[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.- St. Paul In the face of domination of the world by the Roman Empire, the most energetic of the Christian apostles asserted that moral virtue was still lawful. Of course, Paul knew that virtues were not widely practiced or held in high regard. Are virtues any more safe to practice now than they were two millenia ago?
This question may strike some as perverse, for are we not living in a society, as Abraham Lincoln once said, "conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty than any of which the history of former times tells us[?]" And are we not committed to caring for the less fortunate through vast government programs?
It is true that, while the tribulations of the human condition are not absent in our country, the daily practice of the virtues by millions of people–in families, at work and play, in government and the private sector–make self government not only possible but eminently desirable.
But no blessing can be taken for granted. Virtuous living, like any other great and good thing, requires practice and even habituation. Are there any threats here and now to the continuing beneficial effects of human virtue in our midst?
Let’s focus on the virtue of kindness. Some years back, genuine concern was expressed about the utter lack of kindness implicit in the random acts of violence too often committed in our inner cities, college campuses, places of business and governmental offices. The not entirely playful response by some was to urge everyone to engage in random acts of kindness instead.
No doubt the suggestion was well meant. But a moment’s reflection makes it clear that violence can be discouraged much more by habitual acts of kindness. In a well-governed political community such as ours, it is no accident that people tend to be kinder to each other than in tyrannical regimes in which the rulers treat their subjects as if they were a lower order of being.
Indeed, when slavery was legal in America, even the most benevolent slave master was free to indulge his whims. Thomas Jefferson, a slave master himself, wrote, "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other."
Classical philosophy and Christianity both teach that friendship is the cement that holds societies together. The Greek philosopher Aristotle observed that democratic societies, which are based on the principle of equality, are more conducive to friendship than any other. Jesus taught us where we can to make friends out of enemies.
Those of us living today, as Lincoln observed in 1838, "toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of [these fundamental blessings]." As in antebellum days, so in ours, we have the obligation to pass moral virtue on to our descendants.
The most fundamental threat to the lawfulness of the most gracious virtues lies in widespread rejection of what Jefferson called "the moral law.". Clearly, portrayal of gratuitous sex and violence in the popular arts does not teach kindness. For if other persons are merely the objects of one’s unbridled will, no kindness will be shown except by accident or cold calculation.
The rebel, the person with "an attitude," has been glorified in movies and television for years. More, the Constitution and laws of the country have been perverted by the special protections that have been carved out for anyone who does as he pleases with no regard for the rights of others. We are enjoined by elites to be kind to such obnoxious persons rather than expecting them to be kind to us.
The massive government programs that take the responsibility of caring for the needy from families, friends and neighborhoods and assign it to impersonal bureaucracies have made kindness almost unnecessary. Kindness depends on reciprocity as well as good intentions, for people more freely come to the aid of others when they know that, if circumstances were reversed, they could count on that aid. In fact, we are coerced into being compassionate by the law. Is that kind?
There is no law against kindness or the other virtues, but we are living on the edge, so to speak, pushing matters to such an extreme that, as Alfie was inclined to believe in the popular song of that name, "only fools are kind" and "it is wise to be cruel."