Where Is the Virtue?

A sentinel watches upon the battlements. The air is raw and cold, and it seems to have penetrated to his knees and ankles and the shoulder upon which he rests his rifle. But he paces his rounds, hour after long hour. He peers into the little glooming light showing in the east. He turns again and faces the west, where the clouds are just beginning to reflect the slightest tinge of purple. He listens. All the sounds of the darkness are familiar to him, and bespeak the order of the early dawn. A thrush trills from the copse beside the river. The swallows have left their roosts and are beginning to twitter as they fly. A cock from a nearby farm crows. Yet if he hears a single sound made by man—a footstep, the roll of a wheel—he turns, his eyes narrow, he shifts his hands along the rifle, and he listens. He is a good sentinel.

The Thomistic understanding of virtue is straightforward enough. A virtue is a habit, what Aristotle calls a second nature. It is difficult to attain—hence, its association with manhood, which is what the Latin virtus literally means. It involves the perfection of a faculty, like the deep knowledge in the hands of a master craftsman. Therefore its definition cannot be arbitrary; it is bound up with the faculty in question, and the work to be done.

Since human beings are not robots, and since they find themselves always in situations that call upon many faculties at once, the virtues are bound together, and not only coincidentally. The root of the good sentinel’s virtue is to be found not in his eyesight, but in his piety. He desires to defend his city, because he loves it. If he were only a hireling, he would not expose himself to any risk beyond the literal specifications of his employment: he would watch, according to contract. When the wolves come, the hireling runs away.

But because the good sentinel loves his city, he calls up a host of subordinate virtues to support his piety. He calls upon self-denial. He is sometimes sleepy, but he never winks. He is often hungry, but he puts it out of his mind. He is often weary, but he does not flag. He calls upon foresight. He makes sure that he is physically and mentally ready to begin his watch, and orders his day accordingly. He calls upon industry and humility, as he considers that no work, no matter how small, is beneath his care, if it bears upon his duty. Other men may instruct a page boy to clean their rifles. He cleans his rifle himself.

Maybe it is easier for people who regularly face danger, or who must fight to wrest a living from the stubborn earth, to remember what the virtues are. It certainly is a commonplace among the pagan philosophers, and then among the Christian fathers, that one of the dangers of wealth is a softening or decay of the moral fiber. The rich—and, compared with almost anyone who has ever lived on earth, we Americans are all rich, even most of the relatively poor among us—neither face the immediate necessity for virtue, nor the immediate danger of vice. Their souls can be vitiated long before they notice the demise of their culture.

We see this queasy-making softness everywhere we turn. When Grover Cleveland delivered his first inaugural address, he declared that he would act according to an “unstrained” reading of the Constitution, adhering to precisely those powers it granted to him, and assuming no others. Cleveland was as good as his word. He did not compromise his moral character for the sake of an easy chance for popularity, as when he refrained from annexing Hawaii at the urging of a pack of avaricious adventurers. He was scrupulously honest. He obeyed the Constitution, the law of the land. He knew his place.

The contrast between Cleveland and our contemporary politicians is not just the contrast between one political philosophy and others. It is a contrast between a man who was trained up in virtue—who knew that virtue is a habit difficult to acquire, the perfection of a faculty that is not defined according to an individual’s caprice but that springs from the nature and the purpose of the faculty itself—and those who are not. We have always had bad politicians. But now, we take most of the vice for granted. We hardly notice it. The president makes a flagrant show of breaking the law; we shrug, because everyone is a cheater nowadays. Students cheat on their exams; spouses regularly break their vows—its most radical form is called divorce—and no one cares. Lawyers trawl the airwaves for litigants. Doctors record the results of examinations they have not performed. Ministers wrest the Scripture for their purposes. Vice always finds its excuse.

It is a telltale sign for our times that our most heated debates arise from the sexual faculties. We suppose ourselves enlightened in these matters, having matured far beyond the repressions and the taboos of our ancestors. One might note also that we have matured far beyond other qualities of our ancestors: their racism, perhaps; and that may be the best we can say for ourselves. We have matured far beyond their industriousness, their artistic skill, their loyalty, their honesty, their filial duty, their self-denial, their courage, their personal generosity, their purity, their neighborliness, and their reverence. Lawyers devour a full tenth of our nation’s income, as we take one another to court for a cross on the side of a public road, or a hot coffee that an old lady spills on herself at the drive-through—and that alone gives the lie to the single virtue we claim as our most precious. For we are, in fact, the most intolerant generation ever to walk upon the face of the earth.

It is also telling that, in our arguments about those sexual faculties, we do what soft people do and not what virtuous people do. That is, we argue only about what is permissible. It is as if there were no such thing as sexual virtue at all. Imagine a sentinel who is always dickering with his superiors about whether he can sit down on the job, whether his rifle has to be loaded, whether he can sometimes leave his rifle in the corner rather than lugging it around, whether he can catch forty winks, and whether a noise qualifies as suspicious according to his own private concept of danger. Not only is such a man a bad sentinel; we would be hard put to call him a sentinel at all. He may wear the uniform, he may be stationed on the ramparts, and he may have signed a contract for sentinel duty. But he does not even acknowledge the existence of the virtues of a sentinel. He is soft in every way.

