The Core Virtues

Why are there so many lists of virtues? And why are so diverse in nature?  Some of them are feelings, attitudes, or states of mind.  Others are words and deeds, action virtues. What if there were core virtues that were values, attitudes, states of mind, a personal cosmology that governs how we encounter our inner selves and our outward experiences? From these core virtues would then flow all the virtuous actions, including words, as well as refusals to act.  Virtues like courage, compassion, and generosity would be the outward displays of the core attitudes and feelings that govern our thinking, believing, and experiencing.

I suggest that Saint Paul almost had it right in the three Christian virtues, all of which are at the core of who we are as people, attached to the soul.  Those three are love, hope, and faith (as trust).  I would add a fourth, which is grace or  gratitude (or a close kin, reverence). Having these four habits of the heart, as Bellah mght say, will be manifested in a corresponding cluster of virtues.

Paul also called to our attention the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 22–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The first three are the inner rewards, but the others are behavioral virtues.  He contrasts them with what he calls the works of the flesh, a long list–fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.  A rather odd list, but certainly a forerunner of the seven deadly sins, especially in the emphasis on bodily sins.

Love to Paul meant agape love, brotherly or sisterly caring and concern for others.  Jesus admonished his followers to love their neighbors as ourselves, to feel for them the same intensity of concern that we give to our own person. The love or loving kindness core virtue is manifested in such behavioral virtues as respect, kindness, patience, compassion, tolerance or acceptance,  fairness or justice. The absence of that core virtue results in anger, envy, lust, and pride, all of which are expressions of a drive for power and/or control over others.

The virtue of hope does not mean optimism, which does not result in actions but just leads us to wait for good outcomes.  Rather, it is what Joanna Macy calls active hope—seeing the possible future and working  to bring it about. Hope is manifested in commitment, responsibility, courage, and that odd little virtuous behavior that was a favorite of Aristotle, prudence. Hope leads us to dream dreams and see visions. Patience is also a manifestation of hope. Hope is realistic, as opposed to either pessimism or optimism. It  evokes the virtue of moderation, the fulcrum of the golden mean that upholds the virtues  with the virtue’s opposite on one end and its extreme on the other. The absence of hope leads to the sins or vices of fear, despair, and sloth. The Latin word for hope is spes (as a noun) or sperare (verb). To give up hope is to fall prey to despair—literally, anti-hope.

The third Christian virtue, faith, is often translated as belief, but belief is not always a virtue, depending on what you believe (or believe in, or believe about).  An alternate translation of this word (credo in Latin) is trust, which means believing in the goodness of others and of institutions—not naïve credulity, but an attitude grounded in original blessing rather than original sin. A “trust but verify” or “Trust Allah, but tie up your camel” kind of faith, a responsible trust that is similar to the idea of active hope. From this trust come many of the same virtuous behaviors that flow from love and hope.  Trust means honoring the divine light in others with respect and acceptance, courage in the face of uncertainty,  and taking responsibility because you trust others to do likewise. A lack of faith or trust, like a lack of love, leads us to self-protecting behaviors at the expense of others—again to the seven deadly sins that express a desire for power and control because we are unwilling or unable to depend on others to meet our needs.

To these three I suggest that we add a fourth, gratitude, which is the subject of an entire book by theologian Galen Guingerich.  But I believe this fourth core virtue needs to be renamed for its root word, grace, to keep it simple in companionship with faith, hope and love. The Latin word is gratia, as in Ave Maria, gratia plenis—Hail Mary, full of grace. If you are of a more Protestant turn of mind, the same word appears in that most famous of all Protestant hymns, Amazing grace. To possess grace means to have an appreciation that we did not earn what we have, whether it is our possessions, our status, our gifts and talents, or the gifts of nature. Grace, or gratitude, is manifested in generosity, compassion, justice or fairness, responsibility, simplicity, kindness, reverence, respect.  The absence of this virtue is to be ungrateful, or even worse, disgraceful, which is expressed all seven of the classic deadly sins–pride, envy, greed, sloth, anger, lust, and gluttony.

Living and working for, in, and with communities requires all four of these virtues and their resulting behavioral virtues in order to create a living space in which people, animals and earth can flourish and nurture one another.

The moral of this philosophical/theological rant?  Cultivate the core virtues of love, hope, trust, and grace, and the others will follow.

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