Some fifteen years ago in National Review, Robert Reilly – currently known for his book The Closing of the Muslim Mind – wrote a seminal essay entitled, “The Culture of Vice” (which can still be found online here). I have often returned to this brief, remarkable essay. It explains better than almost anything I know what has happened recently to our culture and why.
He begins with the famous citation from Aristotle that men start revolutions from motives stemming from their “private lives.” Plato had long taught us that a disorder in the soul, especially in the souls of the talented and attractive, would eventually, if not corrected, result in a disorder of the polity.
Reilly explains how this happens. Essentially, evil and good change places both in custom and law. Evil still remains evil. Good remains good. That does not and cannot change. But we can pretend that the two can transform themselves into each other.
“Vice” is a technical term. It means a bad or evil way of life by which we habituate ourselves always to choose what is wrong over against what is right. Our freedom is such that we can do this. “Virtue” is the opposite of vice.
Habits whereby we usually choose what is right, but not always, Aristotle called “continent” and where we mostly choose what is wrong, but not always, ”incontinent.” He thought that most people most of the time fell into these two middle positions.
Aristotle, however, was aware of the probability that those who choose evil in their own souls will corrupt the rest of the society. This process of overturning good to call evil good is what Reilly means by the “culture of evil.”
Essentially, this is the project that C. S. Lewis once pointed out of making what is evil to be good and what is good to be evil. This latter cannot be done in fact. But it can be made to appear that it can. Such is the power of public opinion and positive law.
Reilly demonstrates this process with how homosexuality and abortion came to be considered “rights” and “virtues.” Both remained what they are, no matter what they are called, of course. That is, their corrupting effects will be manifest even though we refuse to recognize them.
What is brilliant about the essay, however, is the clear insight into the process by which what is originally seen to be a vice can, over time, come to be called a “virtue” or “right.” The main issue does not at first appear in the public order.
The general steps are these: The first step is sympathy. We do not recognize a natural law in things and especially human things whereby we know what these vices are. We plead sympathy for the one who practices them. If he refuses to repent or seek forgiveness, he must come to hate a world that defines vice as vice. He turns on the world, not his soul.
The final step: What was once called virtue becomes a vice
(Innocence between Virtue and Vice by Marie Guillhelmine Benoist, 1790)
Everyone wants approval. The tolerance of the vice comes next. It is an exceptional case, but we overlook it. It is purely private. But it is what we want. We cannot accept the distinction between practice and tendency. We have a “right” to practice our vice. The word “right” is so fuzzy, yet powerful in our culture.
If we have a “right,” nothing really can be wrong with our ways. Those who insist that something is wrong “discriminate.” The law must guarantee our “right” to practice what we define as good. To do this, we must eliminate from the world any sign of that understanding whereby certain activities are wrong or unnatural.
We develop a theory of the cosmos. It reveals nothing about what we are. Our freedom thus really means our “right” to fashion ourselves to be whatever kind of being we want. No standard of the human exists.
The final step makes what was once called virtue to be a vice. Moreover, it is embodied in the civil law. No one can question the legitimacy of the vice-become-virtue. The whole structure of education, work, military, government, and religion must conform to the “new law” now normative for everyone.
When it is spelled out this way, we can see that such is pretty much the path that western civilization has followed in the recent past. The “private” vices have become public law imposed on everyone. It is all very logical, as vice usually is. Reilly’s description of the projection of our inner vices onto the culture is gripping.
What is also provocative about his analysis is the realization that no one can simply live with his own sins if he chooses not to acknowledge what they are. He must insist that his sins be recognized as good. Christianity has long suspected that purely “private” sins do not exist. Reilly’s essay tells us why. It is, as I say, a remarkable essay.