the word virtue

The word virtue: what a fate it has had in the last three hundred years! The fact that it is nowhere near so despised and ridiculed in Latin countries is a testimony to the fact that it suffered mostly from the mangling it underwent at the hands of Calvinists and Puritans. In our own days the word leaves on the lips of cynical high-school children a kind of flippant smear, and it is exploited in theaters for the possibilities it offers for lewd and cheesy sarcasm. Everybody makes fun of virtue, which now has, as its primary meaning, an affectation of prudery practiced by hypocrites and the impotent.

When Martiain – who is by no means bothered by such trivialities – in all simplicity went ahead to use the term in its Scholastic sense, and was able to apply it to art, a “virtue of the practical intellect,” the very newness of the context was enough to disinfect my mind of all the miasmas left in it by the ordinary prejudice against “virtue” which, it it was ever strong in anybody, was strong in me. I was never a love of Puritanism. Now at last I came around to the sane conception of virtue – without which there can be no happiness, because virtues are precisely the powers by which we can come to acquire happiness: without them, there can be no joy, because they are the habits which coordinate and canalize our natural energies and direct them to the harmony and perfection and balance, the unity of our nature with itself and with God, which must, in the end, constitute our everlasting peace.

Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
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