That is our condition now with regard to sex. No sane person would entrust the drafting of a constitution to people notable for mercurial interpretations. We would not listen to a pickpocket lecturing us on contract law. We do not comb the ranks of deserters for work on the Military Code of Honor. Yet with regard to sex, we are told we must heed ourselves—and, generally speaking, we are a pack of fornicators, adulterers, porn-users, abortion-procurers, child-corrupters, and sodomites.

What is the virtue the sexual faculties demand? Our grandparents, whether or not they were sinners in that respect, could have answered the question readily enough. They require chastity and all the contributory or corollary virtues: prudence, self-denial, moral courage, purity of thought and word and deed, care for children, and steadfastness in marriage. That answer came not from their caprice but from a plain view of what sexual intercourse simply is: it is, by way of efficient or exemplary cause, the act that brings into the world beings who dwell not only in time but in history and culture, if not in the shadow of eternity itself. By its very nature, it cannot be casual, as of dogs rutting in the road. It cannot be merely for a mutually agreed-upon duration of time, since the child that is its natural end transcends any such duration. He needs not a sire and a bitch, but a mother and a father bound to one another wholly, now and always.

But we are now in the odd position of supposing that sex is too trivial to require virtue for its exercise, but that it is simultaneously so significant, so determinative of a person’s identity, that to suggest any restraint upon its consensual exercise is an affront to the most important fount of human dignity. It is at once nugatory and holy. We are at once to think nothing of it, and everything. It is at once like scratching an itch, and worshiping a god. It requires no sacrifice from its exerciser, and the sacrifice of everything else to it: the welfare of children and the family, public morals, the common good, and liberty itself.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared April 8, 2014 in Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute and is reprinted with permission. The image above is a detail from “Faithful Unto Death” painted by Sir Edward John Poynter in 1865. The scene depicts a Roman soldier who faithfully stands on guard during the final destruction of Pompeii, having not been ordered to abandon his post.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • hamlet

    If no one adds to this I can understand; this is great material. Aristotle must be resting in peace after this article

  • Steven Jonathan

    We live in a softened culture of anesthetization. Our school are clinics in moral anesthesia, we wouldn’t want our child to suffer the pains of arduous work or to have their feelings hurt. We can afford this for now, but our moral capital has nearly run out- our material capital is following at breakneck speed.
    Yes, we have matured beyond morality and into the convalescent age of the brave new world, characterized by ethical decrepitude. False tolerance is the death of all the virtues! Brilliant essay!

    • TheAbaum

      Just take some Soma, you’ll feel better in the brave new world.

  • Art Deco

    I would say “hear hear” for the most part. Just to point out one error

    “Lawyers devour a full tenth of our nation’s income, as we take one
    another to court for a cross on the side of a public road, or a hot
    coffee that an old lady spills on herself at the drive-through”

    An attorney of my acquaintance would remind you that the woman in question had 3d degree burns. That aside, 1.4% of value added in the economy is attributable to legal services, not 10%. There is indubitably some deadweight loss attributable to standards and practices which allow for rent extraction by attorneys, you’d have a hard time demonstrating that lost output from that amounts to $1.4 tn. Rank and file attorneys are not our problem. The pretentious clowns in the law professoriate and in the appellate judiciary are our problem, as well as kindred spirits in the elite law firms who mistake the prejudices of the tribe for moral truth; the rent-seekers in those firms with a ‘government relations’ practice are our problem; the abusive and dishonest prosecutors and the judges who enable them are our problem.

    • fredx2

      Yes, it is a small point but worth correcting – I was going to point that McDonalds Coffee thing out as well. The woman was horribly burnt – McDonalds for some reason was keeping the coffee unbelievably hot. The incident became known as an example of overreaching, but she deserved the money. If you google mcdonalds coffee burns you can see the extreme damage done – it is not a pretty sight. She spent 8 days in the hospital and continued to be treated for 2 years.

      Futhermore, “Other documents obtained from McDonald’s showed that from 1982 to 1992 the company had received more than 700 reports of people burned by McDonald’s coffee to varying degrees of severity, and had settled claims arising from scalding injuries for more than $500,000” So Mcdonalds was well aware of the damage being done.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      My pupil master explained it in this way: The pursuer wins in the Outer House and the pursuer and his legal advisers drink champagne; then, the defender wins in the Inner House and the defender and his legal advisers drink champagne; then the House of Lords orders a new hearing and the pursuer’s and the defender’s legal advisers drink champagne.

      There are some litigants who, once they have fairly got the bit between their teeth, can only be stopped by bankruptcy or Bedlam. I fancy Sir W Scott’s depiction of Peter Peebles in Redgauntlet was drawn from life, not to mention Dickens’s account of Jarndyce v Jarndyce in Bleak House.

