We’ve lost our virtue. And we’ve lost it so badly that we hardly even know what that means.
Virtue is not what we’ve been taught. In the West, “virtue” is an old-fashioned word. It’s tied together with purity, and sometimes it’s even used as a euphemism for virginity. As a culture, we’ve lost our understanding of what it means to be virtuous.
The origins of virtue are the courage and strength (L. virtus) of the military man of Rome. But its deeper meaning rests on the wisdom and prudence of the ancient Greek philosophers. We Pagans talk of finding the hidden magic of the ancients. Virtue is part of that power.
Over the past half-millennium in the West, there has been a furious dialogue over the meaning of power. On the whole, it has been an argument between Judeo-Christian monotheism and materialist-positivist science. Each side begs us to join, casting disdain or eternal condemnation on those who would disagree.
Yet something quieter calls to us, wordlessly reminding us that truth is neither of these lies. Virtue comes from within. Words might be used to describe it, to point to it, but they can never contain it. Virtue comes from integrity, from authenticity, and from a deep connection to self.
I don’t usually consider it my place to speak about Christianity. In this case, doing so is needed if we want to understand what virtue is, and where we lost it. While Christian virtues are not my virtues, four of their seven have a pagan origin. It was the ancient Greek philosophers who first described virtue in the West.
In antiquity, Plato codified the four virtues as temperance, prudence, courage, and justice. Christianity added faith, hope, and love – three words of slippery meaning, indeed.
Christian virtue began as an expression of the human soul when bathed in the light of their God. It was shown through compassion, right action, and a turning away from worldly things in service of something greater. But in short order, these virtues became a yoke to be worn, values to be aped without understanding and without sacred basis.
By the time of Roman Emperor Theodosius I (347-395 C.E.) and Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.), Christian virtue lost its home in the sacred and became worldly law. That law held a stranglehold on the West until the rise of science.
Certainly, there are Christians who express virtue, and they are to be esteemed. But there are many more who have turned away. They have bent these sacred virtues into mundane values, and what were once sacred gifts have become mundane culture, wielded to measure and distribute earthly power. However good their intentions, there is no virtue in that.
Over the last five hundred years, in a rising crescendo, a materialist positivism has risen in the West. It has attempted to put paid to any true notion of virtue. Driven by the need to break the Christian church’s hold on worldly power and knowledge, the scientific narrative has become the new status language of the West.
Once the West stood with the virtues of Christianity, using its spiritual power to bolster society’s status quo. But now a new narrative has emerged. Soaring rhetoric has been abandoned in a struggle for naked power. Popularity has replaced civic virtue. As this new narrative has intertwined with society, scientism (not science!) has arisen as a new judge of right and wrong.
Especially in the last two generations, this shift has meant abandoning the sacred. It’s understandable. One side claims that everything they know about the sacred and the world is true. They believe that they possess perfect knowledge, passed down in words from generation to generation. The other side knows that such claims are poppycock.
And unless we delve deeper on our own, only these two choices are laid before us. One tradition is steeped in more than a millennium of grasping after temporal power. The other tradition tells us to abandon all knowledge of the sacred and the spiritual.
It’s a false choice.
Virtue is not simple goodness. It’s not about being kind, or, nice, or friendly. It’s a power that you can find within yourself, and it comes from expressing your deepest self into the world. Not the best part of yourself. Not your fantasy of yourself. Your deepest, most authentic self.
Virtue is real, sacred power. We don’t lose it by taking part in the world. In fact, virtue is not found only in people. It might be found in anything: a tree, a rock, a walking stick, an idea, or a mountain. Anything might, or might not, be virtuous.
If this is confusing, remember that virtue isn’t some strange thing waiting out there for you. It’s just you, coming forth. Virtue is not complicated. Like so many things we struggle with in life, it is very simple and yet very hard.
HOW TO BEGIN
The two watchwords in seeking virtue are integrity and harmony. Train your heart through prayer, your mind through meditation, and your body through discipline. Understand that harmony isn’t passiveness, but an active stillness of spirit. Delve deeper into yourself, and bring that self into alignment with your surroundings.
If that all seems a little much, then sit. Breathe. You’re not seeking virtue. You’re learning to hold still long enough for it to find you.
Virtue comes from within, but from a place we are never taught to reach. That is why it cannot be claimed; it can only be cultivated. And the path to growing it within yourself starts from where you are.