I used to believe that the main problem with education in America was that our public schools, community colleges, and four-year universities had surgically removed all traces of virtue from the curriculum. I no longer believe that to be the case. Indeed, I believe that the current situation would be better had they done so!
Had our secular schools really jettisoned virtue altogether, then their students would have noticed the absence and awakened from their moral stupor. We are, after all, creatures made in the image of a holy God who is himself the standard of virtue and who is the author of our desire to reach for that standard. Yes, we are fallen now and depraved, but that desire, that innate yearning to enact the virtuous behavior for which we were created, persists.
Placed in a fully virtueless zone, the human heart would have felt hunger and rebelled. However, the secular-progressive architects of our modern schools were not foolish enough to let that happen. That is why, after purging their schools of traditional Judeo-Christian — and traditional Greco-Roman — virtues, they replaced them with a set of five pseudo-virtues to fill up the virtue-shaped vacuum in our hearts: tolerance, inclusivism, egalitarianism, multiculturalism, and environmentalism.
Now, I am not saying that these pseudo-virtues are evil or even negative in and of themselves. It is certainly a good thing to show tolerance to our neighbors and to be wise stewards of creation. Still, these five virtues — which I will henceforth call values since they are man-made and culture-bound rather than eternal and cross-cultural — have never stood at the center of morality.
Worse yet, none of them represent active virtues that affirm that we are human beings who deserve equal respect because we were made in the image of our Creator. On the contrary, they are passive values that deflate and reduce our God-given worth and uniqueness into a bland, lowest-common-denominator soup.
True, there does exist a traditional type of tolerance that is built on the inherent dignity of every human being, but that is not what tolerance has come to mean in our modern society. Today, the passive value of tolerance means little more than “I will overlook your sins if you overlook mine.” Just so, egalitarianism and multiculturalism do not lead to the affirmation of all that is unique and glorious in masculinity or femininity or in the various cultures of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, but rather to the collapsing of all distinctions in favor of a Marxist identity politics that reduces people to their race, class, or sex, without imbuing them with any kind of essential worth.
Worse yet, swapping out traditional virtues with progressive values has helped create a generation of young people who say to themselves, “Well, yes, I may be living a sinful lifestyle, but that is OK because I recycle cans.”
Rather than train up young people to live in accordance with a set standard of virtue, our values-driven schools have taught students to justify their own sinful behavior by commending themselves for the great tolerance and inclusivism they extend toward others who have likewise given in to their base, misdirected passions.
Two full generations have been instructed to feel intense concern for the destruction of the environment and for social justice issues on the other side of the globe, while feeling no compunction about indulging their appetites, humiliating their peers, and treating their parents with contempt. In the moral-ethical haze that sets in when values take the place of virtues, it becomes all too easy to redefine narcissism as self-esteem, envy as fairness, and consumerism as a natural and inalienable right.
I could go on for many pages attacking progressive values and lamenting what they have done to the soul of America, but that is not my goal, either in this prefatory note or in this book. Football coaches like to say that the best defense is a strong offense; the same goes for virtue. A homeowner who wants to remove weeds from his front yard could pour weed killer on his grass.
But there is a better way. The best and most effective way to get rid of weeds is to grow and nurture very healthy grass. If the grass is healthy and strong, the weeds will not take root.
It is the same with virtue. The best way to expose the smallness, meanness, and ultimate ineffectiveness of the pseudo-virtues is to build up in young people a passionate love for the real virtues. Let them come to know, experience, and love transcendent, time-tested, traditional virtues, and the pseudo-virtues will lose their charm and appeal.
In the same way, if you instill in your children a deep, passionate love for music that is good, true, and beautiful, they will develop within themselves the discernment and the will to shut off the bad, false, ugly music that is blared at them daily.
But what are these time-tested virtues? Were you to ask that question of anyone before the modern period, he would immediately tell you that there are seven virtues that form the gold standard. These seven are composed of the four classical (or cardinal) virtues of courage (fortitude), self-control (temperance), wisdom (prudence), and justice, and the three Christian (or theological) virtues of faith, hope, and love (charity). . . .
In On the Shoulders of “Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis,” a book I wrote several years ago, I discussed the seven virtues in-depth and illustrated each with examples from “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “The Lord of the Rings.” In “The Myth Made Fact,” I also seek to revive a stronger, more traditional understanding of virtue; however, I will do so in a less programmatic way. Rather than enumerate the virtues chapter by chapter, I shall plunge the reader into a world of danger and decision where our heroes lack the clear light of special revelation and so must rely on the cloudy rays of general revelation.
Unlike Tolkien and Lewis, the Greek and Roman poets, philosophers, and moralists who composed or reworked the fifty myths I will be telling lived before the birth of Christ and were ignorant of the Old Testament. In inviting you to enter into their stories, I will not attempt to systematize them into some kind of pagan Decalogue or bend them so that they line up neatly with a setlist of virtues. I encourage you, instead, to find in these myths a fuller vision of what it means to be a human being created in the image of God but fallen, a creature of inherent worth and value whose original design included the desire for and practice of virtue. . . .
Before the modern period, the main vehicle for passing down the benefits of virtue and the dangers of vice was stories, whether those stories were considered mythic, legendary, historical, or, often, a mixture of all three. What makes the stories I will be telling and analyzing in this book of particular import is that they are foundational myths, ones meant to help us understand who we are, why we are here, and what our purpose and destiny are.
They served that function for many generations of noble Greeks and Romans. When read through Christian eyes, they will do this and more, pointing us beyond the lustful and wrathful Olympian gods to the One Holy Creator who stands, like Aslan, at the back of all our stories.