Change the Model, Change the Virtue

Note: Pope Francis has asked all the Christians of the world, and others so inclined, to join him in saying the Our Father at noon Rome time, 7 AM East Coast time in America, for the rapid resolution of the coronavirus crisis. His public prayer should be available for viewing on the Vatican’s video live stream at the Vatican website. – RR

Many Catholics have heard of the four cardinal virtues: Prudence (or Wisdom), Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. There are also the three “theological” virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love. But for now, I wish to focus on the classic four.  I want to suggest that, when we try to embody those virtues in our lives, much depends on whom we take to be the model of that virtue.

There are many ways in which any particular virtue can be expressed.  A judge can be just or not just, but so can a teacher, mother, or shop owner.  A soldier can be brave or not brave, but so can a patient before surgery or a young adult going for a job interview.  What Christians ought to consider is the person they envision themselves imitating when they envision a particular virtue.  This question is by no means original to me.  It is one that the Fathers and Doctors of the Church dealt with repeatedly.

Let’s say the virtue needed is temperance. There’s a certain kind of temperance needed if you would become Aristotle’s “magnanimous man,” able to dole out the right benefits in the right amount, neither overspending nor being cheap.  This is not an unimportant virtue, especially if you have the resources to benefit others and finance public goods.

But now consider the difference if you took as your model St. Francis of Assisi.  For the Greeks (and let’s be honest, for most modern Americans), St. Francis would be the model of a lack of temperance.  As would most of the other saints.  Their sacrifices and devotions are just too . . . extreme.  Or so it might seem.

How about fortitude?  Consider the difference between taking as your model for courage Achilles, Aeneas, or some other famous warrior as opposed to taking as your model one of the martyrs:  Perpetua and Felicity, perhaps, or Maximilian Kolbe.  Whose cause are you courageous for?

How about wisdom?  Who should be our model?  Socrates?  Plato?  Dr. Phil?  Or Augustine, Aquinas, Basil, Gregory, Athanasius?  I’m not saying you couldn’t take some from Column A and some from Column B.  (But really?  Dr. Phil?)

Consider the difference both personally and culturally between taking as your model of intellectual genius men like Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr, men who unlocked nature’s secrets and made possible amazing new technologies. Or Thomas Aquinas, a medieval theologian.  Would anyone think of any theologian as “really smart” anymore?  Is theology even a serious subject?  What do you really need to know?  Where are their elaborate mathematical formulas?


And finally, what about justice?  In both Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Inferno, we find the legendary King Minos judging the souls of the dead: in Virgil, whether they go to the pleasures of the Elysian Fields or to the tortures of Tartarus; in Dante, to which circle of Hell.  That is, admittedly, one kind of justice.  But what if your model of justice was not Minos, or even Solomon, but Jesus Christ?  Someone in whom justice and mercy kiss?  Someone whose justice makes people just?  What difference might that make?

Classically and among the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the life of virtue was considered the key to our ultimate goal:  happiness, beatitude.  It was the ultimate measure of human success.

What is our model for success?  Who makes the front cover of magazines?  Who makes “Person of the Year”?  Who gets lauded, even by the alumni magazines of major “Catholic” universities?  The dutiful, hardworking father or mother of three intelligent, kind, bright, respectful children? The good neighbor, active in local politics, attentive to things like local trash pick-ups, schools, education, libraries, the homeless center, city beautification, care of the elderly?  Or high-level business people, corporate CEOs, liberal political activists, celebrities, stars?

You could take these people as your models, I suppose.  Modern universities seem to want you to do that.  These are the people they award “honors” to, the people they invite to give talks and graduation speeches.  Who wants to hear a boring historian talk about the history of immigration policy when you could get a bomb-throwing activist?  Why get a literature professor to talk about Dante or Chaucer when you could get a celebrity journalist to talk about the latest book on what’s wrong with the world?

I have no wish to deny there is something valuable and important about the classical Greek and Roman virtues.  But it is also important that we pay attention to the ways in which those virtues were transformed by Christian teachings about faith, hope, and love and God’s mercy and grace.

I suspect many of us are still pagans by habitual disposition.  We think of temperance in terms of giving from our wealth rather than our poverty.  We think of fortitude in terms of attack rather than bearing up. We think of success in terms of wealth, power, and status rather than sacrifice and service.

Christ’s life, death, and resurrection didn’t negate the virtues; it perfected them. But make no mistake, Christianity turned the classical world and its values on their head.  It will likely do the same for most of us if we take it seriously.

But here is a final consideration.  Who would be a better model of fortitude just now?  Achilles or Perpetua? Or better to have as your neighbor during these troubled times?  Aristotle’s magnanimous man?  Or someone whose model is St. Francis and Mother Teresa?

Who, would you suppose, is likely to have his ideas about human nature dashed in the coming weeks?  The liberal secular humanist, who imagines that with progress and technology we can solve all problems? Or the Christian, who believes that, although we are made in the image of God and thus capable of amazing things and hopes beyond this life, we are also fallen creatures who, when our bellies start to feel empty, are just as likely to turn selfish and demonic?


*Image: The Cardinal Virtues by Robinet Testard, c. 1510 [Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris]. This image illuminated a treatise by François Desmoulins de Rochefort, tutor to the French king, François I.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.