“Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age” President Obama’s Inaugural Address.
The Virtue Deficit
The deeper crisis is not lack of liquidity in the economic system but the lack of virtue in individuals called to be stewards of the system. It was the lack of virtue that led to the poorly conceived laws (imprudence ), the injustices and deceits between borrowers and lenders, cowardliness in the face of a vicious media, and the greed and lusts (intemperance ) in men’s hearts that created the conditions for the economic crisis. There was a lack of vision of what is truly good for humans and how to help everyone achieve these real goods (prudence). Everyone thought first only of their own self-interest and rarely of the good for everyone concerned (justice). Men were afraid to take-on the political correctness that sways the weak-minded masses through media outlets and which has insinuated itself throughout every bureaucracy and institution; men lacked the will power for the long hard fight (fortitude). We are more concerned for immediate self-satisfaction instead of lasting satisfaction through self-denial and patient and wise stewardship (temperance). How can we confront such a multi-tentacled beast and cast out the web of deceit that now darkens America’s great light?
Where are the statesmen genuinely concerned with ensuring the preservation of the Union? Can we not see why people are so easily forecasting our dissolution? Do our public leaders no longer understand the role of virtue in making the body politic strong and healthy? The underpinning of the economic problem is a moral decay; throwing money at it will only make it worse. The Founding Fathers frequently wrote of the need for virtue among the citizenry in order to make the Constitution work and also the political economy it was designed to protect. If today’s leaders do not understand this, we should be very concerned about the viciousness that has been allowed to develop within the citizenry as it will be difficult to reverse such a self-inflicted wound.
Not to recognize and support something as simple as the common basis for morality, which was present at our nation’s founding, is little better than injuring a tree’s roots; and trees with damaged roots usually fall. It does little good to have a Constitution if the citizens don’t have the necessary critical mass of the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude) needed in order for the Constitution to work as intended. Politicians must know their value and how to foster their proper formation to meet the ends of our Constitution. The Constitution was not born in a vacuum and virtue is not formed instantaneously. The Constitution was birthed within a citizenry that had the prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude needed to make it work. These virtues were even more pronounced in the earliest citizens who were further trained in them as they persevered in the War for Independence and suffered tremendous hardships to obtain the vision within their Declaration of Independence.
The Point of Virtue
The classical virtues, better known as the moral or cardinal virtues, gave capacities to the citizenry to make the union work, and that union was much like a marriage. As in any marriage it will fail if one does not have the needed moral virtues and capacities to sustain it. If just one of the spouses lacks the virtues it takes to make a marriage work, the marriage may also fail. Even worse: if the wider-community does not uphold fidelity, the marriage finds little external support. Thus, if a spouse is unable to practice temperance and gives-in too easily to lust, then infidelity will wreck the marriage. Lack of justice and temperance within a nation will just as easily wreck commerce and destroy trust. Virtues do not come easy…they are developed by constant practice and acquired through sufferings until they become second nature. One must be trained from an early age in virtues or find them all the more difficult to achieve amidst shackling vices.
Only after much struggle and practice does one play the piano with ease. The same is true about being human, only after much struggle and practice does one acquire what it means to lead a life lived freely and lived well. Of course someone is free to bang on piano keys and never struggle to learn how to make music that fills the souls of others with beauty. Just as truly one is free to be human and bang around in society much like a wild ass (and this seems today’s norm). However, when one is trained in the cardinal virtues from an early age until they become one’s own, then one becomes greater than he was…as human potential becomes actual and a life of grace is realized. When a child is trained in discerning good from evil, he learns to make better choices for the future (prudence ). As one is trained in justice , he learns to care for his neighbor’s good and develop stable society. As one is trained in temperance he learns self-restraint in order to have the needed virtues to live for others and not just himself; he can give of himself because he is in possession of himself instead of possessed by his passions. As one is trained in fortitude he learns to face threats to himself and his community and he recognizes that self-preservation is not always the greatest good. In this development of a human life, he is made capable of obtaining the true goods of life and greater freedom for living is discovered. The development is always a struggle, entailing some suffering — as all training does — but the pay-off is beyond measure: a human that makes life beautiful for all those around him.
The citizenry of America were shaped in the cardinal virtues — by Christian families and by the hardships of the War for Independence — according to a standard that preceded the Constitution. The prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude which the citizenry understood and practiced — upon which the Constitution depended — didn’t come from just any tradition. These virtues were guided, formed and practiced in accord with the Ten Commandments…as understood within the traditional Judeo-Christian context. No lawyer of that time (Christian, Jewish, Deist or Agnostic) would have denied the Ten Commandments as the underpinning for law within the United States and the governing of relationships; nor would they have thought to undermine them. As then, so should we now be suspicious of the prudence of anyone who would undermine the Ten Commandments as the guide for virtue formation in modern Western civil life.
But how pragmatic is it to insist that the Ten Commandments are the moral underpinnings of our law today, when we live — as we are reminded endlessly — in such a diverse society? That is the question we will take up in Part Two.