Author Archives: Don Meyer

Diligence

We are now onto the second of the so-called Heavenly virtues as described in the book On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University. The format of her book and the model on which these messages are based is to provide a survey of thought on the meaning of a virtue matched to a well-known literary work as a form of illustration.

This week we are considering the virtue of diligence. Professor Prior provides the lineage of the word, beginning with its Latin origin concerning something or someone of great value, highly esteemed or dearly loved. Later it came to describe an attentive nature or carefulness in one’s behavior. Today we are more likely to use diligence to indicate a “steady, persistent effort.” The professor’s literary choice to help illustrate this virtue is John Bunyan’s 1678 novel The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The original publication had a subtitle to help us understand that the progress indicated in the title was “from this world to that which is to come,” making heaven the ultimate destination of an otherwise earthly journey. Prior’s use of this work is focused solely on part one of Bunyan’s final manuscript, covering the solitary pilgrimage made by a man known as Christian. Part two, published in 1684, was something of a sequel, following the similar journey made by Christian’s wife, Christiana, their four sons and a female companion named Mercy.

The Pilgrim’s Progress part one is regarded as the most often read English language book. It is an allegory, richly populated by people and places whose names convey their character. The protagonist, Christian, is often dissuaded in his travels by characters such as Obstinate, Pliable, Timorous, and Mr. Worldly Wiseman, while being aided in his trek by Faithful, Goodwill, Hopeful, Evangelist and the shining ones. His heavenly destination is called the Celestial City, but to get there he must avoid the snares of the Slough of Despond, the Hill of Difficulty, Vanity Fair and Doubting Castle.

For Prior, Christian’s arrival in the Celestial City is proof of his diligence. My own assessment of Christian, however, is that he perseveres. A diligent person is certainly not perfect, but is less likely to deviate from the prescribed path than someone else lacking in this virtue. Christian strays often. By contrast a diligent person’s attention to detail restricts the parameters within which they make decisions, no matter how difficult or unappealing the consequence of their decisions may be. They tend to tread a path that is straight and narrow.

Bunyan’s character is intentionally flawed so that through Christian’s ordeal the author can showcase the types of trials and tribulations a person of faith will encounter in life. Christian’s waywardness and occasional entrapment requires the need for redemption through the help of others. He lacks the kind of discernment one associates with the virtue of diligence. However, he does persevere despite his faults, exemplifying the grace of God available to those who believe.

You can see that I retain and emphasize two early qualities ascribed to a diligent person; an attention to detail and a careful ordering of one’s behavior. This can no doubt be attributed to my professional training as an accountant and more specifically to my role as an auditor. Success in this field reveals a person’s commitment to a goal of discovery, where evidence is pursued, tested, evaluated and thereby used as the basis for reaching conclusions about the financial health of an organization. Experience leads me to believe that a diligent person has a goal to which they commit and faithfully pursue. The goal is not always attained, hence the validity of a comment Prior makes in her text that “Although applied to a goal, diligence itself is not measured by outcome.” Diligence describes the quality of the effort. An engaging story will typically contain a gratifying ending to reward the quality of any pilgrimage.

My own offering for a literary work demonstrating the virtue of diligence is the Charles Portis 1968 novel, True Grit. While the grit in the title refers to the character of Sheriff Rooster Cogburn, Mattie Ross, the novel’s narrator and chief protagonist, is the personification of diligence. She is on a mission to bring her father’s killer to trial and throughout her own pilgrimage, the fourteen year old exhibits the qualities of a diligent person.

She introduces herself at the outset of her narrative as her father’s bookkeeper, a role that gives us an early indication of her attention to detail and the very careful ordering of her behavior. This image is emphasized later when Mattie finally encounters Tom Chaney, her father’s killer, and he identifies her as Little Mattie, the bookkeeper.

Her tenacious horse trading and thrift at the boarding house in Fort Smith, Arkansas are presented in a humorous light, as is her negotiations with Cogburn about a fair wage in bringing Chaney to justice. Mattie is as dogged in her recital of the terms of their deal throughout the length of the narrative as she is in reminding Cogburn, as well as a Texas Ranger named LaBouef, about the goal; bringing Chaney back to Fort Smith to stand trial in Hanging Judge Parker’s court for the murder of her father. Her intense focus runs counter to LaBeouf’s insistence that Chaney be taken to Texas to stand trial for killing a state senator and his dog. Mattie’s contemptuous response is that Chaney will not hang for killing a dog.

Technically, Mattie fails in her quest. Chaney is killed but not by hanging. The just result she sought is denied her. Prior’s insight bears repeating that “diligence itself is not measured by outcome.” Mattie’s diligence is unquestionable and that is the point to be made, at least as far as this message goes. A diligent person is recognizable by an unwavering commitment to a goal, faithfully pursued through one’s attention to detail, which subsequently guides all other well-ordered and compliant actions.

Outcomes may vary and in this life they likely will.

Chastity

This week we start on the third and final segment in our discussion about virtue. Segment one was the Cardinal or hinge virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Courage. They were highly regarded in ancient Greek philosophy as essential for there to be a stable society.

Segment two centered solely on a statement made by the Apostle Paul, from which were derived the Theological virtues: Faith Hope and Love.

Segment three is about the Heavenly virtues of which there are seven. Two of these have already been covered, Temperance and Love. The remaining five are Chastity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness and Humility.

The provenance of the seven Heavenly virtues goes back to an attempt by the early Christian teachers to identify the counterpoint to the proposed seven deadly sins. Since both lists have morphed somewhat over the centuries, the connection between the two is a little tenuous. But seven is a significant somewhat holy number in the Christian faith as reflected in the biblical references to the seven-fold spirit of God. So to retain this final collection of virtues is a virtuous gesture within itself.

