Capital Briefs

The Seven Deadly Virtues

Eighteen conservative writers on why the virtuous life is funny as hell.

Washington, DC—What’s to become of virtue now that Chastity has become Chaz?  Twenty years after the best-selling Book of Virtues took the nation by storm, a not-so-brave new world is in need of moral resuscitation—delivered with humor.

In THE SEVEN DEADLY VIRTUES (Templeton Press, October 2014), journalist and author Jonathan Last leads an all-star team of 18 conservative writers in a hilarious, insightful, and sanctimony-free remix of the Book of Virtues.  THE SEVEN DEADLY VIRTUES sits down next to readers at the bar, buys them a drink, and an hour (or three) later, ushers them into the revival tent without them even realizing it.  This collection of 18 original essays—by such writers as PJ O’Rourke, Christopher Buckley, Jonah Goldberg, and Andrew Ferguson—aims at rediscovering the virtuous life in an era of momentous change.

As Jonathan Last argues—the problem today isn’t that we “no longer live in an age concerned with virtue.  The problem is that we have organized ourselves around the wrong virtues.”  He maintains that we’re now incorrectly structuring society around “seven modern virtues” instead of the “seven cardinal virtues” that have guided and shaped our culture for millennia.

SEVEN CARDINAL VIRTUES               VS. SEVEN “MODERN VIRTUES”
Prudence Freedom
Justice Convenience
Fortitude Progress
Temperance Equality
Faith Authenticity
Hope Health
Charity Nonjudgmentalism

In THE SEVEN DEADLY VIRTUES, Jonathan Last observes that virtues are the internal qualities that allow us to be our best selves and enable us to lead complete and fulfilling lives.  And he contends that it is exactly this notion of virtue that makes it evident that the modern virtues are so inadequate.  He argues that “being your authentic self and living a physically healthy life are clearly second-order goods.  To be your best self and live the most fulfilling life, it’s far more important to exhibit, say, charity and courage.”

“Equality, authenticity, a devotion to physical health, and even nonjudmentalism can be fine things, taken in right measure,” notes Jonathan Last.  Still, he contends that “the modern virtues fail because, for the most part, they concern the outer self, the human façade, the part of ourselves that the world sees most readily—while the classical virtues form an organizing framework for our inner selves…for our souls, if you believe in that sort of thing.  And it turns out that when you scale people out to the societal level, the superficial moral framework of the modern virtues turns out to be an insufficient organizing principle.  When it comes to virtue, the old ways are still the best ways.”

And Jonathan Last demonstrates that the virtues function best in our lives when they are all cultivated to reinforce one another.  He maintains that “no single virtue is sufficient in and of itself, and each one, taken on its own, is corruptible.”  Robespierre, for instance, was singularly devoted to justice, but the Reign of Terror followed.  Hope is essential for the human spirit, yet when it stands alone it turns its bearer into a Pollyanna.  Jonathan Last contends that each virtue actually becomes more valuable with the addition of others.

“Courage and prudence: Together they give people the spine to do great things.  Integrity and forbearance: Without them, no society can function. Chastity and temperance: All right, let’s not get carried away here.”  The greater point is that when a man or woman has cultivated the virtues as a class, then, and only then, does he or she become a man or woman in full who can live a complete and fulfilling virtuous life.

In the following excerpts from THE SEVEN DEADLY VIRTUES, consider the virtues that you were taught in Sunday school but have totally forgotten about until this very moment.  Here’s a taste of this sanctimony-free zone:

v  Joe Queenan observes: “in essence, thrift is a virtue that resembles being very good at Mahjong. You’ve heard about people who can do it, but you’ve never actually met any of them.”

v  P.J. O’Rourke notes: “Fortitude is quaint. We praise the Greatest Generation for having it, but they had aluminum siding, church on Sunday, and jobs that required them to wear neckties or nylons (but never at the same time). We don’t want those either.”

v  Christine Rosen writes: “A fellowship grounded in sociality means enjoying the company of those with whom you actually share physical space rather than those with whom you regularly and enthusiastically exchange cat videos.”

v  Rob Long offers his version of modern day justice: “if you sleep late on the weekend, you are forced to wait 30 minutes on line at Costco.”

v  Jonah Goldberg offers: “There was a time when this desire-to-do-good-in-all-things was considered the only kind of integrity…Angels are better than mortals. They’re always certain about what is right because, by definition, they’re doing God’s will. (As no one says, ‘if it’s from the All Mighty it’s alrighty.’) Gabriel knew when it was okay to remove a mattress tag and Sandalphon always tipped the correct amount.”

v  Sonny Bunch dissects forbearance, observing the fictional Two Minutes Hate of Orwell’s 1984 is now actually a reality directed at living, breathing people. Thanks, in part, to the internet, “Its targets are designated by a spontaneously created mob—one that, due to its hive-mind nature, is virtually impossible to call off.”

By the time readers have completed THE SEVEN DEADLY VIRTUES, they won’t even realize that they’ve just been catechized into an entirely different—and better—moral universe.


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