Tag Archives: virtue

Freedom and virtue?

Scholar Michael Novak asks whether freedom in the U.S. can survive without virtue . . .

Michael Novak

“By its liberty, the human person transcends the stars and all the world of nature,” Jacques Maritain once wrote. No one has reflected more deeply on the phenomenology of the human person than Karol Wojtyla, better known as Blessed Pope John Paul II.

The person, in his view, is an originating source of creative action in the world. The human person is able to reflect upon his own past, find it wanting, repent and change direction. The person is able to reflect upon possible courses of action in the future, to deliberate among them, and to choose to commit himself to — and to take responsibility for — one among those courses.

Only the person is free to choose which among his many impulses to follow. Animal freedom is to do what simple instinct impels. Human freedom is to discern a more complex, higher, and more demanding rationality in the field of action. It is to become a gentle master of all one’s instincts. It is, considering all this, to do what a person ought to do.

In our own time, alas, many people think of human liberty as the ability to flow with their instincts, to let go of restraint, to do what they feel like doing. They like animal images of their dream of liberty: “born free” like the tigress of the jungle or “free as a bird.” They think that animal nature is innocent and unrestrained, separated from moral rules imposed from outside their own instincts. Woody Allen very neatly expressed this impulsiveness: “The heart wants what the heart wants.”

Experience, however, teaches that human liberty is not constituted by bondage to impulse. Liberty consists in an act of self-government by which we restrain our desires by self-control, and curb our fears by courage. We do so in order to reflect soberly: deliberate well and choose justly. Moreover, we seek to act in such a way that others can count on our long-term purpose. Such practices of self-government are found in persons of considerable character.

It’s our great fortune that America’s first President, George Washington, was understood by all who knew him to be the prototype of this sort of liberty — the man of character, by his very virtues worthy of the admiration and affection of his countrymen, a model for the liberty the nation promised to all who would wish to earn it.

Founding Father Dr. Benjamin Rush anchored liberty in virtue, and virtue in religion: “The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion.

Without it there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.”

Liberty of this sort comes neither by the positive nor the negative actions of the State; rather, the U.S. Constitution deliberately allows it scope, and plainly depends on its widespread realization. The liberty of self-government must be acquired, one person at a time. This personal task is rendered easier when the whole surrounding public ethos teaches and encourages it. In this sense, personal liberty is much favored or impeded, depending upon the social ecology of liberty. In any case, the American conception of liberty is “ordered liberty,” a liberty of self-mastery, self-discipline, self-government.

In brief, personal liberty is not well described as “unencumbered” liberty, as “rugged individualism,” as “libertinism,” or “hedonism,” or “letting go.” It is not the liberty of doing whatever one wishes. It is the liberty to reflect on what one ought to do, and the liberty to choose to take responsibility for doing it. Here in America, it is the liberty our forebears taught us. It is what John Paul, speaking of America, called its historic contribution of the social ideal of “ordered liberty.”

My own favorite expression of this liberty is the third verse of “America the Beautiful”: O beautiful for pilgrim’s feet, whose stern impassioned stress/A thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness/ America! America! God mend thine every flaw!/Confirm thy soul in self-control/thy liberty in law.

America has given many bad lessons to the world, and it has many tragic flaws. But one good thing it has brought to the world is the re-born ideal of ordered liberty, the idea of freedom as the capacity of its people to do as they ought. American history has brought us many stories of courage and self-control.

Personal liberty is not an intuitive, but a socially learned concept. It is not so much a personal achievement as a cultural achievement, and it requires an entire cultural ecology to encourage and teach it. Its embodiment appears more frequently in some cultures than in others, and more in some generations than in others. Personal liberty is a fragile achievement, and a single generation can decide to surrender and walk away from it.

It is by this fragile but precious liberty that “the human person transcends the stars and all the world of nature.”

Michael Novak is a renowned philosopher, author and theologian. The winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion, he is the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. This article was co-authored by his assistant, Mitch Boersma.

