Today starts the beginning of the Old Books With Grace podcast Lent series, on the virtues and vices. Yes, yes, I know it’s not Lent yet, but to fit everything I needed to fit, we had to start a week early. Consider this your bonus week.
Imagine yourself as a fourteenth-century English villager during Lent. Whether you live in a sleepy agricultural village, a busy little market town, or the hubbub of London itself, you are preparing your heart for the great Paschal feast, for Easter and its season of celebration. In this period in history, unless you were an especially devout individual, you would have taken the Eucharist once a year, on Good Friday. To take Christ’s body once a year meant there was a lot of pressure on being ready. With the assistance of your local priest, you would prepare yourself for the presence of Jesus through the sacrament of penance. First, you reflected on your sins with regret, called contrition. Then, you confessed your sins to the priest. Then, if you needed to do penance through prayer or pilgrimage or public apology or something else, you did that. Then, you could take communion with a clear conscience that you were not disrespecting Jesus. But all kinds of practical matters intervene, worried medieval folk—what if you forgot a vice? Or what if you knew you struggled with something, but didn’t know the best way to combat it? Remember this was before therapy and broadcast media!
In the Middle Ages, in response to this issue, a very popular genre of writing sprang up: penitential manuals, meant to help priests aid their parishioners in examining their conscience, or for laypeople themselves to explore the moral quandaries of the soul and body. These handbooks described the sacraments as well as the vices that people were likely to succumb to, or the virtues that would help them become more like Christ. Some of these wonderfully bizarre, at times very colorful and at times very dull books survive to this day, and these are what I read for this series.
We don’t want to cultivate the anxiety of don’t miss a sin for fear of offending the Lord! Such crushing pressure takes its own tolls. But we do, like our medieval friends, want to know ourselves. We want to become more like Jesus, to prepare our hearts for Resurrection. And these manuals, with their lists of virtues and vices and human behaviors, give us an unusual, provocative, and sometimes very helpful window into human nature and gifts.
There are many ways of telling the story of how the catalogues and schemata of vices and virtues developed, but roughly two paths in the Christian tradition that cross, converge, and diverge throughout the years. One begins with Plato, Aristotle, and the ancient Greek philosophers, roughly four hundred years before the birth of Christ. Aristotle in particular developed a robust theory of virtue, oriented towards the good of the polis, the city. So we meet the beginnings of the idea of common good. He codifies the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. The Romans, too, liked these ideas. Yet the life of virtue was reserved exclusively for men and citizens—women and enslaved people could not really practice the virtues, said Aristotle. Ok, so moving on.
Another story of the virtues and vices begins in the desert of Egypt, with the birth of Christian monasticism. About three hundred years or so after the death of Christ, people like St. Antony began to withdraw to the desert, to build communities based on a life of ascetism and vows of poverty. In that process, people like Evagrius, John Cassian, and Amma Theodora began to compile pastoral aids for resisting the temptations of the desert. For the Desert Fathers and Mothers knew the desert leaves you nowhere to hide: when one retreats from society, from the ever-changing company and views and products and foods, one is left with her own thoughts for company. You are faced with the temptations deep inside of you that you have managed to hide from yourself, or hide from others. They began to list these temptations and their characteristics, in the format that we sometimes call the Seven Deadly Sins: pride or vainglory, envy, wrath, sloth, lust, gluttony, and greed or avarice. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, author of The Glittering Vices (which I can’t recommend enough if you’re interested in the vice and virtue traditions) writes that a better, more historically accurate name for them are the Seven Capital Vices. Why capital? Capital comes from the Latin word for head (caput), as in fountainhead or beginning (think of a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence!). It’s not that these list in exhaustive detail every possible vice, but that these are the roots, the sources, of all the vicious actions we can think of.
