A Vocabulary Exercise in Virtue

David Brooks and Charles Murray are depressed because we don’t use words like “dignity” and “duty” any more. They have a point.  A lot of good words have fallen into disuse over the last century or so.  “Piety,” for instance. “Sublime.”  “Sin,” “Vice,” and “Virtue,” except in the context of diet and exercise.  It would be hard to imagine Bernie Madoff using any of these words, even in the course of lamenting his failings.  Well, heck, it would be hard to imagine Bernie Madoff lamenting his failings.

Back in 1999, Jed Purdy tried to start an anti-irony movement that might have rehabilitated some of the good old Victorian words.  It seems to have pretty much fallen flat.  The last time anybody advised me to be careful for my dignity was when I was in high school, and the teacher who gave us that advice was a source of giggles for weeks afterward.

So here’s an exercise in expanding our moral vocabulary:

The Four Cardinal Virtues—Prudence, Courage, Justice, and Temperance: Courage and Justice do get a fair amount of use, though not necessarily the way Aristotle would have liked.  We are a lot more concerned about other people treating us with Justice than about being just in our dealings with other people.  And we talk about Courage, often, when we are really describing gall, nerve, or chutzpah.  Charles Murray says we don’t talk about Prudence or Temperance at all, rather than risk derision.  Perhaps we make up for our reluctance to talk about Temperance by having created an entire spiritual path to support it, the Twelve-Step Movement.  Prudence gets no such backup, at least not since Bush Senior espoused it and got laughed out of office in 1992.  Let’s try to use each of these words once a week, in its original meaning.

The Seven Deadly Sins—Pride, Anger, Envy, Greed, Gluttony, Lust, and Sloth, get a surprising amount of attention on the History Channel, of which I am a late-night aficionado.  Amazon.com lists 10,638 “results” for a search of “Seven Deadly Sins.”  What none of these respectable sources do, as nearly as I can tell, is approach the subject without irony.  Who am I to blame them, when my college roommates and I spent most of our sophomore year devising ways to commit all seven of the deadly sins within 24 hours? (Needless to say, Sloth was the deal-breaker.) Face it, we like sin.  We admire it.  Let’s try to use each of these words, without irony, at least once a week.

Let’s try to use the words “sin,” “vice,” and “virtue” in some context other than diet and exercise, at least once a week.  And then tell us all how other people respond and how you feel about doing it.


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