeavours can take no place, and I, having run thousands of miles to do you good, shall be rewarded with rigour, I have no more to say but to recommend your case and mine to Almighty God, the Searcher of Hearts, who send us his grace, and see us at accord before the day of payment, to the end we may at last be friends in heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.
Souls don’t come in a bigger size. That’s triple-XL, available only at Big and Tall soul shops. Be warned: They’re hazardous to your health.
John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of the graphic novel The Grand Inquisitor and is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. He writes weekly for InsideCatholic.com.