Word of the Week
“By virtue of the authority vested in me,” says the minister in every old Hollywood film with a wedding in it, “I now pronounce you man and wife.” And we understand what he means, even though it’s far from any particular virtue we may have in mind, such as wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Those four were considered the cardinal virtues, because anything like a decent human life hinged upon them, which is what cardinal means. In case you’re wondering, the color was named after the preeminent bishops who wore the purple hats, and then the cheerful American bird was named after the color, and my favorite baseball team, too.
Back to our Word of the Week, virtue: it was considered a power, and that might be found anywhere. In the old days, some people believed that certain precious and semi-precious stones had special virtues, powers, influences. I suppose that a big bright green emerald might make me quite a delighted owner, but not because there is anything in the rock. Plants had virtues: eyebright for bleary eyes and stuffy noses, the daisy feverfew for putting fevers to flight (Latin febrifugia), angelica root for indigestion, and so forth. The chemical in aspirin was named for the willow tree (Latin salix), and for more than two thousand years, people in many parts of the world have chewed willow bark to ease pain and reduce fever. That is indeed one of the willow’s virtues. Another, of course, is to help dry out soggy areas in your lawn.
Moral virtue is near the bedrock of the word’s meaning. Many people suppose that virtue makes you a prig, but consider that the soul is like the body in this regard: if your muscles are strong and your limbs supple, you can do a lot of things with ease that others can do only with difficulty or danger, and there will be some things you can do that others won’t be able to do at all. That’s the case also with the virtues. The courageous soldier holds the field. The prudent man is not taken off guard by fortune, good or bad. The just judge earns the trust of everyone. A woman known for her kindness can make her way into a troubled situation when everyone else would be kept far off. We train up our children in virtues because we want them to be strong, active, and capable, when others about them might be tempted to fall away.
The old Latin word virtus meant manliness: the virtue most proper to a man (Latin vir). For manliness and womanliness are different things, but they are both beautiful and powerful. Saint Paul urges his Corinthian brethren to acquit themselves like men: to be stalwart, forthright, brave, proof against temptation. And sometimes, no doubt, the temptation is to be soft and squishy, which Paul never was, rather than clearly and rightly dividing the word of truth.
Does virtus have any cousins in English? Sure. But you have to keep in mind that Latin v was pronounced like English w, throughout the classical period, anyway. So vir was pronounced as weer, and that’s how you can tell that Anglo-Saxon wer, human being, was its cousin. In those days, if you slew somebody in a fight, you might placate the family of your rival by paying wergild, man-gold, that is, man-money. But if you saw your cousin Quentin suddenly growing hair all over his face and hands, you might say, “Aha, just as I thought — he’s a werewolf,” that is, a man-wolf. More wolf than man, though; and not much in the way of real virtue!
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St. Nikodimos praised the treatise on the ascetic teaching of St John of Damaskos as " a touchstone discriminating with exactness between the tried and tested gold of the virtues and the copper alloy of the vices. "
It is always a spiritual exercise to consider each virtue and the corresponding vice it overcomes. Society is replete with the vices of mankind but sadly lacks reference to the virtues. Hopefully the "Woke Agenda " will soon remember that the virtues are forgotten treasures to be reclaimed.