We are following the lead of Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University. In her book On Reading Well, her method of encouraging us to think deeply about the subject of virtue is to match a prominent literary work to the speculative discussions by philosophers and theologians. The theory is that in literature we can learn about virtue from those fictional practitioners and profligates, who inhabit some of the best works of prose. This means we do not have to behave in like manner in order to prove a point; a gracious allowance when reading about a profligate protagonist – of whom there are many.

Professor Prior’s choice of Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel, Ethan Frome, as the source for enhancing our understanding on the nature and value of chastity once again puts me at a disadvantage for having never read the book. But just gleaning a few details from Prior’s recap and accessing the internet’s version of Cliff Notes (aka Wikipedia) I am inclined to think that Wharton was a master of innuendo. She was a writer during America’s Gilded Age and thereby required to suggest but not show the full frontal impact of something like the antithesis of chastity, which is lust.

Lust is the topic at hand in Wharton’s story, cleverly introduced by an engaging scene of a dance held in a church, normally considered a place of worship. Jane Austen demonstrated the power of the dance as a social gambit in a restrictive society in her novel Pride and Prejudice. Couples who are limited in their personal contacts with others can experience a reverie in close, physically active proximity when they join in the dance.

Ethan Frome is no more than a casual observer of this joyous ritual, looking through a church window. He is pictured as the consummate outsider looking in. Even though he is not a direct participant in the dance, he is still aroused by the mere sight of a young woman’s youthful movements; a sensation which is irreparably enhanced by her wardrobe malfunction; her red scarf slips back on her head. How unfortunate it is for the married Frome to find himself sensually ensnared by such an unintended gesture. Wharton, however, is very savvy for using the juxtaposition of a woman’s pleasing movements, the color red, and a casual slip of a garment. The man is hooked.

Wharton laces her story with another subtle metaphor to help us read into the lives unwinding in her text. The young woman who is the object of Frome’s male gaze is Mattie Silver and silver – as everyone knows – is regarded as a very valuable commodity. Men of greed have done terrible things to possess it and Frome, though Wharton gives us reason to feel sorry for him, is revealed to be just such a scoundrel. The greed of lust compels him to find ways to gain Mattie’s favorable attention until his enticement of Mattie to join him in his romantic fantasy proves to be just as effective and just as tragic as the words spoken by the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Frome’s hypochondriac wife forces him to send Mattie, their housemaid, away. Instead the yet to be consummated affair ends with a suicide pact of dubious credibility on Wharton’s part. It puts me in mind of how Alfred Hitchcock got Tippi Hedren to trap herself in a room filled with a flock of vengeful birds. She pays the price for her stupidity. So do Frome and Mattie, who agree to ride a sled down a hill and into an elm tree with the intent of dying in each other’s embrace. The reality is that Frome is maimed in the collision and Mattie crippled.

The story ends with Mattie staying with the Fromes; confined actually. Literally there will be no more dances to arouse poor Etan Frome, who is confined himself by the responsibility of now caring for two complaining women.

Ethan Frome is a framed narrative. This is a technique where the main part of the story (told in the usual third person narrative) is framed within an opening and closing first-person account by a disinterested character. Using this format allowed Wharton to spring her surprise ending on her readers. It makes her story, like those of her fellow New Englander Nathaniel Hawthorn, Twilight Zone worthy. We only need to cue the music and invoke the spirit of Rod Serling to bring his classic opening and closing narration to support Wharton’s clever plot twist and drive home the novel’s moral assessment regarding the evils of lust.

The lack of a more positive statement about the value of chastity places me once again at odds with the good professor’s choice, since I do better seeing virtue in action rather than extrapolating its value from someone else’s decadent behavior. That’s too much mental work for the likes of me. I recognize the problem of portraying chastity in a positive light, even in a fictional context, since our culture typically labels any adherent as a goody two-shoes. Life’s a bitch that way.

Chastity is also considered to be synonymous with virginity, limiting the concept to one’s sexual activity or lack thereof. It takes on a greater depth when one considers that chastity has a twin; modesty. A chaste life is one of modest reserve in all aspects and reveals itself in one’s appearance, which eschews glamour, and behavior, which rejects the desire for generating attention by living one’s life as a public spectacle. The subtle result is a life well-lived for the benefit of others.

Furthermore, chastity, if regarded at all, is likely thought of as a feminine trait. Fictional characters like Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 tale of the same name or Agnes Wickfield in Charles Dickens’ 1850 novel David Copperfield are credible examples of those whose chaste behavior reveals a commitment to the wellbeing of others. Men need not despair, however, at the thought that we must forever be portrayed in fiction and in life as lustful interlopers into the otherwise happy existence of women. We have as our champion of virtue James Fennimore Cooper’s action hero Natty Bumppo of the Leatherstocking Tales.

Cooper’s 1841 novel, The Deerslayer, was the last of the five Leatherstocking novels to be written but the first in the chronological sequence of Bumppo’s adventures. Today we would call it a prequel. A young Natty Bumppo appears on the scene already famous for his long rifle skills, hence his sobriquet and source of the book’s title of Deerslayer. A more mature Bumppo is better known as Hawkeye from the previously published and more popular novel The Last of the Mohicans.

Cooper gives more depth to Bumppo in The Deerslayer than in his previous novels by giving him more in the way of emotional conflicts to resolve in addition to the struggles to defeat the bad guys in mortal combat. One of his issues is his personal encounter with killing his first human being. Another is more to the point of this message, how to respond to the proposal in marriage proffered by the beautiful Judith Hutter. Beyond her beauty, Hutter is intelligent, courageous, devoted to her younger sister and loyal to her friends. The sticking point for the Deerslayer: Hutter’s reputation is one of amorous indiscretions openly committed among the officers she meets in the then frontier of upstate New York.

Hutter sees in Bumppo a person of many virtues, which she overly romanticizes by referring to Bumppo as her hoped for Adam to help her start a new life in the frontier’s semblance of Eden. Bumppo’s keen eye serves him well in this instance as he sees in Hutter’s overture a doubtful fantasy, something Mattie Silver could not discern in Ethan Frome’s enticements. More importantly for us, Bumppo cannot bring himself to compromise his Moravian Christian beliefs for the sake of embracing someone, whose physical beauty is compelling but insufficient to seduce in light of a staunch character. Chastity prevails.

