Becoming Virtuous Never Feels Virtuous

Wise Woman CoverGeorge MacDonald’s classic fairy tale The Wise Woman is the penetrating story of two young girls—one the daughter of a king, the other of a shepherd, both thoroughly wicked and selfish. Each girl’s wickedness requires treatment at the hands of the Wise Woman in order to grow out of her bestial selfishness and into a nascent semblance of virtue. One of the tactics utilized by the Wise Woman is simple, ordinary work—such as chores, tasks, and other assignments. At one point in the story MacDonald says this about one of the girls, who had begun to respond to the treatment and was becoming better, but was on the cusp of a relapse into her old selfishness:

She had been doing her duty, and had in consequence begun again to think herself Somebody. However strange it may well seem, to do one’s duty will make any one conceited who only does it sometimes. Those who do it always would as soon think of being conceited of eating their dinner as of doing their duty. What honest boy would pride himself on not picking pockets? A thief who was trying to reform would. To be conceited of doing one’s duty is then a sign of how little one does it, and how little one sees what a contemptible thing it is not to do it. Could any but a low creature be conceited of not being contemptible? Until our duty becomes to us common as breathing, we are poor creatures. [George MacDonald, The Wise Woman, 53]

MacDonald is nearly unmatched in his insight into human nature, the human heart, and the process by which we are drawn from our own self-absorption into a more selfless, virtuous humanity. And the feature of the human heart that he so succinctly captures in the paragraph above is our propensity for fair-weather virtue. We are generous when it is convenient, not when it is difficult; kind when it feels good, not when it doesn’t; forgiving when it costs us nothing, miserly when it does. In almost all our pursuits of virtue, our good deeds are as reliable as the weather, ever shifting, ever changing based on our circumstances and momentary preferences. We do not grow in virtue because we have failed to recognize that becoming virtuous never feels like virtue.

Pieper CoverTake, as an example, Josef Pieper’s definition of Courage from his book A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart. He observes that “Fortitude presumes vulnerability; without vulnerability there is no possibility of fortitude. An angel cannot be courageous because it is not vulnerable. To be brave means to be ready to sustain a wound. Since he is substantially vulnerable, man can be courageous” [Pieper, 24-25]. In other words, no risk, no Courage. An invulnerable individual is not courageous because he or she risks nothing in his or her pursuits, and where there is no fear there is no Courage. The brave person, then, is someone “who does not allow himself to be brought by the fear of secondary and transient evils to the point of forsaking the final and authentic good things” and who furthermore, despite his fear, “advances toward the horror and does not allow himself to be prevented from doing the good” [Pieper, 26, 27]. Convinced of the highest good, such a person pursues it through any pain which might stand between him and that good. Courage, then, is the dogged and unrelenting pursuit of the true good in the face of fear.

If courage requires vulnerability, risk, and pursuit of an objective in the face of fear, then Courage is unlikely to feel like Courage. In fact, Courage will feel like fear, and growing in the virtue of Courage will mean not growing less fearful, but growing more steadfast in the midst of our fears. If we feel courageous feelings and conclude that we are brave, then we are as conceited and ill-informed as the child who feels pride that he successfully ate his dinner. And so long as we await courageous feelings to be courageous, we will live at the mercy of animal nature and momentary circumstance. Instead, true growth in virtue will require us to pay a difficult, unexpected, and often ironic emotional cost. Becoming virtuous, to state it again, never feels virtuous.

If courage feels like fear, then what ironic feelings ought we to expect for the other three cardinal virtues of Wisdom, Temperance, and Justice? Not long ago I counseled a young woman who was in need of Wisdom to navigate a difficult interpersonal situation. As we discussed the particulars of her situation, it became clear that she was mired in a morass of conflicting perspectives. Decisions had become difficult, and what was required most was the ability to slow down and attempt to perceive the situation with clarity. In that moment it was eminently clear to me, however, that Wisdom doesn’t feel like Wisdom; Wisdom feels like mud. The person who feels wise is simply taking pleasure in her momentary cleverness, while the person who is growing in Wisdom is becoming accustomed to the murkiness of discerning the truth. Mature Wisdom is not found in the momentary insight, but comes through slogging your way into clarity. Temperance is not the good feelings we get when we show some measure of restraint—not purchasing that item of clothing, or not eating that extra cookie. Temperance feels much more like death—it is not the momentary pleasure of a pleasure avoided, but the putting to death of desire to make it serve other goods. Temperance is the death of sexual freedom, of appetites, of acquisitiveness—it is the subjugation of the unwilling will to a higher purpose and good. Lastly, Justice is not found in the feelings of justice—which are too often simply expressions of smug self-righteousness. We are most likely to feel Just when we have done some thing that makes us feel good. But a true commitment to growth in Justice demands grave discomfort, anger, and longing. “How long, O Lord?” is the cry of the Psalmist—a longing which I expect ought to be similarly echoed in the heart of the individual who would grow in the virtue of Justice.

Lady Justice

The irony exhibited through the feelings attached to the four cardinal virtues is abundant—he who would grow in Courage, Wisdom, Temperance, and Justice must willingly choose to experience fear, murkiness, death, and longing. And yet, so long as we await the feelings of virtue to be virtuous, we will remain ethical and moral infants, blown by every wind of emotional fancy. Instead, the man or woman who would grow into virtue, who would commit to becoming more fully human, must resign himself or herself to the difficult work of not feeling virtuous. In this, I am reminded of Baron von Hügel’s austere words to his niece Gwendolyn Greene—words which I keep written on the wall beside my desk:

You want to grow in virtue, to serve God, to love Christ? Well, you will grow in and attain to these things if you will make them a slow and sure, an utterly real, a mountain step-plod and ascent, willing to have to camp for weeks or months in spiritual desolation, darkness and emptiness at different stages in your march and growth. All demand for constant light, for ever the best—the best to your own feeling, all the attempt at eliminating or minimizing the cross and trial, is so much soft folly and puerile trifling. [Friedrich von Hügel, Letters to a Niece, 72]

Virtue is hard work—which is probably why so few people attempt it. And yet there is no other means through which we can actively labor to become mature. But if you’re eager for a little help along the way, may I make a recommendation? His name is George MacDonald—and the book is called The Wise Woman. I give it my highest possible recommendation.


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