A sentinel watches upon the battlements. The air is raw and cold, and it seems to have penetrated to his knees and ankles and the shoulder upon which he rests his rifle. But he paces his rounds, hour after long hour. He peers into the little glooming light showing in the east. He turns again and faces the west, where the clouds are just beginning to reflect the slightest tinge of purple. He listens. All the sounds of the darkness are familiar to him, and bespeak the order of the early dawn. A thrush trills from the copse beside the river. The swallows have left their roosts and are beginning to twitter as they fly. A cock from a nearby farm crows. Yet if he hears a single sound made by man—a footstep, the roll of a wheel—he turns, his eyes narrow, he shifts his hands along the rifle, and he listens. He is a good sentinel.
The Thomistic understanding of virtue is straightforward enough. A virtue is a habit, what Aristotle calls a second nature. It is difficult to attain—hence, its association with manhood, which is what the Latin virtus literally means. It involves the perfection of a faculty, like the deep knowledge in the hands of a master craftsman. Therefore its definition cannot be arbitrary; it is bound up with the faculty in question, and the work to be done.
Since human beings are not robots, and since they find themselves always in situations that call upon many faculties at once, the virtues are bound together, and not only coincidentally. The root of the good sentinel's virtue is to be found not in his eyesight, but in his piety. He desires to defend his city, because he loves it. If he were only a hireling, he would not expose himself to any risk beyond the literal specifications of his employment: he would watch, according to contract. When the wolves come, the hireling runs away.
But because the good sentinel loves his city, he calls up a host of subordinate virtues to support his piety. He calls upon self-denial. He is sometimes sleepy, but he never winks. He is often hungry, but he puts it out of his mind. He is often weary, but he does not flag. He calls upon foresight. He makes sure that he is physically and mentally ready to begin his watch, and orders his day accordingly. He calls upon industry and humility, as he considers that no work, no matter how small, is beneath his care, if it bears upon his duty. Other men may instruct a page boy to clean their rifles. He cleans his rifle himself.
Maybe it is easier for people who regularly face danger, or who must fight to wrest a living from the stubborn earth, to remember what the virtues are. It certainly is a commonplace among the pagan philosophers, and then among the Christian fathers, that one of the dangers of wealth is a softening or decay of the moral fiber. The rich—and, compared with almost anyone who has ever lived on earth, we Americans are all rich, even most of the relatively poor among us—neither face the immediate necessity for virtue, nor the immediate danger of vice. Their souls can be vitiated long before they notice the demise of their culture.
We see this queasy-making softness everywhere we turn. When Grover Cleveland delivered his first inaugural address, he declared that he would act according to an “unstrained” reading of the Constitution, adhering to precisely those powers it granted to him, and assuming no others. Cleveland was as good as his word. He did not compromise his moral character for the sake of an easy chance for popularity, as when he refrained from annexing Hawaii at the urging of a pack of avaricious adventurers. He was scrupulously honest. He obeyed the Constitution, the law of the land. He knew his place.
The contrast between Cleveland and our contemporary politicians is not just the contrast between one political philosophy and others. It is a contrast between a man who was trained up in virtue—who knew that virtue is a habit difficult to acquire, the perfection of a faculty that is not defined according to an individual's caprice but that springs from the nature and the purpose of the faculty itself—and those who are not. We have always had bad politicians. But now, we take most of the vice for granted. We hardly notice it. The president makes a flagrant show of breaking the law; we shrug, because everyone is a cheater nowadays. Students cheat on their exams; spouses regularly break their vows—its most radical form is called divorce—and no one cares. Lawyers trawl the airwaves for litigants. Doctors record the results of examinations they have not performed. Ministers wrest the Scripture for their purposes. Vice always finds its excuse.
It is a telltale sign for our times that our most heated debates arise from the sexual faculties. We suppose ourselves enlightened in these matters, having matured far beyond the repressions and the taboos of our ancestors. One might note also that we have matured far beyond other qualities of our ancestors: their racism, perhaps; and that may be the best we can say for ourselves. We have matured far beyond their industriousness, their artistic skill, their loyalty, their honesty, their filial duty, their self-denial, their courage, their personal generosity, their purity, their neighborliness, and their reverence. Lawyers devour a full tenth of our nation's income, as we take one another to court for a cross on the side of a public road, or a hot coffee that an old lady spills on herself at the drive-through—and that alone gives the lie to the single virtue we claim as our most precious. For we are, in fact, the most intolerant generation ever to walk upon the face of the earth.
It is also telling that, in our arguments about those sexual faculties, we do what soft people do and not what virtuous people do. That is, we argue only about what is permissible. It is as if there were no such thing as sexual virtue at all. Imagine a sentinel who is always dickering with his superiors about whether he can sit down on the job, whether his rifle has to be loaded, whether he can sometimes leave his rifle in the corner rather than lugging it around, whether he can catch forty winks, and whether a noise qualifies as suspicious according to his own private concept of danger. Not only is such a man a bad sentinel; we would be hard put to call him a sentinel at all. He may wear the uniform, he may be stationed on the ramparts, and he may have signed a contract for sentinel duty. But he does not even acknowledge the existence of the virtues of a sentinel. He is soft in every way.
That is our condition now with regard to sex. No sane person would entrust the drafting of a constitution to people notable for mercurial interpretations. We would not listen to a pickpocket lecturing us on contract law. We do not comb the ranks of deserters for work on the Military Code of Honor. Yet with regard to sex, we are told we must heed ourselves—and, generally speaking, we are a pack of fornicators, adulterers, porn-users, abortion-procurers, child-corrupters, and sodomites.
What is the virtue the sexual faculties demand? Our grandparents, whether or not they were sinners in that respect, could have answered the question readily enough. They require chastity and all the contributory or corollary virtues: prudence, self-denial, moral courage, purity of thought and word and deed, care for children, and steadfastness in marriage. That answer came not from their caprice but from a plain view of what sexual intercourse simply is: it is, by way of efficient or exemplary cause, the act that brings into the world beings who dwell not only in time but in history and culture, if not in the shadow of eternity itself. By its very nature, it cannot be casual, as of dogs rutting in the road. It cannot be merely for a mutually agreed-upon duration of time, since the child that is its natural end transcends any such duration. He needs not a sire and a bitch, but a mother and a father bound to one another wholly, now and always.
But we are now in the odd position of supposing that sex is too trivial to require virtue for its exercise, but that it is simultaneously so significant, so determinative of a person’s identity, that to suggest any restraint upon its consensual exercise is an affront to the most important fount of human dignity. It is at once nugatory and holy. We are at once to think nothing of it, and everything. It is at once like scratching an itch, and worshiping a god. It requires no sacrifice from its exerciser, and the sacrifice of everything else to it: the welfare of children and the family, public morals, the common good, and liberty itself.
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and Dante’s The Divine Comedy.