Politics & Policy

The Seven Deadly Virtues

A light and rigorous look at the classics.

Jonathan V. Last is the editor of The Seven Deadly Virtues: 18 Conservative Writers on Why the Virtuous Life Is Funny as Hell, a new book from Templeton Press. Curious already? Now know there are essays from our own Jonah Goldberg, as well as from Andrew Ferguson, P. J. O’Rourke, Mollie Hemingway, Andrew Stiles, and Christine Rosen, among others. Last talks with me about what’s deadly and what’s soul- and culture-saving. — KJL

 

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Is the virtuous life really funny as hell?

Jonathan V. Last: Yes. Probably. I think. It’s complicated.

Look, if you actually live the virtuous life, full stop, like a saint — Monica and Augustine, Theresa and Peter — then, no. Not a lot of yucks there. But your reward will be great in heaven and yada, yada, yada.

But for the rest of us, who are just muddling through and trying to figure out what the virtuous life should really be, and how we ought to aspire to it, and understanding all the places we fall short — well, that can be plenty funny.

 

Lopez: The seven deadly sins could be named by many people, even in a secular time. But if you asked those same people to list the virtues, most would draw a blank. Why is vice perennially more popular than virtue?

Last: Doing this book, I kept wondering what would happen if Leno did one of his “Jay Walking” segments and asked people to name the seven cardinal virtues. I’m guessing that a handful of people might get justice — probably the lefties who like to go around chanting “No justice, no peace!” But after that, I suspect, it would be pretty slim pickings.

The seven cardinal virtues are composed of the philosophical virtues — prudence, justice, courage, temperance — and the theological virtues — faith, hope, and charity. Being the virtuous sort, you probably already knew that.

The allure of vice probably needs no explanation. Spring Break! Just do it. For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.

Or you can have prudent, courageous, temperate, chaste. Your call.

 

Lopez: Who are you to say that we’ve organized ourselves around the wrong virtues in the modern day? 

Last: “Wrong” is such a judgmental word.

I think it’s pretty indisputable that, over the last generation or so, we’ve organized ourselves around a very different set of cardinal virtues. To my mind, the modern virtues are freedom, convenience, progress, equality, authenticity, health, non-judgmentalism.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Look, these modern virtues are all good things, if taken in the right measure. It’s good to be authentic. Healthy, too. Even non-judgmentalism, taken sensibly, means roughly what your grandmother used to say: Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.

But on the other hand, these modern virtues are clearly second-order goods that deal with the superficial aspects of what it means to be a human being. What’s more important, in the grand sense: that you be healthy and authentic, or charitable and courageous?

The cardinal virtues deal with the foundational aspects of the self and, as such, are really eternal — they’re essential to all people, in all places, at all times.

 

Lopez: Where did the modern virtues you map out come from exactly? The classic ones had quite the shelf-life and history, didn’t they? Who’s to blame for the new ones? 

Last: It’s hard to pin the blame for the modern virtues on any one person. So let’s just go with a big class of people: the Baby Boomers. They ruined everything else in America, so it’s probably a safe assumption that they ruined the philosophical understanding of virtue, too.

But look, there I go with the judgment again.

Lopez: Have you explained to Bill Bennett yet that his Book of Virtues is a relic? 

Last: It sounds so mean when you put it that way. What I meant is that Bill Bennett’s Book of Virtues — which left a big mark on me as a kid — is a relic from a forgotten Golden Age. Like a lost scroll from Athens.

The truth is, The Seven Deadly Virtues is really a valentine to Bennett’s book, and could not (and would not) have existed without it.

 

Lopez: If the freedom we talk about as a virtue isn’t necessarily virtuous, how do we even get that conversation started? Is that your book’s role? 

Last: Freedom is great, in theory. Unless it’s taken to mean license. And then it’s a very different thing.

Without getting too far down the Catholic wormhole on ideas about what true freedom is, I’d just say that even the superficial version of freedom can turn out to be problematic.

The compact between the individual and society runs both ways, but as you place more and more emphasis on freedom, that compact gets stressed. And these things are not indestructible.

It would be wonderful if The Seven Deadly Virtues sparked some sort of serious, national conversation. But to be honest, we were much more concerned with making a book that you look forward to reading and enjoy enough to give as a Christmas present.

 

Lopez: Why are you so taken with our friend Mary Eberstadt’s observation that we live at a bizarre moment when it is nearly impossible to speak with any moral judgment about sexual practices — but a great deal of moral and philosophical energy is spent on the subject of food? 

Last: Deep down, I’m a pinko hippie. I went to Quaker school. My kids go to Montessori. I’m naturally suspicious of “free markets”—note the scare quotes. And I’m a vegetarian.

Not a real vegetarian, mind you. I still eat fish, even though I feel guilty about it. Also — and this is an important point — I don’t particularly like animals. It’s complicated.

Anyway, what I find so interesting about Mary Eberstadt’s spot-on observation is the kind of overwrought moralizing about food that many (most) of my vegetarian fellow travelers employ. Your average hippie vegans would never think to defend the life of a baby in the third trimester, but they’ll go to war over cage-free eggs, locally sourced beets, and sustainably grown arugula.

And, as Mary says, that’s a sign of deep moral and philosophical confusion.

