From Virtue to Vice (Part 1)


Lately, conservative voices have been talking about how we’ve lost our “societal values” in the West. President Obama, alternatively, has announced how America has no right to promote its values overseas. What I’m struggling with on both sides, however, is the idea of using the word “values.”

The word “value” carries within it almost a subjective application; it is what one finds important for one’s own life. “Values” are what we as individuals, families, and communities hold to, but these are subject to change. We view “values” in terms of their usefulness; do they aid in achieving the end(s) that we want? We place different “values” on different objects; what is valuable to one may not be valuable to another. Thus, the very word “values” tends to lend itself toward a subjective stance.

This might be because “virtue” is almost an archaic word in the English language. We’ve made the two synonymous, but this is hardly the case. In Latin (where we get the two terms), “values” comes from the word valere, which can mean to be in good health or to be strong. The word for “virtue” is virtus, which means to be of strong character, or to have worth. In other words, to be “virtuous” in Latin means to be of worth. To have “values” simply means to adhere to the virtus.

Inherent within both claims is an objective and subjective claim. Virtue is the objective standard to which all humans are to strive. All humans are to attempt to be virtuous and lead lives in accordance with virtue. When our lives match up with virtue, then we are displaying our values, or the subjective aspect of our lives. How we apply the virtues will depend on the culture we are in. Thus, virtues are the objective and absolute source of morality whereas values are the manifestations of those realities within our personal lives.

So when we focus solely on “values” without an objective or absolute standard, we really remove the purpose of values. What this has led to, unfortunately, is a value-based society with hardly any virtues. If anything, we have taken the 4 Classical virtues and 3 Christian virtues and turned them into vices. These 7 virtues, three of which anyone can follow, are both truthful, and Scripturally supported.

If we want to redeem our culture then we must return to these seven virtues (or at least the 4 Classical virtues). Though there are more virtues than the 7, the 7 are the main virtues and in some way all other virtues are tied back to these 7. But what are they, why they are good, what is their scriptural support, and how are they now vices?

4 Classic Greek Virtues

1) Temperance – this is another word for self-control. One cannot ascribe to any virtues unless one has self-control. If a person cannot control himself, if he cannot curb his appetite for certain lusts, if he cannot say “no” to a thing, then he simply cannot live a life of virtue. To engage in a life of temperance means to be self-restrictive on what one desires. Certain things are okay in moderation, but when we “do whatever makes us feel good,” then we are tossed back and forth by our passions.

Why is self-control good? God is the standard of all goodness. In order to determine if something is good, we must see if it matches the actions of God. Thus, does God engage in temperance? At face value, such a question seems absurd – why would God need to engage in self-control when He doesn’t sin? But that’s exactly the point. If God wanted to, He could wipe us from the face of the earth. He could do whatever He wanted to as it is within His right, but He chooses not to. He is patient with us (Numbers 14:18). In other words, God restricts Himself from acting on certain things. Thus, self-control is good.

Is self-control scriptural? There are quite a few verses that deal with the issue of self-control. Proverbs 25:28 even states, “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” This indicates that what I wrote earlier – about self-control being chief among the classical virtues – is also Biblically true. Without self-control, a person will do whatever his passions dictate he do (c.f. 1 Corinthians 7:5).

Likewise, “self-control” is listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23). So all Christians are to attempt to lead lives of self-control, one where they refuse to give into vice and refuse to live a life that isn’t moderate.

How has self-control become a vice? One of the common mantras today is, “If it makes you feel good and doesn’t hurt anyone, just do what makes you happy.” This might work under a society that no longer cares about responsible citizens, but to a society that wants to flourish and do what is right, such a mantra is anathema.

Think of how in modern society if someone is a virgin, even if the person is a teenager, such a person is looked down upon. Anyone who is in his or her twenties or thirties and still a virgin is nothing more than the butt of a joke. These people have exercised self-control and not given into their sexual lusts, but they are mocked for it.

