Jonathan V. Last has collected a wonderful array of conservative writers to talk about the seven cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and charity, and how they have gone out of fashion. The authors, ranging from the well-known Jonah Goldberg and P.J. O’Rourke to the more obscure Mollie Hemingway and Rita Koganzon, mostly examine how these virtues are no longer practised and what happens to individuals and a culture that either through weakness or will, shucks them aside.
Last notes in his introduction, which is worth the price of the book alone, that these classical virtues, handed down not only by the church but the Greek philosophers, have been replaced by a new set of modern, everyday virtues: freedom, convenience, progress, equality, authenticity, health, and non-judgmentalism. “These are the characteristics modern society most prizes and has begun to organize its strictures around.” The 18 authors Last has assembled do a wonderful, often witty, job of pointing out the nonsensical results of embracing these rather shallow values.
Last says that these values are good, up to a point, but as organizing principles they are rather thin gruel. For example, Last points out the case of Donald Sterling, who was forced to sell his professional basketball team after it was revealed he said politically incorrect things about blacks and encouraged his mistress to be more discreet in associated with coloured folk. The outrage machine went into overdrive, but not once did anyone remark upon the fact that the 70-something married owner of the Los Angeles Clippers was openly dating a model half his age. Last sardonically observes, “the scarlet ‘A’ doesn’t exist anymore, but the scarlet ‘R’ is very real indeed.” Racism is indeed terrible, but so is infidelity. Sexual mores, you see, are now private, not a reflection of character or relevant to one’s soul.
To his credit, Last does not dismiss the new virtues. They are fine in moderation (there’s an old virtue), but taken to extremes, can be quite dangerous.
Some essays are better than others, but at just under 200 pages, none of them are that long. One of the better pieces is Matt Labash’s contribution on chastity, which he takes on through the trope of a porn star holding forth on presidential politics in 2000 in an “adult” store wearing nothing but her birthday suit and none of those in attendance demonstrate any bit of embarrassment. Labash writes, “The jaded, ho-humness of it all made me realize how far we’d fallen.” And that is the problem, isn’t it. The total indifference to the classical virtues; alas, that’s part of the modern virtue of non-judgmentalism.
Michael Graham has a wonderful essay on courage, and he rails against our modern “adversity avoidance” which makes courage difficult to inculcate and Sonny Bunch’s piece on forbearance is a plea for depoliticizing our personal lives because the choice to eat organic can’t possibly define whether we are moral or not.
More than one author notes that complaining about the decline of virtue is nothing new. Mollie Hemingway notes that Sir Philip Sidney complained about the lack of charity being “exercised in thinking and speaking” four centuries ago.
A word of warning: the subtitle is “the virtuous life is funny as hell,” which isn’t quite accurate. Most of the humour comes from chronicling the modern world not the benefits of the classical virtues, but the larger point that we do not have to be dour is correct. For an amusing defense of traditional virtues and biting commentary on their superficial and inadequate modern replacements, The Seven Deadly Virtues is highly recommended.