It is naive to think that we can be so morally pure that we cannot be tempted. Beauty is an attraction we cannot deny. Lust, however, is the perpetual desire for an illicit pleasure. Ethan Frome shows us that lust can be ignited in an instant but takes time to be fulfilled. To experience a moment’s pleasure at the sight of someone who meets our personal beauty requirements is normal. The relentless stalking of the object of our obsession, no matter how stealthily done, is lust on the make. It is greed for a commodity, which can only render the pursuer morally bankrupt.

Chastity is selfless, seeking another’s good. And clothed with modesty its dance moves more gracious to the soul of both the dancer and the observer.  

Love

This week’s topic is love – everybody’s favorite virtue.

This is the third and final installment on what are known as the Theological virtues; faith, hope and love. And the literary work chosen by our mentor, Professor Karen Swallow Prior, is The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy. First published in 1886, its storyline is likely richly influenced by Tolstoy’s own journey of faith, which undertook a significant transformation in the decade prior.

Tolstoy moved towards a more aesthetic perception of faith after reading German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s writings. He affirmed his Christian beliefs, but adopted a greater sense of self-denial and pacifism, which brought him into conflict with the practices of the Russian Orthodox Church and the pre-revolutionary state. His creation of the character Ivan Ilyich espouses the complete opposite lifestyle in terms of being fully absorbed by material possessions and the pursuit of worldly status by imitating society’s ruling elite.

Ivan Ilyich views people as he does any other tangible accoutrement of success. People are valued for their celebrity factor and he gathers them as adornments in a manner reflecting his choice of décor in his home and about his person. For Ivan such things reflect the quality of a person’s attainments. For Tolstoy they are shallow, disposable and unimportant to our real need of love and relationships. Ivan Ilyich finds that out too late to shape his life, but the realization does impact his journey towards death.

The people in Ivan’s life, his family and associates, reflect their role as fixtures by being unable to show compassion when Ivan sustains a fatal injury. They look upon his suffering as an inconvenience in their own lives. Innately they desire his demise as the means to “release the living from the discomfort caused by his presence.” The exception to this emotional void is the servant Gerasim.

There is a great deal of displeasing acts one must undertake when serving as the caregiver for another. The displeasure can be enhanced when the service is performed for someone who is incapable of caring for even their most fundamental needs. The caregiver and the recipient are bound together in humility, which Tolstoy seems to advocate as the necessary condition for the presence of unconditional love. It is through Gerasim’s service that Ivan attains some peace in the face of his own mortality. Death loses its sting as promised for the faithful.

In her own explanatory narrative Professor Prior identifies the four Greek words for love to distinguish between the acts and relationships that we generally characterize with the single word love. There is storge (empathy), philia (friendship), eros (desire), and agape (unconditional love). All four are missing from Ivan’s life resulting in his emotional suffering, which mirrors his physical condition. The pain becomes so excruciatingly unbearable that Ivan endures the last few weeks of life screaming. Gerasim’s agape love is the means by which Ivan belatedly grows in spiritual wisdom and eventually finds relief from his agony.

The presence in our lives of all four aspects of love is essential to our sense of wellbeing. They define our relationships with others and indicate the complexity we encounter in shaping each relationship with the appropriate type of love exhibited for the benefit of others.

An instructive example can be found in the Gospel of John, which ends in a manner completely different from the other three accounts attributed to Matthew, Mark and Luke. John’s final episode involves a meal prepared by Jesus for his disciples. The setting is the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee after a long night of hauling in empty nets by the fishermen. The establishment of a relationship is the focus of the after dinner conversation. This is the episode in which Jesus famously queries Peter three times about the nature of his love for Jesus. What we lose in the translation of this exchange is that the first two times Jesus askes Peter “Do you love me?” he does so using the Greek word agape to which Peter can only reply with the Greek word philia.

Compassion reigns in this exchange as Jesus changes his expectations of his most ardent but unnerved disciple by lowering the standard of his query into their relationship. The third time he asks Peter “Do you love me?” Jesus uses Peter’s word, philia, to which Peter can truthfully and comfortably respond in-kind, affirming his feelings of brotherly love for the one he calls Lord and Savior.

By stepping down his expectation of Peter’s confession, Jesus displays his own unconditional love by meeting Peter at a level Peter can sustain at that moment. Such love elicits truth when we allow others to love us less, believing it to be a temporary expression of who we are together. It is informative to see that many years later Peter’s growth was on display when he advised his own followers about the nature of love learned years before at that seaside retreat:

“… make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, philia (brotherly kindness); and to brotherly kindness, agape (love).”

This is the path to effective and productive relationships.

Hope

This is our second message about the Theological virtues identified for us by the Apostle Paul, who wrote to a fledging group of first generation Christians that three things abide – are always present – faith, hope and love. To examine the qualities of this second virtue, we are following Professor Karen Swallow Prior’s technique of using a popular literary work to illustrate the nature of a specific virtue. Her choice for our enlightenment is The Road by Cormac McCarthy, published in 2006.

This is another case where I have not read the book. However I have seen the 2009 movie version, staring Viggo Mortensen, and feel that I have a passable understanding of the story, supplemented further by essential details provided by Prior in her expository narrative for her book On Reading Well. Thereby I hope to do McCarthy’s highly praised work justice in our own journey to a better understanding of an abiding virtue.

The Road is firmly rooted in the post-apocalyptic genre, which is very prevalent in movies, TV and literature these days. It is also a minimalist work in its form and representation of the setting in which a father and son journey towards some form of redemptive future. It is described as being near the sea, where they will find greater warmth and hopefully fellowship in the company of like-minded souls.

