The Paradox of Acquiring Virtue

Nov 13, 2013
Maybe it's because I've been reading Chesterton (and John Donne) but I've been thinking about paradox--and in particular how virtue is inherently paradoxical. 
 
Virtues often--if not always--require a negative, un-virtuous impulse in order to exist most fully and develop into their highest potential. That's quite a claim, so let me back it up with a few examples:
 
The virtue of courage does not consist, as is sometimes mistaken, in being fearless. In fact, courage presupposes fear; courage means having a tremendous, crippling amount of fear, yet being able to move forward in spite of that fear. If you do something that doesn't cause you fear, you really can't be considered courageous. If I am not afraid of lizards, I am not courageous when I corner and catch the lizard in the kitchen for my wife. In other words, you have to be weak in order to be strong. 
 
It is the same with the virtue of patience. It is precisely when you are feeling frustrated, angry, and impatient that the opportunity for patience to grow rears its head. It was not until I had children that I realized what an impatient person I am, because before I had children I had no real opportunities in which to grow in patience. If we are calm and collected only when nothing is trying and testing us, then we don't truly possess the virtue of patience.
 
But perhaps the most striking example is the virtue of love. Love that exists only in the existence of lovely feelings must surely come to disappointment. For feelings come and go, and one can no more promise to always feel in love, as Lewis puts it, than one could promise to always have a headache. True love is that which loves even in the absence of lovely feelings--more often in times of decided dislike. This is why Jesus points out that anyone can love their friends and hate their enemies--but His command to love our enemies as well brings out the paradoxical, hidden side of Love. If we are to love truly, we must be prepared to love even when we feel disgust, disdain, or even hatred. The real test of my love for my wife is my ability to love her well even when I simply cannot stand her. 
 
My point is that virtue is often paradoxical--it grows and thrives in adversity, in the presence of its doppelganger (so to speak). 
 
If this is true, then it seems to follow that gaining virtue is bound to be a very, very trying road. Seeking virtue means choosing to do the harder thing when everything within you would rather do the easier thing. It means feeling the despair down to the marrow of your bones and choosing to hope ("for hope that is seen is not hope!") in the very grips of that despair. It means persevering when every ounce of your being wants to lay down and quit. It means. as Lewis wrote, "doing school work honestly when it would be easy to cheat, leaving a girl alone when you would like to make love to her, staying in dangerous places when you would rather go somewhere safer, keeping promises you would rather not keep, and telling the truth even when it makes you look a fool".
 
All of this makes me long to learn the virtue of discipline, because it is through this virtue that all the others must flow. If we are to willingly choose death (which is what choosing virtue ultimately boils down to) to self, we must expect that this will require a healthy, active will that is able to resist the pull towards the easy way out--for the paradoxical nature of virtue requires that we be able to rise above the temptation of the un-virtuous. And, in myself at least, I find that I am much better at taking the path of least resistance when it comes to virtue. I am incredibly undisciplined.
 
But things like this make me realize that every good thing that I long for in my life comes from discipline. Poetry, music, writing, love--it's not that you can't do these things without discipline, but they find their fullest expression when we choose willingly the elusive paradox that death is somehow, mysteriously, life.

Joshua Leland

Josh Leland is a humanities teacher at Covenant Classical School in Concord, NC. He earned his BA and MA in English from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He and his wife, Rebekah, also a teacher, and their four little children, Ransom, Calvin, Alethea, and Mary, live in Charlotte, NC. [Editor's note: He's also quite a good poet]. 

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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