What is Virtue?

Readings for Morning Prayer have included the well known passages from Proverbs 8 about holy wisdom personified as a woman, and frequently identified with the Holy Spirit.  She stands in opposition to another woman, a prostitute who lures young men into a life of depravity.  The two images are powerful, colorful, and the cause of many interpretations that, I suspect, are more reflective of the cultural biases of the interpreters than they should be.

So, I’ll wade into it with them.  Lay aside, for the moment, the images of holy wisdom and prostitutes, and consider the nature of virtue and anti-virtue.  What are the characteristics of the virtuous and of the anti-virtuous, and how do they help us, in the words of John’s first letter, test the spirits to see whether they are from God?  To put it another way, how do they help us make decisions about right and wrong, good and bad?  I think these passages from Proverbs 8 help answer those questions, and they are important questions because they haunt the minds of many people.

I’ll give you an example.  We are away from home for a little over six weeks, so I stopped by a local shop to get a haircut.  It was staffed with three young women and I was the only customer.  They wanted to know what I did, and insisted I looked like a teacher.  So explain to me, one demanded, what is ethics?  Good grief, where would a question like that come from?  I think it came from a common well where many lower their buckets on too short a rope, and come up disappointed but thirsty for more.

So back to Proverbs 8.  Virtue and anti-virtue both work the public streets.  Both entice people to follow them.  But virtue works near the main gate, the most public place in the town, and the place where civil judgments are decided.  Virtue entices any and all who pass by to follow her.  Anti-virtue works out of alleys and doorways, away from public scrutiny, but visible enough to attract the ones she thinks are gullible while avoiding all others.  Virtue declares her wares in public, without guile, fully transparent.  Nothing is hidden from view, and everything is attested to be trustworthy.  What she offers is never exclusive, but always available to all.   Anti-virtue relies on stealth, secrecy, and the seductive excitement of knowing that the wares she offers include the betrayal of others.  What she offers as exclusive to you, for a time, means that no one else, will have it, for a time, and then you too will be betrayed.  Virtue’s wares offer sustained emotional rewards but don’t promise an intense hormone, drug induced high.  Anti-virtue promises an intense high but no more than that.  Part of the secrecy behind which she operates is that nothing of the after affects will ever be mentioned.

Forget about Plato, Aristotle, and even MacIntyre.  Here are characteristics that anyone can understand, if they are taught.  They are adequate to the task of John’s recommended test of the spirits to see whether they are from God.  They can even help weave a path through the grey spaces of moral decision making that dominate our everyday world.  They are not foolproof because we are not foolproof.  The main stumbling block, as I see it, is that too many of us, me included, who are supposed to be agents of virtue, holy wisdom if you will, have left the main gate of the town and adopted many of the sales practices of anti-virtue in the hopes of making them virtuous.  It doesn’t work.  Didn’t C.S. Lewis have something to say about that?

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