Virtues versus Values

I am an absolute geek about all things ancient, so when a dear friend linked me to this list of ancient Roman virtues, I was elated! I looked it over, and it made a lot of sense to me. The list is divided into two sections – personal virtues, which the people strive to achieve personally, and public virtues, which are the broad goals of society.

Looking at the list as I would a mirror, I saw myself proficient in some virtues- exemplo gratias: Comitas, Humanitas, et Frugalitas; while in others I feel somewhat lacking: Firmitas, Severitas, et Industria. I felt an emotional cocktail of pride, dissatisfaction, and hope, because this list gives me a veritable smorgasbord of ways to be good and the freedom to decide for myself which ones I would … value.

Now there is a word that has gained weight in the last few years. I have never lived in an era where that word has not hung over every social issue of any importance like the sword of Damocles, the not-so-silent majority’s sucker punch. Some of the moralists who wield the idea of “Values” hearken back to Ancient Rome, and some think of the empire and its eponymous capitol as an archetype of perversion and decadence, but what both parties fail to see is this:

The virtues as presented here are not weighted. No one virtue is inherently better than any other. Values, one might say, are rubrics that give weight to certain virtues, let’s say Pietas (piety) and Salubritas (health and cleanliness), while placing less emphasis on Severitas (seriousness). Values tell us which virtues to pursue.

Let’s pretend for a moment that instead of a limited list of the virtues of ancient Rome, but all the virtues that humanity has ever and will ever consider virtues. Leaving aside the questions of what makes a virtue virtuous, we would have the stuff that every culture is made of. Using a culture’s values as a recipe, we would select ingredients from the cultural pantry in the correct proportions and arrive at that culture’s model of goodness. Here is my original Facebook post on the subject:

“Let’s say the list of human virtues is like a list of ingredients. Each society implements them differently, in different proportions, and may exclude some entirely, and thus serving up many dishes to a hungry humanity. One pantry, many meals…”

Whatever you value, remember that everyone aspires to some kind of virtue. Every counterculture or subculture is a response to some kind of perceived deficiency in the prevailing society, and an attempt to serve up a new cultural dish that corrects those imbalances. You can find virtue in anyone …even your local coffee house hipsters.


Likewise, cultures that seem foreign to you may value one trait over another, but the traits themselves are still valuable. So even if their aesthetics weird you out, even if you feel like their values are completely backwards, whoever you are and whomever they are, look for their virtues. If you really can’t find any virtues, you’re not looking hard enough.



2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: The Fusion of Nature and Virtue | newthink
  2. Trackback: The Fusion of Nature and Virtue | The Progressive Worldview

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