The father provides the impetus for the arduous journey through his eclectic teaching. He assures his son that the two of them, but especially the son, are good guys, who carry the fire. The latter quality is not defined, but should resonate with the reader as a post-apocalyptic version of being the keepers of the flame; the ones who retain some ideal of warmth and light to elevate the human spirit above that of shear animalistic survival.

That the book never defines what it means to carry the fire is of no consequence. The father and son are fictional characters after all. The meaning is deemed to reside within the reader, the only one who can be truly shaped by this story. And that is what Prior is after in her book On Reading Well, the realization that good literary works affect us by shaping our own character through insights gained from the fictional lives concocted in an author’s imagination.

Prior makes use of The Road to symbolize hope, but acknowledges that first it displays the virtue of love as shown in the relationship between the father and son. We can take this even further and say that in McCarthy’s story all three of the Theological virtues – faith, hope and love – are present. The son reveals faith in all its purity by his reliance of his father’s instruction. Even when the son questions his father’s actions, he willingly accepts the response, assured by the refrain that they carry the fire. The son’s trust in his father’s undefined phrase justifies all.

Hope abides in us all. The father and son’s journey in The Road demonstrates our need to find purpose outside the self, something transcendent, to sustain us in our hope that life has meaning. That we see in this story that hope is best revealed in combination with the other Theological virtues is not surprising. The unknown author of the biblical book Hebrews shows the relationship when he writes “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1 King James Version)

The sequence expressed in this statement is correct. Faith engenders hope. As I wrote in last week’s message faith is not blind. It is the consequence of experience. We say that we put our faith into someone or something based on the evidence we encounter. I have faith in Karen Swallow Prior as a teacher based on her position as a professor of English at Liberty University and by what I have read so far in her own writings. Because of this faith I hope in her ability to provide further insights into the nature of virtue. This is the type of good result hope seeks to find in some future attainment no matter how difficult or delayed the result may be. An example of something far more potent than the hope I have in the good professor’s teaching can be found in the Apostle Paul’s letter to his student Titus, when he wrote of the blessed hope, “the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Titus 1:2)

Prior relies on the philosophical teachings of the Dominican Friar Thomas Aquinas to illustrate another significant combination of the Theological virtues. Aquinas taught that hope leads to love and action. We see this in the father’s decision to save his son following his wife’s suicide, the consequence of hopelessness. Love for the boy and hope for the attainment of a safe haven prompts a journey of epic proportions. Prior writes, “What else but love, the fruit of hope, could fuel the fire of such an arduous action as survival in a post-apocalyptic world?”

The Road retains the elements of a hero’s journey defined by Joseph Campbell based on his research into the epic stories of the past. The one distinction from his literary predecessors I would claim for McCarthy, though, is the element of fellowship. The bond between the father and son as they share in the experience and inspire one another’s actions is the antithesis of the classic hero as a lone warrior. Think of Perseus slaying Medusa or the 12 Labors of Hercules and you get the idea. Modern day versions of a life journey tend toward buddy stories. Father and son have more in common with Frodo and Sam than they do with their mythic forebears such as Orpheus’ lone descent into the underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice.

A post-apocalyptic scenario allows any author to posit entirely new values in a world that is essentially a morally blank slate. However, even though the setting may be in a post-apocalyptic world but the reader is not. The terms of the writing, no matter the form, must remain understandable to those of us who take up the book in the present age.

The values of the protagonists in The Road reflect this dynamic. The “good guys” are easily recognizable as they retain the white-hat persona of a Hollywood western hero, while those of the “bad guys” reflect the traditional storyline found in such works as William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. Good and evil do not vanish beneath the ashes of a dead world. They are merely accentuated by the absence of material distractions. Something transcendent must remain. Hope fulfills this need as do its companion virtues faith and love.

Faith

Today we start a three part subset of the topic of virtue by discussing the nature of the Theological Virtues proclaimed by the Apostle Paul in what is described as his first letter to the believers in the Greek city of Corinth. These three virtues are faith, hope and love and as you can see from the title this week’s message is about faith.

The process we’ve been following aligns with the work by Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University. Her book, On Reading Well, addresses the topic of virtue by using literary works to help us better understand the concepts behind twelve virtuous traits historically categorized by philosophers and theologians as cardinal, theological or heavenly.

To illustrate the virtue of faith, Professor Prior chose the novel Silence by Shusaku Endo, published in 1966. I was not aware of this book before reading Prior’s own work nor have I seen Martin Scorcese’s movie version released in 2016. So my perception of the author’s intent is limited to what Prior reveals in her own narrative about the storyline. Therefore at the outset I must admit to an inability to fully appreciate Endo’s desired impact for what is regarded as his masterwork.

Silence is a fictionalized account of a true episode in Japanese history, the hunt for and execution of hidden Christians in the mid-1600s. The protagonist is a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Sebastiao Rodrigues, sent to Japan in 1639 to investigate the rumors of apostasy by another priest. Rodrigues is the fictional representation of a real priest sent to Japan during that time for the same purpose.

Endo pictures Rodrigues as initially condescending towards the Japanese Christians he encounters. He is eventually betrayed to the local authorities, who devise a compelling test of his faith, which they term a mere formality. This test calls for Rodrigues to step on a wooden plaque bearing the image of the crucified Christ. The authorities view such an act as a renunciation of a person’s Christian beliefs. Their enticement for Rodrigues to accept this mere formality is centered on his ability to thereby alleviate the suffering of those Japanese Christians, who are being subjected to a harsh torture in his presence.

Endo imbues his story with his own form of stimulus for Rodrigues to step on the plaque as the priest perceives the voice of Christ speaking from it, giving Rodrigues permission to step on him. Following his act of submission to the officials’ demand, Rodrigues is given a Japanese name and wife and forced to live the rest of his days essentially as a captive. All the outward trappings of his Christian faith are totally stripped away to the point that upon his death he is given a Buddhist burial.

