How to Practice Virtue (by Chasing Hookers Away with Red-Hot Pokers)
Every other Friday in D-List Saints, Luke T. Harrington explores one of the many less-than-impressive moments in Christian history.
If there’s anything we’ve learned from the internet, it’s that we all (apparently) hate virtue. Which is weird, when you think about it, since virtue, according to the dictionary (yes, I’m opening with a dictionary quote, feel free to borrow that idea if you’re writing a graduation speech), is defined as “moral excellence, goodness, or righteousness,” so you’d think more people would be in favor of it. You’d be wrong, though: open Twitter, and you’ll find a veritable parade of people railing against something called “virtue signaling,” which, from the sound of it, is the Worst Thing Ever. And I can only imagine that if signaling virtue is that bad, virtue itself must be pretty bad as well. (This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that most of these anti-virtue-signaling-virtue-signalers are supporters of Donald Trump, whose entire life has been an active attack on the very idea of virtue—unless you count raw power in itself as a virtue. And if that’s you, thanks for reading, ghost of Ayn Rand!)
I’m just gonna go out on a limb for a second here, though: What if… virtue is actually a good thing? What if virtue is something worth striving for? What if the Twitter nihilists are ever-so-slightly wrong? I know it’s far-fetched, but bear with me for a sec: maybe, if we all practiced virtue—that is, moral excellence, goodness, and righteous—just maybe the world would be a nicer place to live.The great thinkers of the Mediterranean have already identified the seven virtues and how you can acquire them! It doesn’t get much easier than that.
I’m just spitballing here.
And I know what you’re thinking right now: “Ugh, Luke, practicing virtue sounds good in theory, but how do we even start? How do we even know what virtue is????” And while your vaguely postmodern whining is very convincing, dear reader, I have good news for you! It turns out that the great thinkers of the Mediterranean have already identified the seven virtues and how you can acquire them! It doesn’t get much easier than that.
So, here’s the short version: Aristotle identified as many as eleven virtues, but—lucky for you—you don’t have to deal with that mess, because Plato managed to distill it down to four “cardinal” virtues: prudence (the ability to use reason), fortitude (bravery), temperance (moderation in the indulgence of passions), and justice (fairness). Further, Plato had a surefire method for how you could cultivate these virtues: you simply behave as if you already had them. If you do brave things, you eventually will become brave! And so forth. Easy, right?
“But Luke!”—I can already hear you saying—”Plato was a pagan! What could he possibly teach me, a Christian, about morality???” And I’m happy to report that I have the answer to that one as well: If we jump forward 1,500 years or so, we’ll run into the great Dominican Friar St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote (among other things) the Summa Theologica, a work so influential that the Roman Catholic Church basically just pointed to it and said, “Uh, yup, that’s our theology right there.” (His writing was also hugely influential on Protestants as well—Reformers like Luther and Calvin studied him extensively.) And while he wasn’t the first to apply classical thinking to Christian theology, Aquinas was arguably the first figure to systematize a way to combine the two.
As Aquinas saw it, there were two types of truths: those that could be attained through reason, and those that required revelation. So while certain truths were only revealed in Scripture, Aquinas also felt free to draw heavily from pagan and Muslim sources, since those guys were as capable of observing the world and using their intellect to arrive at truth as anyone. Therefore, Aquinas says, Plato was right about the four cardinal virtues—prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice are all things we can agree are good, simply by observing the world and using our reason. However, Aquinas added to the cardinal virtues three “theological virtues” that are revealed only through Scripture: faith, hope, and charity (astute readers will recognize these from the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians). So there you go: now you have seven habits to learn if you want to be a highly effective person. (Hmm, that’s catchy.)
And I know what you’re going to say next: “That sounds great, in theory, but how can I actually put this stuff into practice???”—and that sounds like as good a pretext as any to tell you this story about Aquinas and a hooker.
There’s a case to be made that Summa Theologica almost didn’t happen, since Aquinas was under a ton of pressure from his family not to join the Dominican Order. As the youngest in a family of wealthy Sicilians, Aquinas was expected to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and become a Benedictine abbot, but Benedictines were known for living fairly comfortably, and Aquinas felt called to the life of poverty and preaching embraced by Dominicans (bing, temperance). Most families would have been like, “Eh, one religious order is as good as another,” but not Aquinas’s, who made the perfectly reasonable decision to lock him in a tower until he changed his mind.
Rather than acquiesce, Aquinas held firm (bing, fortitude) and spent his year in the tower exchanging letters with the Dominicans (bing, hope) and teaching his sisters theology (bing, faith). Eventually, though, Aquinas’s brothers decided that enough was enough, and they just needed to mellow the guy out by hiring him a hooker. (Ostensibly, this was an attempt to ruin Aquinas’s Dominican vow of chastity, but it seems like doing that would have made him ineligible for the Benedictines as well. My guess is the brothers just wanted an excuse to solicit a hooker.)
Aquinas, of course, saw through the scheme right away (bing, prudence) and encouraged the prostitute to turn her life around (bing, justice). Oh, and then he chased her out of his room with a red-hot poker. So he probably could have stood to work on the whole charity thing a bit, but y’know, that’s six out of seven.
And, in any case, according to legend, angels visited Aquinas that night and urged him to hold fast to his Dominican vows, and maybe to cool it with the fireplace implements. Renewed in his resolve, Aquinas eventually escaped from the tower, joined the Dominican order, and crystalized Christian virtue theory, thus paving the way for you to make fun of people you disagree with on Twitter. You’re welcome.
Aquinas is not his last name. Aquinas is where he comes from. Thomas (of) Aquino would be the most accurate. So refer to him as Thomas, not Aquinas.
Yeah, I know. But referring to him as “Aquinas” is fairly common practice, even in academic writing, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Criticising virtue signalling is not criticising virtue, quite the opposite. We might well describe virtue signalling a having a form of virtue but lacking its power. People who do it aren’t engaged in anything that’s actually virtuous, but are pretending to do so in order to look good in the eyes of the world. They are the people Christ spoke of in Matthew 6 – ““Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
If virtue is a good thing, then faking virtue is a bad thing.
I’m aware that’s what it’s supposed to mean. But given the caliber of people who tend to criticize “virtue signaling,” and the sorts of acts they tend to refer to as “virtue-signaling,” that’s not at all what it means in practice.
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