One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Supposedly, we learn more from our failures than from our successes. 
I certainly hope so.
One step forward…
The purpose of this writing project is to chart my own personal journey in trying to live a life according to the classical virtues of Justice, Fortitude, Prudence and Moderation. My ultimate hope is that others will be motivated to do the same. Since beginning this project I have come to appreciate how paying attention to these virtues can be a real source of strength in my daily life. But the road is not an easy one. If I am going to do this properly I am going to need to be brutally honest in chronicling not just my successes, but also my failures. 
Two steps back…
Today I willingly kicked Fortitude & Justice to the curb. I knew there was something I should do today, but I just didn’t want to. It was something I was uncomfortable with, even though it was clearly “the right thing to do.” I am not the most outgoing guy and today’s opportunity would have required me to go out of my comfort zone. I let my discomfort rule over my sense of both Justice and Fortitude. And now I feel lousy. I think in retrospect my guilt feels worse than the discomfort would have had I gone through with today’s chore. I suppose that is something to remember. But right now it doesn’t help all that much.
I remember reading somewhere that once you start eating better, that when you cheat, and eat junk it tends to make you feel worse than it did before you were eating healthy. I think the same principle applies here. Before I started seriously evaluating my daily activities in light of the classical virtues I doubt whether today’s missed opportunity would have left much of an impression on my psyche. 
Progress? In a way, I guess it is. But I’ll tell you one thing. Next time I feel anxiety pushing me away from a task I know I should do, I will work harder to push it aside. One step forward…

Star Wars Virtue

I write this post as hurricane Irene is bearing down on the east coast. Though so far it has been something of a let down. While I certainly don’t want mass damage, so far there has been little more than a steady rain. Oh well. [Note- not five minutes after completing the first draft of this essay the power went out, not to come back for 24 hours. It was out even longer in neighboring towns. Guess I tempted fate.] School is about to start here in New England and I have been giving some thought as to how I can incorporate the classical virtues in my every day teaching.

Values education has been around for years, but most programs I have seen have revolved around reading kids painfully fabricated stories and then discussing the moral decisions the characters must make. They tend to be preachy, unrealistic and the kids treat them accordingly. The teacher “covers” the values section of the curriculum and the kids file it away, never really gaining anything long lasting.

Enter the four classical virtues.
Ideally a values education program would allow English teachers to use the works they always have- books and stories that have stood the test of time and appeal to students intellectually and aesthetically, rather than prepackaged “programs.” It is my hope that by applying the classical virtues to what we already read we can show students examples of how to live without it coming across as phony, or put on.

I believe every major character in a work of fiction either exemplifies one of the four classical virtues or is lacking in one of them. Many times a protagonist will do both, with the lacking virtue acting as the character’s fatal flaw. Let’s use Star Wars as a proxy for all fiction simply because it is familiar to most.
Each character in Star Wars can be analyzed by looking at how much or how little of each classical virtue he has. I am going to limit myself to the first movie (by first I mean 1977 release, not the chronological first- confusing isn’t it?) I’ll look at two characters, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.
Luke the Evolving Hero
He is brave enough to decide to rescue Princess Leia and his sense of justice will not let him leave the job undone when they go up against superior forces in the Death Star. Yet, he lacks prudence. This devil-may-care, jump-before-you-look attitude leads him into trouble time and time again. It is not really until the end of the first trilogy that we see a Luke who is able to think about his next move and make it confidently, knowing he is doing the correct thing at the correct time.
Han  the Complete Hero
Solo on the other hand is quite prudent and moderate in his dealings. However, because these two virtues are not tempered by Justice, he tends to only look out for himself. It is not until he puts others before himself that he becomes a true hero. He is in fact the real hero of the first film, even though Luke is the one who saves the day.
Han is the one who overcomes his main flaw and comes in to save Luke just before certain death. The fact that Luke is the one who destroys the Death Star is an important step in his hero’s journey, but he is not finished. Han on the other hand has essentially completed his journey and will be a steadfast hero throughout the rest of the films.
Looking at fictional characters through the lens of the classical virtues allows you to see deeper into their motivations and eventual actions. In turn you can discuss morals and values in a more authentic manner.
I will return to this topic in a few posts and elaborate on how I will try to incorporate this into my teaching over the course of the year.

