Is virtue easy?

Is virtue a difficult thing, or an easy one? Is it something we have to work at for years before we have any chance of attaining it in any measure, or is it something always by our side, just waiting for us to reach out and grasp it? Is it the work of a lifetime, or of a moment?

I’m going to use a bit of a narrow definition of virtue here. I want to limit virtue here to courage and self-restraint, that is, being able to deal with pain and fear of pain, and with pleasure and desire for pleasure.

A fuller definition of virtue would include the ability to know what is the right and the wrong thing to do, in general and in particular situations, which would inform us which fears and pains are worth avoiding and which we ought to endure, which pleasures and desires are worth gratifying and which need to be resisted. That’s not the definition of virtue I’m thinking of here.

In other words: in a situation in which we know what is the right thing to do, how difficult is it to overcome fears and resist temptations in order to do that thing? That’s my question.

CS Lewis has a discussion of psychoanalysis in Mere Christianity, which I can’t help thinking of at this point. He proposes that a virtuous action requires contextualizing. For someone who is by constitution full of rage, to attack a person without deliberately causing lasting physical damage might be a relatively virtuous act. For a naturally cool-headed person, by contrast, an unnecessarily barbed comment might be an act of vice.

Another way to speak of it might be in terms of progress. We each have a starting point, morally, psychologically, socially. Are we getting better from that point? Are we getting worse? Taking actions that make us better are virtuous, even if from an objective standpoint they are still bad.

On that account of virtue, virtue is easy. It just means not giving up even while failing. It is always within our grasp. It is always a single thought away.

To succeed fully, though — to be the master of one’s desires and fears, pleasures and pains? That is the end goal of virtue, and that is something not easily attained. It is the work of a lifetime, and perhaps even then it is beyond many of us. Still, it’s worth wanting and it’s worth working for. The time to start is now.

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