    • TheAbaum

      “Rank and file attorneys are not our problem.”

      You missed oner thing, the Bar is a cartel, pure and simple. It’s all for one, and one for all. Lawyers are the new Pharisees.

      If I had my way, the requirement to attend law school as a prerequisite to practice law would be abolished and “reading the law” would again be acceptable vocational preparation for entry into the practice of law. We might get shorter, more coherent and relevant opinions, rather than the pretentious exercises in logorrhea that routinely come out of the Ninth Circus or other notorious foundries of judicial novelty and imperialism.

      • Art Deco

        No, there are entry screens which enhance lawyer incomes. The bar is not a cartel in the literal or metaphoric sense. They are too numerous and contentious. They act in their (illegitimate) interest like other sectors. However, the least troublesome component of the bar are the rank-and-file civil practice and general practice attorneys.

        I think your beef about law schools (and certainly the duration and content of law programs) is likely valid. However, the rent seekers there are less the bar than the law professoriate. A lawyer I correspond with suggests one year of law school followed by apprenticeships, law school in his opinion being structured to train appellate judges and not working lawyers. One might also suggest that admissions screens dispense with the baccalaureate degree in favor of a couple of brief certificate programs.

        • TheAbaum

          The bar is not a cartel in the literal or metaphoric sense.

          “an association of manufacturers or suppliers with the purpose of maintaining prices at a high level and restricting competition.”

          How is it not?

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          Law School is only part of the admission requirements of the Faculty of Advocates here in Scotland. Having obtained an LL.B (4 years) and a Diploma in Legal Practice (1 year), one must spend 21 months (although 2 years is recommended) working in a solicitor’s office and 8-9 months (October to June/July, when the courts are sitting) as a pupil (“Devil”) in an Advocate’s chambers.
          I believe this strikes the right balance between the theoretical and the practical.

          • TheAbaum

            In the U.S., it’s a three year program called “Juris Doctor” ) (JD). It’s as pretentious as it is indoctrinating.

            Of course there’s “law school” and “Law School” (Harvard, Yale and perhaps a handful of others that give us the a disgusting hegemony).

            The only thing I know about Scottish law is that there was something the detestable Arlen Specter wanted to appropriate to avoid convicting Bill Clinton. If you have “loser pays”, I’d like to import that.

            • Michael Paterson-Seymour

              It is a Civil Law system, based on Roman Law (with an addition of feudal land law). The law of Louisiana is similar in many respects.

              The absence of any sort of apprenticeship or internship is shocking. Would you like to be treated by a doctor with no clinical experience?

              • TheAbaum

                That’s not what I would advocate.

                My position is that stateside, there a handful of elite law schools that impart more indoctrination than education and whose graduates exercise an unhealthy hegemony overr the U.S. Legal system.

  • Leslie Andry

    Great article! My husband and I are finding that it is truly a Herculean task to raise Godly children in this culture. Sometimes I am tempted to despair. But Dr. Peter Kreeft made a point once that helped…forgive me if I paraphrase badly. He reminds us that if it were easy to become saints, no one would become a saint. If everyone were saints, it would then be easy to become one, which would not make you a saint. Saints were made for tough times, and tough times were made for saints. I worded it poorly, but I get it!

    • newguy40

      Stay at it, Leslie. I empathize with you. My now adult children still need mom and pops steadying hand occasionally.

      “Yes, the lifeof every good parent is a martyrdom! It is to drink daily from the chalice of Jesus Christ Crucified. To be good parents, you must have a deep and true love of the Cross. It is by changing serpents into doves and tigers into lambs that you will be representative of Christ the Good Shepherd, and prove yourself a
      worthy parent, a man fit to beget and save souls.”
      -Fr. Gerreol Girardey Qualities of A Good Superior 1920

      “Everybody was a baby once, Arthur. Oh, sure, maybe not today, or even
      yesterday. But once! Babies, chum: tiny, dimpled, fleshy mirrors of our
      us-ness, that we parents hurl into the future, like leathery footballs of hope!
      And you’ve got to get a good spiral on that baby, or evil will make an
      interception!” The Tick

      • Leslie Andry

        Delightful…thanks for the excellent words of wisdom and encouragement!

    • Objectivetruth

      Pick up a copy of James Martin SJ’s book “My Life with the Saints.” Very entertaining, I think you’d enjoy it!

      • Leslie Andry

        Will do…thanks!

  • Ford Oxaal

    “A sire and a bitch” pretty much sums up how our country is doing in the next generation/procreation department. Funny at first, but tragic upon further reflection. Here is the modern pattern — love (fornicate) the one you’re with, abort (back stab and kill) the weak and unwanted, vote progressive (bankrupt the entire next three generations or set them up for war), buy the surviving kids what they want (put them in front of electronics to shut them up), make sure they are good (drug them when they start to fight back), and enjoy the good life of two incomes and all the stuff that catches your eye at the mall, yay!!