The question Endo’s novel raises is whether a person can be a Christian inwardly without any external expression of faith as is seemingly mandated by the words of Jesus who said, “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32-33) My guess is that most of us fail to explicitly express our belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior outside a close knit circle of family and friends who share our beliefs. In that regard how does that make us any different from the shamed priest?

I am not sure that Silence is really about faith, but about beliefs. These are two different things. Endo was Catholic and while his story is based on historic people and events, his beliefs determined the fictional details and the outcomes of his representative characters. The importance of the wooden icon is one prominent indicator of how his own beliefs influence the consequence of Rodrigues’ actions. Another is the voice of the Christ emanating from a carved wooden plank. Implied in the balance of Rodrigues’ life is the concept that a person can commit the unpardonable sin. The concept of faith is subsequently lost beneath the weight of a person’s self-imposed limitations to its efficacy.

Faith may be the most common of virtues. We all live by faith on a daily basis. We don’t consider this to be true, however, when our faith is not placed in a religiously prescribed deity. But think about a driver’s faith in the belief that fellow drivers will obey the rules of the road within a humanly reasonable scope. A red light means stop, green means go. White lines designate lanes in which we are to guide our vehicle. Double yellow lines mean no passing of frustratingly slower drivers. Faith abides in these circumstances.

Such faith is not blind. It is based on experience. Experience also teaches us to be wary of potential offenders, who interpret a yellow light as a cue to speed up or attribute stop signs at an intersection as a suggestion, not a requirement. We cannot possibly handle all of the decisions we must routinely make without the use of faith in place of objective analysis. The burden of thought is just too much for a simple mind to constantly bear. We are inclined to call our choices intuition, however, not faith.

Experience based faith follows a biblical model. When Jesus changed the water into wine, John – an eyewitness – says that “He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.”  These are the same men, who were already convinced that Jesus was the promised Messiah after meeting him at the Jordan River, where the prophet known as John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus to be the Lamb of God. John, the gospel writer, tells us that later, after Jesus was raised from the dead, these same men “believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.” Between these two episodes other events occurred where the disciples and those present put their faith in Jesus based on what they saw, heard and even ate, as in feeding a multitude with a few fish and loaves of bread.

This repetition indicates that faith is not static, but dynamic. Whether we say that it grows or matures is immaterial. It is enough to understand that faith is unlike our material possessions, whose features never change. Faith retains its essence, while constantly expanding in its ability to be awed by events. It grows through experience, even in the lives of the most faithful among us.

Prior’s choice of Silence as an appropriate literary work to study the virtue of faith is problematic for me. As I have confessed in previous messages, I learn more easily when I see positive representations of any virtue rather than piecing together some semblance of the truth through a character’s negative qualities.

Children’s stories likely offer a more positive expression of faith than do adult novels, which can never seem to wholly escape the bonds of cynicism no matter the storyline. Think Pollyanna or Heidi or The Secret Garden or The Little Princess and you get the idea of the persistence of faith in the face of adult inspired adversity. Little wonder, then, that Jesus himself insisted that to enter the Kingdom of God one must do so as a little child; trusting, dependent and faithful.

Endo’s control of his story can be seen in his choice to provide an ambiguous ending to the travails of a beleaguered priest. A Protestant writer may have been more inclined to allow Rodrigues to exert a valid Christian influence through his charitable treatment of others rather than by requiring him to make explicit statements about the way of salvation being solely though the only begotten son.

That Rodrigues would hide his beliefs after his act of supposed heresy is normal. In fact it is in keeping with biblical pronouncements. The prophet Amos wrote about the oppression experienced in his time that “Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times, for the times are evil.” (Amos 5:13)

From Plato to Paul

This current series of messages centers on the book written by Karen Swallow Prior entitled On Reading Well. Published by Brazos Press in 2018, the book’s title is what initially attracted my attention. I am a reader. I came to it by an awkward path, emulating my older brother and finding myself bewildered by the topics he was engaged in; the bewilderment largely stemming from the six year difference in our ages. Fortunately the reading habit stuck despite my confusion.

Reading, though, is not the topic of these messages. Virtue is. Or shall I say a select few of the virtuous traits traditionally proclaimed by scholars are the subject at hand. Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and the format of her book, intended to encourage us all to be better readers (better being an attribute of understanding and not mechanics) matches historically recognized attributes of virtue and how they are portrayed in prominent literary works.

Virtue is a topic of importance to me. I approach it more from the concept of character building, which appears to no longer be a concern of our educational system as it once was. And if my own understanding of our current culture has any merit, then I would say that the prevalence of relativism as the standard of thinking has denied the importance of character and replaced it with the cult of personality. So Prior’s book has struck a major chord with me. Not that we agree on everything, but that her perspective is a stimulus to my own thinking about what I believe to be true about virtue.

The first section of her book examines the four Cardinal Virtues of antiquity; prudence, temperance, justice and courage. The Greek philosopher Plato gets the credit for identifying these four traits as essential for the viability of any society. The word cardinal is applied to them since its original meaning was hinge. The implication is that all other virtues hinge on these four foundational virtues and over the centuries philosophers and theologians have added a great number of virtuous traits onto Plato’s initial prescription.

The second section of Prior’s book is based solely on the Christian perspective that three virtues abide throughout all the conditions and situations we encounter in life. These three virtues are faith, hope and love. The origin of this thought can once again be attributed to a single person, the Apostle Paul, who informed a group of first generation Christians residing in the Greek city of Corinth that these three things continually reside in the heart of each believer. As such they prove to provide evidence of a person’s character by the behavior they subsequently inspire.

My next three messages will address these virtues in the sequence Paul gave them. However, there is an issue contained in Professor Prior’s writing that I wish to address in advance since I think that it reveals a significant difference in our perceptions of virtue. She writes that faith hope and love “occur in their true sense not through human nature but by God’s divine power.” That is a statement I cannot make, at least not in keeping with my current concept of we as humans and what we can attain no matter our choice of religious or philosophical beliefs.

