Public Arguments: Virtue and the City

Some political philosophers argue that the American republic is “ill-founded” because founded on Hobbesian and Lockean principles, which are (a) wrong in themselves and (b) incompatible with traditional principles of natural law, virtue, and character. This makes doubtful the recent Christian language of rights, and masks contradictions within it. Father Fortin in this issue offers a powerful presentation of this view.

Terrence Marshall, an American who has taught in France since 1976, points out many differences between the original American and French theories of rights. He shows that the roots of the American tradition lie in a politics of prudence deeper and older than the concepts of modern liberalism.

Then George Weigel points us not to history but to the near future—his subject is the building of a democratic order in Poland. There has been, he reminds us, “doctrinal development” both in American political philosophy and in Catholic (i.e., traditional Western) political philosophy. Like Poland, many nations today, a good number of them Catholic, are building democracies based on the rule of law and the protection of rights. Some of them make use of traditional Catholic philosophy as newly developed by such thinkers as Karol Wojtyla, as well as of modern historical experience. (We reprint below the second part of Wojtyla’s three-part essay on the human person.) To those who ask, “Is such a synthesis possible?”, our reply must be that the question is no longer merely academic; the synthesis is underway.

Also reprinted below are a few pages from Bartolomé de las Casas (1474-1566), a Franciscan friar who recognized the inherent humanity (i.e., human nature) of the Indians of the Americas. Writing well before Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704), las Casas does not use the language of “natural rights,” but he does indict specific violations of the dignity proper to human beings just because they are human. This explicitly Christian condemnation of abuses actually represented a synthesis of the classical and Christian traditions, further worked out in the foundations of modern international law by Francisco de Vitoria, S.J. (c. 1480-1546) and Francisco Suarez, S.J. (1548-1617). Most Anglo-American historians, alas, ignore the crucial role of Hispanic contributions to the history of liberty.

In the real world, institutions of liberty depend in a crucial way on the practice of specific virtues. It is futile to believe that practices of liberty can emerge among peoples, let alone survive, without the prior development among them of certain key virtues. Whatever the inadequacies of Hobbes and Locke, common sense told the American founders that character and virtue are crucial to self-government. Their common sense was superior to their theoretical equipment.

It has become depressingly obvious today that our free institutions are in danger—and that the primary danger lies in the moral sphere—so that an inquiry into the basic meaning of such terms as virtue and character is altogether timely. It is particularly timely in this season, as the feast of Pentecost fast approaches.

I. Defining “Virtue” and “Character”

The word “virtue” today is commonly associated with sexual behavior, as when in saying that a woman has lost her “virtue,” we mean her chastity. In this weak meaning, the term has become only a faint shadow of its former self. For free societies today, we need a more robust meaning of the term, of at least the depth that the ancient Greeks and Romans gave it—and, to account for the responsibilities imposed by modern freedoms, of considerably more ample range.

The ancient city states of Greece were typically quite small; Athens at the height of its power consisted of 30,000 inhabitants, most of them slaves. To defend their city against their enemies, and to attain the sort of civilization to which they aspired, the relatively few free Greek males of Athens had to develop a broad repertoire of military and civil skills. In their own lives, they needed a certain degree of discipline, self-control, and concentration of attention. With regard to their common life, they needed to learn arts of expression and persuasion, civic duty and public honor, reliability and wisdom. They needed to learn how to use arms—dagger, sword, and spear—and they needed skill with horses and chariots. A young lad of 10 or 12 had quite a lot to learn by the time he reached 18. The city needed him to learn these things. His fellows expected him to learn them. In this context, the word “virtue” corresponded to an obvious necessity of Greek education.

A Greek male needed to be able to act in many different capacities because the demands of civilization were so many while the citizens were few. At one moment, he would need to employ the arts of peace; at another, the arts of war. It was useful, therefore, to have a term like “virtue” to designate these settled dispositions, these learned skills, these tendencies or capacities (and to act quickly, with some degree of excellence and pleasure—in one field of activity and then in another), of which Greek city states had such manifest need. The most general term for such settled dispositions or capacities is “habit.” From the point of view either of the individual or of the community, one can, however, speak of good habits and bad habits. The good habits were called “virtues”; the bad habits “vices.”