The Virtues of Our Ancestors

I have incredibly deep roots in the northeast. Most of my family, on both maternal and paternal sides, came down from Canada into New York, Vermont and Massachusetts in the early to mid 1800’s. And as far as I can figure they were in Canada for a good 150-200 years before that.
Recently, I visited upstate New York where I did a bit of research into my father’s side of the family tree. After walking through that rural landscape with it’s mountain passes and fields of swaying corn, as well as reading countless historical documents from census records to newspapers to farm schedules, I have come to a startling conclusion.
I am fairly certain my ancestors could kick my ass, and had more character than I ever will.
The hard lives they lived as farmers and laborers left little time for comfort and softness. Pumping water for up to four hours a day simply to supply the livestock, struggling through winters that dipped to 30 below, all while raising families of 9, 10, 11 children all built character. They lived the four classical virtues in an authentic way because if they didn’t, they likely wouldn’t survive.
Prudence came more naturally because the world was a much less forgiving place. Mistakes in judgement could mean ruined crops, dead animals or children without enough to eat. If I make a bad decision I can usually make up for it –  at least materially- pretty quickly.
Fortitude was something they had in spades. Simply existing then took courage. When I think about my ancestors leaving all they knew to travel to what they hoped would be better land to start all over, usually with huge families in tow, I am left speechless. I doubt I would have that courage. I know that for good or ill, I have grown too comfortable.

When there are less distractions Moderation tends to be man’s natural default. The siren song of TV, radio and Internet were not things they had to contend with in the 1800’s. Nor was the danger of over eating. With no ready-made convenience food most of the time they were doing their best simply to have enough. They worked when it was light, rested when it was dark and spent Sundays with family.

Finally, the concept of Justice was much more immediate. Reading one newspaper article I saw how what we would call a mugging was thwarted by a couple courageous townsman. When they is less of an official deterrence in the form of regular police, lawyers and courts, neighbors needed to take care of each other.
Trying to live a virtuous life in the 21st century has a number of obstacles that life in the rural 19th century simply didn’t have. I love living where I do and when I do,  and I know that it is easy to idealize the past. I am sure there were obstacles to virtue that I am glossing over. Still, a part of me wonders if all our so-called progressed has simply made it harder to live life the ways it is supposed to be lived.

Why Charity Matters

Does this sound familiar? It is dinner time and you have just sat down when the phone rings. It is yet another charitable organization looking for a donation. You feel for the caller, after all he is just doing his job and the cause is a good one, but you just don’t have any extra cash. Anyway, if there is a little money left over after paying the bills you should probably put it away in the emergency fund, right?
That pretty much describes me, and I don’t like it.
One of the areas of my own life that I know needs work is my generosity. While technically the virtue of Charity belongs to the theological virtues rather than the four classical virtues, I believe the concept of Justice really requires one to be generous as well. Justice is the ability to balance between self-interest and the rights and needs of others and one way to develop justice is throug being charitable. To paraphrase Isaiah 58:1-10, while charity gives, justice changes. It changes the lives of those giving as well as those receiving.
Most, if not all, of the world’s religions promote charity as a very important moral value. Hinduism, Jainism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and Sikhism place particular emphasis on altruistic morality. Here in the U.S. we have always been known as a charitable country. The United States is “a land of charity,” says Arthur Brooks, an expert on philanthropy and a professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, who sees charitable giving and volunteerism as the signal characteristic of Americans. Total American donations for 2006 amounted to almost $300 billion, and individuals accounted for 75.6% of that. In terms of the percentage of GDP given to charity the U.S. more than doubles the second place country, Britain.
While America is generally charitable, as a developed western society we also have a ready-made excuse not to get involved. We pay taxes and our government has programs to help the poor here and abroad. Yet, to rely on this fact as a way to side-step our personal responsibility misses the point. Aristotle famously stated that “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” We can easily substitute virtue for excellence.  Are we developing the virtue of Justice or Charity if we let an impersonal government do all the work for us? Besides, most quality charities only use about 10% of their funds for administrative costs. Do you think the government works anywhere near that efficiency level?

