On the Nature of Virtue

Are you virtuous? If you have high moral standards, there’s a fair chance you are. If you fall short of that mark, moral excellence is a goal which few completely attain in this life.

If you’d like to learn more about virtue, there is a free book I would like to recommend to you. In just a moment.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses virtue in a straight-forward manner. Virtue is not simply doing the right thing. As Lewis writes, “right actions done for the wrong reasons do not help to build the internal quality or character called a ‘virtue,’ and it is this quality that really matters.”

He’s right. To do something “good” simply to receive a reward or avoid a punishment, is not virtuous. It is good. True. But when a person’s thoughts and actions are motivated without regard to consequences, they reflect their actual character. And, accordingly, genuine virtue is a rare commodity.

Lewis put it this way: “We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.”

Christians just celebrated All Saints Day on the first of November. Some ecclesiastical organizations have relegated the title “saint” to those who were exemplary disciples of Jesus Christ. In actuality, these are better referred to as “canonized” saints.

The biblical usage of the word saint includes all Christians. For example, the Apostle Paul describes his days of persecuting the church as persecuting saints.

I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them (Acts 26:10, ESV).

So, are all Christians—all saints—virtuous? Hardly. However, when we examine our own lives and confess our sins, God eagerly forgives them. And we can strive anew to live a life that brings honor to our Lord.

You see, no one is born with a virtuous character. But virtue is built, by drawing close to God. And virtue is not the domain solely of Christians. Anyone, be they theistic, agnostic or Pagan, can become virtuous. As C.S. Lewis noted, nurturing virtue is a noble process. “Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.” Good people, we who are proto-virtuous, prefer to live in the light, rather than beneath the clouds.

And What about that Book?

I haven’t forgotten. I want to share with you an offer from an excellent publishing house that offers a monthly newsletter that features a free ebook. They also offer periodic sales that are uber-bargains. You can sign up here via “Stay in Touch” and perhaps receive access to a download of the current offering.

The book is written by a Finnish professor. It is simply titled Virtue, and is intended to be an introductory text.

The list of both virtues and vices is very long. It would be quite easy to list several dozen of them. It is not necessary for us to go through all virtues and vices, or even the most important, here. In this chapter we will look at the four traditional cardinal virtues (temperance, courage, justice, wisdom) and the three theological virtues (faith, hope, love).

Study of these virtues and their corresponding vices shows how they are dependent on each other, how the different virtues support one another, and how lack of one virtue prevents realization of another.

One final warning from C.S. Lewis. In the context of self-examination, Lewis cautioned a future friend not to spend much time dwelling on our spiritual state. It was 1954 and he was responding to a letter from Walter Hooper, who would a decade later assist Lewis as a secretary.

I am glad if I have been the instrument of Our Lord’s help to you: in His hands almost any instrument will do, otherwise none. We should, I believe, distrust states of mind which turn our attention upon ourselves.

Even at our sins we should look no longer than is necessary to know and to repent them: and our virtues or progress (if any) are certainly a dangerous object of contemplation.

As to Lewis’ humble statement about our progress “if any,” allow me to add that he most certainly did recognize growth in our spiritual lives as a natural result of the Spirit’s work in our lives.

Although I never penned a letter to Lewis, like many of you, I share Hooper’s gratitude for God’s use of C.S. Lewis as an instrument to bless and encourage me.

13 thoughts on “On the Nature of Virtue

      1. You’re still a military family. I spent my first 2+ years in the Reserve and (overall) enjoyed that more than the 22 years active duty. Still… we Christians seek God’s leading in where he wants us, and my wife and I are confident we were faithful to that.

    1. What a good question. I imagine he’d say it’s not about true virtue at all. Just a mask or pretense.

      Virtue signaling would look to him, I suspect, like the “whitewashed sepulchres” that Jesus referred to in his rebuke of legalistic pharisees and scribes (Matthew 23:27).

      Thanks for the insight, Sarada.

  1. Pondering the quality of my own virtue continues to be terribly humiliating. Wise of Lewis to caution us against dwelling too much on it. In this context he reminds me of the writer of Hebrews when he asks us to “consider Jesus” — “Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest” (Heb. 3:1) — How much more productive an occupation!

  2. I may be misconstruing your description and intent of the word, but wouldn’t we all enter the world virtuous by dint of innocence? I also find Hooper’s thoughts confusing. I assume he says we oughtn’t be prideful.

    1. It’s not surprising that you’re confused by the historic Christian understanding of “original sin.” It’s not the same thing as sins that are committed by individuals, which would automatically suggest infants come into the world “innocent.”

      Original sin is the condition or state of humanity, since Adam’s and Eve’s sin and fall, in which we are born in need of redemption. We all need God’s mercy and grace, even little ones. In this sense, all human beings bear the consequences of the original fall. God, of course, provides the solution in the atoning death of his only begotten Son.

      This is the orthodox, historic Christian faith. Many Christians may not “profess” it, but if there church stands alongside the ancient doctrines, their denominations do.

      A blog is a poor place to discuss such involved, even complicated, theological distinctions. If we could chat over a meal, it would be much simpler to explain. Suffice it to say here that historic Christianity believes all human beings need forgiveness, even infants who have not yet committed their first sin by either commission or omission. (And those final three words merit their own lengthy explanation…)

      1. I would love a dinner discussion; by that, you would talk and I’d absorb a great amount of theological perspective.

        A major belief in the LDS church is that we are not born with Adam’s transgressions. That said, we also believe, once a person is old enough to be accountable, that he needs to spend life working toward salvation and relying on Jesus’ atonement for repentance -and will still need God’s grace at the end of it.

      2. Well, it would still be an enjoyable discussion. I always enjoy your openness about sharing your own faith.

        Some Protestants share the idea (but not from any orthodox tradition) that the only type of sin is personal sin (i.e. not inherited also from our first parents). They too talk about “age of accountability” as a moment when there is some kind of (invisible?) transition from inherently innocent to personally responsible.

        I’ve never seen a biblical argument for this exclusion, and attribute it to a sentiment that it would somehow be “unfair” for God to share guilt/accountability across generations.

        Well, enough said here and now for this deep and complex matter.

        Oh, on the good works question. Protestants believe that “salvation by grace” means its 100% God’s mercy. Our good works are done as an expression of our gratitude, but result in no merit on our own part. That frees Christians from ever having to wonder if we’ve “done enough” (to fill out our share of the equation).

        Salvation is God’s gift and work. We simply believe (exercise the faith which is itself his gift as well), and trust in his promises.

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