The habits were thought of as tendencies or dispositions; in this respect, they were regarded as properties of the human mind and will. The word “mind” came into play when human actions needed to be informed by acts of insight and judgment. Typical evidences of the human mind in action are getting the point of a joke or a story, sizing up a situation, grasping what needs to be done, forming a judgment that one should proceed in this way rather than in that. All these are acts of insight and judgment—and all these are also acts in which experience and preparation, nourishing native wit, matter a lot.

Getting the point about the habits of the mind was, for the Greeks, as natural as opening their eyes; becoming conscious of the meaning of the word “will” was a little more difficult. Permit me to use a modern example. Suppose that in going to bed at night you remember that you need to get up the instant the alarm rings, because of an early commitment. However, when the alarm rings, it penetrates your grogginess only gradually. Your sense of hearing and your remote memory awaken first. Eventually, you become sufficiently aware of the cause of the jangling to recognize that it comes from the alarm. Slowly, the association is made with the need to arise immediately. Instinctively, your arm begins to move toward the clock to shut it off. But neither your mind nor your will is sufficiently focused to direct the arm efficiently toward its target. Your mind awakens slowly as you become dimly conscious of where you are, what is happening, what that sound means, and what you are supposed to do. But your body is still wed to sleep, and the desire for continued union with sleep is strong. The imperative concerning what you ought to do is at war with what your body wants to do. Two parts of yourself are at war—the part attuned to “want” and the part attuned to “ought.” As your mind gets clearer, this inner conflict comes into sharper focus. You experience within yourself, in fact, the slow awakening of will, over against the inclination of the rest of you. Your will is, in a sense, the last and deepest of your inner capacities to come awake. It is the hardest to bring into exercise. You can feel the struggle to summon it up, in order to force yourself to get out of bed.

From this example, it is fairly easy to see why moral education needs to focus on the training of the will. Will is the capacity that makes us choose to do something; it makes us want to follow the dictates of what we know we should do, and to want to do so badly enough to overcome the most intense resistance of the rest of us. (My father used to joke that he had no problems with will power; what caused him trouble, he said, was won’t power. What he wanted, he wanted; saying “No” was the harder exercise.) The will is the power to carry the judgment of the mind—”yes” or “no”—into action. It is the power of self-government, self-mastery, self-discipline.

In applying the imperative of self-knowledge to understanding their own human actions, the Greeks laid special stress on those dispositions or capacities from which actions are elicited as situations demand. A man of well-developed habits in a broad range of fields of activity, a well-rounded man, will at one time be called upon to think clearly, on another occasion to speak persuasively, on yet another to lead a group of fellow citizens decisively and wisely, and on a fourth occasion to meet the enemy in deadly and fateful combat. To perform well in all these fields of activity—and to perform well on demand, with excellence, and with pleasure—is to draw on the considerable human capital of inherited and acquired habit. So, up until the modern era, the ancient Greeks and Romans, and later the medieval Jews and Christians, imagined the arena of human action.

I mentioned earlier that the human virtues were thought to reside chiefly in the mind and will. The two sets of abilities—the mind to gain insight and to make judgments, and the will to lock onto goals and commitments—were, together, recognized as distinctively human. To become adequately human is to seek to understand and to summon up the will to act accordingly. Each of us does these two exercises with a distinctive signature. These give us our individuality or, at least, the individuality for which we are responsible.

Each cat (our family has two) may be an individual unlike every other cat. Within limits, cats have a kind of insight (one of our cats is demonstrably a lot smarter than the other), but at certain points cats simply refuse to understand a great many things one would wish them to understand. As lovable (or as hateable) as cats might be, and as highly individual as each is, only a human being has the capacity to reflect upon his or her own actions, to repent or to approve of some of them, and to choose from among an array of possible futures. These capacities to reflect and to choose give rise to a distinctive language about humans; we are not only “individuals” (as cats are) but “persons” (as cats are not). Our dignity as persons derives from our capacities to reflect and to choose, that is, our capacity to be self-determining. We are (each of us) responsible for our own destiny. Our dignity lies in this responsibility. Our dignity lies—above all else—in the quality of our reflecting and our choosing.

