Socratic Men

Wild Heart


Celia's Parade


Marsha Taylor

Put Up





The 1960s


Exalting Towers



Man of Earth

With Neighbors




Not Winning


Optimist Wager

Not for Sale

Preface & Reader Response

Unaware, blind adherence to personal habit or social custom cannot in itself qualify as virtuous.



The Big Ideas That Could Save Us


by Jerry Murley

Years of living with the Middle Ages have taught a powerful lesson: When the rich, complex constructs of a civilization have imbued youth with its practical standards and then lost its overwhelming authority, an environment is readied for an ambiguous, often precarious, flowering of culture – and ultimately an individual, if not a unique, contribution to the history of man's progress. The precondition is not the ruin of civilization, but rather it is the absorption of civilization's customs, imagery, ethics, philosophies, laws and methodologies and the detachment and independence that find voice in the absence of an overbearing mental bondage to an external economic, political and social authority.

What, am I alone in judging Rome a tyranny – in seeing a tendency of attempted absolute control in domineering states, mass movements, political parties, and even family members and acquaintances, throughout time? I would not have lasted a day in barbaric, custom-bound Germany, but given the choice of sides, I cannot take Rome, though I grant the lasting authority and benefits of its civilization. Rome suffocated innovation as it crudely absorbed novelty and assumed empire. It doomed itself in lost virtues, state militarism and monopoly. Roman honor alone was not necessarily effective or timeless virtue. Bereft of a prevalent pattern of virtue and human decency, it withered away, and new virtues and freedoms arose.

* * *

Periodically, a dynamic people – and individuals – must re-examine inherited first principles in order to continue to thrive. The process is not necessarily intended to be destructive or even negative, but rather the object is to re-establish a degree of workable harmony from the disparity, error, fractiousness and dissonance naturally arising from a long-lived, vibrant society. This is how a people endure.

* * *

Virtue requires freedom. Freedom requires virtue. False claims and chains of virtue, stale models and catechisms, wrest away our virtue just as surely as common vices and addictions, just as surely as preoccupation with celebrity, the media, supposed enemies, material acquisition, fine lawns, pretty words, gossip and drugs.

What is virtue? A simple definition could be a habit or a pattern of behavior that is salubrious for the actor and makes him better in personal terms and in terms of fulfilling ethical responsibilities. It is roughly analogous to taking a refreshing warm shower after a hot and sweaty exertion, except that one cannot repeatedly make oneself hot and sweaty just for the sake of the shower, and the context needs to be an environment where the supply of water and the energy to heat the water are fairly available. Therefore, virtue starts with training for virtue and evolves by thinking about virtue: what, given circumstances, is a reasonable behavior pattern that makes one, and others, better over the long term.

Few grim-faced moralists conceive of virtue as being pleasurable: if anything, in their minds, it always has a strong taint of self-sacrifice mixed with a sprinkle of holier-than-thou, giving virtue the uninviting prospect and bitter aftertaste of self-flagellation. That is not virtue. That is priggish, society-killing sado-masochism.

Likely we all catch a glimpse of virtue when we sense it in the actions of others or ourselves. But how do we make a thoughtful pattern of it? I say pattern rather than habit, because I have added the conditions of forethought and awareness and consideration of circumstances, thus habit alone will not suffice.

One can have a habit – such as chastity – imprinted on one by the steady drumbeat of parental and social pressure and sanctions. But such an unaware, blind adherence to personal habit or social custom cannot in itself qualify as virtuous. Virtue must struggle and sometimes falter to know itself. The desire and effort to find virtue and then to find the best method of executing it are required and supremely difficult to master – if virtue can be mastered.

Is one virtuous who, like a hermit, abandons all in order to escape suffering – or who, like an artist or a scholar, abandons all in order to escape interruption? I cannot judge, but by definition, I find such a path suspect and simplistic, and unhelpful as a general guide to modern behavior. These examples are especially problematic if family responsibilities are involved. Social engagement and challenge would seem to be requisite conditions, but not always: there is some merit to the notion that, for some fortunate few, virtue is a customary frame of mind and demeanor requiring almost no struggle and little bodily activity – and only rare social interaction.

Today, the term "family values" is a sugar-coated, jelly-bean substitute for substantive virtue. The term conveys the impression of a world view and a set of behavioral standards that are not virtuous: a sulfuric cloud of prescriptions and proscriptions that are unreasoned, rote, false, deceptive, divisive and injurious – and topped with self-congratulatory suburban blather.

Is it unvirtuous for one to feel virtuous? Because of the struggle and uncertainty, and engaged personal interaction on a complex scale, one might be a bit supercilious to presume constant virtue. But by no means does virtue fail to ignite momentary pleasure in the virtuous man. Certainly to be virtuous one must sense virtue in one's actions; however, that sense is no guarantee of virtue, because, as noted, a context of infinite complexity is also involved in the equation: on a personal level, there may be virtue, but on a social, historical or cosmic scale, there may not.

