Straightening Out Priorities

Let’s ask ourselves a challenging hypothetical question:

What would I be willing to give up in exchange for growth in virtue?

I want to quote a couple sentences from a passage that shows up early in Aristotle’s Rhetoric:

“If it be objected that one who uses such power of speech unjustly might do great harm, that is a charge which may be made in common against all good things except virtue, and above all against the things that are most useful, as strength, health, wealth, generalship. A man can confer the greatest of benefits by a right use of these, and inflict the greatest of injuries by using them wrongly.”

Aristotle, Rhetoric (emphasis added)

Good health, financial security, physical strength, persuasive speech — these are all good things, and worth pursuing. But unlike virtue, they can be a source of harm and sorrow, just as much as they can be a source of good. Virtue is the only thing we can seek to gain that will be always unambiguously good for us.

But it’s even more than that, too: virtue is what makes all other good and useful things beneficial and not harmful. If you had every advantage in the world and didn’t have virtue, then all those things would be of no profit to you. On the other side, if you had an abundance of virtue, then even if you lost everything else, you could still be a happy and fortunate human being.

We used to know this, or at least we used to pay lip service to it. In the modern world, we hardly even bother pretending to believe it anymore.

So then let’s entertain the idea. This brings us back to the hypothetical question I posed at the beginning of this reflection.

What might need to be given up for the sake of progress in virtue? Perhaps money or possessions.

Perhaps the good opinion that some friend or some acquaintances might have of you.

Perhaps some hobby or habit or pursuit that gives enjoyment.

I’m not saying that all of those will always need to be given up! There are such things as honourable pleasures. But our priorities need to be clear to us from the beginning. We need to be honest with ourselves about whether we’re willing to do whatever it takes. 

If growth in virtue would inflict many pains on us, over many years, could we still choose it?

If it might cost us friends and reputation, will we pursue it?

If we are faced with a choice between making a pile of money or coming closer to attaining the sort of good character we’re straining toward, which way will we go?

Virtue can’t be pursued halfheartedly. It’s either our focus, or it’s only a polite fiction.

What will it be for you?

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