I take literally the claim made in Genesis 1:27 that we are created in God’s image. For me this profound statement implies that we are all endowed with the ability to exhibit all the attributes of God’s character, which means all of these virtues that we as mere mortals have discovered and aspired to live by. They are fully attainable for each person. What differentiates the Christian from everyone else can be found in the apostle’s further teaching about our lives no longer being our own. We live the life of Jesus, who spiritually resides in us, shaping our thoughts and deeds so that we become imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children. (Ephesians 5:1)

It is not the what that truly matters in our speculations about the nature of virtue, but the why. If we therefore embrace the thought that we are striving to imitate the nature of the one we love as our Creator-Father, then our maturity in these things will grow in proportion to our concept of his presence in our lives. For me this means every virtuous trait will find its fullest expression through God’s divine instruction.

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (II Corinthians 4:6)

Courage

This week’s message concerns our fourth and final look at the cardinal virtues of antiquity. Courage, as the title clearly indicates, is that virtue and the literary work chosen by our guide, Karen Swallow Prior, to illustrate this virtue is Mark Twain’s 1885 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The “The” we are prone to use as a prefix to Huck’s adventures was added later to accommodate our preference for placing articles before titles.

By way of review, I like to begin each message with an attribution. I am using Prior’s book, On Reading Well, to prompt my own thoughts on the broader topic of virtue, which I regard and refer to as character building. Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University. I do disagree with her on a few minor points, but must concede on the depth and breadth of her reading compared to my own less academic tastes. Her knowledge in these matters is far superior to my own.

That said, my relative position in academics has not prevented me from having my say as we work our way through her well defined path for appraising the merits of a virtuous life. This is where we can cue Faye Dunaway’s character in the Dustin Hoffman movie Little Big Man to inform us all that a virtuous life is its own reward.

Courage is defined in Professor Prior’s book as “the habit that enables a person to face difficulties well.” She, like the Greek philosophers and Christian theologians, who expounded on the value of cultivating a virtuous life, draws a line between courage and bravery. To be brave or bold is not tied to the concept of being virtuous. A villainous person can be brave. For our consideration courage – or fortitude as some have deemed it – always has a virtuous goal. Prior writes “Courage is measured not by the risk it entails but the good it preserves.”

Huckleberry Finn fits into her concept of courage as someone who faces the racial prejudices of his day and overcomes internal conflict by going against the oppressive forces of hate when helping to free Jim, a runaway slave. This brings to mind the words of the prominent political historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. He spoke of Huck as the archetype of the American character and referred to the boy’s decision to risk the fires of hell in order to defy the law and free Jim as “the finest scene in the greatest of American novels.” Of this appraisal I am more than a little skeptical.

Huck is an observer. He is similar to his English cousin, David Copperfield, in providing a first-person account of what he sees on his life’s journey and struggling to reach a proper interpretation of both people and events. The comparison between Finn and Copperfield goes even deeper as Twain’s original concept for the book was to tell Huck’s story from boyhood to adulthood, just like the story arc of Copperfield’s life. Both “boys” are far less colorful in character than those who surround them and carry the storyline for them in directions at which the supposed heroes can only marvel.

Twain lost interest in his own project and set it aside to pursue other interests. When he took it up again, his original concept of Huck’s story changed, fortunately for all of us. Huck’s adventure through life is recast as a journey down the Mississippi River on a raft with Jim. Both are runaways, who are carried along by events as inexorable as the current of the river. And within the repurposing of Huck’s story is the reason why I would invoke the concept of courage as it pertains to this novel; Twain’s own moral fortitude to craft an honest story about the antebellum South. It is not a harsh critique of the times and people of his youth. In fact there are moments when Huck, Twain’s alter ego, acknowledges the virtues of various men and women he encounters along the way. Twain does, however, disparage the institution of slavery on which the Southern economy depended, albeit from the safety of his New York home.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a children’s story. Racism, alcoholism, abuse, theft, murder and fraud are staples of the story. Although told by a boy, just as a young woman tells the story of the racism encountered in her childhood in To Kill a Mockingbird, Huck’s adventures were intended for an adult audience, just like Mockingbird. That it continues to be a target of censorship should not be surprising. The novelty of the characters’ colloquial speech appropriate to the day includes terms unacceptable in our own current culture. Twain was even pushing the envelope in his day and it is this lingering tendency towards shock and offense that is for me the greatest indicator of courage in the story. Sensibilities have and will continue to be violated – for the greater good.

Justice

We are following a line of least resistance in staying true to my goal of writing a weekly message after a long and inexcusable absence. The path laid out for me was set down by Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University. In her book On Reading Well Professor Prior examines twelve formative virtues traditionally admired in our western culture by showing how they are defined by philosophers and theologians and dramatized by the authors in twelve works of fiction. This gives me the opportunity to relate those insights by way of these messages and to add my own comments of dubious value.

One caveat professor Prior makes is that her choice of books to illustrate each virtue may be done as a counterpoint; the trait becoming meaningful to us, the reader, by way of the protagonist’s truly adverse behavior – Jay Gatsby being the poster child of conspicuous consumption in a study of the virtue of temperance. I, on the other hand, learn best from positive examples so am likely to offer, as I do this week, a literary work, which prompts us to aspire to be like people who bear the trait well.

Here’s the thing, though. This week I also find myself in a position to quibble more about the Professor’s presentation than with any other discussion about virtue we have covered thus far. For instance:

Quibble #1 – Justice is not a virtue; it’s an outcome. A moral person is just, but we lack an acceptable word in the English language to go along with prudence, temperance and courage. So we settle for justice to fill our vocabulary gap, because we view the word justness as awkward and eschew the word righteous as having only a religious application.

Quibble #2 – Professor Prior writes at the outset of her chapter that “Justice is the morality of the community.” My take is that justice is the measure of the morality of the community. It is an indicator of an entire society’s version of emotional intelligence.