I have to admit my wife is much further along in the development of Justice than I am. She readily gives of her time, talents and money for causes she believes in and is doing a good job instilling this virtue in our children. In fact, as I write this she is with my oldest child volunteering at a local nursing home- something they do together once a month. I think she is starting to rub off on me too. 
Choose a charity as a family.
As a family we have decided to support two charities. I strongly recommend you chose a cause that speaks to you and not just donate to whatever organization happens to call. For one thing, there is only so much to go around ~ as much as we may want to we can not support everything. But more importantly, by carefully choosing your charity you establish a connection and commitment to that cause. 
Just as an example the organizations my family supports are Green Beans Coffee Cup Of Joe for a Joe program and Catholic Relief Services (CRS). We chose these because, one, the missions of each speak to us on a personal level and two, they are reputable charities who spend a high percentage of our donations on their respective missions. When looking for a charity to support it is important to look at their accounting. Any reputable charity will make this public. For instance, CRS puts 95% of their funding into programs with the remaining 5% into administration and fund raising. This gives them an “A” ranking from The American Institue of Philanthropy.
In order to live a just life we need to look out for each other.  This is something I will be working on in the coming months. I invite you to join me. Find an organization whose mission you believe in and set aside an amount of money you wish to contribute each month. Treat it as you would any other bill- you’d be surprised what you can afford. If the cable bill went up $25 a month would you cancel it or find the money somewhere? 
If you are living in America and are able to log on and read this you really have won the lottery of life. I know I have and its time I start practicing a little gratitude for that.

What This Blog Is Not

A plethora of sites inhabit the blogoshpere that purport to teach you how to make the most of your life. They use terms like risk-taking, unconventional life and doing the impossible to motivate you to do more and live better. To steal a quote made famous by the US Army, they try to enable you to “be all you can be.”
Development For Development’s Sake
Just Google the term lifestyle design or personal development and you’ll be inundated with information about how to become a better human. You’ll learn how to travel the world, live minimally, be location independent, raise an army to your cause and many other such things.
Before I go any further I want to make clear that I have no problem with these sites as far as they go. If they serve to motivate people to realize there is more to life than Netflix and iTunes then that is great. These sites act as giant pep rallies, and rallies have a purpose in life, a good purpose. They get us to move, break us out from our self-imposed lethargy. But rallies generally do not answer the questions, Why? and How?
I can readily find information online about how to run my first marathon, do 100 consecutive push ups or travel around the world with little more than a back pack. But aside from a feeling of personal satisfaction, or greater global awareness, I still do not really know why I should do these things or how they make me intrinsically better than I was before I accomplished them.
What This Blog Is
This has been a long-winded way of saying A Certain Quality of Life will not be one of these sites. I will hopefully inspire people to make more of their lives; that is of course why I am chronicling my own journey here. But more importantly, I think, is that I will be attempting to discover and share why living a fuller life is important to our being human and how living a certain way can help us attain that life. I admit I do not have the answers yet, but I hope a few of you will stick around for the conversation.
By focusing on the classical virtues as the glue holding this site together I hope to draw on the learning and experience of people much wiser than I am. The world has changed so much, and so fast, over the past 100 years, hell, over the past 20! It is easy for us to feel like we need to find the answers to life’s biggest questions on our own. But we don’t. People have been struggling with how to define what a good life looks like, what happiness is, for literally millennia.
People like Aristotle, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Thoma Aquinas.
Books like The Bible, Summa Theologica, and The Art of Living.
These sources can give us insight into how people, who dedicated entire lifetimes to study, attempted to answer some of life’s most perplexing questions. Through a study of those who have gone before us I hope to get closer to an answer to the Why and How.