Unlike Aristotle’s list of virtues, this list of vices emerges from pastoral care—that is, from the leaders of spiritual communities learning how to care for and spiritually direct the men and women under their guidance—not from theory. So it focuses on people’s actions, on obstacles held in common that face us as we learn to follow Christ, and ways to combat those temptations and actions. It also means that it’s sometimes unhelpfully vague and fascinatingly flexible! The Seven Capital Vices was picked up as useful and pertinent, especially in lives of community, by some of the great pastoral thinkers of the early Middle Ages, like Pope Gregory the Great or St. Benedict. By the late Middle Ages, it was ubiquitous as a pastoral tool, used in the way I describe at the beginning of this episode. These penitential materials listed these Seven Capital Vices in great detail, often with wonderfully weird and sometimes terrifying examples. Alongside those Seven Capital Sins, by this point, writers had paired Remedies, virtues from scriptural sources, particularly the Beatitudes, to go with them and combat the vices themselves: humility, love, patience or meekness, perseverance or strength, generosity, abstinence, and chastity.
On the theoretical level, brilliant medieval theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas began to take these pastoral tools of thinking about vice, virtue, habits, and human behavior, and juxtapose them with some of the more theoretical ideas about the life of human happiness postulated by Aristotle and his Arabic commentators back in the day (A lot of Aristotle’s writing only comes to us through Arabic preservation! That’s another hugely fascinating story!). By the fourteenth century in England, scholars, priests, poets, contemplatives, and ordinary laypeople were all wrestling with these ideas in their daily lives, using them to think about their own behavior, what they owed to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, and how their lives might become transformed.
But at this point you might be asking yourself a few questions. As we know, not everything from the past is worth preserving. What’s this ancient way of thinking about human behavior worth to us today, when we have so much new and wonderful information on human behavior in general? What even is a vice or a virtue, strictly speaking?
Both virtues and vices are habits, something we do over and over until they become part of our character. They are unnatural or exterior to us at first, and then the more we do them, the more they become part of who we are. Habits can be practiced and cultivated, or disrupted and destroyed over time and repetition, as anyone knows who has tried to follow an exercise regimen or who has learned to read. A child at first can only read for a short period of time, with a Bob Book or Dr. Seuss, and as they practice and practice, they progress to reading chapter books, and further, until they can pick up and enjoy, say, something as complex as Dostoyevsky. Or running—if I tried to run right now, I would make it a very dreadful five minutes before calling it. But some people train up to doing ultramarathons. Running has become a habit for them, loved for its own sake. The repetition of a habit increases ease and skill. And we humans are creatures of habit, in every sense. Even something that initially seems like it wouldn’t be a habit, like spontaneity, can be a habit, as we see in folks who regularly seek out novelty or thrills or new hobbies for enjoyment.
A virtue is a habit that makes us more human, more conforming to the image of God that we truly are. A vice, in contrast, corrupts our humanity. It is a practice that corrodes and obscures that image. Vices and virtues are distinguished by their ends.One is directed towards love of God and neighbor and characterized by right reason. The other is directed towards love of self alone. Both become parts of our character as people, which makes sense. We have all met individuals uniquely brave, bitterly angry, remarkably loyal, or eaten up by envy. We recognize it because that characterizes their typical response to challenging situations. These people aren’t loyal once, brave once, or wrathful or envious once.
Such a way of living, being habituated in virtue, requires teachers and mentors. We begin to recognize courage by looking at the lives, choices, and words of people like Martin Luther King Jr., or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We can learn humility at the feet of St. Francis of Assisi or Julian of Norwich. And less famous people as well—we learn from parents, teachers, priests or pastors, siblings, even our own children. The famous moral philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, compares learning the virtues to a child learning chess. The adult teaching the child chess will explain moves, play with him, and reward him for trying and for well-done moves. These rewards could be candy or affirmation. The child at first plays for these rewards, because chess itself is challenging and tricky and not necessarily enjoyable. But as the child masters the game, the reward becomes the game itself. The child learns to love chess for its own sake; through practicing virtue, we learn to love virtuous action not for the rewards it gains us, but for the virtue itself.