 

Lopez: You also note that “at the same time that smoking tobacco has become verboten, smoking marijuana has been gaining wider acceptance. How could this be? It’s not like getting stoned is good for you. No, the emerging moral consensus of marijuana comes when health is trumpeted by another of the modern virtues — freedom.” Are you prepared for that case in Washington, D.C., that has just legally embraced marijuana possession?

Last: Washington, D.C., is a perfect case study in this.

When I came to town, the great cigar craze of the ’90s was in full swing. People smoked — both stogies and cigarettes — pretty much everywhere. Bars, restaurants, walking through parks, in their offices.

Then the smokers started getting the squeeze. The city council made it illegal to smoke in workplaces. Then in restaurants and bars. Then taxis. Then public “green spaces.” Then even within 25 feet of a Starbucks.

At the same time, the city was moving in the other direction with respect to marijuana. First it decriminalized possession. And after a vote last week, the city has now decriminalized it almost entirely, allowing recreational use and production for all citizens.

This is municipal incoherence borne of philosophical incoherence about the virtues, because we do not know whether to prize health over freedom, or vice versa.

 

Lopez: What’s the least fashionable virtue, and why?

Last: It’s the eternal question: Which is worse, chastity or temperance? I’ve learned not to choose sides.

 

Lopez: Is being at some peace — or self-awareness, at least — with the idea that children inspire “virtue and vice in roughly equal measure” at the heart of successful family life?

Last: That line — that my children inspire virtue and vice in roughly equal measure — is from the book. And hand to God, the following is true:

As I write this, my four-year-old daughter and six-year-old son are sitting at the dining-room table next to me, working on their homework together. The four-year-old has no actual homework, but she’s jealous of the six-year-old, who does. So, to be sweet, he sits and makes up homework assignments for his little sister, who then dutifully does her made-up homework next to him. And when she finishes an assignment, he then carefully looks over her work — say, writing out words, or doing some basic addition — and gives her either a check and a smiley face or a “redo” if it doesn’t pass muster.

Adorable, right?

Until a moment ago, when the four-year-old became incensed that she didn’t also get a sticker to go with her smiley-face. At which point she hit him. In the head. After which he retaliated by telling her that her work was “stupid” and turning her check-plus into a check-minus. And writing “redo.”

Q.E.D.

 

Lopez: Do you agree with most virtue assessments in the book? Do you want to take issue with one or another just to start a clever exchange?  

Last: As Lucille Bluth once said, I love all my children equally.

 

Lopez: Did you always know Jonah Goldberg would be your integrity man? 

Last: From the start. Always trust guys who appreciate why Star Trek is better than Star Wars.

 

Lopez: Did Matt Labash’s chapter give you any hope about the future of marriage and chastity? 

Last: Not really. But it was an awfully good ride, and it contains one of the best lines in the book: “The problem with pornography is that it’s numbing. After a while, you can’t get it up unless you’re wearing a chicken costume.”

 

Lopez: How do you warn the world away from manias for single virtues? 

Last: One of the lessons of the book is that every virtue, on its own, is corruptible. Extremism in pursuit of virtue can easily be vice. Think of it this way: Curiosity is an essential virtue; without it we’d still be living in caves and clubbing animals with sticks. But if you’ve got nothing but curiosity, you become a gossip. Or worse. Mengele was a curious sort.

The key is that the virtues are additive. They both buttress and constrain one another. You need prudence and charity and courage to go with your curiosity.

 

Lopez: Why is Stephen Maturin your moral guide? 

Last: I don’t know that I’d call him a moral guide so much as my literary spirit-animal.

 

Lopez: Obviously not Jonah, but did you send anyone back for a second draft with more humor? 

Last: Oh, yes. I told P. J. O’Rourke, I’ve got a fever — and the only prescription is more funny.

Untrue, of course. For me, the hard work was over as soon as I convinced/bribed/blackmailed all the writers into getting onboard. When you have P. J., Jonah, James Lileks, Andy Ferguson, Rob Long, Joe Queenan, Mollie Hemingway, and Sonny Bunch, there just isn’t a lot of heavy lifting for the editor.

Working with this crew was more fun than anything else I’ve done in my professional life. Which is saying something, because I’ve been lucky enough to get paid to drive around the backwoods of New Hampshire with Matt Labash and Tucker Carlson.

 

Lopez: How do you best encourage cultivating the virtues as a class? Say, to your children, but to colleagues and friends, too? 

Last: I’m bad enough at cultivating virtues myself that I have very little to teach friends and colleagues. With my kids, I try to stick to the basics: prudence (“Don’t put that in your mouth”), courage (“You’re okay, just rub some dirt on it”), and mercy (“Don’t hit your sister just because she hit you”).

 

Lopez: Did putting this book together help you with virtues — old ones, or deadly? 

Last: It’s certainly helpful to think about virtues qua virtues. One of my mantras is that you should always live intentionally, which is harder than it sounds. When it comes to the virtues, just meditating about them can be enormously productive. And it’s easier to do if you’re having fun.

 

Lopez: We just got through elections. Can politics ever encourage the right virtues? Could it be itself virtuous? 

Last: While it’s theoretically possible that politics can be virtuous, I’m dubious. Cold fusion is theoretically possible, too, and yet it always keeps slipping under the horizon.

But I don’t lament that. In general, if you’re seeking for virtue in politics, you’re probably looking in the wrong place. You’d be better off just looking over your shoulder — at your neighbors, your community, your friends, your family. That’s where virtue lives, and it’s more important that politics, too.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.

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