The Countercultural Practice of Virtue

The following lines from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida – spoken by the Trojan warrior Hector, who (anachronistically) cites Aristotle several centuries before the philosopher’s birth – refer to a famous passage in Aristotle’s great work on moral philosophy, the Nicomachean Ethics:

And on the cause and question now in hand
Have glozed, but superficially: not much
Unlike young men, whom Aristotle thought
Unfit to hear moral philosophy…

Aristotle says there that the young – and not necessarily the young in age – are not suitable students of ethics and politics both because they lack experience and because they tend to follow feelings rather than reason.

Catholic moral and political teaching has accepted what Aristotle says as true.

If the study of ethics and politics were simply a matter of understanding arguments, lack of worldly experience and emotional immaturity would not be an insurmountable obstacle. When it comes to the study of arithmetic, no teacher waits for his students to gain experience of the world and to grow up emotionally. Children can commence the study of arithmetic at the age of six or seven, if not before, because arithmetic is aimed solely at the student’s burgeoning understanding.

Not so with ethics and politics. Success in the study of ethics and politics demands that the student come to class already in possession of a decent amount of experience and moral formation.

Imagine trying to teach the Nicomachean Ethics to a gangster such as Michael Corleone or Tony Soprano. How would they take Aristotle’s arguments about the virtues of courage, temperance, and justice? If they were not simply bored, they would probably find what Aristotle has to say inscrutable, if not quaint or naïve.

There is an old philosophical principle: whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver. Or as the man said, “Books are like mirrors, when an ape looks in no apostle can look out.”

So it is with the study of ethics and politics. A course in ethics or in politics is not meant to make the student good. The point of the course is to clarify the target that the student has already been trained to hit.

Alasdair MacIntyre
Alasdair MacIntyre

These observations from Aristotle should caution us not to over-intellectualize moral and political formation. It is often said that we live in an age of images, and we do. But we also, because of the pervasiveness of digital media, live in an age where we are swimming in words and opinions and arguments just like the one you are reading now. Because of this, we can fall into thinking that moral and political argument – the incisive op-ed, the stirring blog post, the hot new book – is the chief tool we need to change the world. But it’s not.

If Aristotle is right, what we need most of all is the right kind of experience and formation, the kind that will enable us and others to grow in possession of the virtues. But where do we find this kind of experience and formation?

The Catholic moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that the virtues flourish in a special social context he calls a practice. Think of a practice as the activity of a community expressly come together for the pursuit of common goods. A family is a practice, as is a school, an athletic team, a theater company, a political advocacy group, and certain kinds of businesses.

The point of a practice is to secure common goods. Common goods are unique in that they come into being through the shared action of the members involved in a practice. They cannot be adequately attained without such shared action. Truth, for example, is one of the common goods of a school. It is a good that everyone in the school enjoys and that comes into being through the virtuous activities of teaching and learning undertaken in tandem by the members of the school.

MacIntyre’s point, again, is that the virtues flourish in the context of practices. A child learns temperance first by being given the right kinds and the right amounts of food and drink by his parents, long before the child is able to reflect upon philosophical and theological arguments about temperance. Children absorb more about what it means to be a decent human being by watching their parents and relatives than by listening, or half-listening, to the explicit moral instructions these same parents and relatives give them.

So what we most need in order to effect moral and political change are practices in good working order – first among them being, of course, the family.

Our present moral and political climate, to say the least, is not one that prizes the virtues and the practices required to sustain them. The individual goods of wealth, beauty, position, honor, and good health trump the common goods of practices. Increasingly, our efforts to build and sustain practices are acts of cultural resistance.

Sometimes the clash between practices and culture are obvious and dramatic, as when a political regime redefines marriage as an institution not necessarily requiring one man and one woman. At other times the clash is subtler. You often hear Catholic educational institutions justifying their meager teaching salaries by saying that they’re “competitive.” And no doubt they are.

But not being out of sync with the prevailing market price should not be the sole, much less primary, consideration of such institutions when it comes to paying their teachers. Rather, they should be thinking about how the practice of the school should benefit and support the even more fundamental practice of family life. Such a train of thought might lead them to see the wisdom of paying teachers a wage that would allow one of the parents to stay home with the children, should the parents deem that best for their family.

This kind of counter-cultural thinking about practices should be second nature to Catholic institutions, and to all faithful Catholics seeking to live the virtues.

Daniel McInerny

Daniel McInerny is a philosopher and author of fiction for both children and adults. You can find out more about him and his work at danielmcinerny.com.

  • Jim Thunder

    It would be good to re-evaluate this essay after reading the results of the attempts to teach prisoners philosophy and Shakespeare.