    • Kogia

      Right…except that there’s actually relatively little evidence that it’s progressives who are doing the bankrupting.

      If you go back to to 1976 at the end of the Ford administration, annual deficits were roughly $75 billion. They dipped a couple years during the Carter Administration, but were about the same by the beginning of the Reagan years. The annual deficit in 1981 was $79 billion–the first year of Reagan’s presidency. It climbed to around $220 billion in 1986 before dipping down to $150 billion by the time George HW Bush got into office. Deficits then rose to $290 billion by 1992. Under Clinton, deficits steadily fell until 2000, when there was a surplus. Deficits grew under the Bush Administration very consistently until 2009, when they jumped in large part due to the recession, and as it has during other economic or social crises (WWII). Since 2009, deficits have consistently come down. That’s not to say Democrats are by any means perfect when it comes to managing government finances, but it’s by no means just progressives doing the bankrupting. The track record is pretty clear–rising deficits under GOP administrations, decreasing deficits under Democratic administrations.

      See for yourself (Table 1.1 ): http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/historicals

      • Ford Oxaal

        Money is a dangerous substance, like gasoline. Who controls the money? I think you need to look more at the ‘progressive’ voters (voters who buy snake oil) and their representatives. Voters vote themselves money, and their representatives do their bidding and take a piece for their special patrons. I think we should be able to agree that the sums of money we are talking about are dangerous and unwieldy. Money needs to be more localized — way more localized. It is a dangerous substance, and when the feds spray their gigantic money hose, whole swathes of people suffer for the insane and enormous unintended consequences.

      • BHG

        Congress controls spending, not the White House. And Congress has been rather unremittingly progressive/Democrat for a very long time, even under Republican administrations.

      • TheAbaum

        “Progressives” (more accurately, socialists, statists and feudalists) have never proposed anything but the expansion of the government in scope, scale and magnitude.

        To write that “since 2009, deficits have consistently come down” is typical of left-wing propaganda. (also known as a lie) It is not only factually wrong, it ignores the fact that in three of those years, the annual deficit exceeded $1 trillion, going from

        2009 1,412,688
        2010 1,294,373
        2011 1,299,593 (that’s an increase, for the innumerate)
        2012 1,086,963

        There had never been a trillion dollar deficit before. In 2007, the deficit was $161 Billion.

        Presidents propose spending, but the House approves it. It’s no accident that the only surpluses came when the Democrats lacked a House majority.

        That having been said, had the Republicans not bought into Mr. Bush’s expansions of government (no Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, etc), we might really been on the road to responsible government

        Statists, socialists and feudalists seek to expand government, they propose new activities and an expansion of the existing ones. Every problem (real or contrived) is to be answered by an increase in government’s activity, scope, scale or magnitude. They squeal like pigs if anybody proposes a reduction in the rate of growth calling them ‘(drastic) cuts”.

        Much of government is wasteful, we need to go no further than the reports that are regularly produced by the GAO, or the recent shuttering of the Oregon Obamacare website. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars and not producing a single enrollee, it was abandoned.

        • Kogia

          Ford–not sure what you’re saying. You don’t seem to try and refute any of my factual evidence. Based on recent history, it is the conservatives who are worsening the financial health of the country, even though they claim otherwise.

          Bomb–So what’s your point exactly? That deficits have consistently come down, except for 2010 to 2011 when there was a slight increase? That the deficit jumped in 2009 in large part due to spending proposed during the Bush Administration? That the deficit was over a trillion dollars, and that’s a number we should be scared of because it’s a big number? The amount of the deficit doesn’t matter–what matters is its size relative to the economy. A million dollar deficit in 1900 was a much bigger deal than it is today–you know that. A trillion dollars is a problem–I think many on the left would agree with that. But federal spending has gone down, not up since Pres. Obama took office.

          The critique here is about government deficits being a result of too much spending, yet revenues fell by $419 billion between 2008 and 2009 with a spending increase of $535 billion. So spending absolutely has to account for some of the deficit, but so do revenues. And so this notion that Democrats are somehow spending like crazy and that’s the only reason why there’s a deficit is simply untrue. That’s all I’m suggesting.

          • Ford Oxaal

            Money causes more problems than it solves when it is not managed with great care. The feds do not, cannot, manage that much of our money with great care. Therefore, the feds do more harm than good.

            • Kogia

              But on what basis do you make that claim? I don’t deny that there is waste in the federal government, but there is also plenty of waste in other institutions–in local governments, in businesses, and in nonprofits.

              Because the federal government is bigger than these other institutions, that can, in some cases, generate economies of scale, as is the case with administering Medicare, for which the government spends a fraction of what private insurers spend as a proportion of healthcare spending, saving money. But size can also conceal problems related to waste and fraud. So can the federal government do a better job? In many departments, absolutely. But would the states or local governments be better off running things? Not necessarily–there might be more accountability, but also less efficiency because of smaller scale.

