1776 + 1787 ÷ 2019= TBD
People of Virtue
“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” Benjamin Franklin
“No longer virtuous, no longer free.” Benjamin Franklin
“The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure virtue.” John Adams
“Public virtue cannot exist without private and Virtue is the only foundation of Republics.” John Adams
“…free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people, but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue.” Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776
“The public interest depends on private virtue.” James Q. Wilson
Verities. Something real or True with a capital T. Verities are not dependent upon our believing them or using them. They are! We speak of “eternal verities” like what you sow, you reap, and God so loved, He gave.
Virtues. Bill Bennett says virtues are not a possession as a bead on a bracelet or marbles in a pouch, but a central element of a person’s nature. We are not born with virtues, they must be learned and become a predictable response. They are part of our moral education.
“…the training of heart and mind toward the good….Such training involves rules and precepts—the dos and don’ts of life with others—as well as explicit instruction, exhortation, and training. Moral education must provide training in good habits.” (William J. Bennett, Book of Virtues, ©1993, Simon & Schuster.)
Values. May or may not be real or true. They are totally subjective. Values do not indicate validity hence the proverb, “Even thieves have values.” Values are personal choices or preferences. They may also be a verity or virtue, but not necessarily.
Virtue has a much narrower usage today than described above. To the post-modern, virtue is linked to Victorian days or a prudish age or lifestyles. The phrase, “Defend her virtue” limits the concept and behavior to sexual morality of an earlier age—smiled at as if that naïve mindset existed prior to our sophisticated cosmopolitan worldliness.
It seems to me The Founders used both words—morality and virtue—to describe two separate, but intertwined personal characteristics. They understood virtue in context of their “engagement with the great conversation that runs down the centuries from the Bible and the classical writers of Greece and Rome.” (Guinness) The Church adds Classic Virtues, Cardinal Virtues, Classical Virtues and Mortal Virtues.
“The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines virtue as “a habitual and firm disposition to do the good.” Traditionally, the seven Christian virtues or heavenly virtues combine the four classical cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and courage with the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. These were adopted by the Church Fathers as the seven virtues.”
Aristotle had a set of virtues as did some of the French thinkers. Ben Franklin, at age 20, set down thirteen “virtues” that he would use as templates to build his character and guide his life. When the Founding Fathers spoke of virtue all of these fit into the mix, but one personal characteristic rose as the word to describe them all: Self-management or self-governing. What made Thomas Jefferson think that the Colonials could fulfill the Constitution and govern without iron-fisted overlords, kings or masters? Answer: He had seen self-government in individuals who knew how to govern themselves, therefore were equipped to govern a nation.
Virtues were not about petticoats, chastity belts and Twelve-step meetings. The Colonies had jails, switches and prisons. Those who met in Philadelphia were conscious of and took seriously that humans were fallen—capable of sin toward God, humans and themselves. The early Americans believed in redemption in response to repentance and a changed life.
A heavy underlined theme in the Founder’s thinking was the inadequacy of laws. For whole people and nation, encoded virtues are the mental referees and drivers of behavior. Tocqueville called the soulful element of virtues, “habits of the heart.” (We will later talk about Os Guinness’ “Golden Triangle of Freedom.”) More laws, tighter laws, harder punishment do not empower. A changed heart and learned Kingdom humanity does motivate and empower. The need, therefore, for religion.
I suggest that Dr. Daniel Goleman captures for our era the heart habits in Emotional Intelligence. (Bantam, ©1995) Self-Awareness, Self-Control, Self-Motivation, Empathy, Self-Restraint, Self-Management among others. These are street-level virtues that I think translate the Founder’s idea of virtues. Empathy is huge in that list and cannot be diminished.
“We humans act politically, inspired not only by faith, virtue, courage, honor, excellence, justice, prudence, generosity and compassion, but also by self-interest, self-preservation, power, greed, vanity, revenge and convenience—and wise governance must take both sides into account.” (Guinness A Free People’s Suicide, p102)
Virtues are fundamental traits of character. It seems to me the basic virtues assumed in that sweaty Philadelphia meeting room were and remain:
In George Washington’s Farewell Address he said…
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
Sometimes, when on the road I go to a coffee shop or sit in the car to read and take notes for a couple of hours. I “mutter” to God about the hard stuff and question Him. If I then travel while listening to talk radio, my stomach hurts and I get surly. Ben Franklin’s words envelop me throughout the reading, questioning and listening: “If You Can Keep It.” Despair takes over—“Not a snowball’s chance….” It feels like it is too late. We’ve already lost it.
The other morning, I was sitting in a parking lot when I read…
“The foundation of national morality must be laid in private families.” John Adams
It’s hard to describe what I experienced—as if my soul fell to the ground. More accurately, it was as if the core of the Republic—virtues—drained into the ground beneath my feet with the dread that that energy cannot be recovered. I discerned. I experienced a physical feeling of that energy flowing from the environment and atmosphere produced by what has been “laid in private families.” That energy inevitably flows either into oblivion or into the culture and individuals. And it is TBD. To be determined.
Goleman (Chapter 12 of Emotional Intelligence called The Crucible of Family) defines the emotions and elements of the teaching environment of families. Moral education is about the content.
The chaos, riots, violence, disregard for elementary sexual propriety and things like justice, respect, lawfulness are absent. All those things that keep a culture from turning to bat-shit crazy and demonstrations of insanity on the public stage have been set loose from hell. Fatherlessness and fractured families dominate Western culture. Absent from the scene is a time and place to teach. Virtues that build a United States of America and sustain it depend upon being taught and caught. They are the moorings and anchor.
Bill Bennett quotes a paragraph from Plato’s Republic:
“…Shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we should wish them to have when they are grown up!
That may be the cause of my stomach’s and soul’s reaction to John Adam’s words. Given the morning news and the current habits of education and entertainment, I question whether Plato or Jefferson or Adams could change our nation’s downward spiral. Generations (it seems) have been neglected. They have no data base that lessons and reminders can refer to.
“It is not the enemy at door, it’s the termites in the floor.”
In my hopelessness, Malachi 4:5-6 speaks to me.
“I will send you the prophet Elijah…. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers….”
Let it be so! Lord, send a company of Elijah to be builders of data base.
©2019 D. Dean Benton Wonderer, Writer