Unformed Thought: The Shadows of Virtue

Something that needs to be gotten clear if we’re going to think rationally about morality is that people are fundamentally consistent. That is to say, with the possible exception of mental illness, a person’s intentional actions are all expressions of the same character, and work upon that same singular character. It’s like heating a stone or running electricity through a wire; you can’t isolate one part of the stone to be hot while the rest of it remains cool. The entire thing is affected. Or, to put it another way, no one willingly does anything truly out of character. When a man goes wrong, he goes wrong in a way proper to himself, just as when he goes right he goes right in a peculiar way. Under different circumstances and influences, Henry VIII may have become a good man, but he never would have had the same kind of goodness as, say, St. Phillip Neri.

Now, there is a consequence to this that, it seems to me, isn’t understood enough. It is that you cannot simply remove a vice, either from men or from society, without almost certainly doing greater damage than the vice itself. All vices are the shadows of virtues; if you drill too hard against the vice, you will lose the virtue as well. In fact, you are far more likely to destroy the virtue and keep the vice; virtue is harder to get in the first place. Remember Our Lord’s story of the tares and the wheat.

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