O Virtue, Where Art Thou?
O Virtue, Where Art Thou?

O Virtue, Where Art Thou?

The dynamics of moral agency in an age awakened to social sin.

Appears in Spring 2021

In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.

—Abraham Joshua Heschel

I confess I’ve never reacted all that well to the recruitment posters created to enlist soldiers in the First and Second World Wars: Lord Kitchener, Uncle Sam, John Bull. Chalk it up to my distaste for a certain flavour of male demand or a generational mismatch in messaging, but the infamous propaganda toolinspire jumpy nerves more than motivation.

Still, when I step out of my own time and ponder what that great tool of recruitment was attempting to achieve, find that I admire its effectiveness in awakening the everyday citizen’s desire to serveThat loud pointing finger called forth a deep hope of nobility that beats unbidden in each one of usand instead of gesturing toward some vague moral high ground, it provided a pathway wherein one could take responsibility and act in battle for good to prevail in a troubled world.

Much has shifted since the mid-twentieth centuryWe no longer have the clarities that gave such propaganda poweran agreed-on enemy, a known good worth protecting, patriotism without caveat or a cultural code that said you were better than nobody and nobody was better than you.

Instead, the terms of good and evil have proliferated and moved inland, finding potent expression in domestic politics and creating a mess of heated rebellions along the wayWe live in an era newly awash in moral language of the systemic and the social, but instead of deploying it to frame the battles occurring on other shoresthe moral lines are hereon our turf, in our relationships. Our history is being told and retold by a wider array of voices. Hearts once content are being challenged to expand.

It could all be very hopeful but for the timing: A society steeped in “my truth, your truth” is poorly equipped to navigate fuller tellings of social truthThe pervading frameworks for “what’s really going on”white supremacy and systemic racism, illegitimate political authority and a corrupted eliteare at once vast and pointed, each one requiring a humility and robust moral vocabulary that we seem to have lostIt doesn’t bode well that structures of power are dominating our mental maps while odes to self-care seduce our souls. Whatever happened to conceiving of agency as something more than the individual’s rights and desiresWhere is forgiveness in our calculus of what is owed?

This issue of Comment seeks to walk us out of these cultural cul-de-sacs and reunite virtue with the social ends God intended for us. As many of us awaken to realities of history that seem to be demanding something new from our livesthe conscientious person is asking, Where is the way of wisdom? How do I avoid becoming paralyzed, or worse, reactive and destructive? What’s the call on persons when the stakes most discussed are not able to be pinned down to a person? Is there a call?

Anne Snyder
Anne Snyder

Anne Snyder is the editor-in-chief of Comment magazine and oversees our partner project, Breaking Ground.


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