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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.

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.

Par Excellence

I recently started a new series of messages based on Karen Swallow Prior’s book On Reading Well, published in 2018 by Brazos Press, a division of the Baker Publishing Group. My hope was to jump start my blogging career by giving me something easy to write about; the ease coming by way of commenting on the content of Prior’s book. It hasn’t worked out that way so far. The thoughts stimulated by her insights are there, though falling short of easily being translated into written words anyone can read. My Covid-inspired lethargy is still holding sway.

The impetus to launch this project can be blamed on the book’s title. It offered the promise of learning from a pro about the proper methodology for reading a book in a better way than mentally acknowledging each word on each page. And as long as the anticipated process proved to be within my cognitive reach, I was gratefully prepared to be all in for learning something new even at my advanced age – defying the old dog, new tricks syndrome.

The book’s title, though, proved to be something of a trap. To learn the professor’s method for reading, one must also subject one’s self to a primer on intellectual history of a western mindset. Think Greek philosophy amplified by Christian theology (with its implied Judaic roots) and you have the foundation necessary to implement the good professor’s methodology. For example:

To read well one must understand one’s telos. I didn’t consciously know that I had one, but I do. Everyone does. If yours is as poorly defined as mine was (past tense since I’ve now learned my lesson) then here is the answer to your dilemma. Your telos is how you view your purpose in life.

We must hold Aristotle responsible for this concept. For him the telos (purpose) for all people everywhere was happiness. He then asserted that to achieve happiness one must live a life of virtue, of which there were four that made the individual a model citizen for the establishment for a stable society: prudence, temperance, courage and justice. These are regarded as the four cardinal virtues since all other virtues, of which there are many, hinge on the primacy of these four.

Reading virtuously, therefore, is one of Professor Prior’s mandates for reading well. The others include reading promiscuously, involving a wide variety of genres and authors; reading aesthetically, finding pleasure in the beauty of a works content and form (poetry v. prose or history v. literature); and reading analytically, marking up a book’s pages to assist one’s observations as the first step in determining the why of both plot and character development. But it is the role of reading virtuously that clearly drives the rest of the professor’s narrative.

Virtue, aligning with Aristotelian thought, is defined for us as excellence. Seems simple, but you must accept it as just an enticement to keep reading, since defining virtue as excellence requires further expansion, which requires reading  the book’s subsequent chapters. My earlier use of the word “ease” to describe my attempts at reviving my blogging efforts was naïve, a word apparently derived from a Latin word used to malign non-philosophers, like me.

Lessons in Virtue

I am in the process of reading a book entitled On Reading Well and discovering that I am not doing a very good job of it. Wellness in this case is about mining the emotional depth of any literary work; a concept I can fully embrace in thought but struggle to execute.

The ore to be mined in this particular expedition is virtue, an abstraction which I find appealing but one which can quickly elude most of us, who confess to the sin of concrete thinking. To discuss a topic such as virtue one must dabble in the arts of philosophy, theology and pure speculation. The result on my part is the tendency to rationally go astray without really trying.

The author of my conundrum is Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Her credentials are well documented on the inside back panel of the book’s jacket. She is to be respected for her academic prowess and scholarly affiliations.

I also know her to have been a very avid reader from a young age. This comes from reading her well annotated memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me. My guess is that this childhood avocation is what really sets us apart and makes her writing something of a challenge for me to understand. I barely learned to have Fun with Dick and Jane, the literary nemesis of my first grade experience, while Professor Prior was conversant with far headier stuff at the same age.

Had it not been for the film adaption of a Hardy Boys mystery shown as a serial on the original Mickey Mouse Club, my interest in books would have remained non-existent. I enjoyed the TV version of the story and when a friend said he had the book on which it was based, I hesitantly became a reader in order to relive the joy of the episodic tale.

Besides solving once again the mystery of the missing loot, I also discovered the reality of books and movies being related in name only, sharing little more than a title, character names, and basic storyline. Books have more of everything the movies and TV shows cannot even dare to contain by both providing the details of the hero’s journey as well as the time it takes to tell it all.

Then again my older brother, who I idolized, was a reader. By the time he went away to college, I was curious enough about books to pirate his paperback book collection during his absence. Six years my senior, taking on this clandestine reading assignment meant making the leap from While the Clock Ticked (Hardy Boys Book 11) to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The world never looked the same to me after George shot Lenny as an act of mercy. It made me an adult… or so I thought. At least my reading habit took on new life.

My attraction to Professor Prior’s work came by way of an on-line article in which she demonstrated how you can gain insight into a fictional character’s character by what is revealed in the story about their reading habits. A clever concept and one I have personally witnessed.

Charles Dickens, one of my favorite authors, was good at using this technique. Just read A Christmas Carol to learn about the young Ebenezer Scrooge’s reading habits or spend some time with his literary cousin, David Copperfield, in the book of the same name. You will find that their affinity for literary adventures is insightful as to understanding their youthful frame of mine and their subsequent future development.

Getting back to my struggles with understanding Professor Prior’s approach to the study of virtue and its presence in various literary works, I have decided to make use of her scholarly achievement to advance my own selfish writing aspirations by launching into a new series. What I propose is a virtual classroom exchange about virtue, if doing so is not unethical.

Such an approach could serve as an antidote to my Covid induced lethargy in posting weekly weblog messages by giving me something to write about over the next several weeks. It means I must actually study the content On Reading Well instead of addressing it as a casual reader. This will require a lot more thought equity on my part in order to write meaningful essays as if I had actually paid to be one of Professor Prior’s in-class students at Liberty. What a way to start a series on the value of virtue.