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World has rich tradition of elucidating virtues

The practice of elucidating principles is so long-standing that it predates the birth of Christ

Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service

Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service

Updated: June 29, 2020 05:18 AM GMT
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World has rich tradition of elucidating virtues

St. Thomas Aquinas in stained glass at the Cathedral of Saint-Rombouts in Mechelen, Belgium. (Photo: Wikipedia)

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For those who think lists of virtues started with William Bennett's The Book of Virtues in 1993 and ended when word got out 10 years later of Bennett's enormous gambling losses, there is a rich tradition of elucidating principles to live by that is so long-standing it predates the birth of Christ.

Roger Williams, the subject of a new book written by his descendant Becky Garrison called Roger Williams's Little Book of Virtues, is not known to have mentioned specific virtues during his lifetime, according to the author.

It is possible that Williams, a Puritan preacher who founded Rhode Island, did so, but after his death his books were burned; Any writings the survived his death in 1683 don't list any. But Garrison, in her book, titles four chapters after virtues found in many lists: prudence, justice, courage and temperance.

Do those four sound familiar? If they do, it's because they're the same four espoused by St. Thomas Aquinas.

They also were clung to by the Stoics, adherents to a third-century BC Greek philosophical strain of personal ethics informed by its system of logic, though they went through the thesaurus to identify them as wisdom, morality, courage and moderation.

Those four virtues can be traced to Greek philosophy, although if you add faith, hope and charity, they make up the seven cardinal virtues, also known as the biblical virtues.

Yet one of the most renowned Greek philosophers, Aristotle, didn't stop at four. He had an even dozen virtues. They were courage, temperance, liberality in spending, charisma and style, generosity, ambition, patience, friendliness, truthfulness, wit, modesty and justice.

Bennett's virtues, which were later spun off into a children's book and a PBS series, numbered 10: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty and faith.

Adam Smith, in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, wrote that excellent people have three primary virtues: prudence, justice and benevolence, in that order. Each of them, according to Smith, is essential to the others and to the living of a full life in society.

Others have posited the highest virtue is kindness, humility, integrity or forgiveness.

Benjamin Franklin, in his autobiography, listed 13 virtues. He would choose a different virtue each week on which to focus, so that by the end of the year he had worked on each virtue four times. Here's Franklin's baker's dozen:

— Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

— Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

— Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

— Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

— Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; waste nothing.

— Industry. Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

— Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

— Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

— Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

— Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes or habitation.

— Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

— Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.

— Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

One of the longest list of virtues — 14 — was developed during the Roman Empire. Emperors said every Roman should aspire to these qualities, which would give the Roman Republic the moral strength to conquer and civilize the world. Together, they were the Via Romana or the Roman Way. Here, in the original Latin with an English interpretation, they are:

— "Auctoritas" or spiritual authority, the sense of one's social standing, built up through experience.

— "Comitas" or humor, ease of manner, courtesy, openness and friendliness.

— "Clementia" or mercy, a sense of mildness and gentleness.

— "Dignitas" or dignity, a sense of self-worth, personal pride.

— "Firmitas" or tenacity, strength of mind, the ability to stick to one's purpose.

— "Frugalitas" or frugalness, economy and simplicity of style, without being miserly.

— "Gravitas" or gravity, a sense of the importance of the matter at hand, responsibility and earnestness.

— "Honestas" or respectability, the image that one presents as a respectable member of society.

— "Humanitas" or humanity, refinement, civilization, learning and being cultured.

— "Industria" or industriousness hard work.

— "Pietas" or dutifulness; more than religious piety, it is a respect for the natural order socially, politically and religiously, including the ideas of patriotism and devotion to others.

— "Prudentia" or prudence, having foresight, wisdom and personal discretion.

— "Salubritas" or wholesomeness, having health and cleanliness.

— "Severitas" or sternness, a sense of gravity and self-control.

— "Veritas" or truthfulness, honesty in dealing with others.

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