The Tragedy of Virtue


If virtue is a good thing, how is it that the pursuit of it causes so much pain and suffering?

“Virtues” are the things—qualities and behaviors—that a society or culture deem to be Good. Virtue is how we earn a good reputation, social acceptance, and the praise and accolades of others, but perhaps more significantly, it’s how we protect ourselves: it wards away the threat of becoming an outcast or pariah.

Different cultures do have their own sets of things that are considered virtues, though there are a few commonalities: being beautiful or attractive, having a respected job, going to a prestigious school, coming from a well-regarded family or region, and being wealthy are all examples of common virtues. Of course, what things cause someone to be seen as beautiful or attractive will be culturally dependent, what jobs are highly regraded may vary, as do other reputational markers (e.g. family, prestigious schools, etc.), and many cultures have other things they consider virtues beyond these common examples. For instance, “being a hard worker” is a virtue in the United States of America. Of course, there are also the opposites of virtues—I’m going to call them antivirtues because the typical word we’d use, vices, has connotations that I think obscure my meaning: these things come with stigmas that lead to someone becoming an outcast or pariah. What these are also varies by culture, of course. Things like being poor, infirm, or sick are often antivirtues, as is, for example, doing a job perceived as unsavory; prostitution is a good example of a job that the United States considers particularly antivirtuous.

So we pursue virtue in order to acquire safety through social acceptance. However, some people are unlucky enough to be born with a low starting point for virtue, while others are fortunate enough to have high starting virtue. Disparity in appearance, mental aptitude, physical prowess…the list goes on in terms of individual qualities, to which we must add things like family and place of origin (though some cultures see it as virtuous to “escape” one’s origins if they are perceived as having antivirtue).

Inevitably, our cultures (For who doesn’t contain a blend? I myself can see aspects of American culture, Christian culture, and Gamer culture within me) hand us measuring sticks, and by these measuring sticks we judge others and ourselves, and thus we set off either on the road of self-righteousness or the road of self-condemnation. Both roads lead to disaster.

Those who walk the road of self-righteousness inevitably become arrogant. It is, I think, unavoidable. It’s the path of self-congratulation, of looking down on anyone the self-righteous deem to have less virtue than themselves. This then gives them moral carte blanche to treat those perceived “lessers” poorly—after all, they don’t deserve to be treated as well as the righteous, do they? Additionally, the self-righteous are highly resistant to any kind of rebuke or correction. After all, they are righteous in their own eyes, they have Virtue and are Right and Good; ergo, they have no real sin, no point of error that needs correction.

Those who travel the road of self-condemnation, on the other hand, disregard their good points. Indeed, they (or should I say we?) are preoccupied with their antivirtues. Perhaps your experience is like mine, where I feel the overwhelming weight of my antivirtues, like an oppressive cloth wrapped tightly around me, choking out my humanity. Perhaps you, like me, have grown to resent the virtues by which you feel judged. The road of self-condemnation is paved with shame and leaves us feeling unworthy of love; this in turn is a sort of insulation that makes it hard to feel loved, even if you know people love you. There are many self-destructive behaviors that can come out of this, such as negative thoughts and self-sabotage, to name some of the milder ones.

Perhaps it is possible to find some third road of virtue that threads the needle between self-righteousness and self-condemnation. Perhaps those that appear to be walking such a road are in truth just hiding which road they’re on. Perhaps this, too, is a pursuit of virtue.

Thus the Tragedy of Virtue is this: though virtue is intended to make humankind good, it does not. Instead, it makes humankind arrogant and miserable.

All of this isn’t to say that I find myself continuously haunted by self-condemnation. There are the good times where I’m able to forget about virtue entirely, usually when I’m absorbed in something like watching a movie, reading a book, or playing a video game. While not a guarantee, such activities often can move my thoughts away from the shackles of my own virtue and the pursuit thereof.

Recently, however, I have come to realize that the freedom I crave not only exists, but it has been right in front of me the whole time. Simply, one must abandon virtue. This isn’t the same thing as saying one must abandon morality, but rather, the paradigm of morality under which one operates must change from one based on virtue, and the acquisition thereof, to some other model. But could such a thing exist? The answer, I realized, was yes: Jesus offers a different paradigm. However, it is so alien to our natural way of thinking, that even many (if not most) Christians miss it entirely—I know I did for decades. Why is the New Testament full of warnings against judging others? Because judgment is part of the virtue paradigm of morality, and engaging in such judgments drags not only us back under its sway, but also the one judged will likely be dragged along with us. Churches ought to be the least judgmental places in the world, places of acceptance, where the pursuit of virtue has been left behind.

But if virtue is abandoned, what is the moral paradigm that takes its place? Stated simply, it is to walk with the Holy Spirit, trusting that Jesus’s death has fulfilled all virtue for us, and that by His resurrection, a new path has been forged. And so we no longer ask ourselves if we are good people, if we are virtuous. Now we ask if we are walking with the Spirit. The evidence of this is in overflowing joy (for the burden of virtue is gone, and we are free), gratitude (for we did not have to shift this burden off of ourselves), and love for all, including ourselves as well as others (for our love is no longer impeded by our judgments). Walking with the Holy Spirit will change us by making our character more and more like that of Jesus. No longer do we ask if a path will win us favor or impress others, but rather if the path is where the Spirit leads. No longer do we ask who deserves and who is undeserving, who is worthy and who is unworthy, who has earned and who hasn’t, but rather how we can love and bless others.

Walking with the Holy Spirit is not the world’s way, which can make it hard to understand and even harder to communicate. And yet I feel an immense desire to share, as best as I am able, for I desire all to find the relief, gratitude, freedom, and joy that comes from changing moral paradigms, that comes from abandoning the pursuit of virtue. I long for my church to be full of such people, for my life to be full of such people, that I may live free of the burdens of virtue with none to try (whether intentionally or not) to shackle me to it again.

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