The Importance of Self-Control

I am a teacher. I understand the value of learning the “3 R’s”. I believe all sorts of schooling scenarios can work: public school, private school, home school or even guided independent study. A lot depends on the teacher and the type of student(s) involved.  However, I also know that there are things even more important than the basics of reading, writing and computational skills.

Character counts.

And character is not as easy to quantify, teach or assess. Many schools institute a type of values education, but this is often just an add-on to an already over-crowded curriculum. The teachers resent having one more topic to cover and the kids sense their ambivalence. Not a recipe for success, which is why these programs never seem to go the distance. They pop up only to disappear once the teacher or administrator who spearheaded the program moves on to something else. At the same time we are learning more and more about just how important character is in determining the quality of your life.

Your character can be defined as how well you abide by the four classical virtues, one of which, Temperance has been in the news lately. Back in the early 1970‘s Stanford did a study to see if four-year-old kids had an innate sense of temperance, or self-control. They put a child alone in a room with a marshmallow. They were free to eat it, but if they could resist for a set amount of time they would receive two marshmallows.  Turns out, some kids were better at this than others. The finding were an interesting curiosity at the time, but decades later the follow up data has made news once again.

Scientist Terrie Moffitt and her colleagues found that self-control has a pervasive and powerful effect on the arc of a life.

Even adjusting for IQ and economic background, children who were more adept at self-control went on to lead better lives. They were healthier, less likely to abuse drugs, more likely to save, less likely to be convicted of a crime, and the list goes on. These “good choices’’ not only benefit the individuals who make them, but their friends, family — even taxpayers.

What makes Moffitt’s discovery of such great public consequence is another surprise. Self-control is like a muscle. It is not just something that one is born with, but something that can be strengthened through regular exercise. Equally important, everyone can benefit. Moffitt found that, no matter the starting point, any improvement in self-control meant brighter prospects, and steps down portended trouble.

While it is always nice to have scientific back-up, the fact that virtue takes practice is hardly new. Over 2,000 years ago Aristotle said that excellence, or virtue of character was a habit more than anything else. We need to constantly exercise our self-control over small things if we ever expect it to “work” when the big temptations of life come along. Many religions instinctively realize this, hence the self-limiting disciplines- no meat on Fridays or set times for prayer. It is not that these specific practices need to have a dogmatic relevance; it is that they help train your self-control muscles as it were.

This is where the tricky part comes in to play. We currently live in a culture that values instant gratification. Self-control is almost looked at as a vice, rather than a virtue in many cases. How many parents give their children everything they could want, and do so out of sincere love, only to be stripping them of the opportunity to train the temperance muscle.

The same goes for adults, myself included. One of the unforeseen benefits of the hard economic times we are currently facing in much of the western world is the drying up of readily available credit. Most of us can not simply whip out the plastic and make spontaneous purchases anymore. But this is a good thing. Part of being human is dealing with lack. It is unnatural to live in a perpetual state of plenty. Just watch one of those lottery-ruined-my-life shows to see how having everything soon leads to nothing.

Self-control, Temperance, a classical virtue that is being thrust, unwelcome, upon many of us could be just the training we need in a 21st century world. Which brings us back to schools. How do we incorporate true character education? Again, they best society has come up with is often based in or around religion, therefore religious schools have the best track record here. Is there a way to bring this to a secular public school setting?  This is a topic I will be exploring in the future and I welcome any thoughts below in the comment section.

Plato and Our Current Culture

Plato: RepublicWe like in a culture that feeds on itself. We build people and organizations up simply to tear them back down. Little attention do we devote to our own moral development. without each doing his part the whole of society can not improve. Does this sound like the current state of affairs in the modern western world?