              • Ford Oxaal

                Because the best things are free. For example, all Archimedes needed to teach you the key to the universe was some sand to scratch in. All the trillions in DC simply can’t buy that. And when you try to use money to buy something you can’t buy, you make bad decisions and the law of unintended consequences comes to the fore. So, we want to save the lives of a bunch of starving people. Money can fix that, right? So we send them a few bil. But the money handler in that country decides to spend it on AKs to kill off a rival culture and a million people are slaughtered. Whoops!

                • Kogia

                  Huh? When we send other countries military assistance, it’s almost always for US-produced goods. Foreign aid makes up about 1% of US federal spending, and much of that goes to allies in the form of military assistance. Israel alone gets 9% of the total US foreign assistance budget. And foreign aid spending is more accountable than ever with the adoption of Paris Declaration Principles and more rigorous oversight within USAID. Is it perfect? No, but it’s much improved and it’s getting better.

                  What’s ironic here is that you seem to have a real prejudice against the federal government, when Aristotle would probably react quite differently. Because Aristotle talked a great deal about wisdom, and specifically, the notion that to make wise decisions requires an understanding of context and judgment. That people who follow rules tend not to be very wise because rules are a second-best way of making decisions. Yet that seems like exactly what you’re doing, saying that as a rule, the federal government mismanages money and is ineffectual, when in fact, there’s a lot of nuance. The feds may screw a lot of things up, but not everything, and when they do, to varying degrees and in different ways. That doesn’t mean the solution is to be dismissive, but to look at the different problems in different areas and come up with different solutions based on their specific contexts. Why not do that instead?

                  • Ford Oxaal

                    Because government by facts and figures, figures and facts, leads to a society of sires and bitches, bitches and sires. See my first post in this thread. Children should not be raised in a tattooed and branded breeding farm. No. The government exists to serve the family. The “social contract” is between families. All rights proceed from family rights. Wipe out families, and you will see your rights magically disappear. I don’t want our hard fought liberties to be wiped out by some gigantic money-drenched tabulating machine in DC.

              • TheAbaum

                “So can the federal government do a better job? In many departments, absolutely. But would the states or local governments be better off running things? Not necessarily–there might be more accountability, but also less efficiency because of smaller scale.”

                I have professional experience in state government and a 20 year association with the federal government. You are a statist and have it reversed.

                You don’t know what you are talking about-the IRS and the SEC are routinely cited for accounting deficiencies by the GAO that would never be tolerated in state government.

                • Kogia

                  Good point, because as I’m sure you know, the plural of anecdote is data…

                  • TheAbaum

                    There’s reams of data on the GAO’s website, and the various Inspectors General.

          • TheAbaum

            ” That deficits have consistently come down, except for 2010 to 2011 when there was a slight increase? ”

            Are are you innumerate or obstinate?

            • Kogia

              Uhh…I never voted for Obama–I am not registered with either political party and have never voted for a major party presidential candidate. But facts are what they are. Except for a small increase between 2010 and 2011, deficits have come down during the Obama administration, whereas deficits rose between the beginning and ends of the last three Republican administrations. That’s not spin–that’s factual. You’re right–I could have worded my first post better–the deficit grew by .46% between those two years. But is that what you really want to pick on? It doesn’t really support your position except to say that I should be more detail-oriented. The gist of what I was saying was completely correct.

              • TheAbaum

                I never said you voted for Obama.

                I was wrong. You are obstinate AND innumerate.

                • Kogia

                  You didn’t say I voted for him, you said he was “my guy”, implying that I support him in some way. I was refuting that claim by suggesting that I did not support him in the way that most people discuss political support, which is through the mean of voting. I don’t support much of what Obama does–just because I oppose some conservative policies doesn’t mean I support Obama’s.

                  You’re citing an estimate suggesting that federal spending may go up again. It may–but as you and I both know, estimates and can change. So it may go up–and in that case, my analysis will change. But so far, what I’ve said is true–I’ve used facts to make my case and I stand by what I say. Deficits have gone down under Democratic presidents and up under Republicans.

                  • TheAbaum

                    “Deficits have gone down under Democratic presidents and up under Republicans.”

                    And down under Republican House Majorities, and up under Dems,

                    The only surpluses were produced under GOP House control.

                    You history is pretty clear. Shill. But tell us how great the federal government is after you explain them catching Martha Stewart and missing Bernie Madoff.

                    Of course it’s tough to dio your job when you’re surfin dirty stuff.


      • Asmondius

        Clinton had the benefit of a Republican Congress.

  • Pingback: From Anti-Catholic Atheist to Church-Loving Convert - BigPulpit.com()

  • TheAbaum

    Tony, this might be the best essay from you that I have ever read-and that takes some doin’.

    • Maggie Goff

      I have been thinking the same thing. I want to share it with the whole world!!

    • Objectivetruth

      Agreed……excellent essay.

      Coincidentally, I was watching one of Father Dubay’s episodes this morning on EWTN and it was on “heroic virtue.” Makes me want to up my game in many areas.

