Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Seven Virtues

(If you're new here, this column consists of weekly letters written to my grandchildren, who exist, to haunt them after they become grups and/or I'm dead, and my great-grandchildren, who aren't here yet.)

Dear (Eventual) Stickies & Great-Grandstickies,

When I went to a Catholic grade school, I was taught the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues. Both kinds, I was told, were a very big deal.

I went to a public high school, and the theological virtues, for obvious reasons, were never mentioned. It recently occurred to me that neither were the cardinal ones. Hmmm...

I attended a Catholic grade school for eight years, first through eighth grade. I didn't go to kindergarten or attend a preschool. Most of my fellow students hadn't gone to kindergarten, none had gone to preschool. Head Start didn't start until 1965.

By then I was already in the sixth grade. I mention this to illustrate that it was once possible to grow up in America without formal schooling until the age of six or seven. Amazingly, I've never lived under an overpass or been institutionalized.

Anyway, I haven't thought about the virtues (as we called them) as such for years. I have given some (but not enough) attention to arete.

Arete is a Greek word that, according to this Wikipedia entry, means excellence of any kind, and may also mean moral virtue. I can't remember how I stumbled on the concept but I was immediately fascinated. I've been in pursuit of my personal arete ever since, with decidedly mixed results.

As the Wikipedia entry explains, the concept dates to Homeric times and is all about attempting to live up to one's full potential, being effective, being good at what you do. Being the best possible you includes the pursuit of moral excellence, which is the very definition of virtue.

Which brings us back to where we started, cardinal and theological virtues.

The cardinal virtues have nothing to do with birds or the "princes" of the Catholic church. Cardinal comes from the latin word cardo (hinge). All other virtues and morality hinge on these four fundamental concepts. Their pedigree dates to the ancient Greek philosophers and have been a thing ever since. Religious and secular philosophers of all stripes have been kicking 'em around for better than 2,000 years.

Well, at least they were a thing. More on that in a moment.

The three theological virtues, in the Christian tradition, come from the grace of God They're sort of a list of the basic requirements that need to be met in order to live a Christian life while you're here, if you want to get your butt into heaven when you cross over to there.

They are faith (belief in God). Hope (the belief that you'll make heaven if you live right). And charity, or love (love God and everyone else, which implies it's on you to be your brother's sibling's keeper).

Two quick points from your agnostic Poppa.

One, note the simplicity. To hell (pun intended) with dogma wars. If you believe in God, follow a moral code and do what you can to take care of the other kids, you got this.

Two, It's quite easy to secularize these three. If you don't believe in God you can (and regardless, should) find something/someone(s) to believe in and/or work for. This will supply hope (and meaning) even when life is kicking you in the crotch. Finally, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This will make for a much nicer playground.

That said, the reason I'm writing about the seven virtues is because it occurred to me that given the fact America, and a goodly chunk of the rest of the world, tossed the tot out with the jacuzzi water back in the 60s, perhaps we could find some guidance, and common ground, in the cardinal virtues.

I believe that we react emotionally/instinctively/intuitionally first (gut first, brain later), rationally (hopefully...) later. While the former is an effective survival mechanism, the latter enables us to live together and, with a little luck, thrive instead of just survive. The creation of the cardinal virtues is the result of the applied reasoning of a lot of individuals who were/are smarter than I'll ever be.

[For the record: I went a-googling and discovered that while the virtues are still a thing in Catholic education, as far as secular private and public schools go, not so much. However, I found this, and more importantly, this. Happy sigh...]

The cardinal virtues are prudence (making good choices, wisdom), justice, temperance (restraint, self-control) and courage (not just bravery, refusing to define yourself as a helpless victim). There are all sorts of other virtues posited but these four were considered to be the foundation stones of a moral life in the Western tradition.

The Western tradition has nothing to do with cowboys or country music. It's a term, now considered politically incorrect in many circles, that refers to a way of looking at, and living in, the world.

It's fallen out of favor because it all but ignored the rest of the world (Africa and Asia) and we're now all one big happy global family. Don't be a hater. Everything is like, relative, ya' know? The Western tradition includes all the evil dead white guys that ruined the world.

I'm a crank. I'm a libertarian. But, I hold some positions normally classified as conservative, others normally classified as progressive. I have a bias towards trying to discover what actually works and trying to discover how the left and right can compromise and peacefully share the same playground.

I'm a crank. I'm a follower of Taoism (an Eastern philosophy) but also a firm believer in much of the Western tradition. I think that the USA, a product of this tradition, though flawed (as is every-one and every-thing), rocks, and I'm glad and grateful this is my team.

I'm a crank. Which is why I'm going to devote my next four letters/columns to my take on each of the cardinal virtues. Poppa loves you.

Have an OK day

[Gentlereaders: I have changed my policy on linking. Links will no longer be placed at the end of a given column, like footnotes, to minimize distractions and battle the pernicious practice of multitasking. Long story short, the world, and the editors of the world, clearly prefer that links be embedded in the text. I shall continue to fight the good fight by linking as little as possible.]

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