How about the young woman out with her friends who refuses to have more than one alcoholic drink? To them, it’s absurd to drink and not get drunk. We encourage our youth to “sow their wild seeds” and expect that they will do whatever they want; but that is because we have forgotten the virtue of self-control, that it is good and healthy to deny one’s passions if those passions are likewise not virtuous.

2) Prudence – The virtue of prudence has a different connotation under the Greek virtues than it does under its modern understanding. It does not necessarily mean to be cautious (as the modern English connotation explains the word), but rather to have foresight and clarity on practical issues. One does not necessarily “act in prudence,” but rather uses it to distinguish what is courageous and what is cowardly, or what is good and what is evil. It is the most rational element of the virtues, used to evaluate every situation we find ourselves in and find the best path to take. In order to have prudence, one must have knowledge and once one has knowledge, prudence will follow right along. Thus, those who do not act with prudence generally lack knowledge as well. Prudence dictates that rather than act on instinct or “go with our gut,” we simply take a few deep breaths and evaluate the situation before deciding what to do.

Why is prudence good? Some could say that God doesn’t need to act in prudence, due to His perfect knowledge. His perfect knowledge, however, does not mean that He isn’t prudent in how He functions. Ephesians 1:7-8 even says specifically that He has given us redemption and forgiveness in part because of His prudence. He has perfect knowledge of all situations and all actions and subsequently prudently acts within His knowledge, knowing which actions will bring about the good.

Is acting prudently Scriptural? Proverbs 8:5 tells the simple (foolish) to grow in prudence. This is because only fools rush into situations without thinking about the consequences, or evaluating the individual situation. There are multiple passages in Scripture that talk about the importance of being prudent and so many that use the prudence of a person as a way to show that person as being good.

Just as with self-control, “prudence” is a fruit of the Spirit under the word of “patience.” Patience doesn’t simply mean “waiting,” but rather not rushing into a situation and evaluating the situation prior to engaging in any action.

How has prudence become a vice? How often are we told to go with our gut instinct? We’re told by multiple scientists that humans have evolved to simply go with their instincts and so it makes sense to do so.

Or what about marketing slogans and tactics, such as Nike’s “Just Do It” or the whole “buy now!” slogans? We’re told to get things immediately because this will satisfy us. Our entire culture is built off credit cards, with most of those cards being used for televisions, better cars, and other additions that give us better stuff but don’t make us better people.

It is beyond the modern American to think about the right thing to do in a situation before acting in that situation. The running joke among American culture is that guys should keep condoms in their wallet “should they get lucky that night.” That’s not prudence; that’s not finding the good in a situation. That’s simply finding self-preservation in a situation (by not contracting an STD), not by doing what is good (remaining faithful to your future spouse or faithful in celibacy to God). Our culture desperately lacks prudence because prudence is seen as a vice; to be prudent means you’re not acting on your instincts in our culture, and for whatever reason, that’s wrong.

3) Justice – Justice is the virtue of giving people what is their due and within Christianity is closely related to grace. There is a slight difference between the State justice and individual justice. Under individual justice (which is what we’re dealing with), we deal with people mostly from a selfless point of view. We put others first unless they are committing evil deeds, in which case we put goodness first (and our own preservation). The virtue of justice requires that we help those who can’t help themselves; the crippled, the widows, the poor, and so on. We are capable of helping such people whereas they cannot help themselves, so justice dictates that we help them self-sacrificially. Likewise, when we are determining who is right and wrong in a certain matter, justice looks at who caused the problem to begin with and who the innocent party is in any given situation, if there is an innocent party.

How is justice good? Quite simply, God is a God of justice. He gives to all what they deserve, but also is endless in His charity. Deuteronomy 32:4 says that justice is part of God’s character. He gives to those what they deserve, but is also willing to offer redemption (charity) to us sinners (1 John 1:9). Justice is good because it is part of the character of God.

Is personal justice scriptural? Just as with the other virtues, the command to be just is found in multiple passages.  Micah 6:8 says that God requires that all of us walk in justice, to do what is right in all situations and to give to all men what they deserve. This doesn’t mean we take revenge upon people, but when someone is wrong, we go through the legal courts to establish how the person is wrong. More importantly, in our personal lives, we point out when someone is wrong. We don’t let an injustice go unnoticed, even if it costs us.

