Toward America’s Recovery of Virtue

Even more than a regime change, as welcome and salutary as that would be, this nation needs a recovery of virtue.  People who control themselves don’t need libraries full of regulatory codes and courts full of ambulance chasers.  And the downfall of a society that celebrates vice is inevitable.  “There are no great men without virtue,” said Alexis de Tocqueville, “and there are no great nations.”

Leo Strauss spelled it out:  “Democracy is the regime that stands or falls by virtue:  A democracy is a regime in which all or most adults are men of virtue, and since virtue seems to require wisdom, a regime in which all or most adults are virtuous and wise, or the society in which all or most adults have developed their reason to a high degree, or the rational society.”

Yet American society has grown increasingly irrational, filled with adults even at the highest levels of government who are neither virtuous, nor wise, nor reasonable.  Strauss’ words may prove to be prophetic.  When men know no internal constraints, their excesses require external governance.  The less in command of himself a person is, the more areas of his life require this restraining hand.  Freedom erodes.  Tyranny looms.  And here we are.

Only a recovery of virtue on a large scale can reverse this downward spiral, as unlikely as that is amid a pop culture obsessed with drunken ingenues and glorifying gangster rappers.  Still, if anyone can bring about such a sea change, it is the singular and strikingly original Catholic writer John Zmirak.

Zmirak’s new book, The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad), is a tour through the vices and virtues without parallel in the annals of Catholic theological writing (or any other kind).  Never before, and doubtless never again, will a disquisition on sloth feature a profile of Andy Warhol (titled “The Art of Sloth”), or one on greed focus on Mao Tse-Tung (and his “greed for mayhem”).  Zmirak opines that adult heterosexual men see all other human beings in two categories:  1) attractive women, and 2) orange traffic cones.

This careening between snark and snickering and profound insight on serious subjects could easily degenerate into mere farce or, even worse, po-faced social commentary.  But Zmirak holds it all together masterfully with a mischievous wit.  “Once you’ve read a few chapters” of a titled The Hidden Power of Kindness, he says, “you’ll realize why its real, secret title is How Not to be Such a Jackass.”

One such jackass was the liberal Catholic schoolteacher whose hubris was such that he quipped, “Jesus didn’t have a master’s in theology.  I do.”  Zmirak explains this teacher’s problem in unexpected terms:  His “world lacked romance.  My boyish love of kings and Popes, of miracles and sacraments, could not attach itself to dissident biblical scholars and feminist nuns.”  His entire book is an exercise in recovering that sense of romance, of wonder at the beauty of the good that animated centuries of heroes and saints, and built a great civilization.  For all of Zmirak’s often wicked wit, his love for the good, the true and the beautiful is genuine.  His affection and respect for the eternal verities is unabashed and wholehearted.

That is the primary reason why The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins is utterly convincing as it makes the case for virtue that America’s public square so desperately needs today.  One of the most valuable elements of the book is that Zmirak not only distinguishes each of the deadly sins from its opposing virtue—lust from chastity, wrath from patience, and so on—but he also distinguishes each virtue from its desiccated and neurotic counterfeit: chastity from frigidity, patience from servility, generosity from prodigality.  This is not only enlightening on a personal level, although that it certainly is.  It is a key to the genuine wisdom that Strauss notes as a prerequisite to virtue, and hence to a free and healthy society.

It is not an overstatement to say that John Zmirak is one of the most original, inventive, compelling and thoughtful writers on the scene today.  Were his clear-sighted moral reasoning, so engagingly presented in this book, to be heeded on a large scale, America would be going a long way toward becoming once again the great nation full of great, virtuous men that de Tocqueville envisioned.

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