Virtue Matters

I know I shouldn't be all that surprised, but it always hits me sideways. A college professor whose academic background turns out to be a sham. An incumbent politician whose military record is found to be fiction. Professional athletes caught using illegal drugs to enhance their performance. Journalists discovered to be plagiarizing material and quoting non-existent sources. High placed executives revealed to have embezzled millions of dollars from their own companies. And students by the thousands admitting to cheating as a common practice in their pursuit of being accepted into the best universities.

But as upsetting as these headlines are, even more telling is the fact that our society is fast at work producing an ethical environment where these actions are the logical conclusion.

 Those who study the science of human behavior have long been convinced that whatever you reward, you replicate. This theory stands on the assumption that people are smart enough to keep doing those things that bring them success. And as long as success is defined solely in terms of power, fame, and wealth, we can expect the character traits that undergird a "win at all costs" mentality to take us further and further down the road of compromised integrity. But it wasn't always so.

Aristotle was among the first to speak to the connection between virtue and character. Virtues, he asserted, were the tools that produced the character in a person that would insure a flourishing life. Much like the golf clubs in the golfer's bag, virtues had to be properly practiced and mastered in order for the outcome to be a success. In golf, mastering the various irons and their particular uses will mean a good score. In life, perfecting the various virtues was thought to produce the character necessary to both private and public accomplishment.

Aristotle considered that there were four "cardinal" virtues: prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. These were the "hinges" that allowed life to swing open to real accomplishment and success (cardo is Latin for "hinge"). To the modern eye, Aristotle was short-sighted. He considered success in life to be measured against society's need for lives of integrity, service, and a passion for the public good.

Today almost all of the virtues that society rewards are shaped for personal gain, and the great irony is that society is fast feeling the effects of its own self-inflicted wounds. The self-centered life that our consumerism is championing in our children is threatening the very fabric of our families, our neighborhoods, and our society. We are consuming ourselves to death, and stand ready to defend this right to self-absorption with everything in us.

Against this trend stands the clarion call of Jesus Christ. He said it very simply: If you want to follow me, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow. To be fair, the concept of self-denial has been greatly debated and variously practiced by Christ-followers down through history. But at its core is a cardinal truth: the self-centered life is really not worth living.

At the center of our being as humans is a deep-seated need for relationship, for community, for that sense that we belong to something greater than ourselves. And all of the dollars and empires we may gain can never fill that need. In fact, it is often our misguided pursuit of power, fame and wealth that ultimately reveals our inner emptiness as we gain the whole world only to find that we've lost connection with our own soul and our God.

It's time we took another look at our bag of virtues and then determine to perfect those that will produce the character our society needs. Virtues like honesty, industry, self-control, and contentment. It's time we refused to reward those whose desire for personal power and affluence is so strong that it cannot be corralled by the basic standards of humility and integrity upon which every strong nation is built.

It's time that we told our children what true heroes are made of, and reward them when their lives are authentically generous, compassionate, and courageous. It's time we once again took seriously our commitment to virtue as the foundation of character, and character as the essential component in successful living. It's time we started living beyond ourselves, and stopped looking for shortcuts that ultimately shortchange us and those we love. It's time we once again realize that the ultimate success is a life whose virtues are grounded in, and aligned with, the grand purposes our Creator had in mind in the first place. Augustine said it well: You have made us for yourself, and our lives are restless until we find our rest in Thee.