Virtues not Vices?

I work in a theological bookshop and my particular area of responsibility is our used book section. I see all the used books that come in. I’ve learned a little self-control — I don’t buy all the books I think would be interesting. Because retiring/retired professors are a major source of our used book inventory, we’ve got a lot of mid-20th century theology, philosophy, and spirituality. Some of the material is obviously ephemeral, while other works have become classics or are recognized as seminal in a particular field. Other stuff is kind of in the middle. I’m reading a kind-of-in-the-middle book at the moment to get me started on thinking more about Lent. The editor of the collection is Alec Vidler, a name still known even now, in the 2nd decade of the 21st Century. I’m afraid I don’t recognize the names of the contributors, but from information given, they were probably known names when the book was published in 1964. I’ve read two essays so far, and find them a tiny bit dated (ephemeral!), but they ask excellent questions and made me think in new ways about their subject matter (timeless!). Ok, so I’ve established that the book is old, not really a classic, but not entirely ephemeral. What on earth is it about?? Why read it and talk about it for Lent?

The book is called Traditional Virtues Reassessed. Vidler (the editor) notes in his introduction that many of us prefer to talk about vices rather than virtues as vices appear more attractive to us. He suggests that virtues need to “recover their attractive power.” The 11 short essays in the book attempt to do this for the “classic virtues.” It isn’t clear who decided that these 11 virtues should be discussed, and reasons for their selection are not given. It is almost as though the editor thinks the selection is obvious. Possibly it was in 1964. The virtues discussed are: innocence, gentleness, chastity, modesty, temperance, piety, obedience, prudence, patriotism, justice, and felicity. So far I’ve read the essays on innocence and gentleness. In an interesting move, both of these essays suggest that neither innocence nor gentleness can be gained by a person’s effort of will. If we TRY to be innocent or TRY to be gentle, the true virtue does not result. True innocence comes as a side effect of faith and true gentleness as a side effect of self acceptance.

In the essay on gentleness, the idea of accepting ourselves as God accepts us (that is how we are gentle on ourselves) seemed to work in my head until the author then made the jump to accepting ourselves and not forcing ourselves to be any different from who we really are. We accept our vices and just move merrily along. Any attempt to suppress a vice is itself an act of violence, and will backfire. What? Really? Are we not to strive for holy living? How can we just accept our vices and not attempt to change? There seems to be little point to self-control (a fruit of the spirit along with gentleness) if this is the case. This caused me to revisit the idea of true innocence not coming from trying to be innocent. How then do we achieve virtue if we cannot strive for virtue? Hmmm.


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