CLASSICAL VALUES FOR COVID 19
by Daniel Vestal
During a global pandemic I have been inspired by individuals who exhibit certain qualities of character and behavior that can be described as the classical virtues. First articulated by the ancient Greeks (Plato and Aristotle), some of the ablest Christian theologians (Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas) then adopted them as expressions of essential human character. These virtues are perhaps less celebrated in our churches than the 3 theological virtues: faith, hope and love. They are less familiar to us than peace, joy and patience. But perhaps, just perhaps, now is the season we need to learn, so as to practice, the lesser-known virtues both as individuals and as a society.
First, COURAGE. The images on TV that have moved me emotionally have been those of healthcare workers who, in spite of danger and risk to their own lives, show up every day in emergency rooms, hospitals and nursing homes to help the sick. Some of them have adequate protective equipment and some of them do not. They are working under incredible stress, and they are examples of incredible courage, even if they probably would confess to being tired and afraid. Classical Greek philosophy defined courage as “perseverance, fortitude, strength, endurance, the ability to confront uncertainty.” In Scripture courage is commended, but not very often. When my brother was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, for which he received a Purple Heart and Silver Star, my mother wrote Joshua 1:9 on a card that he inserted into a pocket New Testament: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage: be not afraid, neither be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
Now is not the time to whimper or whine, to murmur or complain. Rather now is the time to take courage, to think and act courageously, to “be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.” Courage is not our first response in times of danger or difficulty. Other responses are more natural to us: fear and flight, anger and anxiety. But courage is what we need now. Courage, not denial. Courage, not blame. Courage, not self-absorption or self-pity.
TEMPERANCE is also a classical Greek virtue as well as a Christian virtue. Plato described it as “restraint, self-control, abstention, moderation.” The apostle Paul lists self-control as one of the fruit of the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22). The apostle Peter commands us to add self-control and steadfastness to our faith (2 Peter 1:6). We live in a society that celebrates unbridled self-expression and uninhibited individualism. Phrases like, “If it feels good, do it” or “Do whatever comes naturally” or “Seize the day” or “Nobody can tell me what to do” govern much of the popular imagination.
But the Christian gospel challenges us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow the crucified Messiah. Indeed it was the crucified Messiah who invited people to come to him for rest, to learn of him and take up his yoke. Why? Because Christian discipleship means we desire to love Christ more than we love ourselves. St. Augustine actually defined temperance as “love giving itself entirely to that which is loved.”
Temperance means the control of our ego by the love of Christ (not my will but Thy will be done). Temperance means the control of our tongue and temperament by the love of Christ (everyone doesn’t need to hear our opinions and complaints). Temperance means the control of our thoughts by the love of Christ (boredom, acedia and melancholy can be as destructive as any thought or emotion).
A third classical virtue needed for today, and perhaps the least known, is PRUDENCE, which the Greeks defined as “the ability to discern the appropriate course of action to be taken at the appropriate time.” Prudence is not a biblical word, but wisdom is very much a biblical word and idea. Wisdom, or prudence, is needed now more than ever, both in the leaders as well as the members of our society. We are living with great perplexity and confusion, uncertainty and competing world views. When should we go back to work? How do we interact with family, friends and strangers? In what ways can we safeguard our safety and the safety of others, while doing all that is possible for the economic welfare of others?
It seems that there are more questions on our minds today than there are answers. But God promises wisdom to those who ask and discernment to those who seek. To be a prudent person doesn’t require that we know the future or be certain about all things in the present. But to be a prudent person does require thoughtfulness and time, because we usually get in trouble when we get in a hurry. Also to be a prudent person requires humility and a repudiation of selfish ambition. The New Testament book of James says it this way, “The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure, then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere." (James 1:5.)
Consider how we might create a different culture and a different social context if we sought prudence and wisdom in our personal lives, in our workplace, in our neighborhoods, in our politics, in the realms of business, industry and everyday relationships. Prudence, or wisdom, is discerning the right thing to do, in the right way, for the right reasons, and at the right time. Prudence, along with courage and temperance, point then to the most important of all the classical virtues, justice.
The virtue that the Greeks celebrated most was JUSTICE, “doing what is right or contending for what is fair and equitable in human relationships.” The Hebrew prophets, although for different reasons, trumpeted the centrality of justice as essential for human society. They argued for the perfect justice, or righteousness, of God and anticipated a final judgment when everything “will be put to right” by God. Christian morality not only requires deeds of compassion and mercy, but a fierce allegiance to doing what is just and righteous in the sight of God.
If COVD 19 has done anything, it has exposed the great economic, racial and social injustices in our culture. Not everyone has equal access to essential medicines and quality health care. The systems and structures of our American society are not fair and equitable to the poor and “under” privileged. We may disagree as how best to address these injustices, but there should be no disagreement as to the fact of these injustices and a strong commitment to correct them. As followers of Jesus we are commanded to “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.” (Matthew 6:33) The reality and righteousness of God’s present and coming order should be more important to us than our personal happiness, well-being and comfort. God’s justice should be our vision, our passion, our prayer: “Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”
For the Greeks these four virtues were to be practiced by everyone as the foundation of natural morality. For Christians it is not quite that simple. Rather these virtues are to be viewed as gifts of God’s grace, consequences of Christ’s atonement and fruit produced by the Holy Spirit. It is one thing to articulate these qualities of character as essential to human society. It is quite another thing to practice them and embody them as a way of life. It requires both human energy and effort as well as divine aid and assistance. And in a time like the present, it requires unapologetic urgency.