The Seven Deadly Virtues FAQ

Jonathan V. Last Senior Writer, The Weekly Standard
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What, exactly, are the Seven Deadly Virtues?

Funny you should ask. It’s a new collection of essays about virtue from some of your favorite writers, including Jonah Goldberg, P. J. O’Rourke, Matt Labash, and Christopher Buckley.

So this isn’t a new list of virtues, which happen to be deadly?


It’s a book about the normal, plain virtues that philosophers have been talking about since Aristotle?

Plato, actually. But yes. The cardinal virtues — in case you’ve lost your notes from Philosophy 101 — are Prudence, Justice, Courage, and Temperance. The Greeks came up with them. A few centuries later, Christians added three theological virtues — Faith, Hope, and Charity. Taken together, these are thought of the seven classical virtues.

Possession of these virtues is what enables a man (or womyn) to achieve eudaimonia, which is the telos of human existence. But since you’ve already forgotten your freshman philosophy course, I’m just showing off.

Oh really. Well hasn’t there already been a book on this exact subject? Wasn’t it called The Book of Virtues? And didn’t is sell something like 3 gazillion copies?

Oh yes. Bill Bennett’s Book of Virtues was fantastic. It was exactly the sort of stern-yet-loving call to return to classical morality that America needed in 1993.

The Seven Deadly Virtues is a little bit like that. Only instead of being stern and loving, it’s funny. Really, really funny.

Saying a book about virtue is funny is like saying a girl has a “great personality.”

Which is both sexist and lookist.

But whatevs. The Book of Virtues had Aesop and Robert Louis Stevenson. The Seven Deadly Virtues has Matt Labash writing about Nina Hartley. Lecturing at an adult bookstore. During the 2000 Republican National Convention. In the buff:

We had come to see a convention-themed political question-and-answer session with the legendary porn actress Nina Hartley. Think of her as the Judi Dench of the one-handed film world, with star turns in the likes of Minivan Moms 12: Cougar Edition and Woodworking 101: Nina’s Guide to Better Fellatio.

Hartley, who grew up a brainy, red-diaper baby, is a “sex- positive” feminist who, when not rutting for money in drafty warehouses in the San Fernando Valley, likes to crank out essays for turgid anthologies with titles such as “Frustrations of a Feminist Porn Star.” Standing between racks of culturally diverse porn videos, from White Trash Whore 3 to Black Knockers Volume 60, Hartley had some political thoughts she wanted to share with the small crowd—all men—who had flocked around her. She prattled on for a spell, fretting that George W. Bush was in the pocket of the religious right. She enthused over Bill Clinton, “a highly sexed man, I like that in my leaders.” …

But as she droned on about the terrifying prospects of Bush’s Supreme Court appointments, she began scratching her crotch. Not subtle scratching, either. She scratched like a third-base coach with a chigger infestation.

Maybe it’s my biological wiring. Maybe it’s that I was raised Southern Baptist, where we like to keep our guilty pleasures a little guiltier. (Baptists believing that there’s no other kind of pleasure.) But I generally prefer women who are a tad less in- your-face.

And thus begins the chapter on Chastity.

Oh. Wow. “Chiggers”?

Yup. As the kids say: #Murica. Then there’s Andrew Stiles, from the Washington Free Beacon, writing about the virtue of Temperance:

We’ve come a long way since Prohibition, which, as everyone now knows, was the greatest blunder in American history not directly attributable to Jimmy Carter. Like so many other human miseries, the ban on alcohol is now mostly confined to pockets of the developing world, and is unlikely to make a comeback in industrialized societies anytime soon. That’s a good thing. If countries such as Libya, Sudan, and Yemen hope to one day reopen the debate by demonstrating the societal benefits of being high and dry, they have a long, hard slog ahead of them. And we shall fight them every step of the way. What’s so virtuous about temperance?

Hold on — this book is pro-virtue?

Yes. Sort of. It’s complicated.

Here’s the thing: There’s this sense that Western civilization in general, and America in particular, doesn’t believe in virtue anymore. But that’s wrong: We just value different virtues than we did 50 years ago.

Let me give you a for instance: Chastity is a dead-letter. No one sees any virtue in being chaste. But boy, howdy, do we value equality and authenticity and nonjudgmentalism and a whole bunch of other mores. Get on the wrong side of those, and our society can be downright Puritanical. Just ask Brendan Eich.

Now I’d argue that these new, modern virtues aren’t bad things in and of themselves. Equality, authenticity, and nonjudgmentalism can be good and helpful. The problem is that the modern virtues tend to deal with the superficial aspects of the person — the human façade — while the classical virtues create an organizing framework for our inner selves.

Which isn’t to say that the traditional virtues are “better” than the modern virtues (although they are; #realtalk) but that they’re more important. Somebody needed to make that case again to America, and that’s what The Seven Deadly Virtues does.

But here’s the thing: Every virtue is corruptible and pursued to an extreme degree, on its own, can lead to terrible things. There’s a quote in the book from Robespierre, who was defending the French Revolution’s reign of terror: “Terror is naught but prompt, severe, inflexible justice. It is therefore an emanation of virtue.” That’s the sort of thinking you get when you have a monomania for one virtue unleavened by any of the others.

So one of the themes of the book winds up being: Hey, this virtue stuff is important. Really important. But let’s not get carried away with it.