Quibble #3 – Most of Professor Prior’s presentations on each of the virtues begins with the classical definition of the virtuous trait based on Greek or Roman philosophers, supplemented by the thoughts of Christian theologians. Then she applies their perspective to the plot and characters of a prominent literary work. What’s missing is any reference to ancient Hebrew philosophy, a system which is very applicable in this case as the Hebrew Scriptures have a lot to say about justice.

The topic dominates the writings of Israel’s prophets. The lack of justice is identified as the cause of the nation’s punishment by exile under the Assyrians first and the Babylonians second. Justice was the equitable application of God’s law in any dispute regardless of social status or wealth. The true measure of a just system was based on how decisions impacted three of the least powerful classes in the Hebrew society; orphans, widows and aliens.

This reflects the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted by Prior from his Letter From A Birmingham Jail: “A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” That King’s thoughts mirrored those of the ancient Hebrews is appropriate since he served as a Baptist minister and a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Professor Prior’s selection as her literary choice for discussing the virtue of justice is Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities. His is a cautionary tale as he parallels the injustices of the British legal system with that of 18th Century France, whose abuses led to the French Revolution and the era known as the Reign of Terror. Think of a guillotine being used as a source of entertainment, if you haven’t read the book or seen the 1935 film version, starring Ronald Coleman, and you’ll get the idea of how vengeful and unjust the era was in its attempt to correct the abuses of the aristocracy the revolutionaries replaced.

So here is my Quibble #4: I find the book an odd choice for the topic of justice. While it does follow the Professor’s pattern of choosing great literature to illustrate a virtue by showing us what it is not, I would say that this story is more about redemption than justice. Legal proceedings are a major part of the storyline, but justice is never truly served in either the institutional settings of dubious virtue or in the personal relationships of the principal characters. Justice of the most primitive sort is only meted out in fatal conflicts between the victims and their oppressors.

Dickens’ protagonist is the reprobate Sydney Carton. He does achieve redemption at the story’s end by making a Christ-like sacrifice in subjecting himself to execution by guillotine in place of the innocent man he resembles.  The validity of his Messianic gesture is affirmed by his articulation of a vision of better times for those he loves, giving a young female victim the courage to face the end with him. His soliloquy ends, before the metal blade consummates his sainthood, with the well-known words, “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It’s a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.”

As an interesting aside, it strikes me as an chilling coincidence that while Dickens was penning his masterpiece on the prevailing injustices of both the 18th Century French and English societies, Victor Hugo was preparing his manuscript on a similar topic, the injustices taking place in 19th Century France, to be published in 1862 under the title Les Miserables. Justice is obviously hard to come by.

My alt suggestion for a more positive impression of the search for justice is Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The children, Scout and Jem, occupy center stage in this compelling drama, but the person who prominently displays a just character is their father, Atticus Finch. He is Plato’s virtuous man. Prudent, temperate, courageous and just he takes an unpopular stand when he agrees to defend a black man, Tom Robinson. Tom’s supposed offense is the attempted rape of a white woman, made all the more onerous because the story is set in the deep south of the Jim Crow era.

It is a rare feat that in a popular story, the hero loses. But it is an honest outcome. Justice is not attained, but it is clearly identified as a credible choice lost beneath the prevalence of bigotry. That we are still dealing with the cries of racial injustice voiced by groups such as Black Lives Matter, makes it evident that the unintended message of Les Miserables remains the same; justice for the poor is hard to come by.

The prophet Isaiah voiced the words of God for laying the foundation of a moral community: “I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line.” (Isaiah 28:17) Righteousness remains the standard by which justice is measured.

Temperance

I am working my way through the book, On Reading Well, to explore the concept of virtue. This is not exactly the author’s intent for her readers as the book’s title indicates. Professor Karen Swallow Prior does want us to read well by suggesting a few guidelines for helping us delve deeper into the form and content of a book as a means to enhance what people often refer to today as our emotional intelligence.

Key to Professor Prior’s methodology are four concepts to help us plumb the depths of any literary work by 1) reading a wide array of literature (what she calls reading promiscuously),  2) reading slowly as opposed to being a casual reader, 3) underlining and making marginal notes to help underscore vital points in storyline and character development, and 4) reading virtuously. It is this latter concept, which fundamentally shapes the format for the rest of her book.

Professor Prior looks at twelve literary works to show us how each one illustrates specific virtuous traits in keeping with those historically identified by philosophers and theologians as essential for personal and social wellbeing. For Aristotle this meant the attainment of the ultimate purpose for one’s life, happiness.

The first section of the book examines the four cardinal virtues, which the Greek philosopher Plato proclaimed as foundational in each citizen for sustaining the viability of any society. The four include prudence, temperance, justice and courage.

Last week’s message was my response to how Professor Prior used Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, to teach about the virtue of prudence. This week the pairing is F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, to discourse on the virtue of temperance.

The Latin word temperantia was used by Cicero to translate Plato’s use of the Greek word sophrosyne, which may be more appropriately translated into English as moderation. To be temperate is to moderate our behavior, traditionally applied to our basic appetite for food, drink, and sex. But the character of Jay Gatsby shows us that intemperance is not limited to how we indulge our cravings for these three things. The accumulation of material possessions in an ostentatious display of wealth is an outward manifestation of an intemperate spirit.

Gatsby’s demonstration of conspicuous consumption emanates from his pursuit of a former lover. His obsession propels him to acquire great wealth – as evidenced by his mansion, lavish parties and pricey clothes – to entice the fickle Daisy back into his life. It doesn’t work, but that is the only spoiler you’ll get from me in this message. Read the book or watch one of the cinematic attempts to tell this story within the allotted running time of a movie to learn of Gatsby’s fate.

I will tell you is that what Jay Gatsby and Tom Jones have in common is that neither one is the exemplar of their respective virtues under consideration. We learn about temperance in Gatsby and prudence in Jones by what’s missing from their lives. The lesson, if any, seems to come from a sense of loss for what might have been had they behaved differently, as in virtuously.