When Christians recognize that someone is doing something wrong, even if not illegal, we are called to deal with it. This doesn’t mean we get involved in every quarrel we come across, but if it is within our power to stop an evil action, then we are to do so. We should be crying out for human rights and helping the poor and oppressed all the time, for this is part of living a just life.

How has it become a vice? Our modern culture has confused “tolerance” for “justice.” Under the modern view of “justice,” when a wrong act occurs, then everyone involved is wrong. We can look at the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Though both sides have acted incorrectly, if a Palestinian terrorist kills Israeli citizens, justice dictates that he get what he deserves for such an action. The modern thinker, however, sees any retaliation from Israel as an unjust act, which makes little sense.

Or what about modern schools where two students are involved in a fight? Say Patrick was picking on and physically harassing a mentally challenged student and John stepped in to stop Patrick. What if this turned into a fight? Both John and Patrick end up receiving an equal punishment; but justice would dictate that Patrick should be punished for forcing John’s actions and John should be rewarded for standing up for one who could not stand up for himself. But our culture has twisted justice into something it’s not, where there is no “perpetrator” or “victim,” just people involved in an act where both are wrong.

Or what about the charitable aspect of justice? Certainly our culture still practices this. We don’t; we rely on the government to take care of the poor and maybe give a percentage of our salary to help the poor, but we never go out and actually do anything ourselves. We’re fascinated with athletes and movie stars because of the money they make, but care little for those who are barely making it in life. Our sense of justice is severely skewed.

4) Courage – Courage is an incredible virtue. To have courage, one must contain the previous virtues, but without courage, one cannot enact the previous virtues. Courage/fortitude is the virtue of doing what is right and good no matter what the cost. A soldier shows courage when he goes onto a battlefield to save a friend. A single mother shows courage when she refuses to let her circumstances get her down. Courage is the virtue of doing what is right, no matter the cost, doing it bravely, and doing it without the incentive of a reward (though one might hope that justice will bring about a reward at some point in this life or the next).

How is courage good? Courage is seen most by God on the cross. Jesus Christ, God incarnate came down out of Heaven and put Himself on the cross. He knew that doing the right thing would cost Him great pain, but He chose to do it anyway. He faced the cross bravely, refusing to let His followers fight the temple guards in the garden. He willingly laid His life down for us; Christ is the ultimate example of courage.

Is courage scriptural? Courage is implied in Romans 8:37-39. Paul is telling the Romans to take comfort in God’s love, that is, to have courage. They are to have courage that no matter what trials they face, God will be faithful.

There are numerous examples of people doing the right thin in the Bible regardless of the cost. Daniel’s friends when facing the fire, Daniel himself in the lion’s den, Abraham when told by God to sacrifice Isaac, Stephen when being stoned to death, Ruth in pursuing Boaz, Rahab and hiding the spies, and the list just goes on. There are multiple examples of Biblical characters having courage and we too should have courage. We should do the right thing no matter what the cost.

How has courage become a vice? Our culture doesn’t really display true courage. We like tales of courage and we fulfill our obligatory celebration of those who have died for our freedoms, but very rarely does our culture, as a whole, value courage.

People generally do the right thing only if it is in their interest. We’re so concerned with being accused of “meddling” that we’ll ignore people being assaulted on the street. No one calls the police, no one steps in to intervene; they just let it go.

In fact, to be courageous can get one in trouble. One is a “tattle tale” or a “rat” if one gives up information that is needed to prevent an evil. Very few people are willing to stand up and do what is right because of the cost. To do the right thing could cost a person a job. In fact, if standing up for what is right is also offensive, then as a society we have declared it is more evil to offend people. Thus, rather than have courage and do the right thing, at the fear of offending people our culture backs down.

These are the classical Greek virtues as given by Plato, but as we can tell Scripture also validates these virtues. Part 2 will deal with the Christian virtues.

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