My copy of “On the Shoulders of Hobbits: the Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis,” by Louis Markos (Moody
Publishers, 2012) is dog-eared and underlined front to back. I’m finding that as I go through it again while writing this review I’m adding even more markings. This is especially true in the section on The Classical Virtues which follows Markos’ examination of The Road.
The four classic, or cardinal, virtues are not unique to Christianity. Courage, Temperance, Wisdom and Justice were also recognized by Plato and other pre-Christian thinkers as necessary to civilization and a just state. This is worrisome since these basic virtues seem to be absent from our national consciousness. Markos laments that our public schools only seem to teach the “virtues” of multiculturalism, tolerance and environmentalism. While I agree with him about what our schools are teaching, I would label multiculturalism etc. as values rather than virtues. I have to admit I was surprised that Markos offers no specific definition of “virtue” in his book, as if people still understand what it means. Given that we live in “an age that has in many ways sunk beneath the pagans in its understanding of virtue,” a clear, fresh definition for today’s world would have been nice.
Before I go further, let me refresh your memory about virtue. The word comes from the Latin virtus, meaning strength or manliness, and virtus comes from the Latin root, vir, which means man. Virtue itself means conforming to a moral standard of right, or it can refer to a specific moral excellence, such as temperance. The ancients obviously considered it a quality of strength and cultivated it, especially in their leaders. Would that we did the same.
With this brief definition in mind, let me give you a quick survey of the classic virtues as laid out by Markos:
Courage – While many think of this as a type of bravery in the face of danger to oneself or loved ones, Markos likens it more to fortitude, the ability to endure life’s pains and adversities. He makes the point that the true courage of the fellowship in Lord of the Rings was their ability to endure the trials and dangers of the long journey to Mordor and keep going.
Temperance – This word always brings to mind the temperance movement in America when people were trying to ban the use of alcohol. Trust me, temperance isn’t that. Markos defines it in terms of Aristotle’s “golden mean” as in “the mean between the extremes.” It can be described as the middle path between total self-indulgence and total abstinence. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were both Christians, yet “they rejected the notion that a Christian must refrain from all fleshly pleasures as a sign of purity and devotion.” God gave us the fruits of the earth for our pleasure, but we must use them with wisdom.
Wisdom – Sadly, wisdom is a virtue that is largely misunderstood or even ignored these days. Many people consider it simply an accumulation of knowledge, but it is much more than that. For Markos, the key element of wisdom is discernment as personified in the Bible by Solomon. This discernment is basically common sense combined with healthy amounts of insight, discretion and righteousness. Conversely, a foolish person isn’t necessarily stupid but mainly lacking in discernment and common sense.
Justice – This virtue is not as easily defined as the previous three, perhaps because it is the most transcendent of them all. Many of us moderns mistake the concept of egalitarianism, making everything perfectly equal for everybody, for justice. Markos suggests that to understand justice we must at least have a notion of hierarchy, which is basically the arranging of people, rulers or things into some form of rank or order. In this order there is a sense of rightness that is a key to understanding what justice really is. In addition to order, the sense of consummation and fulfillment must be present, as exemplified in The Lord of the Rings when the rough Strider finally becomes the magnificent King Aragorn. There is much to learn in this chapter of Markos’ book.
OK, kids, the lecture is over for now. But the course is far from finished. Next time we’ll look into the Theological Virtues as presented in this book.