Commentary

Virtue leads to a Culture of Life

Originally Appeared in : 9921-10/10/19

I have just finished reading Douglas Murray’s new book, The Madness of Crowds, a trenchant critique of the push to “identify” ourselves as narrowly as possibly by race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.  Murray essentially argues that the divisions between the current advocates for the “communities” currently in the limelight threaten to undermine our common humanity and thus do not provide a firm foundation for a new “post-modern” (“post-Judeo-Christian”?) ethic.

 

Over the 256 pages of The Madness of Crowds, Murray questions some of the positions being urged on us in a way that reminded me of the seven capital vices or “deadly sins.” What follows is a reflection on a culture gone mad, a reflection prompted by Murray’s book but entirely my own and for which I take sole responsibility.

 

The “seven deadly sins” are deeply rooted vices (vitia) — attitudes, internal temptations that incline us to commit actual sins. Traditionally these cardinal sins or deadly vices are as listed follows.

 

  1. Pride (superbia) is the self-centered arrogance that makes us exalt ourselves; pride “goes before a fall,” because it prompts us to refuse God’s help, as if we could accomplish everything on our own.
  2. Greed / avarice (avaritia) is an inordinate desire to accumulate things, as if they can satisfy our deepest longings. Greed can stifle the impulse to be generous with our neighbor in need.
  3. Envy (invidia) not only covets what is our neighbor’s but resents our neighbor for having what we do not; it makes us want to take from others out of spite if we cannot otherwise get what they have. Envy expresses ingratitude to God, who has apportioned his gifts to each according to his wisdom and will.
  4. Anger or wrath (ira or iracundia) is wrath against other persons that, taken to extremes, can lead to murder and other mayhem. Anger is a deadly sin when it is directed against persons, especially the innocent.
  5. Lust (luxuria) is inordinate sexual desire, leading its victims to commit licentious acts outside of and in contradiction to marriage or celibacy. While sexual desire is natural and is intended to bind a couple together in love, so that new life may be procreated, lust is an inordinate desire for self-gratification, pleasure for its own sake.  
  6. Gluttony (gula) is an inordinate hunger to consume (“take in”) food, drink or drugs that makes its victims unable to stop inordinate “intake,” especially when the things consumed are used as anesthetics rather than for nourishment.
  7. Sloth (accidia) or sadness (tristitia) is a spiritual laziness, depression or anxiety that causes its victims to cease trying to live in accordance with God’s grace and paralyzes good works.

 

It seems to me that our culture now actively promotes vice and, as we will see, discourages and disparages virtue. We are encouraged to take pride in our weaknesses; to overvalue material things; to envy what others have and are; to be outraged at whatever the media tells us to take umbrage; to place no bounds on lust (except for the sake of political correctness); and to narcotize ourselves with drugs, if no longer to grow fat from overeating.

 

Is it any wonder that there has been a demonstrable increase in depression and anxiety, especially among the young, or that, as Murray points out, forgiveness is in short supply in a culture that forgets nothing and has lost the “mechanisms” for mercy?

 

In this regard, Saint Paul, in the fifth chapter of his masterful Letter to the Galatians, wrote: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

 

But the Apostle to the Gentiles continues, “In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.” Saint Paul contrasts the “works of the flesh” with the fruit of the Spirit.”

 

Might we see the same contrast between the deadly vices mentioned above with their opposite virtues to be discussed below?

 

While taking a course in Medieval Latin in college, I was struck by a passage that had been assigned to the class for translation. In it, Caesar of Heisterbach (ca. 1180-1240) prescribed the following virtues as remedies for the seven deadly vices: 1. humility (humilitas) for pride; 2. generosity (largitas) for greed; 3. leniency (lenitas) or mercy for anger; 4. charity (caritas) for envy; 5. chastity (castitas) for lust; 6. abstinence (parcitas) for gluttony; and 7. spiritual joy (spiritalis iocunditas) for sloth.

 

My prescription: cut out vice, practice virtue. If enough of us were to cultivate these life-giving virtues as antidotes to the deadly vices currently “prescribed” by the “powers that be,” our Culture of Death could be transformed into a Culture of Life, to God’s glory and its own—and our salvation.

 

Father Douglas K. Clark is the retired pastor of Saint Matthew Church, Statesboro.

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