In this light, to take possession of one’s own capacity for personhood is to train oneself in the full range of habits that allow one to make as many free acts of reflection and choice as possible. In a sense, a human being at birth is not yet a realized person, but does have (even before birth) the potential to become one. To become a fully developed person is to learn the many habits that allow one to increase the frequency of one’s acts of reflection and choice. Note the paradox here. One must learn many habits in order to be able to bring reflection and choice into play frequently; that is, to act from more than mere habit: to act from choice.

It is not as easy to act from reflection and choice as one might at first think. If you are capable of self-criticism, you will discern soon enough that a great many of the actions you have already taken today were performed mostly by routine, “out of habit,” without much reflection and choice. And even where “choice” may have been thought to enter, as when one chose orange juice rather than apple juice at breakfast, an outsider may doubt whether this was more than a learned preference, a matter of taste and inclination. Such “choices,” a skeptical observer might say, are not matters much thought about and consciously chosen, not at least with that degree of determination and commitment we intend by the word “will.” Indeed, it is rather surprising to become aware of how seldom throughout each long day we exercise our capacities for fresh reflection and conscious choice of the will. Perhaps it is just as well. Perhaps that would be far too tiring. Whatever the reasons, we do not often act at the top of our spiritual nature, in the realm of insight and will. We typically live in their derived light, in the moonlight, so to speak, cast from a distance. A lot of our living is spent in a kind of sleepwalking.

We should by now have developed some fairly clear notions of “habit,” “virtue,” “mind,” “will,” and “person”—and the reader is here urged on reading these words to pause and give a clear definition to each. After that it may then be useful to name and to describe some of the virtues that the Greeks, Romans, and medieval Christians thought to be most important to leading a good human life.

Chief among these was the virtue of “wisdom,” that is, “practical wisdom” (phronesis), the capacity to order all the parts of the self and all the components of action in a realistic, appropriate and effective way. The person of practical wisdom is like an archer, Aristotle said. In action, there are an infinite number of ways to get things wrong; but to act in the right way, at the right time, with the right emphasis, with regard to the right persons, and with exact appreciation for all the relevant circumstances, is to “hit the mark exactly,” like an arrow thudding into a bull’s-eye. A good archer has to account not only for the wind but for the weight of his own arrowhead, the defects of his own shaft, the perfection of the feathering, the tensile strength of his bow, the quality of his string, the tightness in his arm, the habits of his own eye, and a whole host of other factors grasped better by instinct and habit than by conscious articulation.

Furthermore, practical wisdom must suffuse all the other virtues, if they are to be on target. Given the Greek love for form, for the shaping loveliness of things, it was natural for them to speak of practical wisdom as the form of all the other virtues. Practical wisdom directs and gives shape to each of them, while organizing them together in as beautiful a way as possible.

Indeed, the Greeks spoke of goodness under a word, Kalos, that works as well for beauty as for loveliness. Kalos signifies a kind of grace in action. Goodness is to get everything right, to pay the proper reverence to every aspect of things. A good action hits the mark in all respects. When an action is in some way deficient, from one point of view or another, its goodness is marred.

It may be worth noting how distant this approach to the moral life is from approaching it through the lens of duty. The modern tradition after Kant speaks of morals largely in terms of “duty,” “ought,” “thou shalt,” and “thou shalt not.” Whether or not there is some ancient and classical warrant for this, it is worth noting that throughout the Nicomachean Ethics, when Aristotle needs a metaphor for goodness in action, he turns to athletics rather than to law or command or duty, as in his example of the archer “hitting the mark.” For the Greeks, ethics was, in a sense, closer to the aesthetic than to the deontological. A good action represents not so much a law obeyed as an instance of beauty. The Greeks sought the Good as an elusive ideal, a goal up ahead to aspire to, a power of attraction and beauty drawing one onward by its radiance. The Greeks felt drawn by something, attracted by something, pulled toward it as by some law of the spirit parallel to the physical law of gravity. They called this force that attracted them from the future, up ahead, the Final End. They thought of ethics, in this sense, as teleology, the pursuit of this attractive and compelling End.