  • Michael Dowd

    Very good Mr. McInerny. Agree. It is interesting to note that women doubled their workforce participation from about 27% in 1950 to 60% in 2012 while household income in 2012 dollars rose only 34% from during the same period. This illustrates the marginal increase in compensation in family income by working wives. It is a sensible argument for working wives returning to homemaking duties. But, as we know, many wives are not just doing it for the money which is another issue.

    Personally, I believe women should be 100% homemakers at least until their kids leave home. Society would be better off, and men, with the added responsibility, might be better husbands and fathers. My wife and I did this and we raised 11 kids.

    • God has blessed you Mr. Dowd!

      Yes, we should be exalting Motherhood at every turn. This will be a positive campaign for Women’s Rights but also protecting life and family against the unquenchable impositions of our corporate taskmasters.

  • Grump

    Aristotle began with the premise: “not pleasure, but freedom from pain, is what the wise man
    will aim at.” The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer commented that the truth of this remark turns upon the negative character of happiness—the fact that pleasure is only the negation of pain, and that pain is the positive element in life.

    “…this bids us direct our aim, not toward securing what is pleasurable and agreeable in life, but toward avoiding, as far as possible, its innumerable evils. If this were not the right course to take, that saying of Voltaire’s, Happiness is but a dream and sorrow is real, would be as false as it is, in fact, true.”

  • Sheila

    I appreciate this article very much this morning as I look back and reflect on my youth during the 50’s and 60’s. I learned how a family lives together by quietly practing their catholic faith day in and day out in a virtuous way. And by doing the best they can with what they had. My father visibily loved my mother in word and in action. And vice versa, but it was stronger in him. He was the leader, but quietly mom was the boss. I knew exactly who to run to when I needed help. When I grew up, I wanted to emulate that kind of familial relationship.

    Much later in life, to see one’s own mother and father still faithfully praying the rosary on their knees every night speaks volumes to my soul. This picture in my mind brought me back to the Church at one point in my life. Now that both my parents have passed, the memories of my family life are more vivid to me than at any point. They are as life changing today as they were when I was a young and impressionable child.
    when I think about how families are today it makes me cringe. Many have

  • Nick Adams

    “should the parents deem that best for their family.”
    Why offer this qualification? If it is true that children are better off being raised by parents then it is true regardless of what the parents deem best for their family.
    Give people the opportunity to escape and they will take it. We need to speak about truth unequivocally.

  • TBill

    “So what we most need in order to effect moral and political
    change are practices in good working order – first among them being, of course,
    the family.”

    Well, exactly. If marriage between a man and a woman is such
    a great good and the grace conferred by the sacrament of Matrimony imparts to
    marriage a reflection of Trinitarian love, shouldn’t these goods be at least
    mildly visible to those in the communities in which we live? Aristotle said
    that the Good is what all seek. But if people aren’t seeking traditional marriage today in proportion to that of previous times, what does that say about what they see in modern marriage? And
    if Catholics, with the added grace of the Sacrament can’t modestly present to
    the world good actual marriages with reasonably happy families, shame on us.
    Nor should we be surprised when rootless, disappointed people seek out other
    arrangements or when they respond to our high minded theological and natural
    law arguments with a mixture of confusion and derision.

    I’m not opining that we should cease all argument or retreat
    completely from politics. However, until we as a Church can be visibly more
    like what we profess to be, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for improvements
    in the culture or body politic.

  • givelifeachance2

    It is the very doubledipping of jobs by two career couples which has caused employers to ignore the living wage. Why should they pay a chunky salary to a man if his wife will be bringing in money too. In this case there is no such thing add s living wage.

    Perhaps that is the authors point that employers could pay a salary to a husband On Condition that it be the only household salary.

    • Gentillylace

      If employers were to pay a salary to a husband to a husband on condition that it be the only household salary, I suspect that all it would bring about is a further decrease in the marriage rate. Probably most couples would prefer to permanently cohabitate without marriage than give up one household salary.

  • Marie Dean

    I would like to see more rational discussions on the virtues. Sadly, youth today, and even those older youth in Gen-X, did not have intellectual Catholic training, and most respond to religion through their emotions. I agree with the practice of virtues, and have written a series on my blog on virtue training, which is not happening in most Catholic families. Virtue training goes with discipline. In this Age of the Narcissist, few understand even what the Common Good means. I worked in Catholic education for years, and my average salary was $19,000. In the States, education has never been a priority and, imho, anti-intellectualism seems to be a growing problem among Catholics.

    Virtue training and classical education go together. Bring back both, either in Catholic schools, (too many have sold-out to the Common Core), or in home schooling. As an ex-home schooling Mom, I can assure you that virtue training was part of our curriculum, as well as the classic understanding of the Common Good.



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