If you’ve been on social media in the past few years you’ve probably noticed the emergence of “virtue signaling.” The phrase gets thrown around like a hand grenade intended to blow up another person’s argument. If you’re ever accused of “virtue signaling” it means you’re inserting your sense of virtue into the marketplace of ideas through your opinions on certain political or cultural issues. And the response that you’re “virtue signaling” is meant to say, “That’s bad of you! How dare you bring your ideas of virtue into the public forum, you arrogant braggart!”
But in my mind, one of the great dangers in our day is that virtue is being denigrated as old-fashioned, even dangerously puritanical and prejudicial. But even more problematic, our societal elites have determined it is arrogant and insensitive and highly uncivil even to suggest one’s personal sense of virtue has a place in maintaining a civil society.
And that’s the crux of the problem. Too many powerful people, in too many ways, in too many situations, make it clear they don’t want a civil society. We saw that as elected officials thought it was prudent to heckle, mock and hassle the president during his State of the Union speech. It was an embarrassing demonstration that, at the highest levels of our nation, the virtues of self-control, respect, honor and plain old common courtesy apparently no longer have a place in the minds of a few who felt no shame over their conduct.
But actually, we haven’t lost virtue. We’ve simply reshaped it to align, not with historical definitions of civility, morality and greatness, but with the aberrant desires of expressive individualism, the passions of power, pleasure, greed, and most of all, the abandonment of all accountability.
Just a few nights before, the Grammys led the way in this reshaping of virtue. Many of the performances, in their determination to worship the god of degeneration, were displays of the “new virtue” that is really simply a stunning lack of virtue, a throwing off of respect for self, the audience and their own industry. What was meant to shock us came off as boring, unimaginative and largely lacking in musical excellence.
What we saw was actually “virtue signaling” at its finest. But the “virtue” being signaled was an anti-virtue, an abandonment of the virtues of decorum, respect for the community, and again, plain old common courtesy, especially for those who hold to the Judeo-Christian foundations of western society.
In his book “The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense,” American philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” And, his words have been confirmed time and time again. Empire after empire, nation after nation have gone from good to gone, not primarily because they lacked strength but because they gave up their virtue in order to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.
So, in this column for the next several weeks I’m going to speak about the various virtues that have, historically, been linked to a nation’s health and well-being. I’ll start with the four great virtues of Greek philosophy, and move on through some of the virtues we all wish our children would develop.
And here’s what we’ll find. A virtuous life is actually a life of freedom, not bondage. It is a life of wisdom, and self-control, and most of all, honor and respect for friend, neighbor, and even enemy. Virtue is the foundation of true collaboration, teamwork and unity. It also manifests itself in a life of discipline, hard work and success. And lastly, virtue is what allows each of us to make a useful contribution to our society, and we all know how important that is. Where virtue fuels actions, and restrains sin, we’re all better off.
I hope you’ll join me every week as together we enroll in a short course on the virtue of virtue.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.