by Jesse Fennig
Clash Daily Guest Contributor
Virtue is not a subject that is generally discussed in modern daily life. We don’t really see it as something that can be aspired to — you’re either virtuous, or you aren’t, but really, what is virtue anyway? What one man sees as virtuous, another might see as vicious (having to do with vice — yup, that really is the origin of that word). How do we define virtue? How dare we say to someone else what is right for them?
Sound familiar? You may not have heard these exact words (I don’t think I’ve ever heard this stated clearly and openly, certainly), but I’m sure you’ll have encountered this attitude. It’s the replacement of virtue with tolerance, denying that there might be a reason to tell people “no”. “Virtue” has become a thing that is imputed to a class through the accusation of bias. Sexism, racism, classism – these accusations have replaced actual results in the measurement of virtue. It’s prevalent in modern Western culture, and it’s the thing that is destroying it. Western culture is built on a set of shared values — civic virtues, if you will — that are the bedrock of society and a foundation that, when removed, renders the rest of it hollow and meaningless.
These civic virtues are an essential part of the character of the fully realized Western citizen. Civic virtues (Aristotle called them “arete” – which means “excellence” – and so shall I) are the things that bind Western civilization together on a fairly fundamental level. These are the character traits that launched Western civilization to the heights it eventually achieved (I’m not going to presume to draw a high-water mark somewhere in history — that is for others who are better informed than I. I do not hesitate to say that it is past… and probably somewhere in the past hundred years or so), and the traits whose rejection is leading directly to our downfall.
We’re talking about things like integrity, discipline, responsibility, temperance, courage, a desire for justice, and so on. Arete is the collection of civic virtues that tie the classical men of history together in a chain stretching back to Aristotle. In the history of the United States, we have George Washington, who refused the kingship of a nation. In the history of the Church, Martin Luther, who stood on principle before the greatest authorities of his time In ancient Rome, Marcus Aurelius, who formalized a tradition of duty that, for two thousand years, the enemies of virtue have struggled to destroy Beyond these, there are a thousand thousand more nameless faces, living productive, full lives in obscurity, their great (and make no mistake, it IS great) contribution being merely that they stood. THESE virtues are the ones that Western civilization has cast aside.
When arete vanishes from a civilization, you’re left with a form without substance, staggering on through history as the individuals who make it up refuse to stand, and drag it down to collapse. This is made worse as people put their own spin on the virtues that make up arete, perverting honesty into personal truth, and integrity into sincerity, and justice into an ever-lengthening list of “-isms”. Like a healthy limb turned gangrenous, they drag at the health of the society, weakening it further with every passing day.
Want examples? Turn on the news. Rioters burn a city demanding a guilty verdict, regardless of the truth of the case. Men stand guilty until proven innocent (though penalties are paid simply because of the accusation, regardless of outcome).
Thanks to our abandonment of arete, we have an entire generation of young people who believe that society owes them a living simply because they exist, a generation of people who believe that the mistakes of the previous generations absolve them of responsibility. If this generation had arete, their reaction would not be one of entitlement or demands that they have amends made. They’d pull on their big boy pants, roll up their sleeves, and get to work. At the heart of arete is personal responsibility, and personal responsibility does not permit you to pass the buck.