Why the present fascination with angels? Does it forecast a spiritual awakening? The signs seem ambiguous. Some aspects of this revival resemble just another romp around the playground of the modern sensibility, with its constant seesawing between abstraction and sentiment. The angels filling the shelves of your local bookstore look less like terrible messengers from God than stuffed animals to hug and kiss.
When angels seems too cozy, we make mistakes about them and ourselves. “Angelism” is the old-fashioned word we use for the mistake of assuming men possess the power of angels. Angelists forget their bodies; they lose their grip on human nature. The damage caused by them is most apparent in ethics and politics. The liberal obsession with programs and public policy, for example, turns a blind eye to basic truths about human existence, such as the truth that growth in the virtues must begin at home.
With this in mind, Crisis congratulates William J. Bennett, a member of our Publication Committtee, on the success of The Book of Virtues. An amazing 1,960,000 copies are currently in print! His effort at reawakening the moral imagination to the centrality of character formation can only help the cause of Catholic wisdom in our culture, the cause dearest to the heart of Crisis.
But the very fact of his book, and its success, tells us something about our collective reading and viewing habits. When Bennett must remind us of the importance of reading the tales of Aesop, the Brothers Grimm, and Bullfinch’s Mythology, the speeches of Lincoln and Jefferson, the essays of Emerson, or the poems of Kipling and Tennyson, then surely something has gone wrong in American education, for which The Book of Virtues supplies the remedial reading.
An ethics of virtue takes the body seriously. It doesn’t commit the angelistic error of assuming that moral goodness consists merely in right opinions. Unlike the failed pedagogies of “situation ethics” and “values clarification,” training in the virtues provides moral flexibility and tolerance without promoting skepticism and without sacrificing adherence to laws and precepts.
An ethics of virtue does not hide behind the pretence that knowing what to do is the moral problem — it focuses on our capacity to do what we see is right in the face of obstacles, both internal and external. Our need for virtue, as the philosopher Yves R. Simon terms it, is identical with our need for human dependability.
Virtues represent the takeover of the body, emotions, and appetites by moral principles. That is why, as Aristotle says, a virtuous man takes pleasure in his virtue. That is why there are no grounds for admiring the person who strikes Hamlet’s pose in the face of temptation. A virtuous person acts easily, and without regret.
That virtue cannot be taught has been well known since Socrates: virtues are acquired dispositions to act, not values to be memorized. The question then is how we acquire one disposition rather than another. Surely Bennett is right to emphasize the role of stories — where the good and the beautiful are closely aligned. Human beings, and youth in particular, always seek to emulate what they find beautiful.
Catholics, especially, need to become better storytellers; they need to tell the stories of their saints. These stories tell us how to orient our whole lives to God, and how to overcome the spiritual minimalism, the failure of charity, heard in the question, “How little do I have to do?” Bennett’s collection of stories can help us, in their own way, to reflect upon the habits of character that make us more dependable to others and to God, more adept in the face of the unforseen, and more patient in the midst of moral disagreements.
Yet there is a difference between those virtues acquired naturally and those given by the grace of God. There is also a difference between reading stories and becoming part of a story by participating each day in the life of the Church. Aesthetic delight in the representations of the Seraphim, like the intellectual appreciation of medieval angelology, risks being just another avenue of New Age avoidance without personal commitment to the maker of spiritual creatures. Otherwise we repeat the mistake of the medieval Muslims who thought happiness came directly from angels, not God.
Early in their spiritual journey Jacques and Ressa Maritain were told by their spiritual director “to make your life your work.” The Book of Virtues offers millions of Americans the same good advice — to resist the angelic temptation of believing ideas and dreams suffice when it is the work of your entire life which matters.