This is a course on how virtue ethics might help us through
pandemic, recession, racial divisions,
political insurrection, and whatever comes our way.
Last week we said that Christian virtues are Christlike qualities
of character that shape who we become.
The Christian way is to grow into the likeness of Christ
through the disciplined practice of these attitudes
and actions over the course of a lifetime.
It isn’t about external goods or rewards like getting God
to bless us.
It’s about who we become.
Virtue translates the Greek word arete,
which is literally an excellence.
As Aristotle put it, the sharpness of a saw is an excellence
because it helps the saw cut wood.
A virtue is a moral excellence because it helps us live better.
We’ll look closer at what living better means
as we examine each virtue.
We can clear up some objections to virtue ethics
with a super quick historical recap.
By the 4th Century, Christianity identified the core
of Christian living as three theological virtues
– faith, hope, and love –
along with four cardinal virtues
– prudence, fortitude, justice, and temperance.
We took the system of virtues from Greek
and Roman philosophy.
But we redefined them.
St. Augustine said that the Roman understanding
of honor, a warrior virtue, was really a form
of individual pride and idolatry of the Empire.
Today, some people object that the virtues
are culturally defined and don’t fit places and peoples
outside the European norm.
But the virtues are organic, not fixed,
and have from the very beginning
had to be reinterpreted in new contexts.
The virtues remained the core of Christian morality for 1,200
when Luther insisted on sola fides, faith alone,
rejecting all the other virtues, including hope and love,
then re-defining faith as theological correctness.
In the 18th Century, Catholicism went the opposite way,
replacing the virtues with a rule book.
It’s called manualist ethics, because it took the form
of manuals for confessors.
The manuals defined what acts were sins
and prescribed the penance for each.
Meanwhile, secular philosophy,
finding both Catholic and Protestant approaches silly,
adopted consequentialism also called utilitarianism,
meaning you measure an act
by its consequences or utility.
The end justifies the means.
That end is the greatest benefit for the greatest number.
That unfortunately reduced people
to producers, consumers, commodities, and instruments
for the state and the market.
So virtue ethics disappeared until the cultural cataclysm
of World War II.
After it was over, artists, psychologists, sociologists,
philosophers, and theologians were all asking,
“What the hell happened?”
How could cultured, civilized societies like Germany, Italy,
and Spain collapse into hateful, violent,
fascist, nationalistic personality cults?
How could Kristallnacht and Auschwitz happen?
Arnold Schwarzenegger condemned the Capitol Riot
as the American Kristallnacht
where one rioter donned a shirt that said
In response to the cause of World War II question,
several major voices brought back virtue ethics.
The first and most important was Elizabeth Anscombe,
an English Catholic at Oxford.
Her paper Modern Moral Philosophy rejected consequentialism
which uses us in favor of virtue which grows us.
Her best work was about prudence so I was grossly remiss
in not mentioning her last week.
The 2nd philosopher, Iris Murdoch,
while teaching philosophy at Oxford,
also wrote famous novels.
Although she was an atheist, Murdoch wrote
to revive the virtues as a way of life,
inspired by Aristotle, but also by Simone Weill.
Some feminists have called virtue a guy thing.
But its leading modern proponents
were Anscombe, Murdoch, and Weill.
This isn’t to say traditional virtue ethics is the final answer.
It can be enriched by feminist perspectives
as Robin Dillon did recently
in The Oxford Handbook Of Virtue.
Valerie Saiving rightly cautions that some virtues,
like humility, actually weaken us as moral agents,
unless we reinterpret them.
No argument. Augustine already said virtues need reframing.
But we don’t need to throw
Anscombe and Murdoch out with the bath
on the premise that prudence, fortitude, temperance,
and justice are exclusively masculine traits.
Philosopher Grace Lee Boggs, novelist Toni Morrison,
and poet Natalie Trethewey
are proof men have no monopoly on those virtues.
The womanist social ethicist Katie Cannon said
that Black women struggling against oppression
need virtues like invisible dignity, quiet grace,
and unshouted courage.
And philosophers like Jennifer Frey and Nancy Snow
are continuing the tradition of virtue ethics
in compelling new ways.
Another criticism of virtue ethics that it’s all about the individual
instead of community relationships.
That is drastically wrong because ethics or
morality are all about relationship.
There is no morality for the solitary individual.
Community is the context of all moral practice.
Some virtue teachers of the old days assumed the context
of a community so they didn’t talk about it.
But others, from Aristotle in the 4th Century BC
to Alasdair MacIntryre today have seen
community as necessary to virtue
and virtue as necessary to community.
Joseph Pieper, a German Catholic philosopher
in the post-war era said the absence of virtue
in the German community
had left a cultural vacuum that Nazism filled.
