Virtue is an Experience of Reality

When, in a moment of absentmindedness, I practice a virtue, my reaction to the fact is not that “I’m being good,” but “Oh, so this is how it is.” Before the moment of virtue — be it patience or prudence – I stumbled blindly without knowing my blindness. In the light of virtue the universe is illuminated and what was obscure makes sense. Virtue reveals the very consistency of existence.

The virtues are not additions to life, supplementary goodies we tack onto our behavior — they are modes of existence by which we experience truth, that is, the proper relation between ourselves and reality.

The virtue of Justice is not a thing we practice to make situations better, to please others, or to please ourselves. Justice is the habitual disposition of the will to render each and all we encounter their rightful due. Justice, then, is fundamentally an experience of reality, in which we relate to others as they are, having built within ourselves the willingness to experience what each and every human being deserves, that is, the reality of each and every human being.

Prudence is not the pursed frown that clenches at the sight of immorality. It is more than a cleverness that avoids sketchy situations and doesn’t spend too much money on cars. Prudence is “right reason with respect to action” (Aquinas), the essential precondition for each and every good action, “the perception and examination of reality,” and “the art of making the right decision based on the corresponding reality.” (Pieper) What seems like an augmentation to human behavior, upon closer inspection, is revealed to be the very method by which human beings experience the truth about things, reality itself. Prudence is seeing every situation in truth, giving us the power to act in correspondence to reality.

Chastity is not a series of actions designed to keep my pants and “save myself for marriage.” Chastity is the integration of my sexuality with the whole of my person, and integration that neither represses, alters, or enthrones the sexuality as ruler over my actions. The virtue of chastity is a way in which I live as I am, authentically, in wholeness and in truth. The virtue of modesty is a way in which I present my whole person, acting, dressing and living in such a way that I speak my name and reveal my whole self.  The virtues are all concerned with setting man in right relation to himself, others, and the cosmos. They are efforts to be who we are.

Humans are mind-boggling things: We experience our lives as projects. We do not simply exist as we are, end of story — as say, the rock exists — rather, we exist with the innate understanding that we must become who we are, that we must “be ourselves,” “find ourselves,” and “act like ourselves” in all authenticity. There is no value scale for rocks, no question of whether a rock is really being “all the rock that it can be.” But for man this is a constant question: “Am I living life to its fullest?” “Am I being myself?” — all of which is precisely the same as asking “Am I existing in reality?” and “Am I living in truth?”

Each and every virtue is a way by which the human person enters into an authentic experience of reality, treating God, others and himself as they are, answering the question “Am I being myself?” with a resounding yes. I trust the virtuous man, not just because I believe he won’t cheat me, but because I understand that he is in right-relation to reality.

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  • Dan

    to the Point, Clear about it and simply correct. Top marks! (an example of a painful pun, my apologies)

  • Gayle Martin

    How should we pursue virtue, then, in a concrete way? I often find myself intoxicated by the idea of virtue but unable to cross the chasm between the ungainly reality of who I unfortunately am to that higher reality that accords with right reason in all things.

    • Joe

      I had the same question a few years back and I have found that in order to pursue virtue you have to dive into some kind of community life. Like in a parish or by trying to reach out to others at work and volunteering for an organization like the St. Vincent De Paul Society.

    • Laura DeLucia

      A great practical question, but it saddens me to read “who I unfortunately am”? We’re all sinners (no need to tell me!) but if it is alignment with virtue you seek, could you begin by, yes, accepting our fallen state, but by also accepting your FORTUNATE place in the world as daughter and emissary of Christ? I wouldn’t call this egotistical, merely a degree of self-assurance that you are exactly supposed to be what and where you are on the journey towards perfection in Christ. Wouldn’t that make “crossing the chasm” not say, easier, but something we can believe ourselves capable of?

      Just a thought. :

  • trs

    Nicely expressed.

  • Sarah

    Okay so I just don’t understand virtue fully. I’ve tried in vain to wrap my brain around it but I get so stumped and confused by the limits that the world and my education has given to me by certain perceptions. What did you mean by the moment of virtue? (My language already betrays me- cursed lack of English adjectives) How do you live out virtue if it’s in a moment? By choosing the virtuous path? And how do you live virtue and completely shove out pride? I feel pride is always at my back when I try to “live” virtuously. My second misconception and inability to understand is when you said “prudence is right reason with respect to action” I think my brain died. Right there. I’ve done my fair share of studying Aquinas and I know of my struggles to fully understand and dissect his utter genius, so I know that I won’t be able to properly form the right questions for the subject. But what does it mean? All of it just makes my head spin so if you could give a quick, more detailed (I guess?) explanation for me that would be great. I’ve been reading your blog for almost a year now and this is the first one that shut my brain off,

    • Ely Addison

      I think this post is trying to approach a conception of the essence of virtue itself; the lack of what we’d call ‘practical application’ is probably intentional. If virtue is doing what’s ‘right’, participating in the world in such a way that we’re helping to make it and ourselves what we’re ‘supposed to be’, then figuring out what’s ‘right’ and what’s ‘supposed to be’ must follow– and that’s a ginormous and intimidating undertaking. At least 80 more blog posts required. Or maybe they’re all about that? :)

  • Joseph Bryant

    How can anyone, really, take seriously a bigoted sect that opposes marriage equality banging on about “virtue”?

    Bigotry is not a virtue.

    • KRD

      Because this bigoted sect has been “banging on about virtue” for 2000 years, while “marriage equality” has only been a concept for, at best, 40 years.

    • Ely Addison

      I absolutely agree that ‘bigotry is not a virtue’. The problem with that sentence is that it can mean pretty much anything. It’s good rhetoric, but crappy reasoning. Define bigotry. Define virtue. Not just modern events and individual phenomenon that you believe are examples, but what are they, essentially? This post makes an attempt at approaching the latter. Step back a little and read what’s actually written here.

    • Dan

      what is marriage?

    • enness

      “How can anyone, really, take seriously…” a guy who, in the absence of any strict necessity or solicitation, makes uninformed accusations on blog posts?

      (It was real easy to turn that around. Hope it makes you think. Have a good night)

  • Pirate Roberts

    This is a great post. And as it has been for the last 2,000 years, the Church has been the guardian and protector of the virtues–adding three spiritual virtues to humanity as well! Great post!

  • Kevin Roerty

    Marc, do you consider yourself a Thomist? Your understanding of ethics appears very Aristotelian in nature.