This conception is quite different from modern utilitarianism. The latter, a modern philosophy developed most extensively by such Englishmen as Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), is an adulterated version of the former. In teleology, the end is a vision of the highest possible development of the human person or, perhaps, at the highest flights of Greek thought, the unity of this highly developed human person with God. Utilitarianism is much more prosaic, as its name itself suggests. It is a theory for choosing the most useful means toward whatever ends it is that one happens to seek. Utilitarianism’s strongest suit lies in its application to worldly fields such as politics, law, and economics, more or less flatly considered, in terms rather of worldly objectives met than of the full development and fulfillment of the person meeting them.

Let us linger on this contrast for a moment. Where teleology has in view the human person, utilitarianism has in view the efficiency of means and ends. From the one to the other there is a visible and quite long step, described by the ancients and medievals as the step down from nobility to utility. In the eighteenth century, although perhaps not so in America, this step was quite consciously taken—for the general welfare.

In the ancient and medieval view, to reflect on ethics is to try to imagine what sort of person one wishes by the end of one’s life to have become. The idea is that one must, in one sense, discover oneself—learn who one is, who one was made to be—and, in another sense, one must make oneself, shape oneself according to the model of the ideal man or woman, as best one can discern that ideal. The best path here is to make choices as a living model, like Pericles, would make them; it was to Pericles, in any case, that Aristotle is said to have turned when he needed an exemplar. This, Aristotle says, is the path of practical wisdom—to make choices as an exemplar of practical wisdom does. To become such a man, one must single out this exemplar in advance and then begin working to develop the habits required to live like that exemplar.

Among these habits, the Greeks preeminently identified justice (to give each person his or her due), temperance (the disciplining of one’s appetites so that one’s capacities for reflection and choice are as unimpeded as possible by the “noise” and gyroscopic disturbances the appetites bring in their train); and courage (the steady capacity to pursue the good unswervingly and to allow one’s spirit to see truly).

To these four cardinal virtues (practical wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage) were added a host of others: magnanimity, liberality, patience, perseverance, sympathy, fellow-feeling, benevolence, and the like, as well as at a later period, such distinctively Christian virtues as faith, hope, charity, humility, kindness, and (in this context only one among many, but a jewel) chastity.

The list of virtues beloved by the pre-moderns eventually became quite long. For one had only to observe or to feel the need for new human excellences to name them and add them to the list.

Some of these virtues are obviously in conflict with one another; when is patience cowardice, or temperance pettiness? Besides, few persons, probably none, are endowed by nature with all of the virtues, or have time to master all of them equally. In practice, different persons choose different favorites. Every person develops a fairly unique blend of habits. We call this unique blend of habits, good and bad, character. To have character is to have a fairly defined profile of habits that can be relied upon, that have, as it were, a kind of personal signature. “That sounds just like him.” “That is completely out of character for her; I never saw her do anything like that.” From virtue, therefore, we arrive at character. Character is, as it were, a personal quiverful of virtues (and vices), a distinctive repertoire of more or less predictable dispositions.

There we have it. A rather rough and ready definition of terms. Henceforth, at least, when we speak of “habit” and “virtue,” “character” and “act,” “reflection” and “choice,” and “mind” and “will,” we should have a fairly clear idea of what we mean.

2. Toward a Culture of Virtue

Ethics, Aristotle wrote, is a branch of politics. From a very early age, we learn both by instruction and by observing what goes on around us whatever range of habits the city we live in chooses, more or less consciously, to instruct us in. Long before we are able to choose for ourselves, throughout our childhood and even adolescence, our city shapes us more than we shape ourselves. But this is not the whole story. We dare not discount those acts of rebellion and self-appropriation, dissent and enthusiastic approbation, that each person makes as he or she goes along, nodding or frowning at, imitating or rejecting the panoramic scene and passing parade. However strong their conditioning, persons do define themselves. That is why persons are so endlessly fascinating in their inexhaustible variety.