Blessed are the gentle-hearted

The first Beatitude, blessed are the humblehearted, forms the foundation for the other five “virtue Beatitudes.” The second virtue Beatitude is: Blessed are the gentle-hearted.

Gentle-heartedness follows from humble-heartedness. When I know my proper place and am therefore free to appreciate and affirm the invaluable goodness of my neighbor, I can afford to be gentle. By “gentle,” I do not mean the gentility of a superior patting an inferior on the head, but rather a fundamental recognition of the depth, uniqueness and transcendentality of another person emanating from their eyes, voice and mere presence. This vision of the other engenders a profound insight into my co-equality with them, which in turn engenders a deep insight into my co-responsibility with them for the common good.

I can always tell that things are going well on the “gentle-heartedness front” when I can take delight in people without diminishing them in relationship to me. I can enjoy their insight, love, zeal for the kingdom, courage, wisdom and faith as a grace, as God speaking to me through them.

As with humble-heartedness, gentle-heartedness begins with prayer. As I open my breviary and pray the Psalms, I find myself gradually becoming more comforted by the love of God. As I take delight in God, I become more aware of his deeper delight in me. I am convinced that this emotional bond of friendship is not self-induced, for it is not like reading poetry or good literature. It is God’s grace working through the truth of his love in psalms. They may not be the best poetry or may not have the most modern images, but they nevertheless express praise with the heart of a child filled with wonder.

There is something about the faith of the psalmist which enflames my heart with desire for the Lord who, in turn, infuses me with a sense of being beloved. When I am beloved by such a Lord, it is hard for me not to see the belovedness of others. It is this vision of belovedness that opens the door to delighting in them as coequals and coheirs in the mission of Christ and the kingdom of God. This is the source of the genuine gentle-heartedness which I believe Jesus was trying to incite in the Beatitudes. When it is combined with humbleheartedness (i.e., God and us in our proper places), it leads almost inevitably to love of neighbor.

Before proceeding to the third attitude, it might be helpful to look at the first two Beatitudes from the perspective of leadership. Some leaders may think, “I can’t afford to be humble-hearted and gentlehearted. It’s a tough world out there, and people are trying to take advantage of me and the company. If I am not tough, edgy and driven, I abdicate my responsibility to the shareholders and stakeholders of this company. Yet, I am a good Catholic/Christian, and so I would like to follow what seems to be a course of sanity in knowing my place and treating others with the coequal respect they deserve. I know!

I’ll be humble-hearted and gentle-hearted in my family, community and faith life, but will revert to contrary tendencies in the workplace.”

This attitude has certainly shot through my mind on more than one occasion. I have felt very protective of Gonzaga’s competitive position and the stakeholders who are dependent on a strong and thriving institution. However, as will be seen, this particular view of protectiveness is illusory.

Let us return to our definitions for a moment. Recall that humble-heartedness is knowing my place relative to God and others and that gentle-heartedness is seeing the coequal dignity of others in their “belovedness by God” and in their invaluable eternal soul. There is nothing in these definitions about having to be a wimp or a milk-toast. Frankly, Jesus was neither of these. He was rather firm with the scribes and Pharisees, a rather tough negotiator, very protective of not only his disciples, but of all those who were in need of help and justification (his stakeholders, so to speak).

Leadership is enhanced by the humble-heartedness which knows one’s place. When one tries to be messiah (instead of mere leader), people are neither pleased nor fooled. False messiahs tend to leave small, short-lived legacies with thousands of resentments and people problems in their wake. In contrast, those who have a sense of their co-responsibility with other human beings in building up the kingdom of God tend to leave profound, long-lasting legacies filled with an ethos of respect and even noble virtue. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

The literature of leadership is replete with examples of military, business, civic, religious, educational and cultural leaders who, in brief moments of humility, left legacies for generations. It is also replete with examples of the opposite — the dashed plans of pride coming before the fall. Today’s leaders would be well-served to live by Jesus’ standard, and prayer is the one failsafe means to get there.

Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, is Legatus’ International Chaplain. He is president of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., an internationally known author, speaker and consultant. His latest book, “Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life,” was published earlier this year.