  • BHG

    “…we do what soft people do and not what virtuous people do. That is, we argue only about what is permissible.” I think we do that in the Church as well. Sunday I was sitting in the last pew and watching people leave because they were once taught that it is permissible to do so after one has received because that is the minimum to fulfill the Sunday duty. What a different conversation we have about faith when we turn from what it permissible to what is virtuous, what helps us grow in our faith, that ultimate sentinel. Well done Dr. Esolen.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Virtue is a habit difficult to attain, but once acquired, it becomes “a disposition difficult to remove” (Aristotle (Ethic. vi, 5))

    Of course, the same thing is true of ingrained, unresisted, bad habits, which we call vices.

  • musicacre

    The softening of men has brought on a whole new problem to the world; maybe not new in type but new in it’s huge bloom and growth within the soft culture of picky self-absorbed people. Fulton Sheen said in his letter to JPII just before he died, something about a massive crisis the Church has about every 500 years, and we’re in it! I think the only Catholics that will come through this testing will be the “deliberate” Catholics, very conscientious about following the better way that Christ has personally shown us. ( And not looking for loopholes!)

  • jenny

    Good that Cardinal Kaspar tries to find a solution to offer help to divorce- remarried with no annulment or civil relationship, etc., to get back to church …… God bless him.

    • Asmondius

      Did the Lord Himself not condemn remarriage after divorce as adultery?

  • jenny

    I think that sexual virtue is good as long as does not damage the body/ mind……

    • TheAbaum

      That statement is vacuous and inane.

  • Mark

    I think you miss the point.

    The way to think of it is this: sex is now treated like free speech.

    Free speech does not imply there is no truth or virtue in speech. It means (or meant in the original conception of the founding fathers) that truth is SO important that law is not going to dare to legislate that determination, to enter into that sacred territory.

    Instead it’s decided that the values in speech are to be negotiated by society and trust that truth will win out in spite of needing to allow a lot of bad speech for the sake of the debate/discussion.

    Our modern attitude towards sex isn’t a lack of values, it’s a sense that sex is full with meaning-potential, and that for authenticity’s sake a methodology of experimentation is the operative assumption.

    • Art Deco

      it’s a sense that sex is full with meaning-potential

      Drunken frat hook-ups are full with ‘meaning-potential’?

      • Mark

        Meaning potential, not meaning actual.

        Just like stupid low-brow mean delusional speech: a society that truly respects truth as sacred will uphold and not meddle in even vile or nonsensical speech, because speech is the vessel of truth and to find that truth, you need to allow the social dialogue, even given all the mistakes that will be made.

        You don’t let people slander or defraud in transactions or shout Fire! in a crowded theater, but otherwise you keep speech free from the encroachments of power or coercion. This is not from an indifference to truth, however, (though some people might choose to be). It actually comes from a high conception of just how important truth is.

    • grzybowskib

      But when experimentation leads to a 50% divorce rate, more than a million abortions a year, marital infidelity, an STD epidemic, hook ups, friends with benefits, broken families, kids growing up not knowing who at least one of their biological parents are, pornography, and all the problems that come along with these things, why the heck would you not want to put an end to the experimentation? Families are not things that are meant to be created with Bunsen burners. They explode when people treat them that way.

      • Mark

        Yes and I suppose you’re against religious freedom because of how many crazy ideas (including some downright anti-Catholic) that people believe when you allow a “free market” on ideas and prioritize people’s right to seek over enforcing the right answer…

        • grzybowskib

          When our entire country suffers from the effects of certain behaviors, we have a moral obligation to curb those harmful behaviors.

          • Mark

            Go ahead and try.

            Seriously, though, we have a moral obligation to control our own behavior according to what we know in conscience is best. We’re not responsible for ” them”

            • grzybowskib

              You’re saying we have no obligation to hold each other accountable from doing things that harm themselves and the foundations of our society as a whole? Are you serious?

              • Tony

                I call it “laissez-foutre.” No society in the history of the world has held it, absolutely none.
                Do we have to have no-fault divorce laws? No, we don’t. Do we have to have porn on the airwaves? No, we don’t. Do we even have to allow the large-scale manufacture of IUD’s and estrogen pills? We are not, here, talking about distilling alcohol from your own vegetables and fruits, or growing your own marijuana, as harmful as that latter thing may be. We are talking about things that require large industries. No, we don’t. Do we have to allow for palimony? Do we have to have legalized baby-snuffing? Do we have to allow IVF? All of these things are not only avoidable; we have to go well out of our way to allow them or to produce them.

                • grzybowskib

                  Good point.

    • Tony

      The virtue of speech is truthfulness. You find for me a culture anywhere before the day before yesterday that did NOT cordon off our most dynamic and possibly destructive drive by means of customs and laws. Find one. You can’t. Our “modern” attitude toward sex is indifference, and we can “afford” it for a while, because we have a lot of money and a lot of prisons. Shameful. Authenticity …. written like somebody who has never read Shakespeare, Milton, Johnson, Tennyson … authenticity, from self-justifying liars. Take your authenticity to the children waiting in the wings at the divorce court. Or to the incinerator at the abortion mill.