The state being a perfect one must exhibit in itself the four cardinal virtues. Not that every one of its citizens must exhibit them perfectly, but the philosophical rulers present prudence, courageous standing-army courage, the well-conducted populace and craftsman temperance. The remaining virtue justice, the virtue of the whole, the principle and cause of the existence of the other three, compelling each portion of the state to keep it own business, and to abstain from all interference with the affairs of the other portions.- Plato’s Republic, Book 4

The question is: how do we get there from here? As the U.S. moves into yet another divisive election season we could benefit from some attention to a basic civic virtue.

C.S. Lewis and Political Virtue

Mere Christianity

I have been rereading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity over the past few weeks and a section really got me thinking about the whole idea of the need for virtue in the political world. I apologize for the long quote, but I certainly can’t summarize Lewis’ point better than he does himself.

When people say in the newspapers that we are striving for Christian moral standards, they usually mean that we are striving for kindness and fair play between nations, and classes, and individuals; that is, they are thinking only of the first thing. When a man says about something he wants to do, “It can’t be wrong because it doesn’t do anyone else any harm,” he is thinking only of the first thing. He is thinking it does not matter what his ship is like inside provided that he does not run into the next ship. And it is quite natural, when we start thinking about morality, to begin with the first thing, with social relations. For one thing, the results of bad morality in that sphere are so obvious and press on us every day: war and poverty and graft and lies and shoddy work. And also, as long as you stick to the first thing, there is very little disagreement about morality. Almost all people at all times have agreed (in theory) that human beings ought to be honest and kind and helpful to one another. But though it is natural to begin with all that, if our thinking about morality stops there, we might just as well not have thought at all. Unless we go on to the second thing-the tidying up inside each human being-we are only deceiving ourselves.

What is the good of telling the ships how to steer so as to avoid collisions if, in fact, they are such crazy old tubs that they cannot be steered at all? What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for social behaviour, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper, and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them? I do not mean for a moment that we ought not to think, and think hard, about improvements in our social and economic system. What I do mean is that all that thinking will be mere moonshine unless we realise that nothing but the courage and unselfishness of individuals is ever going to make any system work properly. It is easy enough to remove the particular kinds of graft or bullying that go on under the present system: but as long as men are twisters or bullies they will find some new way of carrying on the old game under the new system. You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society. That is why we must go on to think of the second thing: of morality inside the individual.

 I am in agreement with C.S. Lewis on this point.  Unless we fix ourselves we really can not fix society. I am not suggesting that we stand by and let the country go to hell while we work on some sort of new age self improvement. What I am suggesting is that we hold our leaders to a higher standard. We need men and women who are serious, and who conduct themselves is a manner that is in accordance with some basic virtues. Otherwise we will just end up with more of the same.

The Founding Fathers, Classical Education & a New Hope

Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and LatinAmericans view the Founding Fathers in vacuo, isolated from the soil that nurtured them,” says Traci Lee Simmons in his book, Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin.

It is certainly true that little thought is given by the everyday American as to what the foundation of our own founders was.
This is to our own detriment, for if we paid attention to this we would see a way forward for education in America. So, how were the founders educated?  Through a Classical education. Simmons elaborates,

“These men, had read and digested Polybius, Aristotle, and Cicero, and they used the ancient luminaries to frame and illustrate their ideas before the assembly…These heated yet erudite debates, along with the Federalist Papers, fairly pullulate both with subtle classical allusions—with which Madison, Hamilton, and Jay assumed readers to be tolerably familiar—and direct references to the leagues—Amphictyonic, Achaean, Aetolian, Lycian—formed by the ancient Greeks in order to achieve political and physical security.”

