Virtue and Emotion

One of the worst misunderstandings of modern Christianity is the legalistic reduction of virtue to mere action. In the historic classical tradition, virtue was understood to be about having correct dispositions, and cultivating mental and physical habits that foster rightly-ordered attitudes at the deepest core of our being. Through rightly-ordered habits, dispositions, and attitudes, the virtues or excellences appropriate to the human being can be realized.

Unfortunately, modern man misunderstands attitude as much as he misunderstands virtue. If virtue has been reduced to mere action, all too often attitude is reduced to mere subjective emotion. What is lost is the understanding that our attitudes can have congruence to how reality actually is.  Our attitudes—what we are attracted to, what we find beautiful, what we consider to be ennobling, and so forth—can be either congruent or incongruent to the bedrock structure of reality.

C.S. Lewis discussed this in The Abolition of Man. Drawing on Plato, Lewis noted that the aim of education is to cultivate in students certain responses of emotion and attitude that correspond to how reality actually is. As Lewis put it, “Certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”[1] Or again:

“Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact that objects did not mere receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt.”[2]

In the historic understanding that Lewis was articulating, virtue includes action but involves so much more and is rooted in attitude. And while attitude includes emotion, it also involves having dispositions tuned to reality in a special sort of way. To have virtuous attitudes and emotions is to instinctively recoil from what is base and disgusting. It is to be the sort of person who is nourished by beauty instead of triviality, who instinctively has a fitting response to what is lovely. It is to be able to go out into the world with a sense of wonder towards all that is awe-inspiring, and to derive genuine enjoyment from what is good, true, and beautiful.

Given the nominalist presuppositions of the modern age, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there are some attitudes and desires that God simply declares to be right, while there are other attitudes and desires that God declares to be wrong. But Lewis’s point in The Abolition of Man is that there is an internal grammar to the structure of creation which assures us that certain attitudes, desires, emotions, and dispositions, are more congruent to objective reality than others. What is the case sets the context for what ought to be the case.[3]

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The Scriptures constantly assume that virtue includes dispositions and not merely behaviors. Many of the virtuous dispositions that God commands—dispositions like peace, gratitude, contrition, joy, compassion—all include both emotional and behavioral components. Virtuous disposition also includes such things as proper perception, right motivation, and an attraction to goodness and truth. Such dispositions are the fruit of time and good habits, which is why a person cannot suddenly become good overnight, despite the best intentions.

This challenges us to rethink the nature of emotion. In our culture, the main distinction we make with respect to emotion is between those which are pleasant vs. those that are unpleasant, with the assumption that the former should be cultivated and the latter avoided. This assumption lies behind so much of the substance abuse, immorality, and destructive habits that have become commonplace in today’s world. But the historic Christian approach has not been to divide emotions between those that are pleasant and unpleasant, but to make a distinction between rightly-ordered emotions vs. disordered emotions. Some rightly-ordered emotions (such as contrition) can be unpleasant, just as some disordered emotions (like happiness at an enemy’s misfortune) can feel pleasant.

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