MacIntyre focused less on Hitler and more on Stalin.
He thought the collapse of the supposedly egalitarian
and liberating Russian Revolution
into a leftist personality cult of the individual strong man
resulted from replacing a virtuous community
with a revolutionary vanguard.
Political and social virtues, or the lack thereof, are connected.
For example, the Capitol rioters were already acting riotously
on the airplanes they took to DC.
Last week we considered Prudence,
called the mother of all virtues.
The dictionary definition of prudence is
wisdom in practical affairs.
But Pieper emphasizes it isn’t just knowing. He says:
This knowledge of reality must be transformed
into the prudent decision.
Prudence is seeing things clearly as they are
and acting sensibly.
The 1st Commandment of Prudence is: Deal with the real.
This week, we take up Fortitude.
The dictionary definition is
mental and emotional strength in facing difficulty,
adversity, danger, or temptation courageously.
Fortitude is a rope woven of three cords
– courage, strength, and resilience.
As I present, I invite you to remember people you’ve known
who showed courage, strength or resilience
in the face of challenges.
At Luke 12: 32, Jesus said,
Have no fear, little flock, for your Father has resolved
to give you the Kingdom.
The imperative sentence Jesus said more than any other was
Do not be afraid.
The Bible says Do not be afraid 365 times,
once for each day of the year.
Leap year, we’re on our own.
Our religion is not so much about niceness as bravery.
To understand what kind of bravery we mean,
let’s look at a verse that tells us
why we should be brave.
Luke 17: 33
Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it.
and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.
Life is a risky business. Vulnerability is part of the package.
The more we try to secure ourselves,
the more we learn how futile that is.
We waste our lives, we lose them,
by trying to carve out security.
Joseph Pieper said,
‘ Fortitude presupposes vulnerability;
without vulnerability there can be no fortitude . . . .
Because (humanity) is by nature vulnerable,
(we) can be brave.
We are vulnerable to all manner of misfortunes,
but Pieper grounds all our vulnerability,
the thousand mortal shocks that flesh is heir to,
as Shakespeare put it,
in the fundamental fact of mortality.
By injury we understand every assault on our . .
every violation of our inner peace,
everything that happens to us
or is done . . . against our will;
thus everything in anyway negative,
frightening. . . or oppressive.
The ultimate injury is death . . .
All fortitude has reference to death. . . .
Fortitude is basically readiness to die . . . .
Ernst Becker said in his book, The Denial of Death,
that all our neuroses and the things that hold us back
from the fullness of life stem
from trying to avoid the truth of our mortality.
From William James to T. S. Eliot to Henry Miller,
literature is replete with accounts of lives unlived
because of unwillingness to risk vulnerability.
We can’t play the game without taking the hits.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love our lives.
It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t feel the pain
when we are injured
or grieve for ourselves and each other
in the face of death.
But it does mean to love life, to live it,
we have to love it in its morality,
in its precious transitoriness.
Emily Bronte wrote in her poem Faith,
No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear
Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee.
Jesus did not say
If you have no fear, the Father will give you the Kingdom.
The Father has already given you the Kingdom,
so have no fear.
In his last speech, Martin Luther King recalled
having been stabbed, almost fatally, ten years earlier.
He was so grateful he’d survived to see all the good things
that had happened.
But then he ended his last speech that night in Memphis:
I would like to live a long life. . . . But I'm not concerned
about that now. I just want to do God's will.
And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain.
And I've looked over.
And I've seen the Promised Land.
I may not get there with you. But I want you to know
tonight, that we, as a people,
will get to the promised land!
And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about
anything. I'm not fearing any man.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Christian fortitude isn’t a Stoic disregard or contempt for life.
It’s embracing all of life including the pain.
Fortitude isn’t fearlessness.
It’s grounded in prudence that knows all about danger.
But Fortitude is also grounded in faith and hope,
trusting that in Eternity, as Lady Julian said,
All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner
of things shall be well.
In our society, shaped by action movies and video games,
we are apt to associate courage with aggressiveness.
That fits the Roman definition of fortitude -- but not Augustine’s.
Christian fortitude isn’t aggressive.
It is sometimes said not to be about attack,
but rather endurance.
Power is so manifestly of the very structure of the world that endurance, not wrathful attack, is the . . . decisive test of actual fortitude which is nothing else than to love and realize that which is good in the face of injury or death . . . .
Endurance is definitely part of it.
Some hardships are inevitable. Lashing out doesn’t help.
Endurance is what we do unless we cave in.
But, for other hardships, like injustice, endurance is too passive.
Sometimes fortitude is more about persistence.
Endurance and persistence are different;
but they have something in common – patience.
