Virtue, You Say?

The title of this post is from a recent conversation with a good friend. He was following up a theme discussed at a mens’ group the day before – Morality or Virtue – and how to develop it. He sent me this grand summary, from Angel Harbor org, of the history of morals. It’s long and worth reading.

Virtue has many meanings, and many uses. Not surprisingly it has a Latin origin, since Vir is Latin for man, and Rome was a male-dominated culture. “Virtus was a specific virtue in Ancient Rome. It carries connotations of valor, excellence, courage, character, manliness, and worth, perceived as masculine strengths. It was thus a frequently mentioned quality of Roman emperors, and was personified as a deityVirtus” (taken from Wikipedia with thanks.)

Should women be insulted by this? Of course, but such has been their lot from the beginning. They might take encouragement from the recognition that women can be moral – i.e., have a worthy or good character. The word moral derives from Latin mos (plural mores) – meaning custom or manner. Generally men have also decided what constitutes good customs and manners. Besides, good customs and manners don’t really equate with morals.

In English, the man root – vir – has many uses and variations. If one of them were Virgin (Latin Virgo), I could claim it connects etymologically to gyn – the Greek word for female. Alas, only one etymologist affirms my hunch, as argued in this Stack Exchange article.

Here are a few English uses and variations of the stem vir: virtual reality; by virtue of his authority; that idea went viral on the internet; he is really virile – a masculine characteristic viewed positively; (Virility is commonly associated with vigor, health, sturdiness, and constitution, especially in the fathering of children. In this last sense, ‘virility is to men as fertility is to women’ – Wiki again). Actor Warren Beatty has an appalling reputation for his uncountable sexual linkups. He was probably vigorous, but I doubt he had virility. (Here’s a tongue-in-cheek guestimate by Guest of a Guest putting his exploits at about 13,000 women in the 35 years he was sexually active. This amounts to “364” – almost one-a-day –  but no doubt he had to take breaks). Finally we have virus with which we’re all too acquainted. Strangely, it’s actually the Latin word for poison – somehow derived by exaggerating the ‘r’ sound to the point of reversing its positive masculine meaning.

Included in my long teaching career there was a lot of discusssion about ethics in its many forms, before and especially after I settled into a community college job. I had volunteered for a 3-year stretch in Army Intelligence (posted at Ft. Bragg, NC), and fortunately right afterward was invited to teach at a church school in Glenview IL, where a family member was the pastor. I taught various subjects, but when I started graduate work at Loyola U, Chicago, it became clear that my interests and abilities needed a higher degree of Academic involvement. Since I love languages and travelling abroad, I began a search for employment. After many fruitless applications in the US and overseas, I was considering a different career path. But luckily Moraine Valley Community College in the SW Chicago suburbs cordially invited me to teach there. I stayed for 40 fulfilling years, retiring Aug 31, 2010.

Teaching about values is complex, but possible. I found students are interested in putting their own views of right and wrong (Good and Bad) into perspective. Trying to teach values or ethics on the other hand is a tricky business at best. Some would would say it’s not even possible. Others would  say it’s not a teacher’s role, but I disagree. For instance, when I taught ethics to nursing students, I’d test them with questions like ‘If your patient asked a question such as “Deary, Do I have cancer?” or “Am I going to lose a breast?”, the student was apt to tell the patient, ‘Our ethical rules won’t allow me to give you that information; you’ll  have to ask your physician.’ I would respond to the nursing student something like ‘But look. You’re a human, trying to be helpful and kind to another human who trusts you; you can’t just appeal to the Rules!’

There are many publications dealing with medical values. One of the best I’ve found is Robert Veatch’s Case Studies in Medical Ethics, available on Amazon.

Teaching and encouraging religious values  is something altogether different and more important, that no doubt started in prehistory, among primitive cultures. My personal source of value guidance from childhood is scientist and theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). He says that our religious obligation to ‘our neighbor‘ is ultimately to help them discover what is virtuous, and if possible encourage them in its development. On Victorian Web, I found a very nice Swedenborg biography by David Cody and Richard Goerwitz.

The path to a truly moral life is a process, at times hard to follow, but there may be stepping stones providentially put down to help us go on. Moreover we sometimes mistake our guides. For instance, from childhood I memorized what our family called Swedenborg’s ‘Rules of Life‘. which start with “Diligently to read and meditate on the Word of God”. I was recently shocked to learn that Swedenborg never wrote any such list of rules. shows they were inventions of some of his 19th C. European followers. The same article gives an inspiring picture of stepping stones, which I took the liberty of copying here.

Teaching has alway been my love. So I took courses in Guadalajara Mexico for TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), that worked for a while to keep me busy in retirement. Many colleges and non-profit agencies offer these services to immigrants and students. But the Jr. and Sr. colleges prefer full-time teachers, which I didn’t want; and they require fluency in the spoken languages which I don’t have.

Moreover, more and more teacher-student interactions are online. Online education contradicts my way of teaching which tries to be ‘Socratic’ – i.e., encouraging students to ask questions, and discussing them in a casual,  comfortable setting. That’s definitely not the feeling students get, when they’re lined up in ascending rows of seats, waiting to be given The Truth that the Master possesses! A lecture hall isn’t conducive to serious learning. Teaching online is also hard for anyone whose IT skills are weak; mine are challenged to say the least. Without a geek around I’m usually stuck, although occasionally trial and error works, to my surprise and joy.

Can morality actually be taught? Morality considers what Goodness is. Relativists say there’s no objective definition; it’s all just opinion of either  individuals or groups. (We’re in the age of relativism, alas.) Others (e.g., J.S. Mill) say, ‘Do what makes people happy’. Immanuel Kant says, ‘Act according to the maxim that you would wish all other rational people to follow, as if it were a universal law’. Jesus says, ‘Do unto others what you would like them to do to you (but not so they will do it to you, tit for tat). That’s what we call The Golden Rule, but Jesus never used that phrase. According to Wikipedia, ‘The term “Golden Rule”, or “Golden law”, began to be used widely in the early 17th century in Britain by Anglican theologians and preachers; the earliest known usage is that of Anglicans Charles Gibbon and Thomas Jackson in 1604.’

Jesus does say, in Matt 5:43 ff: 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

But note, nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures is it said to ‘Hate your enemies‘. Maybe Jesus was interpreting the way he saw people around him treating each other.

I said earlier that doing the right thing requires knowing what the right thing is. Ideally, that would be the case. But actually we can be moral by doing what we believe is the right thing. Intentions are what matters most, and they are what is in our hearts (which no one but God knows). These intentions are what make it real, both in the natural realm and spiritually. The old saw “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is true only if the speaker’s real intentions are never to fulfill them, but only said will be done (maybe just to gain favor). That’s hypocrisy. Ideally saying what we intend requires doing it. But in reality, genuine good intentions are enough for the intender, even if something makes doing them impossible. That might not help the intendee in an earthly way, but I think that just perceiving the heartfelt love from another may also bring mental and spiritual gladness to the intendee.

In brief, let’s practice virtue in the best way we know how. It will help the world we live in, and help the world to come, when we enter there with a loving heart.