To toss out all else for power, glory, adventure, sensual pleasure, or wealth would by definition not be an exemplary or a practical path to virtue. End to end, that is how we partly know virtue – by what it is not.

There can be absolutely no doubt about it: without religion there is still virtue. And it could be forcefully argued that religious doctrine and practice have often impeded the development of virtue rather than helped. Why? Because religious doctrine and practice tend to stop at insular self-protection, custom and law and do not normally encourage systematic ethical, philosophical, and scientific thought or study, in part because most religions impart no appreciation or methodology for those preparatory and sustaining complex activities. Religious adherents are too often preoccupied with disputes about a next life and how to get there (and how to keep others from getting there), with virtue for its own practical sake having little significance or cause or nurturing environment for development. And, too, commitment to inclusion and to bettering this life is an antithetical disposition to the animus of the religious tribe. A stretched exception to this view of the contribution of religion could be argued with reference to humble and inclusive prayer and behavior modeling in the case of Christianity and religions with similar characteristics. And one can hardly fail to acknowledge the ivory-tower tradition of ethical philosophy pursued under the influence of Christianity which can be traced back to the Middle Ages and before and continued throughout the 20th century. But even then, those sufficient levels of questioning, reason and discipline are a rare departure from the norm rather than the usual practice.

One might also say that the complexity of one's facility regarding emotion, psychology and language is another factor promoting or retarding virtue. In short, virtue is not the simple willingness to stand, armed and vigilant, at the ready to combat and eradicate enemies: It is a learning, an openness, an adaptability, a desire, a dedication and a steady action to pursue that which could be virtuous. Virtue is ever questioning. It is applied theory and growth, day in and day out until life's last breath.

No one practices virtue in Sunday school: meaning that, though conduct in such places might consistently range from good to very good, there are safe, sanitized and sanctified environments that offer little opportunity to exert muscular virtue to any significant degree. Virtue is exercised daily in respectful civic engagement. Virtue is not a static formula that is easily captured or kept. It is hard won and hard retained – and not always picture perfect. Virtue connotes and requires a state of active balance in the face of steady obligation.

Virtue, thy nature is responsible freedom; thy name is not law; thy characteristics are both conservative and liberal. Rome, get thee behind me, for thou are not the singular path to virtue, any more than the wisdom of Athens and Sparta and Holy Church are guaranteed paths – any more than Democratic or Republican are paths – any more than Christian and non-Christian are paths.

Virtue lives apart from doctrine at every level. It is unknown but has a billion models. It will be relentlessly pursued or we will perish as a people – and perhaps as a species.


I came to this examination of the concept of virtue having recently read a rousing account of the prelude to the American Revolution (W. McDougall, 2005). In most, if not all, of the significant letters, speeches, tracts and official documents justifying and urging colonial separation from British rule, the word virtue is present. Its usage is not simple window dressing, but rather the term is meant to be a loaded and high-minded code, presumably understood by all, but certainly interpreted differently by different groups as today. That code marks an instantaneous distinction between two vying peoples and their worthiness to lead and to govern themselves and others. One people, so the impression goes, was virtuous and ordained by providence; the other, having lost virtue in its leadership and domestic society, had fallen from divine endorsement.

A simple look at a few reference sources serves to demonstrate the vagueness of the concept virtue and to illustrate how successive generations have revised the list of conduct deemed laudable and even commanding. [1-4] Behavior once called virtuous is yet virtuous, but as difficult to describe precisely as ever before. But try we will to clarify and elaborate upon the list for ourselves and for the lives of those in our charge. [5]


1. Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language (1966) cuts more broadly but more convincingly to the general outline of the subject, defining virtue as "general moral excellence; right action and thinking; goodness of character." Then it shows its age and a generational fluctuation of "good judgement" by noting "chastity, especially in women" as a virtue.

2. Encyclopaedia Britannica (1953), in only one slight paragraph under the heading "cardinal virtues," lists the principle virtues of the pre-eminent Greek philosophers: prudence, courage, temperance and justice. The commentary then notes the critical charge that these virtues are "arbitrary" and have indistinct boundaries. A point is also made that the Greeks omitted benevolence, a prominent virtue in Christian thinking. Finally, the article lists the Church's "theological virtues" of faith, hope and charity.

3. My favorite Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language (1910) offers much the same information of the two previous sources and more. I particularly appreciate its addition of patience, humility and thrift to the list of virtues.

4. The Book of Virtues (W. Bennett, 1993) focuses on these virtues, using each has a section title: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, faith.

5. My own additions and refinements to the great catalog of admirable conduct are as follows: healthfulness, openness, stewardship, self-reliance, fidelity, equanimity, cooperativeness, love, joy, helpfulness, fairness, respect and gratitude – and, sometimes, self-sacrifice, self-censorship and silence.


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