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Of Virtue and Vice

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"Meltdown Monday" and the current turmoil beg some urgent questions. What follows is a private rant but may spark some thoughts in you, too. The erosion of trust and confidence which is shaking the financial world to its foundations is surely not unconnected with the abandonment of virtue as a principle of both public and private life. The media get very excited when they discover that someone has been a hypocrite, publicly saying one thing and privately doing another; but they show much less enthusiasm for condemning the changing of the rules by which hypocrisy becomes impossible. Matthew Arnold, remember, defined hypocrisy as " the tribute vice pays to virtue." When no one believes that the rules have any validity, when one is no longer a hypocrite but merely unlucky to have been found out, the necessity of virtue itself disappears. And so, just when we have a global economy which means that something going wrong in America, for example, affects everywhere else; when we have weapons at our disposal that could destroy the world in which we live, we have lost the sense of right and wrong, have made ourselves rather than God or the common good the measure of all things. Virtue is necessary for survival. As Auden said, "we must love one another or die". I can't help thinking that this abandonment of virtue is linked with the abandonment of God at a deeper level than we have ever known before. For the saints and philosophers of old, virtuous living meant conforming to the demands of wisdom (or Wisdom). It meant self-discipline and sacrifice because it sought a good beyond itself — a good that we Christians know as God. But we seem to have forgotten that and are hell-bent on finding techniques to make reality conform to our wishes. Hell-bent. I wrote that unconsciously. Perhaps that is what we face: a choice between life and death, heaven and hell.