Virtues Gone Mad

When a religious scheme is shattered it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.”

-G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Like so many of the things that G.K. Chesterton said and wrote (and many of the things he wrote were actually just the things he said, if popular stories of him dictating and never looking back are to be believed), this quote has been revolutionary to the way that I view the modern world. Human beings are such a startling combination of divine nature and original sin that finding out their beliefs on a given issue, or on a given day, can be a fairly shocking thing. You might stand side by side with a person for a year shouting down some great moral calamity, only to turn suddenly and discover they preferred, not just the tearing down of that evil, but it’s replacement with another. You may argue with someone to the point of drawn swords only to discover that he makes his final stand in front of the very ideal you had just been defending, and dares you to advance against it. On social media, I’m sure a lot of it is our reading compression skills, of course; but even just the legitimate redoubts and reversals are enough to make one’s head spin.

In times past, I considered any disagreement with my view to be a sign of some great and terrible vice hidden deep in the mind or heart of the other person. Shocking, I know, but there is the truth. Interestingly enough, when I would later change my mind, or even perform a full about-face on an idea, I never chalked my earlier view up to my vices, but to my bringing the original view into proper relation to othersĀ I had found to be of greater value. If only I had been more introspective, I might have beaten Chesterton to the punch by only negative 108 years.

The vices are out there, of course. But I am increasingly convinced that even and especially in the starkest disagreements (and most surprising agreements), we will understand each other best when looking for the virtue that has gone mad.

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