It is hard to find a prominent literary character, who personifies temperance (or prudence for that matter). In my reading experience the virtue of being temperate seems to be left to supportive female characters, such as Bronwen in Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel How Green Was My Family or Mary Vertrees in Booth Tarkington’s 1915 novel The Turmoil. Further, it seems to me, that the gift of temperance revealed in these women is reflected as much in their physical appearance as in their behavior. Both are beautiful but not glamorous, poised without being rigid, graceful in their movements, slender, soft spoken, arresting though modestly dressed and present without being domineering.

Consider Tarkington’s description of Mary Vertrees as he hints of her internal qualities through the simple act of watching her play a piano. He writes, “There is no gracefulness like that of a graceful woman at a grand piano. There is a swimming loveliness of line that seems to merge with the running of the sound, and you seem, as you watch her, to see what you are hearing and to hear what you are seeing.”

We typically refer to the lack of temperance or moderation in a person’s appetites as the need for self-control. But such a banal analysis ignores what is truly at work in the individual, whose behavior craves some satiation in the form of food, drink, sex or (like Gatsby) acquisitions. At stake is the suppression of feelings; food, drink, sex and possessions becoming the narcotic for sedating an awareness of our own emptiness.

My idea of a temperate person is expressed in the words written by the Apostle Paul in a letter addressed to a small fellowship of Christians in (appropriately enough) the Greek city of Philippi. He told them of his own experience with living a life of moderation by saying;

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Philippians 4:12

Contentment: it is the hallmark of a temperate person.

Prudence

A few weeks ago I committed myself to a series, perhaps unwisely, on examining various aspects of virtue. To say the choice lacks wisdom is ironic since such a topic requires a great dose of wisdom in order to comprehend and write about it, even casually, with some sense of meaning.

The thought that I could do it was based on the use of a certain intellectual crutch by following a path of investigation already established by Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University. The crutch is her book, On Reading Well, which provides an analysis of twelve virtuous traits, identifying their classic definition and illustrating how we can experience them in literature instead of sitting at the feet of some modern day Socrates, Plato or Aristotle.

Chapter one deals with prudence, considered by many to be the queen of virtues. And here I need to stop long enough to make an editorial announcement about the use of gender specific terms in this series. The ancients portrayed virtue as female. Professor Prior retains that imagery. But anyone who needs to see the world as non-binary can do the reconstruction of my writing in their heads since I will, for the sake of ease, follow the good professor’s means of expression – to a point.  If I differ at all, it will be because I define things a little differently based on my own profession as an administrator of modest commercial success in a very competitive marketplace. For example:

Professor Prior writes: “Virtue requires judgment, and judgment requires prudence.” I am reluctant to use the word “judgment” since its fullest implication leads to condemnation, which leads to punishment. My revision of her sentence would simply substitute a word like “decisions” for “judgment” and then stress that an effective decision making ability requires prudence and courage (another virtue to be discussed in this series).

It’s not just the good professor with whom I respectfully disagree. She quotes the venerable Cicero, who defined prudence as “… the knowledge of things to be sought, and those to be shunned.” My own take on this is that prudence is mental action, reasoning, whereas Cicero seems to imply that prudence is simply a repository of acceptable behaviors. If so he reflects Solomon’s endless catalogue of proverbs to be recited at the appropriate moment to characterize a person or event.

We acquire knowledge throughout our lives. Prudence, to my way of thinking, is the ability to correctly apply that knowledge to the ever changing array of circumstances we encounter in order to choose the most favorable outcome. It is decision making on the fly.

I think this does bring me into harmony with the ancient belief that prudence is the application of practical wisdom as opposed to the more erudite concept of wisdom as the purveyor of sophisticated abstract reasoning, what the Greeks called sophia. Prudence, derived from the Latin word prudentia, which implies the ability to foresee outcomes, by comparison is a type of wisdom accessible to all despite the relative merits of our intellectual prowess.

The structure of Professor Prior’s book is to illustrate her concept of each virtue under consideration with a highly regarded work of literature. For the subject of prudence, she chose The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, by Henry Fielding. This puts me at a disadvantage since I have never read the book. So to compensate for my literary deficiency I consulted Wikipedia, the Cliff Notes of the internet, to learn more about the storyline and its characters. This, however, only added to my confusion about the choice of this book about a kind-hearted, well-meaning profligate to enhance our awareness of the virtue of prudence. It is well within the professor’s stated premise that we can learn virtue from others whose behavior is the opposite of the moral ideal. But I must confess that it works better for me to see a positive example of how life is to be lived than to parse the failings of a negative example, as represented in today’s anti-hero model.

Here, then, is my own literary offering for an example of prudence. It is to be found in a simple sentence from a story, whose popularity is based more on the amended movie version than the book.

“There were many bosques, or thickets, now and he detoured them.”

A tinhorn from the East would not understand the need to avoid a bosque in 1901 Texas just outside the border town of El Paso. Such a natural barrier forms a much favored place for a robber to hide intent on ambushing a road weary traveler. The “he” in this sentence, who is prudent enough to avoid these potential hazards, is J. B. Books, The Shootist of the eponymous novel written by Glendon Swarthout.

To be certain there is no morality here. Just survival. A prudent man uses his knowledge of the land and the times to avoid danger. But without a moral purpose, we tend to call his actions crafty or canny. There are other examples of Books’ prudence throughout the story along with a belated attempt at benevolence. But as in life even the most prudent among us cannot see all ends and his final altruistic plan is subverted by an unexpected villain. Prudence has its limits.

It is a given that when we address the twelve virtuous traits in Professor Prior’s book, we must do so with an acceptance that each trait produces a moral purpose, even if the story’s protagonist is not the exemplar of that virtue. But I am open to the possibility that all of these traits are amoral. Virtue resides within the individual, not the act.