Virtues as Tools

Have I found a new topic?

Image — Giotto, “Hope, Despair”

I have been blown away by the response to my essay on Hope.

I wrote it out of frustration. I know many people who are struggling, yet seem to have frozen in place with either the enormity and difficulty of the situations they face. Social media can exacerbate this, for sure. So can being shut in a house for a long time.

I have been locked in place by hopelessness, but I have also learned (through some pain and suffering) that action has a kind of magic in it. And even the smallest actions can be far more powerful than we realize. As Winston Churchill said,

"If you're going through hell, keep going."

And through all of our present madness, there are so few sources of genuine encouragement and strength. We seem to have not only forgotten the virtue of Hope but the virtue of talking about virtues

Do a search for "virtue" on Amazon, and you will be rewarded with a page of $20 an ounce beauty products. I can't think of sadder or more trenchant commentary about where we find ourselves than the fact that this product, “renewed hope” is not satire.

And look at the pretentious lower case letters in the title! It’s hard not to believe that whoever is responsible for this product design won’t spend an eternity in hell being beaten by e.e. cummings. He’ll use a chain forged from incorrectly used semi-colons; semi-colons, the punctuation of the damned.

What moved me about what I wrote wasn't that I was writing about Hope. (affirmation journal, heart emoji, kitten calendars) It was that I was writing about Hope as a tool. An all-purpose tool. The kind of thing you'd want anybody you cared about to have to be a success in life, no matter what they did. And a lot of people, both publicly and privately, told me that the essay helped them in exactly that way. I got comments. I got emails. I got phone calls from people I hadn't talked to in a long time.

I think there's a term to describe when that kind of thing happens: A clue.

So I started thinking about virtues. About what they were and how they worked. Not as moral precepts, not as things to scold people about, but as tools. And it's pretty clear, our way of life doesn't do much to cultivate virtues. How do you learn patience, when you have an endless source of distraction in your pocket?

And what external force in our culture cultivates or rewards humility. Or even argues, passionately, logically, and cogently that humility is worth having?

Not much. But how can we be surprised that have an epidemic of Narcissism?

I think humility is the foundation of a sane and stable personality. There's even clinical research that shows that humility is something like the soil in which happiness grows.

Listen to this from Pelin Kesebir, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:

“Humble people are able to tolerate an honest look at themselves, and non-defensively accept their weaknesses alongside their strengths,” she says. “This untroubled, serene, secure relationship to oneself diminishes the need to constantly monitor and defend one’s self-worth, bringing about freedom from a never-ending and exhausting tendency to compare oneself to others.”

I also think humility is something of a learning superpower. To say, "Maybe I don't know anything about this subject," is the fastest way to learn. I have often thought that much of the success of the for Dummies books was just that you had to admit that you didn't know anything to buy one. Which, maybe more than anything else, primes you for success.

Humility is amazing.

And what about loyalty?

My son was in a kindergarten class that actively taught disloyalty. When we had a parent-teacher-school psychologist conference, one of the things that came up was how upset my son was that people were tattling on him all the time. The teacher said, that there was no tattling in her classroom. But it became apparent to everyone in the room that she didn't even recognize what tattling was. Because in the next minute she said, "Well, when one of the other students comes up and tells me that Emerson isn't doing his work." And I said, "that's tattling."

She didn't get it. And the school psychologist had to explain it to her afterward. In effect, the teacher had created and rewarded a community of rats to make her life easier.

The root cause of this problem is not an overworked Kindergarten school teacher. The problem is a modern-day school is not a community. It isn't created and controlled by the people most directly involved and affected by it. And therefore is inherently monstrous. Like a large corporation saying it's a family. It's not a family or a community, just like an elementary school it's a bureaucracy running a network of people.

John Taylor Gatto, a brilliant critic of modern education wrote this:

Networks do great harm by appearing enough like real communities to create the expectation that they can manage human social and psychological needs. The reality is they cannot.

It's very convenient for those who run schools and large corporations to not have people be too loyal to one another. But you know what you can't have without virtue of loyalty? Lasting, fulfilling, loving relationships.

The more I thought about Virtues, their cultivation, and their inherent usefulness, the more I realized that I not only do I have something to say about the subject, but I really want to know about it.

What qualifies as a Virtue? And how has the list of Virtues changed over time? Are virtues situational, or are they eternal?

Can you be too virtuous? I think Aristotle would have thought so.

He took most virtues to be a mean between two extremes. But it's hard to see honesty as a middle ground? And why is honesty a virtue anyway? Could it just be a tool used by people running networks to get us to self-incriminate for their convenience?

I don't think so. But if you're anything like me these line of questioning become interesting very quickly.

I've already got a reading list. I've found great people to interview. But what do you think of this as a topic? What do you think it the most important virtue? How do you cultivate virtue in your life and in the people around you? Or teach it to your kids?

I'd really like to know what you think about this topic, so I've put together a quick, three question survey:

Or leave a comment or reply to this email.