Posted by: gmscan | September 3, 2013

Forgotten Virtue

I have been tied up lately with writing a paper for the Citizen’s Council for Health Freedom. The paper is about the historic (and potential future) role of fraternal organizations. It’s a topic I didn’t know a lot about before I began. I will let you know when the paper is published. I’ve just completed the first draft.

I am struck by how these groups emphasized the importance of virtuous behavior for the members. They are considered mutual aid organizations, but their focus was not primarily on financial assistance, but on creating a society of virtue. David Green, author of one of the essential books on the Friendly Societies in Great Britain describes these virtues as –

“Good character, honesty, duty, self-sacrifice, honour, service, self-discipline, toleration, respect, justice, self-improvement, trust, civility, fortitude, courage, integrity, diligence, patriotism, consideration for others, thrift and reverence are just a few.”  (Green, “Reinventing Civil Society,” 1993

He says these are essential to making a free society work. In this, the societies were echoing what the Founders of the American Republic knew well. The Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute of Charlottesville, Virginia recently compiled a few examples –

George Washington — “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government,” and “Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.”

Benjamin Franklin — “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”

James Madison — “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”

Thomas Jefferson — “No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and … their minds are to be informed by education of what is right and what wrong; to be encouraged in habits of virtue and to be deterred from those of vice … These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure and order of government.”

Samuel Adams — “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.  He therefore is the truest friend of the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue.”

John Adams “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

All agree that virtue is essential to liberty. Without it, liberty becomes hedonism. And it is essential not only to our spiritual lives, but to our government and our politics.

Yet, today even the word “virtue” seems quaint and out of date. It is rarely mentioned, and never taught outside of (sometimes) the church and the family. Even those institutions often seem embarrassed by the whole idea. The imperative today seems to be against being judgmental, yet how can there be justice without judgment?

Today, moral standards seem to be set by Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus (for the girls) and hip-hop gangstas (for the boys). Social critics of Ms. Cyrus’ recent performance were more critical of her lack of originality and talent than of her morals and judgment.

Is it any wonder we get teenagers even in Oklahoma shooting and killing an Australian college student for no particular reason? Sure, these fellows will now face justice, but perhaps if they had been taught virtue many years ago it never would have happened.

Granted it is an extreme example, but the lack of virtue is rampant in our society. Civility? Have you seen the brawls breaking out in restaurants and retail stores? Honesty? Teachers in Georgia were helping their students cheat on tests. Thrift? Economists worry when the savings rate gets too high because the economy relies on consumer spending. Self-reliance? More people than ever are on food stamps and other welfare programs.

Our pastor, Lin Smalec, is preaching on the Ten Commandments this summer. This past Sunday she was on the sixth – Thou shalt not murder. She acknowledges that few of the congregation have committed murder, but she warns us not to be smug about it. To the extent we contribute to an angry, mean-spirited society we are helping to create an atmosphere that leads to murderous rage. She quoted the Lord in Matthew 5:22 –

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

But importantly, virtue is not just for church. It needs to be a foundation of all our affairs. Green quoted the purpose of the Ancient Order of Foresters given to all new members –

“We are united together not only for the wise purpose of making provision against those misfortunes which befall all men, and of assisting those who require our aid, but for the moderate enjoyment of friendly intercourse, and the temperate interchange of social feeling… We encourage no excess in our meetings, and enforcing no creed in religion or code in politics, we permit neither wrangling nor dissension to mar our harmony or interrupt our proceedings.

“In your domestic relationships we look to find you, if a husband, affectionate and trustful; if a father, regardful of the moral and material well-being of your children and dependents; as a son, dutiful and exemplary, and as a friend, steadfast and true.”

The Grand United Order of Oddfellows had a similar charge given to new members –

“It is desired that you should make the event of your Initiation a time for strict self-examination; and if you should find anything in your past life to amend, I solemnly charge you to set about that duty without delay, — let no immoral practice, idle action, or low and vulgar pursuit, be retained by you.”

If the uneducated laborers who founded the Foresters and the Oddfellows could figure this out, how can we, supposedly modern and sophisticated, have drifted so far from what makes a civil society work?



  1. Great article and a sad commentary on the values of so many people in our country.

  2. Good commentary. The Christians in Egypt are saying today that “democracy is not a ballot box”. We have forgotten these and other roots of democracy, and in doing so, we are also confused about how to incubate democracy in other countries of the world. The whole conduct of the “American Experiment” has been forgotten or taken for granted. And because of such, I think Democracy in America has never put itself at higher risk than it has in the years since 9/11 .

  3. Democracy was never the intent of the founding fathers. Rather a republic to avoid the tyranny of the uininformed majority. Modern media and culture of the internet have drifted us dangerously towards belief that democracy is a good “modern” version and an improivement on a republic. In a republic, individuals can be held to account for virtue, in a democracy the “pack of wolves” has no accountability only self-serving actions.

  4. Ron, that is a tough argument to make.

    I think that at least as far back as our baptism in the blood of the Civil War, the American definition of Democracy is a form of government that is “of the people, by the people, for the people”. Our Constitution begins with the words “We the People”. The founding fathers certainly wanted to avoid the tyranny of the Monarchy. The solution to the problem of “the uninformed majority” (don’t know if that was the vocabulary they used, exactly) was EDUCATION. Free education. Presumably once the majority was educated one would no longer have an uninformed majority whose tyranny we would have to worry about. Accordingly, one of the threats we have to our Republic today is the abysmal shape of our education system. We treat it as a product to be purchased in the market place, but it is in fact one of the primary pillars of our freedom and it is in the interest of us all that all of us obtain the highest level of education possible.

    (other nations of the World have recognized the value of our system and have taken it to higher levels than we now strive for)

    One would reasonably expect the subject of that education to include the practice of scientific reasoning, the inculcation of virtuous values, a significant knowledge and understanding of history and geography, and the skills to explore and understand the vast body of literature in the sciences and the letters that have led up to the system for which we in our own generation are temporarily the custodians.

    We have a responsibility to our ancestors and to our descendents to do it no harm, and preferably to improve and strengthen it in the face of the crisis of our day, as our ancestors did in the crisis of theirs.

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