A Rose By Another Name

The subject is virtue; the rose of human behavior.

Personally my favorite flower is the Morning Glory, but the rose is universally acclaimed for its beauty and its proliferation in kind as the result of intense cultivation. Both its beauty and capacity for variation make it the perfect image for this web log series on virtue. The concession to be made at the outset is to appreciate virtue for being like the rose, as a thing of beauty, requiring devout attention in order to induce its awe-inspiring qualities.

It also allows me to do an opening line riff on the 1964 Pulitzer Prize winning play by Frank Gilroy, The Subject Was Roses. More pertinent to this series, however, is to lay claim to the sentiment expressed by the English poet, John Keats, who wrote “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” If virtue does indeed qualify as a thing of beauty, then we are on a path to experience joy as self-rewarding gift for our efforts.

The particular path we are on is based on Karen Swallow Prior’s book On Reading Well, published in 2018 by Brazos Press, a division of the Baker Publishing Group. A key element in her methodology is to read virtuously, believing that the experiences of literary characters presented well by any author will influence the development of virtue within the reader. We learn from them the same way we learn from family, friends and other acquaintances with the added benefit that fictional characters are not confined to the real time, real place limitations real life imposes on us. In other words we can survive with Ishmael the sinking of the whaling ship Pequod without getting wet. 

Professor Prior follows The Great Tradition of literary criticism in her expositions on virtue. The result is an examination of the classical concept of virtue by matching twelve of its most celebrated traits with twelve literary works of acknowledged merit. For example, she explores the virtuous trait of prudence as Henry Fielding presented it in his 1749 novel The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling. Her technique should not come as a surprise since she is a professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA. If there is any objection to this format, it will come from those who dismiss The Great Tradition as archaic and the concept of virtue as quaint in today’s relativistic society.

Prudence is one of four traits, which are traditionally categorized as Cardinal virtues. The other three are temperance, justice, and courage. The origin of this classification is with Aristotle, who taught that these four traits were essential for a person to become a valuable contributor to the viability of any community. It is also thought that all other virtues hinge (the original meaning of the word cardinal) on these four traits.

The second classification Professor Prior adheres to is the three Theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Anyone familiar with the New Testament will likely recognize the Apostle Paul’s proclamation that these three virtues abide, with the greatest of the three being love.

The virtues in the third category, known as the Heavenly virtues, number seven, a significant number in Christian teaching symbolizing spiritual completeness or perfection. The seven virtues in this group are charity, temperance, chastity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

This systematic establishment of a hierarchy of virtues is not universally shared. Even the words used to identify these virtues are subject to alteration by way of synonym substitution. One example is the exchange by some of the word of fortitude in place of Aristotle’s preference for courage.

These three categories, though traditional in a Western world shaped by Greek philosophy and Christian theology, suit the good professor and they most assuredly suit me. I’ve already confessed in the opening message to this series that I am looking for, nearly begging for, a means to get back to writing as a weekly discipline much lacking during my Covid-19 stupor. Therefore I suggest that acceptance be viewed as a virtue, prized by those of us in need of assistance.

Next week the subject will be prudence.

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