Nonetheless, as Aristotle also noted, city differs from city, and constitution from constitution. The shape of the institutions we live under goes a long way toward determining the kinds of character its citizens are likely to develop. Thus, many persons today do not like the modern city they are living in. Still, in reacting against modern utilitarianism and the modern preoccupation with social engineering, when such persons demand a return to the ancient moral virtues, they sometimes falsify the past. In reaction against the too easy politicalization of modern life, they seek refuge in the more quiet gardens in which the practice of the personal virtues is assiduously cultivated, as if in a cloister. They forget that Aristotle was not writing about life in the cloister, but life in the city. They forget the public nature, and the public role, of the virtues he was describing. Such public virtues were absolutely necessary to the survival and the flourishing of Athens. Insofar as Athens was one high point of civilization, its resources lay in the human spirit, and depended on the development of specific capacities of that spirit, the Athenian virtues. One must not imagine that these virtues were merely private; their role was public and visible. Perish those virtues, perish Athens.

So it is with the United States or any other nation today. To be sure, societies constructed around sets of institutions different from the institutions of Athens no doubt call forth a different panoply of human virtues. But human virtues they do require. As James Madison once said, it is chimerical to think that a republic (such as he wished the United States to be) can thrive without the practice of republican virtues.

Above all, then, virtue is learned in social contexts. We learn how to improve our moral skills from others. We are encouraged—or ridiculed—by others. If in society as a whole we wish again to make every criminal “an enemy of the human race,” we need also again to praise every man and woman of virtue as our friend.

Several obstacles stand in the way. First, our high culture—composed of intellectuals, professors, and artists—is quite ambivalent about praise for virtue and for character, as it is also ambivalent about strengthening the family. For many, such realities smack of “traditional values,” i.e., those residues of the dark past that “enlightenment” is supposed to “enlighten” us from.

Second, our academic tradition in the study of ethics has largely ignored the concepts of virtue and character. Neither the utilitarian tradition derived from Bentham nor the deontological tradition derived from Kant, neither the “pessimistic” image of human nature sketched in Hobbes nor the “romantic” image sketched in Rousseau, offers illumination about virtue and character. While the Aristotelian tradition is kept alive in Great Britain, and (outside the Catholic intellectual tradition) rather less so in the United States, it seldom counts for a great deal in contemporary ethical discussion and its concepts are almost never clearly grasped or accurately presented. If one were to ask contemporary intellectuals to define “virtue” and “character,” there is reason to doubt, first, whether discussions of significant clarity would be forthcoming; and, second, whether the powerful arguments of the past would be known well enough to be embodied within them. Instead, amid allusions to the “Victorian Age” and to “bourgeois morality,” it is often suggested that virtue and character connote a straight-laced, stiff, hypocritical, and conservative moral posture, from which “liberalism” or “progressivism” intend to “liberate” us.

These are serious intellectual errors of distortion and omission. Their consequences are also serious, because if clear concepts of virtue and character are not available at the highest intellectual level, it is not likely that they will be taken seriously in textbooks, curricula, and informed public discussion, even if they were there to be found, as typically they now are not.

Third, the needs of the entertainment media to some extent fly in the face of virtue and character, and to some extent totally depend upon them. The essential dependence of the media upon virtue and character follows from the inherent demands of the art of storytelling. Without character, “characters” would lack intelligibility; without virtue, they could not be attractive. Courage, kindness, tenderness, persistence, integrity, loyalty, and other virtues are indispensable to the storyteller’s art. On the other hand, knowing well the burdens imposed upon them by virtue, audiences necessarily love plots in which heroes and heroines are tempted, fall, flout conventions, “kick against the goad,” and in other ways rebel—at least against excessively conventional ways of understanding virtue and character. In a profound sense, such real-life battles deepen our understanding of true virtue, true character, and—one almost wishes to add—”true grit.”

In a superficial sense, however, popular entertainment often depends on “shock value” and titillation. Its producers are always tempted to violate ethical norms just enough to offer a taste of “forbidden fruit,” yet without creating too high a sense of alarm. When this is done cheaply and in tawdry fashion—through unnecessary nudity, sexual suggestion, violent behavior, and impulse-gratification—critics properly attack such products both on aesthetic and on moral grounds. Their work sometimes described as a moral “wasteland,” producers of television shows and popular films at times seem to want it both ways: both to pay conventional respect to traditional values and to pander. It is plausible that ratings systems reward such compromises. Hungers for greater depth in programming usually go unfulfilled.