Fortitude is a long haul virtue.
As we practice this endurance/persistence/patience,
what are we to do with our anger?
St. Thomas Aquinas is explicit and emphatic
that anger is an appropriate response to evil.
By evil we mean things not being good, kind, life-giving,
as they should be.
Evil can be a political injustice or it can be nature going
against us as with wildfires or diseases.
St. Thomas says we are right to be angry.
The word anger was introduced into the English language
around 1200 by Brother Ormin,
an Augustinian monk living in Mercia,
a Danish region of England.
He took it from the Norse noun angr which means affliction
and the Norse verb angr-a which means to grieve.
Anger is our grief over the distance between how things are
and how they ought to be.
The reason we pray thy kingdom come is that it isn’t here yet.
Things are not as God or we would have them be.
So we are angry.
But how do we fold anger into our fortitude?
Ephesians 4: 26-27 says,
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down
on your anger,
and do not give the devil a foothold.
Jesus got angry at the Pharisees, the Sadducees,
money changers in the Temple,
his disciples, his family, and even at God.
So the first thing to do with anger is to be angry,
acknowledge it, not pretend it away.
The second thing is to manage it.
Do not sin means literally, do not miss the mark.
Don’t lose your head, don’t let an amygdala hijack
make you do something stupid.
Keep your anger in the passenger seat.
Don’t give it the steering wheel.
Fortitude keeps our anger at a slow boil, maybe a simmer.
The third point: Do not let the sun go down on your anger
means don’t get stuck in it.
Don’t identify with it. That’s when we lose ourselves.
The final point about anger is to recognize what lies behind it:
The poet David Whyte says
Anger is the deepest form of compassion,
for another person, for the world,
for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family,
and for our ideals,
all vulnerable, and all, possibly about to be hurt.
Proper anger is a form of love.
So it’s important to keep our love in view.
When we lose the point of our love,
the anger can become a thing unto itself,
and there again, we lose ourselves.
But anger grounded in love fuels our fortitude.
But what about our fear?
Fear is the other side of the same coin as anger.
The angriest people are often covering the greatest fear.
As we have said, fortitude has room for fear.
But just as fortitude manages our anger,
it also manages of our anxiety.
Dread of one thing can morph into a generalized attitude
of fear and loathing that can turn violent.
Before George Floyd, the pandemic began with a wave
of xenophobic violence against Asian-Americans.
Fear is contagious.
It spreads in a society through phenomes like an airborne virus.
We catch it from each other and the cable news, social media,
and rumors fuel it.
Communications professor James Dillard says,
Once the world feels like a dangerous place,
where bad things happen, fear knows few limits.
I recently heard a rap song written by a 9 year old that went,
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Because if you’re not afraid, you’re not aware.
But fear doesn’t keep us safe. It makes us more vulnerable
-- vulnerable to political manipulation
and conspiracy theories.
Chronic stress raises our inflammation levels increasing
our risk for infection.
So what to do with fear?
Do not be afraid does not mean do not feel fear.
It means don’t live in your fear.
Don’t believe your fears. Don’t let fear control your life.
Have your fears; but don’t let them have you.
Nadia Bolz Webber recently said,
Don’t let fear define the contours of you heart.
Love does that.”
So what are we afraid of?
Death, illness, financial stress, loneliness,
loss of the meaning we used to find in our daily activities?
When the generalized too-big-to-manage fear is on the loose,
it’s apt to infect us.
To get our feet on the ground and focus on our own fears
instead of being caught up in mob panic,
we identify the threat and look it in the eye.
The beginning of fortitude is to name the fear.
Then notice how it feels in your body.
Don’t identify with it or judge it as valid or invalid.
Just let it be the feeling that it is and hold it
as you might hold a frightened child.
Let it be, but do not let it rule.
Then, remember that others are afraid too.
Pray for them and find some small act of kindness
you can do for somebody
– a call, a note, order them something online.
Any act of kindness will do.
St. Therese of Lisieux and Mother Theresa both said
we live our faith not in grandiose gestures
but in small acts done with great love.
The art of fortitude in a fearful time is
to make our fear the occasion to practice love
because our Bible teaches,
There is no room for fear in love.
But perfect love casts out fear.
I’ll close by summing up fortitude with David Whyte’s
definition of courage. He writes:
Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation
with life, with another, with a community, a work;
To be courageous is . . . to make conscious those things
we already feel deeply and then live through the
unending vulnerabilities . . . . .
To be courageous is to seat our feelings deeply
in the body and in the world:
to live up to and into the relationships that already exist,
with things we already care deeply about, with a person,
a future, a possibility in society,
or with the unknown that begs us on
and always has begged us on.
To be courageous is to stay close
to the way we are made.