Virtues As Vices
“The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered…, it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.”
- G.K. Chesterton
“[Prudence is] in all things a virtue, in politics the first of virtues.”
- Edmund Burke
Being completely honest, Chesterton stumped me on this one. Once again, he was cleverly employing paradox in way that seemed to be an attempt at being cute, but logically incomprehensible. I understand the evil of vice. By definition, it is immoral and wicked behavior. And it seems that even the most hard-bitten, stunted sociopath recognizes a kernel shame that comes with indulging in vice. But virtue? How could virtue do “terrible damage” and “go mad”? Further, what is his concern about isolated virtues “wandering alone”?
To answer this, I needed to reconsider what Chesterton meant by “virtue”. Virtue, properly defined, is “behavior showing high moral standards”, “moral excellence”, and “a quality considered morally good or desirable in a person”. More specifically, the Catholic understanding recognizes the cardinal virtues of temperance, prudence, justice, and courage while also embracing the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The former four virtues are considered “natural virtues” which can conceivably be taught and cultivated in man. The latter three virtues are known as “supernatural virtues” which are divine gifts to man through the grace of God.
And so we return to the original question, how can a virtue – even a wild, wandering, isolated virtue – ever be bad? In considering this, I recalled a recurring theme in the works of Edmund Burke – the primacy of prudence (or judgment). Again, I struggled trying to conceive how or why anyone could reason that the virtue of prudence would best the virtue of courage, self-control (temperance), or justice. It was, however, in the marriage of Burke’s and Chesterton’s ideas that I began to understand the brilliant notion they were proposing.
Each of the cardinal virtues, specifically, have monumental value. But their value is infinitely raised and safeguarded when they are considered in concert with one another. The assimilation and collaboration in man of prudence, courage, temperance, and justice (and the God-given virtues of faith, hope, and charity) brings him ever-closer to the Divine state God intended him to achieve. Yet, break down this collaboration and disrupt this concert, and you create a dangerous imbalance. But how can this be?
The virtues are virtues in part because of their dependence on one another to serve as correctives. Courage without temperance can lead to violent foolishness. Temperance without justice can result in to draconian self-immolation. One virtue leans on another for balance. Ultimately, to Burke’s point, the supreme director of the virtues is prudence. Prudence, also known as wisdom, judgment, and sagacity, directs courage to wise bravery, temperance to thoughtful self-control, and justice to merciful fairness.
There is within us a God-given desire to cultivate the balanced concert of virtues in our own lives. Unfortunately, there is a devilish temptation to follow this desire, but then veer off to an imbalanced state where, as Chesterton said, the virtues become isolated from one another, go mad, and do terrible damage. All one needs to grasp this notion in a concrete fashion is to consider the 20th century ideological despotisms of National Socialism or Communism. These wicked movements sold themselves as courageous, tempered, and just. While the masses could be hoodwinked into believing that crisp uniforms, sharp salutes, aggressive war, and draconian legal systems represented virtues, it simply wasn’t so. The virtues were bastardized, imbalanced, isolated, mad, and wrought terrible damage. The concert of virtues was destroyed; the director Prudence absconded. Only the cacophony of shrill noise in its place.
The concert of cardinal virtues (justice, courage, and temperance) directed by prudence, and infused with the theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) is best seen in Jesus Christ. His justice is assertive, but merciful. His courage is firm, but never foolish. His temperance is disciplined, but always meaningful. His prudence is unparalleled in all of history. And He is the literal embodiment of faith, hope, and charity. Jesus Christ is the balance of virtues Incarnate.
I now understand what Chesterton and Burke meant. Isolated virtue risks being a vice. Prudence (wise judgment) is the guarantor of the concert of virtues. We must all strive to cultivate the balance – the concert – of virtues. We must all be open to the grace of the theological virtues. We must seek to approach Virtue Himself – Jesus Christ.