In particular, there is in the mass media a striking absence of significant drama about the specific struggles for virtue and character characteristic of the Jewish and Christian religious traditions. Ordinarily, persons do not learn “virtue in general,” rather, through their families and religious traditions they learn particular paths to virtue, taught somewhat distinctively within each religious body. Some religious bodies are quite impulsive, for example, placing great stress on vivid emotional experiences in moments of conversion (“I accepted Jesus on May 27, 1972,” one such communicant may recall). Others have more sober, restrained traditions that appeal much less to subjective experience and far more to objective disciplines and rites. Virtue, in the concrete, is typically communicated through particular communities of understanding, of method, and of style.

About many such matters, our intellectual and academic elites are remarkably incurious, and our national communications media have been (at least until recent years) remarkably reticent. By contrast, most seem eager to explore “new” moralities, fresh “liberations,” new imperatives of consciousness-raising,” and the ongoing saga of “progressive” attitudes. The bias is pronounced. It exacts several social costs.

One such cost appears to be a gap between the cultures of academic and intellectual elites and those of the ordinary public. Another seems to be the vacuum created by the separation of the three major sub-systems (political, economic and moral-cultural) of our political economy. This point needs some explication.

While explicit about the Republic’s dependence upon the virtue and religiousness of its citizens, the American Founders did not assign to government the task of “soulcraft.” This is left to the leaders of the nation’s moral and cultural institutions: principally to families, of course, and local communities, but also to the churches, the press (today, the “media”), and the universities and schools. For generations, the primary task explicitly assigned to the public schools of the nation was character formation. McGuffey’s readers exemplify the methods employed in teaching reading, writing and arithmetic; one learned from them, not only techniques, but classic statements of American purpose and American (Northern Protestant) virtue.

In recent decades, by contrast, the teaching of virtue and character has explicitly not been the primary function of the American state-run public schools. Further, the American mainline churches seem nowadays less to emphasize their long traditions of instruction in virtue and character, and more to emphasize counseling, therapeutic methods, and social causes. In the university world, emphasis upon virtue and character would now seem to many not only quaint but perhaps threatening and even impermissible. Thus, at present, no major institution appears to concern itself with the standing of virtue and character in modern culture; virtue and character have been orphaned.

Understandably, then, families concerned to instruct their children in virtue and character feel isolated and alone, when not under assault even from the glowing screen in their own living rooms, and not infrequently even in church.

All this is not to say that the future is bleak. On the contrary, the family and local communities have shown themselves to be amazingly resilient and persistent in continuing to instruct their youngsters in the classic paths of virtue and of character. In some ways, such institutions of immediate culture may prove to be far more powerful than the more remote cultures represented through larger institutions. There are significant indications, indeed, that a quiet moral revolution is underway, affecting not only communications elites but, in particular, some of the more influential intellectual and academic elites. In America, even “progressive” elites are thinking and writing more these days about the family, local communities, civil society, and traditional values. William Bennett’s skillful anthology The Book of Virtues has wrung warm praise from left and right alike—even from the often-sour Martha Nussbaum in The New Republic. For even “progressives” in the end depend upon appeals to commitment, integrity, sacrifice for a cause, comradely bonds, honesty, and individual initiative. Like Moliere’s bourgeois surprised (and pleased) that he had been speaking prose for many years, many former socialists are expressing new-found pleasure in having practiced the old, prosaic virtues for decades now, even though they had forgotten to speak of them.

In free societies, the language of virtue and character is indispensable—so indispensable as to be prosaic, indeed. For how can a people profess to be capable of self-government—of government of, by, and for the people—if they cannot govern their own passions? How can a people govern a whole society who cannot, each of them, govern themselves? In the free society, virtue is a sine qua non. Where there is no virtue, the free society perishes, and the very idea of liberty becomes chimerical.

A longer, annotated version of this article was prepared for a seminar in Bath, England, chaired by Lady Thatcher and sponsored by the National Review Institute.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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