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    Thoughts on Moral Virtue {Part II}

    August 8, 2008 by Brandy Vencel

    Mary had always been good. Sometimes she had been so good that Laura could hardly bear it. But now she seemed different. Once Laura asked her about it.

    “You used to try all the time to be good,” Laura said. “And you always were good. It made me so mad sometimes, I wanted to slap you. But now you are good without even trying.”

    Mary stopped still. “Oh, Laura, how awful! Do you ever want to slap me now?”

    “No, never,” Laura answered honestly.

    “You honestly don’t? You aren’t just being gentle to me because I’m blind?”

    “No! Really and honestly, no, Mary. I hardly think about your being blind. I–I’m just glad you’re my sister. I wish I could be like you. But I guess I never can be,” Laura sighed. “I don’t know how you can be so good.”

    “I’m not really,” Mary told her. “I do try, but if you could see how rebellious and mean I feel sometimes, if you could see what I really am, inside, you wouldn’t want to be like me.”

    “I can see what you’re like inside,” Laura contradicted. “It shows all the time. You’re always perfectly patient and never the least bit mean.”

    “I know why you wanted to slap me,” Mary said. “It was because I was showing off. I wasn’t really wanting to be good. I was showing off to myself, what a good little girl I was, and being vain and proud, and I deserved to be slapped for it.”

    Laura was shocked. Then suddenly she felt that she had known that, all the time. But, nevertheless, it was not true of Mary. She said, “Oh no, you’re not like that, not really. You are good.”

    “We are all desperately wicked and inclined to evil as the sparks fly upwards,” said Mary, using the Bible words. “But that doesn’t matter.”

    “What!” cried Laura.

    “I mean I don’t believe we ought to think so much about ourselves, about whether we are bad or good,” Mary explained.

    “But, my goodness! How can anybody be good without thinking about it?” Laura demanded.

    “I don’t know, I guess we couldn’t,” Mary admitted. “I don’t know how to say what I mean very well. But–it isn’t so much thinking, as–as just knowing. Just being sure of the goodness of God.”

    [snip]

    Everyone knows that God is good. But it seemed to Laura then that Mary must be sure of it in some special way.

    “You are sure, aren’t you?” Laura said.

    “Yes, I am sure of it now all the time,” Mary answered. “‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside the still waters.’ I think that’s the loveliest Psalm of all.”

    -From Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

    For the first two weeks of school, we spent some time studying Sandro Botticelli’s Fortitude. Fortitude is part of a collection of seven works {Botticelli only painted the one} to appear in a sort of courthouse. The seven works were depicting the seven virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity {the theological virtues}, and Temperance, Prudence, Fortitude and Justice {the cardinal virtues}. Many consider fortitude to be the foremost virtue, or the virtue upon which all other virtues must rest.

    But before I go into too much depth concerning this, I think it is important to note that the idea of virtue implies much more than good behavior. It implies strength. This is why we can look at a medicinal herb and discuss its virtues, even though it has not a will with which to make moral decisions. The virtue of the plant is where its power lies, what use it has in this world.

    Fortitude itself is a virtue of strength. It is the virtue that can overcome our powerful emotions. It is the virtue which empowers us to sacrifice for others, to deny ourselves in favor of a greater good. It isn’t mere courage, though courage is definitely involved here. Courage doesn’t necessarily require good theology. However, fortitude rests in exactly what Mary mentioned in the long exerpt above: the conviction of the goodness of God. It does not negate fear, but it assures us that God is superior to our circumstances in every way, and that His ways are higher than ours.

    Fortitude is transcendant, focusing on eternal matters.

    So what does all of this have to do with yesterday’s discussion concerning moral virtue in general and abstinence education as an example? Everything, friends. Everything.

    Ours is an emotion-driven culture. Emotion-driven cultures are completely antithetical to the concept of fortitude. If we, for instance, try to encourage goodness through an appeal to the emotions {fear of consequences, confidence in one’s own specialness and value, etc.} we will fail. We might either produce offspring who appear good while they are actually proud {and longterm such pride will result in sin for pride stands in opposition to a holy God}, or we will produce offspring who are tossed by the winds and waves of their circumstances. They will have no strength to stand, with only their own specialness to stand upon.

    To go back to the Wilder excerpt, I find it interesting that the young, proud Mary and the older Mary both appeared to be good. But only the mature Mary, the Mary who rested in the conviction of God’s goodness, truly attained virtue. It was this latter Mary who was able to stand in times of trouble.

    So the next question for me is how do I attempt to cultivate true moral virtue in my children. I know that, on the whole, such a thing is an act of God’s grace. However, I also firmly believe that I am capable of actions that direct my children toward or against true virtue. That gives me something to think about for the next post.

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