Friday, May 31, 2002

More on Virtue

Last week we talked about Courage—even with an initial capital “c” it was mostly about small courage. It is necessary to think about courage in small ways, for most of us, because comparatively few ever get to practice big courage, at least in a physical sense. If you live your whole life in the suburbs or the wealthier parts of cities, and you work in an office building someplace, chances are you are going to lead a pretty physically safe and dull life.

But it would be a mistake to glorify physical courage while denigrating the mental and moral kind. For if you fancy yourself a physically courageous person, but then fail to do an act requiring physical courage, people who know and see will think you a coward. It is truly a terrible thing to think oneself a coward, far worse to know it.

But mental or moral courage is often very much harder to practice. For one thing, few people nowadays have any idea of what moral cowardice really is, and fewer still would condemn someone for it. “You have to take care of yourself, first” is the self-help mantra of the age. Often, that means practicing moral cowardice. “You have a right to be happy,” so it’s okay to leave your wife and family if they drag you down. “It’s your body, your choice” so go ahead and have the abortion if having a baby is going to mess up your plans. “You’re a real go-getter, and on the Fast-Track to the top!” so don’t have any scruples about taking the credit from or shirking the blame onto your co-workers.

Aquinas follows the Greeks in crediting courage as one of four Cardinal Virtues (from the Latin for “hinge”). But Courage really is the hinge that allows Justice, Prudence and Temperance to operate. Try walking away from a big promotion that will mean too much time away from your family (Temerance) and see how much courage it can take. Try speaking up on behalf of the unborn in the name of Justice at a party sometime. Try giving a friend just the advice he needs but doesn’t want about moving back in with his family.

The little chances to practice courage matter so much, because without taking those opportunities you will lack the habits necessary when the large moments arise. To some extent, terrorism caused me paralyzing fear. This surely happened because in my fat, comfortable life I have grown intemperate in my enjoyment of it pleasures, unquestioning of the world as it is, and blind to the injustice of life under Islamic fascist regimes.

I oppose abortion, but I can’t say as I have done anything about it. Cowardice! No rallies, no donations to group, no counseling or support for women who regret. No helping adoption agencies offer their services. Not even loud arguments (at least for a long time) with people who accept abortion without having really considered it.

I have a job, and sometimes I work very hard at it, but other times I twiddle away time on distractions. Cowardice! I have a child but I shoosh him to hear the punchline on the sitcom. Cowardice!I have a magnificent wife that I lose my temper at because she doesn’t always do the dishes after I make dinner. Cowardice!

All of these are cowardly acts because I lack the courage to do what is so clearly right in favor of what is merely easy. So it is difficult to be surprised that when something truly frightening came along I lacked many of the habits and underpinnings necessary to respond appropriately.

Next stop: Temperance, or “All things in moderation—even moderation!”


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