Although man is corrupt by nature, he is capable of acquiring virtues. He is born with a number of dangerous instincts, but he is capable of tempering and sometimes even stifling those instincts so that they do not flower into evil…

The traditional virtues have all but disappeared from today’s language.

Hardly anyone seriously talks about judiciousness, righteousness, courage, and temperance, let alone chastity, fidelity, and humility. Over the past five decades, these notions have become archaic, and we often no longer understand their meaning.

This disappearance is of some significance. It indicates that traditional morality, in which these virtues occupied center stage, has gradually faded and is about to disappear both from our culture and from our consciousnesses. The crucial question is, of course, how we should assess this development. Is it a curse, a blessing, or of no significance whatsoever? We cannot provide a meaningful response to that question unless we have some understanding of traditional morality.

And that, in turn, requires us to revisit the archaic notions mentioned above, to review their sense and meaning. In other words, we need to return to the sources.

Defining Virtue

To begin with: why is there is such a strong emphasis on virtues in traditional morality?

To understand that, we first need to know what virtues are: characteristics, talents, capabilities, or something else? The tradition is absolutely unequivocal in its definition. Virtues are good habits that have become second nature. Virtues are qualities—character traits, if you will—that are not innate but which most of us can and must acquire by dint of constant practice. We must strive to acquire these virtues, for they are good for all men.

“What is learned in the cradle lasts till the grave” applies here. Childhood is the ideal time to acquire virtues, for moral education. Accordingly, the institutions that play a primary role in this process are the home and school. While moral education is of great significance, I must leave it aside here since it would distract us too much from the question at issue: why there was such a strong emphasis on virtues in traditional morality.

The short answer has always been: because man is inclined to all evil. But that is too concise to stand on its own. Just like a mathematical formula, its conciseness is a distinct advantage to those who already understand it. Yet, when it comes to the uninitiated, the conciseness may merely frighten and drive them away.

What does it really mean when we say that man is inclined to all evil? It means that man is corrupt by nature. It means that man is born with a number of dangerous instincts. It means that man does not spontaneously and automatically do what is right, not for others and not for himself. It means that man is susceptible to temptations that, if yielded to, can reduce him and his fellow man to misery.

Yet that too is an explanation that will only satisfy those who already understand and believe it. The above description prima facie resembles the sort of excessively morbid and therefore unrealistic view of man that is peculiar to misanthropes. And if that were the whole story, we would be right to reject it.

Raw Material

But evil is merely the beginning of the story, the raw material, as it were. Although man is corrupt by nature, he is capable of acquiring virtues. He is born with a number of dangerous instincts, but he is capable of tempering and sometimes even stifling those instincts so that they do not flower into evil. He is susceptible to temptations, but he is not defenseless against them.

Perfection in this sublunary world can only be aspired to, never achieved. Even though moral perfection is beyond man’s reach he is not doomed to do all evil. He is merely inclined that way.

What counts is the battle against the evil within us. We can never win decisively, but this battle certainly need not be lost. To fight this good fight, the main requirements are a certain amount of mistrust toward oneself, a measure of willpower, and perseverance. One must beware of the enemy and show character in battle. Everything else is in the hands of God or—if you prefer—Providence or Fate. And he/that is something we cannot control; we can only hope and pray.

As we have by now surmised, there is such a strong emphasis on virtues in traditional morality because they can save man from the evil within himself. Virtues derive their meaning and significance from the presence of evil in man.

Those who do not believe in man’s inclination to evil will not assign any value to virtues, either. Those who see evil in only a few things peculiar to man will admit only a few virtues. Many of us acknowledge only one real virtue: tolerance. This mirrors the fact that in recent decades the meaning of evil, to the extent that it can be laid at man’s door, has dwindled to little more than intolerance.

Three Ways Evil Escalates

The traditional understanding of evil is much broader. Evil is equivalent to the forces of chaos, dissonance, and corruption that spring from human nature. Good is equivalent to the opposite spiritual forces of order, harmony, and growth. The forces of chaos, dissonance, and corruption can assume many guises. Let me emphasize three very troubling general characteristics that are inherent in them.

First, our daily battle against these forces is an unequal battle, since the inclination to evil that dwells within us is more normal and natural than the desire to do the good. Evil just drops into our laps, we effortlessly surrender to it, and it is strong as a weed. The good requires that we keep up the battle until our dying day. Order, harmony, and growth are hothouse plants that demand endless care. Stagnation, in the sense of resting on one’s laurels, does indeed mean decline. Fortunately, practice does make more perfect: experienced gardeners achieve more with less effort than those who are turning the first year’s sod. Virtues are good habits.

Second—and this may be even more disturbing—evil tends to replicate and escalate, as if it were a bacteria. Take a difference of opinion between men, for example. As such, that is no evil. But how often that escalates into a heated argument, and perhaps a brawl. That, in turn, can easily lead to blows.

As tempers grow more and more heated—sometimes flamed by the ingestion of “firewater”—chances are that some will get hurt. Sometimes men are even killed. Others may hate each other for the rest of their lives, and take every opportunity to do each other an injury. This not uncommon example provides the fodder for many a good book and movie.

In the third and last place, evil is “contagious”—it easily infects bystanders. Take an altercation. Bystanders are often inclined or forced to take sides. Before you know it, a family, an association, a company, or a society breaks up into two or more factions that will fight one another by fire and sword (or their modern equivalents) for years and even generations to come.

We can each think of numerous historical examples. Man is the world’s foremost quarreling animal. This too is a consequence of his social nature. It takes more than one virtue to make him live in peace and friendship with others—and himself.

This essay is excerpted from Andreas Kinneging’s book The Geography of Good and Evil. Republished with gracious permission from Intercollegiate Review (March 27, 2019).

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The featured image is a detail from “Allegory of Time Governed by Prudence” (1550) by Titian, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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