      • Lila Rajiva

        It’s always fascinating to find a writer who writes what one has thought frequently.

        What comes from a mind shaped by literature is, curiously, far more rigorous than one shaped by the banalities of social science…or political science (sic).

        I am curious what you think of American-style libertarianism (you know, the ones with the “Enemy of the state” t-shirts.)

  • Objectivetruth

    Once again Tony, excellent essay! If I can add the following from Thomas Aquainas on virtue, and how pursuit of virtue is pursuit of the Divine:

    “Virtue consists in the following, or imitation, of God. Every virtue, like every other thing, has its type [exemplar] in God. Thus the Divine mind itself is the type of prudence; God using all things to minister to His glory is the type of temperance, by which man subjects his lower appetites to reason; justice is typified by God’s application of the eternal law to all His works; Divine immutability is the type of fortitude. And, since it is man’s nature to live in society, the four cardinal virtues are social [politicae] virtues, inasmuch as by them man rightly ordains his conduct in daily life. Man, however, must raise himself beyond his natural life unto a life Divine: ‘Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48)”

  • Thomas Vogler

    Thanks, this is a good and thought provoking article.

    It seems true to me that birth control removed a huge constraint on sexual activity. I think the virtue of chastity has, historically, been rather tangled up with the prudential fear of the material consequences of not being chaste. Men have always done what they could to separate themselves from the consequences of fornication. Prostitution perhaps being the prime example, the creation of a caste of women, who do the job of absorbing the surplus of male sexual proclivity, and absorbing the negative consequences.

    But even marriage has been tough on women. One should also remember that men, until rather recently, had a property right in their women and children. Some people are nostalgic for that, seeing that sort of relationship has one that promoted virtue in ways that nominally equal civil rights for the sexes do not. Perhaps that is so. But things being what they were, a man could use up one woman, essentially, and, once widowed, acquire another, to tend the first wife’s children and bear him more. The early advocates for women’s rights, and then for birth control, were trying to ameliorate the terrible conditions in which many women lived out their often short and miserable lives. And again, under the law, married women had no control over sexual relations with their husbands, whose self-governance was not sufficient to the task of preventing some statistics that today most would find appalling.

    Because of such considerations, I hesitate to embrace the view of declining virtue. It may be true, but it seems worth considering that the human aptitude for virtue remains rather constant, and that the fluctuations one sees have more to do with the availability of occasions to sin. I’d suggest the possibility that, morally, we are the same people that were here 150 years ago. We might also remember that those ancestors were engaged in a war of extirpation with the native population, whose remnants exist at our margins today, generally in misery, as the survivors of a genocide. It also must be recalled that at the time of the Civil War, the greatest portion of the wealth of this country, (aside from the real estate we had expropriated) was actually in the form of human beings. This does not suggest a broader or deeper understanding of virtue than we possess today.

    It is true that the authors exemplary watchman has certain virtues, which are made evident in the way he performs his task. But we cannot safely extrapolate from those particulars what virtues he may posses or lack when not on duty, nor can we guess at the virtues predominant in the city that he guards. In the painting of the Roman sentinel at top, the city is Pompeii. What was Pompeii? What was Rome? (It is interesting that the painting dates from 1865.)

    It is certainly dismaying to see what people so often do with liberty and power, unconstrained by fear of material consequences for their actions. I see no precedent in history for… how to put it… for the possibility of separating copulation from the consequence of procreation, so easily and for so many. And likewise, there is little precedent for women not being the property of men. A possible benefit of the current situation is that it shows the space between the embrace of sexual virtue inspired through fear of material consequence, and cultivation of the virtue on its own account. There are some important Saints that began as libertines.

    None of this is to say that I don’t grieve for things as they are. If this is an apologetic, it is not in defense of promiscuity, our hyper-sexualized culture, or anything like that. I suppose it’s more intended as a caution against nostalgia, a suggestion that our proclivity for sin and error are timeless, and that the evils of any particular epoch reflect the particular opportunities for sin the era affords, rather than any fluctuating disposition to sin. I think the disposition itself is probably rather constant. The richer and freer we are, the more we can afford. That doesn’t indict wealth or freedom, it just shows us for what we are, and have been. Since The Fall, I suppose.

    • bill b

      Your wise resistance to nostalgia and Tony’s point about affluence influencing lust coalesce in six Popes from mid 15th century to mid 16th century who all committed lust and who were all eventually affluent by being in Church positions in that strange time.

