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Are There Limits To Virtue?

December 2, 2018 Featured Today No Comments

By DONALD DeMARCO

Many a distraught mother has said to an uncooperative son or daughter, “I am running out of patience with you!” This common phrase raises some interesting questions concerning virtue. Can we run out of virtue, the way a car can run out of gas? Are the limits to virtue? Can we lose hope, fall out of love, or cease to care?
The saints, it appears, seemed to retain their virtue under the most severe circumstances. We think of the endurance of St. Isaac Jogues, the faith of St. Francis of Assisi, the unselfishness of St. Therese of Lisieux, and the hope of St. Monica. Mary, the Mother of God, did not despair at the foot of the cross.
Pagan authors appreciated the value of virtue, but for them, it was limited. No matter how virtuous a person was, there came a point at which he simply ran out of virtue.
A most dramatic case in point is found in Euripides’ play, Hecuba (c. 424 BC). Hecuba is a great queen who has lost her husband, most of her children, and her political power as a result of the Trojan War. To make matters even worse, she is enslaved. Nonetheless, she is resolved to remain virtuous, committed to the ideal that no degree of adversity can destroy good character.
Hecuba, unfortunately, cannot escape her doom. She had entrusted her youngest child with someone she believed was her best friend, Polymestor, who was to take care of him and safeguard his money.
When Hecuba arrives at the shore of Thrace, she sees a naked body washed up on the beach, half-eaten by fish. Upon examined the body more closely she discovers, to her horror, that the corpse is that of her child. Her caretaker had murdered the child for his money and flung his remains into the waves.
This realization was more than she could take. In a moment, the moorings of her moral character came undone. She undergoes a metamorphosis and begins to behave as a dog. She blinds Polymestor in an act of savage revenge. Hecuba no longer is behaving as a virtuous woman, but as a mad beast.
Hecuba makes the claim that all human beings have a breaking point. After all, a human being is simply a human being. The pagan world did not believe in supernatural grace and here is a striking difference between the pagan and the Christian notion of virtue.
In 2 Cor. 12:9, Christ tells Paul that “my grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Paul’s response was one of understanding and acceptance: “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
One of the lessons we can learn from the tragic tale of Hecuba is that we cannot retain our virtuous character merely on the strength of our pride. We cannot do without supernatural assistance if we want to retain our moral character.
St. Philip Neri, founder of The Oratory, often cried to God, “Lord, leave me not; as otherwise I shall this day, like Judas, betray you.” Such was this great saint’s distrust in his own strength. He would also say, “Watch me, O Lord, this day; for, abandoned to myself, I shall surely betray thee.”
The Christian believes that supernatural grace is available to him that allows him to remain virtuous and faithful under extremely trying conditions. Christianity makes the pagan ideal that was considered unrealizable, a reality. Grace elevates man to a condition that raises the mere human to a higher level.
The Greeks invented Prometheus to serve as an ideal of virtue. According to the myth, Prometheus stole the fire from the Titans and gave it to the people. For this, he was punished severely. He was bound to a rock and every day an eagle (the emblem of Zeus) would claw out his liver, which would grow back overnight only to be eaten again on the following day. Prometheus bore his torment without complaint. His spirit, unlike that of Hecuba, was unbreakable.
What the pagans had to invent, Christianity made real. Christ, Himself, never tired of dispensing forgiveness. When Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?” “I say not unto thee, until seven times,” was Christ’s response, “but until seventy times seven.” Seventy times seven symbolized not 490 but an unlimited number (Matt. 18:21-22).
In other words, we, too, must never run out of charity so that we can forgive our neighbor again and again without ever reaching a point of termination. In the Old Testament, the psalmist states, “My cup runneth over,” indicating that we have more than enough virtue for our needs.
The expression “He is charitable to a fault” is misleading. There is no point at which an additional increment of virtue causes a metamorphoses into a vice. We should never have the fear of being too good, though we should have the conviction that by ourselves, we are never good enough.
Abraham Lincoln understood the limitations of the human being and the need for divine grace. “I have been driven many times upon my knees,” he wrote, “by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.”
We pray the Our Father and petition God to give us our “daily bread” and the grace to counteract the evil of the day.
(Dr. Donald DeMarco is a professor emeritus of St. Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College. He is a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. His latest two books, How to Navigate Through Life and Apostles of the Culture of Life, are posted on amazon.com.)

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