Virtues and Vices:
The Meeting of Secular and Religious Culture
After the excesses of the Christmas and New Year period it is inevitable that people in our society turn their minds to a healthier life-style in January. This is also the time for those new-year resolutions to take control and to get on in life. The papers this month have been full of self-help guides for changing our lives – for losing weight, for getting healthy and fit, for stopping smoking and controlling our drinking, for sleeping well, for being motivated or improving our brain power and boosting our memory, for managing our finances.
So we have five-step plans in which we are given good advice about concrete and simple ways in which we can get started and develop this new life that we want. We have posters and charts. We have pod casts, that so modern a form in which we learn and entertain ourselves while remaining constantly on the move. The causes of our bad ways of life are mapped out and the damage that they do. The solutions and the goals are set out. The promise and certainly of success and happiness asserted, if only we follow the advice given – take the first step and persist in changing the way we think and behave. We are able, but we have to be willing.
And we want this advice. We want the papers to be full or it, just as we want the bookshop shelves to have sections on fitness and well-being. We want to be healthy and successful, to live well. We are willing to make the effort, to change and be in control.
Now all of this is about who we are and want to be as human beings. It’s about the goals we should have. It’s about how we can get fulfilment and happiness as human beings. And it’s about the need for exercise and training if we are to get there. In other words, it’s about living a virtuous life. We tend to think about virtues and virtuous people in a somewhat negative way. The virtuous person is certainly self-controlled, but in a rather joyless way, always moderate in their life-style and likely to be disapproving of others who fail to be.
As an approach to ethics and to life the virtues contrast with thinking about ethics in terms of actions and commands, in terms of ‘do’s and ‘don’ts, where we see morality as something imposed on us. A virtue-based ethics, however, is far richer and deeper than this. Far from being about taking the joy out of life, it’s about putting it back in. The virtues are ways in which we succeed in living well, in living happily, in living out our full potential. And we need to choose to pursue them, to train and persist in them. If we do the virtues become increasingly easier and easier. In the classical form theses virtues are said to be the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, ways in which human beings can flourish naturally, and the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love, ways in which human beings can flourish supernaturally, sharing in the life of God.
The whole secular industry of improving our life-style and the classical Christian vision of the virtuous life clearly have much in common, even though the secular version stops short of embracing the theological virtues. After all talk of virtues began not with Christians, but with the Greeks and Christianity has taken over this non-Christian culture and made it its own. And we have a real opportunity here to present Christian faith in our contemporary society in a way which all people can understand and appreciate. Not as a set of externally imposed commands, that restrain freedom and curtail enjoyment, but as a vision of how we can be happy.
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