Because virtue is a habit, individual acts can be virtuous, without the people themselves being actually virtuous. Take the classic example of courage. A soldier in World War I may go over the top of his trench in warfare, an act of undoubted bravery. But he himself may not be a courageous person, or practicing true courage. He could be just following orders because he does not want to get shot for desertion. He may be chasing a thrill of adrenaline, or pridefully looking to boost his reputation among his fellow soldiers. Or he may just want to slaughter Germans. So the virtues are not always easy to discern from observation alone, and virtuous people and actions do not all look the same. People who have weak or even rotten characters can still perform a good act, as we all know. People who have characters of kindness will still on occasion be cruel.
People have objected to the idea of the virtues and vices throughout history. There’s not space here to address them all in full, but here’s a greatest hits version, with greatest hits answers:
1. Are you saying I can will my way into goodness? In part—but not fully. As with anything, when we practice something, we get better at it. I can practice patience while driving in rush hour. My lack of yelling or honking or cursing might not be a virtue just yet, because I’m still doing it with a begrudging irritation. Eventually, hopefully, I lose the instinct to curse and yell at other drivers because I’m just not practicing that impulse. I endure the traffic; I’m practicing patient behavior. Yet is it part of my character yet? Patience is not the absence of sorrow, irritation, or anger. Augustine writes that to be patient is to bear evils inflicted upon oneself without inflicting them on others, and one is not patient if one is simply waiting for their own opportunity to inflict evil. How can I not will evil to my enemies? How do I practice that?? Patience is a full, complete thing of its own, and it comes by the grace of God and our practice in an act of cooperation. It reminds me of tending a garden. We pick a good location, cultivate the soil, water our seedlings, and clear the space of weeds. But we cannot will the tomatoes onto the plants. The virtues, like our sanctification, like gardening, are a joint project between us and God, a beautiful place where we participate in learning how to live well, but we are not the final word. We attempt to imitate Jesus, usually begrudgingly and halfheartedly, but he transforms our desires. And he loves us first and foremost—no matter how virtuous or vicious we are. Our virtues do not earn Christ’s love; his love gives us the freedom to participate in our own process of becoming.
2. The virtues seem inequitable. It’s a lot easier for some people to practice the virtues. Someone might argue, anyone could be good if they had been well-fed, well-educated, and well-loved as a child. I have no answers for the varying difficulties of our lives, and why some things are easy for some people and harder for others. So it’s really important for us to realize that virtues and vices look different in everyone’s life. Think of it this way: everyone, regardless of their abilities, needs exercise to take care of their bodies. I do not have the gifts and training of Lebron James or Katie Ledecky. But it’s crucial for a well-lived life that I learn how to take care of my body through exercise and proper nutrition. Similarly, the virtues are not one-size-fits-all. They are not a rule, or a set of governing laws for behavior. The virtues contract and expand to fit individual lives and points in history. A six-year-old wouldn’t go over the top of a trench, but I’ve known some courageous six-year-olds nevertheless. And we can learn from them. Importantly, we also know that wealth and getting everything you ever wanted is no safeguard for the good life. Billie Eilish sings, “I had a dream / I got everything I wanted” and then admits that it might’ve been a nightmare. Some of the most viciously unhappy people in history have been rich and achieved their dreams.
3. In this series, I will talk about concepts like wrath, meekness, envy, perseverance, abstinence, gluttony, and mercy, among others. Sometimes, the very words feel unhelpfully old-fashioned. Some of them set your teeth on edge, and not just the vices. What are we supposed to do with a so-called virtue like meekness? Or with a tricky vice like gluttony? These words have occasionally been coopted and wielded like weapons to enforce culturally good behavior at different points in history. What woman today hears meekness without a little shudder at the shadow of patriarchal abuse? What person wrestling with body image hears gluttony without dread and fear? I’ll let you into a secret—very often, these words have not historically meant what we mean when we use them today. I will be returning to some ancient and medieval friends to excavate meaning out of these difficult words, as well as brainstorming together how they might apply to us today in nuanced but truthful ways. Many of these are worth reclaiming and adding back more robustly into our moral vocabulary.
