Pursue Virtue: What Is Virtue And Why Is It So Rare? (Part 2)
This is part 2 in our “Pursue Virtue” series Click here to read part 1
“Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”
- GK Chesterton
The last post uncovered a disconnect between the type of men that we are and the type of men we want to be. We want to be good virtuous men and for some reason we aren’t. We’re not as good as we want to be and we’re not as virtuous as could be.
It wasn’t all bad news though. Now we know what we mean by virtue. We know virtues’ different names and that they are what will makes us different from the men around us.
But if we know what we’re lacking, and know what virtues we need to pursue, why is it still so difficult to change?
We agreed that St. Paul was right when he wrote, “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” (Romans 7:15)
But why is he right?
Tale of Two Hearts
The truth is, deep inside every man is a fracture. On one hand we have impulses, deeply ingrained animal instincts, and on the other hand we have our intellect, our human reason. Our reason thinks through situations, weighing the pros and cons while our impulses drive us to act in the moment without much forethought.
Deep inside of us we are constantly pulled in these two directions. Inevitably there are times when we have impulses towards something that our reason tells us is the wrong thing, and yet we do it anyway.
Now, when animals conduct themselves according to their impulses and instincts, no one blames them. As eloquently pointed out by comedian Chris Rock, when a tiger attacks, we don’t say that the tiger went crazy. “That tiger ain't go crazy; that tiger went tiger!”
A Different Standard
We hold humans to a different standard. A human who selfishly follows his impulses while completely disregarding the needs of others or what his reason tells him is right is referred to as a toddler. A grown man who does this is referred to as a boy. We know we should do better, but fighting those impulses is easier said than done. That’s the fracture inside of us at work!
We don’t always want to follow our impulses and instincts, yet sometimes we find ourselves acting in ways we know are wrong, but we do it anyway.
Not all impulses are wrong. For example, our fight or flight impulse is necessary for tiger attacks. Along with our natural impulse to avoid danger comes a natural impulse to avoid things that will bring us any discomfort or pain. We would much rather give in to a pleasurable impulse than to deny ourselves immediate gratification. That is exactly the impulse that make virtue difficult.
This impulse away from virtue is what draws us to sin. Sin isn’t breaking rule - it’s missing the mark. The Greek word for sin is “hamartia” and the Hebrew word for sin “hata” both can mean to miss the mark. When we sin we settle for the impulsive, lesser good in an particular situation. We know we are called to more, but when we settle for less we call it sin.
It’s as though we were born with an inherit tendancy towards sin.
If left unaddressed, our propensity to sin increases, and eventually we find ourselves in a vice.
Between a Rock and a Rock
In the same way that we categorized virtues, we can categorize the Capital Vices, “They are called "capital" because they [give a rise to] other sins, and other vices.” (CCC 1866)
They are Pride, Avarice, Envy, Wrath, Lust, Gluttony, and Sloth.
Virtue is the perfection of what it means to be human, and for us specifically, what it means to be a man. St Augustine defined the opposite of virtue as vice when he wrote “Whatever is lacking for a [man’s] natural perfection may be called a vice.”
When we sin, we are committing an act that is opposed to virtue. If we continue to sin (with no change in sight) we can find ourselves in a vice. In vice we inherit a disposition that is opposed to our greatest possible good. Vice is a disposition to settle for a lesser good. Sin is an act contrary to our calling as men, vice is a disposition contrary to our nature as men. If virtue is our perfection, vice is our corruption.
Sin is easier to point out to ourselves, but a vice can prove harder. Just like the mechanical tool, we are literally caught in trap of our own making. Vice comes with excuses, rationalizations and, most dangerously, indifference.
Stay The Course
As we pursue virtue it’s important to be aware of the struggles we are going to encounter. We all have the impulse to settle for a lesser good and to act contrary to our pursuit. Some of us may even be caught in vices of our own creation. Regardless of where we are, all of us will find that we need to grow in areas we never thought we needed to grow in order to combat sins that we never considered sins.
This is where Christianity is many times, like Chesterton tells us, difficult and not tried.
The temptation might be to quit before we even start because it may feel like failure is inevitable. You may feel controlled by your impulses or you might not necessarily agree that these impulses are settling for a lesser good.
The impulses to play videos games longer than you should, eat too much, stay up too late, skip your morning class, look at porn, drink too much, and anything else you can think (I’ll address all of these in future posts) are the sins and vices that you must confront if you want to grow in virtue.
The pursuit of virtue is not easy. It is much easier to stay as we are than to be bothered with the hope of one day being better. Why admit our fractured state and confront all the sin and vice in our lives when we can effortlessly turn a blind eye to them and continue on our way?
This is why virtue is so rare. And that is why I urge you: stay the course. The world needs more men who are willing to do the hard work required to be authentic and virtuous.
Now that we know our goal, and know what challenges lay waiting for us, we will shift our focus on how we can go about pursuing virtue in our next post.
Until next time, Esto Vir!
Did you miss the first part of our “Pursue Virtue” series: What Is Virtue And Why Is It So Rare Part 1
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