Why is this important? Because it is through the prism of this classical background that they were able to see the way to a future that we enjoy today. Do we have the same faith in our current political leaders? Recent polls and common sense says no. The lack of depth in modern political discourse, which I have written about in the recent past, has its roots in a lack of serious thought in education.
However, there is hope out there. And ironically the seed of the future may indeed be in Washington, D.C. But it has nothing to do with The U.S. Congress. Instead it is a small Catholic school, the St. Jerome Classical School in Hyattsville, a suburb of D.C. Last spring, St. Jerome’s began transforming itself into an experiment for one of the more promising trends in education. It is one of a handful of Catholic schools in the country reinventing itself  as a classical academy . The Washington Post  recently ran had a great story on the school where they define the classical curriculum as:
Classical theory divides childhood development into three stages known as the trivium: grammar, logic and rhetoric. During the “grammar” years (kindergarten through fourth grade), children soak up knowledge. They memorize, absorb facts, learn the rules of phonics and spelling, recite poetry, and study plants, animals, basic math and other topics. Moral lessons are included. 

 I, for one, wish them well and hope the experiment works. Until we have a generation of citizens capable of the critical thought that the 21st century will require we will be stuck with the back and forth political ping pong that we have been subjected to over the previous century. Coincidentally, this is exactly the same time period during with Dewey’s practical philosophy of Progressivism dethroned classical education from our schools. On second thought, maybe it is not such a coincidence after all.

Is Christianity Eroding?

In Part One I discussed how many in the Protestant sect of Christianity were having issues with Rob Bell and his apparent embrace of universalism. But the controversies swirling around Christianity extend beyond Protestants to the Catholics as well.

“At a recent Sunday mass at St. Edward Catholic Church in Bloomington, a woman stepped to the lectern on the altar — and started to preach. Before long, the vicar general of the archdiocese was paying a call to St. Edward’s pastor, the Rev. Mike Tegeder, and reminding him that the rules of Vatican II have changed. Lay people, even someone with a master’s degree in theology from St. Paul Seminary like this woman, can’t give homilies anymore. That job can be done only by priests.”- The Deacon’s Bench

Ans there is more.

“Some parishioners at St. Norbert’s Church in Orange describe themselves as “shocked and appalled” after a priest there allowed a Presbyterian minister to concelebrate a Mass and receive Holy Communion on Sunday, Feb. 13. Sources from the parish told California Catholic Daily that Fr. Agustin Escobar (shown in the picture) introduced Pastor Steve Whitney of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Sacramento at St. Norbert’s 9 a.m. Sunday Mass. The sources said Rev. Whitney concelebrated the Mass with Fr. Escobar, took Communion, and was allowed to distribute Communion to parishioners.” – California Catholic Daily

 Much like the “Bell Affair” what seems to be happening is that people with authority from within these storied traditions are starting to challenge the status quo. To me this is not representative of an erosion, but an evolution. Traditions have value, I am the first to admit that. But it is also true that those institutions that refuse to grow will eventually whither and contract.

While no religious tradition should change simply to get members-the recent backlash against the mega-church model is an object lesson in how a business model doesn’t necessarily work in a religious setting- organic evolution should not be stymied.

At its heart Christianity seems to be about two things: developing a relationship with the divine and loving your neighbor. Do any of the above controversies contradict these most basic of premises? If not then they should not be automatically condemned. Serious discussions by people with open minds would go a long way to dealing with issues such as these.

The Teaching of the  Twelve: Believing & Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the  Ancient Didache Community
The earliest forms of Christianity did not seem to wrestle with the amount of dogma today’s versions must deal with. If you’re interested a great description of the earliest form of the religion one can be found in Tony Jones short book, The Teaching of The Twelve.

Calling the Didache the most important book you’ve never heard of, Emergent leader Jones (The New Christians) briefly unpacks the theological and practical lessons to be gleaned from one of early Christianity’s most overlooked texts. Less than half the length of the shortest New Testament gospel, the Didache (teaching) informed new Christians about spiritual practices like baptism, prayer, hospitality, fasting, Eucharist, generosity, and basic morality. Dated between 50 and 130 C.E., it is one of the oldest extant Christian texts not found in the New Testament.- Publishers Weekly