4. Finally, I’ve met some folks who don’t like them because they feel like the virtues are an extra-biblical imposition, something made up by people to get people to act the way they think is good. There’s no mention in the Bible of the Seven Capital Vices, or the Seven Christian Virtues, or whatever schema you want to use. This is true in one sense. But on the other hand, the Bible is chockful of saints and sinners, of beauty and evil, of failure and learning from those falls. It speaks of transformation and growth, of the fruits of the Holy Spirit and the life of love. The vices and virtues are another way to help us conceptualize those ideas. And Jesus himself embodies each and every one of the virtues.
Why should we power through the discomfort or confusion? Because learning about the vices and virtues helps us in our ongoing pilgrimage for sanctification, for becoming more like Jesus. The beauty of virtuous people is astounding. I want to be like them, and I want to learn how to become more that way. I also think of Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Recognizing virtues will not “fix” us—or even make us more virtuous—but it expands our Christian imagination in our journey to loving God, ourselves, and our neighbor more fully and creatively.
The vices are a different beast. Why would we want to think about them? My tendency—and I suspect yours as well—is to continually justify my own actions, craft them into the most reasonable, the most understandable thoughts and actions possible, even when I know it wasn’t great, what I did. We begin to know ourselves better, our motivations, our failures, our temptations. Understanding the vices helps us to move past the project of self-justification and into our true, already existing justification, and our ongoing sanctification in Christ.
I have chosen for this series to work through the Seven Capital Vices and their Remedies, rather than the traditional Seven Virtues, because it’s Lent now. Next week I begin with the traditional Queen of the Vices, the originator, the roots of the tree of vice: Pride. And I also begin with the foundation of the virtues, the beginning and end of self-knowledge, Humility. We follow in the footsteps of our medieval forebears by exploring these pairings, and asking ourselves where we have fallen, and how we can think and act after our fall, and confessing them to ourselves and to one another during the season of Lent leading up to Good Friday. It’s the ultimate Lenten project, to excavate our motives out of the darkness in which we bury our actions, and to confess them. We begin to know ourselves as weak and in need of mercy and help, and to celebrate that we are so loved, so treasured, so valuable even in that weakness.
I want to end with a few thoughts before we start to look at actual virtues and vices next week. The first—I am not speaking from my superior soapbox. I am not a perfect practitioner of the virtues, and I am quite accomplished at most of the vices. The second: I do not want to preach at you or make you feel guilty. I’m not your priest or pastor, or your spiritual director, or a trained theologian. I’m a medievalist who works on literature and theology, and these ideas have been helpful to me in my journey of becoming more human. The third: the greatest problem with the vices and virtues is that they have been wielded like weapons against the people that the church does not like. But they are meant to be tools for inner work above all; they are helpful for tracing ideas and influences of the past, too; then the inner work and historical work can help dismantle the systemic problems—like poverty or racism.
I also want to say that this is not meant to be normative or even exhortative. Some of this may ring very true to you—some of it not so much. My goal for this series is to present these words from the past, translating them into some contemporary contexts, and also just think through the weird and the wonderful, the uncomfortable and the challenging. It expands our Christian imagination and spiritual vocabulary for good and evil. It’s not to provoke an unthinking return to the past. The weird and wonderful medieval calls us to think, to examine, to probe our own hearts and minds and commitments and actions, and that’s what I’m hoping for in this Lenten project.
So listen and discern, have conversations with friends and mentors, and to paraphrase Augustine at the end of Confessions, “what human can empower another human to understand these things”—that is, the depths of human action and transformation? He concludes that we must keep asking, seeking, knocking at Christ’s door, and only then will we receive, find, and walk in.