  • bill b

    Tony slipped back into early Christian sex which was based quite possibly on Musonius Rufus not on Scripture (Jerome seems to have interjected it in Tobias and it was removed) and is alien to Humanae Vitae which knows sex is also unitive besides being procreative…here Tony writes:
    ” That answer came not from their caprice but from a plain view of what sexual intercourse simply is: it is, by way of efficient or exemplary cause, the act that brings into the world beings…”
    Tony believes in the unitive it’s just that we keep writing these Musonius Rufus slips because our literature won’t criticize his influence on extremism in the early saints’ sexual comments.
    Here’s Musonius Rufus, the 1st century Stoic, who taught Epictetus and was reputed by Origen to be one of history’s great moral icons:
    ” Men who are not wantons or immoral are bound to consider sexual intercourse justified ONLY when it occurs in marriage and is indulged in for the purpose of begetting children, since that is lawful, but unjust and unlawful when it is mere pleasure-seeking, even in marriage.” Lecture 12-2

    Procreation versus pleasure…no mention of sexual intercourse’s affirmation of the other person and of oneself simultaneously in a unity. Lucan wrote that Cato was a Musonian husband. I guess he didn’t feel affirmed. That rigorism as to the only purpose for sex being procreation festoons early Christian writers such that love is rarely mentioned in regard to sex in saint after saint for 19 centuries.
    St. Clement of Alexandria (2nd-3rd century): ” To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature” ” The Instructor of Children” 2:10:95:3.
    Lactantius (3rd-4th century): ” the genital [’generating’] part of the body, as the name itself teaches, has been received by us for no other purpose than the generation of offspring” (Divine Institutes, 6:23:18).
    St. Jerome (4th-5th century): ” Does he imagine that we approve of any sexual intercourse except for the procreation of children?” (Against Jovinian 1:19 [A.D. 393]).
    St. Epiphanius (4th-5th century) voices the Stoic view also: ” There are those who when they have intercourse deliberately prevent having children. They indulge in pleasure not for the sake of offspring but to satisfy their passion.” (Adversus Haereses Panarium, PG 41, 339). Either procreation or passion is a binary refuted by Humanae Vitae.

    Augustine has their error and he doesn’t in some places and his best passages opened the way away from Stoicism’s mechanical procreating.
    Augustine leads to the modern Popes’ acceptance of the non fertile times being deliberately used even though Augustine denigrated the ancient rythmn method in a letter to a Manichaean leader. Aquinas was similar…ambivalent…but he likewise opened the door for future Catholic theologians by citing Aristotle’s “pleasure in a rational act is itself rational”.
    Bingo…that led to the modern Popes resisting those Catholics like Arthur Vermeesch S.J. ( premier catholic moral theologian of the early 20th century) who slighted the new permission to use the infertile times for mutual affirmation in unity.

  • Siwash

    If you want to develop virtuous habits among your family, I recommend one smart move to start you on the way: pull the plug on the television set. There are many, many positive consequences—some you may not now be able to understand or appreciate—-to this.

    It is enormously strengthening.

    I am in hopes that we can develop stronger Catholic communities—even in physical form, with specific locations—to strengthen our faith and our families against the neo-pagan tide. Sounds dramatic? Yeah, I know. But I would love to be surrounded by Catholics.

  • Tony

    To all and sundry:

    I believe there is no real separation of the unitive and the procreative meanings of sexual intercourse. The meaning of the one implies the meaning of the other — although many a man and woman will go out of their way to deny it or ignore it or stifle it. My general question here, for our opponents, is simple enough. All of our faculties require virtue for their perfection, and virtue is difficult to attain, and necessarily involves self-sacrifice. What, then, in a world of Free Fornication and Abortion on Demand and On Line Porn and Sons of Sodom, does sexual virtue imply?
    When I think of the ancients and marriage, I think of their best instincts, not their worst, and of their best behavior. “Ubi tu Caius, ibi ego Caia,” says the Roman bride to the bridegroom, and you can mine that for some pretty profound insights into what marriage is — the societas domestica, as Leo XIII put it. Or I think of the bridegroom in the Song of Songs: “My love is as a garden enclosed,” or of what Jesus says about marriage in the beginning; or of the sacred author of Genesis’ saying that Jacob served Laban another seven years, and they seemed to him like the passing day, so great was his love for Rachel … What we see from ancient literature, both the poetry and the history, is that although the customs surrounding marriage may differ widely, and although many cultures sank by a defective view of marriage, we know immediately where we are when we encounter a marriage or the hope for a marriage. We know that the girl Nausicaa is deeply smitten with Odysseus, and would marry him in a heartbeat. We know that the whole of the Odyssey has been preparing for the moment when Odysseus and Penelope will enjoy the pleasures of their love, knowing one another, says Homer with a sly smile, by signs that no one else would be privy to. We recognize Hector and Andromache, in a scene that, mutatis mutandis, we might walk in on today, with a soldier about to leave his family for deployment far away.
    The ancients were a pretty randy bunch. They were also serious about virtue, including sexual virtue. No one, not even Epicurus, would have looked upon what we have now with anything other than contempt for our effeminacy (meaning: our slack concession to physical desires) and for our valuing pleasure over virtue, ancient liberties, the education of children, and the common good. It would be enough to turn Cicero, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius into Christians forthwith — anything other than the poor paltry hedonists of our time.

  • Ms_Scotty

    Professor Esolen is rapidly becoming my favorite writer, for articles just such as this.