All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue.
John Adams, 1776

I came across this quote a couple of days ago (h/t Gloria Deo) and it put me to thinking about virtue.  Virtue was a word used often by the founders.  By comparison, the word is rarely used these days and when it is, it is usually treated as synonymous with morality. But in the founders’ day, virtue meant much more than just personal morality.  Virtue, according to Thomas Jefferson, was the very foundation of happiness.  According to John Adams, happiness and dignity have their source in virtue.

When using the word these men were drawing upon the classical Greek philosophical understanding of virtue.

Greek philosophy recognized four “cardinal virtues,” defined as follows:

Prudence:  the ability to judge the appropriate action needed for any situation.
Justice: the ability to moderate between your own rights and the rights of others.
Temperance: the ability to practice self-control.
Courage: the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, or intimidation

When the founders, and others of their era, wrote of “virtue,” these were the characteristics they had in mind.  A virtuous society (and of course a virtuous government) would be attentive to these values, thus securing the happiness of individuals. The “pursuit of happiness,” which Mr. Jefferson identified as an inalienable right, presupposes a virtuous society.

A life of virtue, as the word was understood at that time, was characterized by moderation, industry, thrift, self-control, independence and devotion to duty.  Temperance, or what we might call “moderation” or “self-control” is essential to virtue.  Of course, a society characterized by overconsumption, debt, gluttony, dependency and aversion to work would not be, and cannot be, a virtuous society. However “moral” a person may seem to be, absent prudence and temperance the person cannot be said to be virtuous.  

Ultimately, a society that does not practice these values is unsustainable.  Whatever temporary comfort people may derive from imprudence, intemperance, injustice and cowardice, that comfort is not the same as the “happiness” that philosophers and political theorists identified as deriving from a virtuous life.  And a society characterized by a mere pursuit of comfort, or of convenience, or of safety, is not a society in pursuit of happiness.  Such a society is unsustainable, because it is not virtuous.

It is easy to recognize an absence of virtue in our government, and in other people, but do we as easily recognize it in ourselves?   I wonder how many of those who criticize the government for being wasteful and financially irresponsible (correctly so) are themselves deep in debt due to overconsumption and fiscal irresponsibility.  I wonder how many of those who criticize the government for failing to properly administer justice (correctly so), are themselves guilty of helping perpetuate social injustices.

I wonder if the best way to remedy a deficit of virtue in the government is to first remedy it in ourselves.

Any government in a society composed entirely of virtuous citizens, would necessarily be virtuous.

Better yet, in a society composed entirely of virtuous citizens, maybe no government would be necessary.  As Wendell Berry has written, “If we all behaved as honorably and honestly and industriously as we expect our representatives to behave, we would soon put the government out of work.”

That sounds good to me.  Let’s get to work. 


6 comments on “Virtue

  1. jubilare says:

    “I wonder if the best way to remedy a deficit of virtue in the government is to first remedy it in ourselves.” Undoubtedly. The temptation to try and “fix” others instead of fixing ourselves is very strong… I think because it’s painful to really look at ourselves honestly, and it takes great effort to change.


  2. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, self examination is a most difficult thing to do. Many times the things I detest most in others are the very things that need to be worked on in myself. I have learned through years of experience that if I don’t like a person to begin the process of being self aware of what are the things I see in them that I don’t like in myself. It’s a difficult thing to do but over time is effective in routing out the un virtuous traits in me. I’m far from achieving perfection but still trying to become a better person by listening to my own inner self. I also don’t think it can be done without divine help.

    Have a great striving for virtue day.


    • Bill says:

      Well said Dave. Getting our own houses in order is plenty of work. It seems to me that’s what we should concentrate on doing. Easier to say that to do though.


  3. avwalters says:

    This, of course, is the crux of it. It’s easier if you live simply. Taking yourself out of the swirl of American consumerism removes some of the tension and pressure. But a look at those same founding fathers reveals that knowing it, and doing it are two very different realities. Jefferson died deeply in debt–not surprising given his weaknesses for expensive habits–(especially buying books.) He had other moral failings–too well known to have to enumerate here. Adams walked his talk–though it’s not clear that he did so out of conviction, or whether his lifelong struggles with depression moderated his conduct. Ben Franklin was a charming fellow, but a bit of a “user” on a number of fronts. Thomas Paine appears to have been bipolar. Go figure.
    The best I can say in terms of advice about virtue is that for any given criticism one has, one ought first look in the mirror, to see if it’s there, too. Start the remedy there.


    • Bill says:

      After I pushed “publish” and went out to do chores I started thinking about the post and concluded that I shouldn’t have made the founders and the government the focus of it. Lots of the folks who comment here regularly are from outside the U.S. and probably aren’t particularly interested in what John Adams said about virtue. Besides, it comes from Locke and before him from Greek philosophy. Finally, as you note, they weren’t necessarily good role models for virtuous living. Mr. Jefferson is particularly enigmatic. More than any of the others he wrote beautifully and eloquently about the benefits of a simple virtuous live. Yet, as you note, he was a profligate spender. Not just on books. He spent fortunes on wine, clothes, furniture and all sorts of luxuries. He didn’t practice what he preached. He couldn’t free his slaves even if he wanted to because they all had liens on them. A sad mess.

      Your last paragraph is the point I wanted to make. Amen.


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