Vice is nice but virtue can hurt you

It is extremely ironic that the two philosophers credited with being the founders of existentialism could not be further apart in their thoughts on love and virtue.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s favorite theme is power, the will to power. Soren Kierkegaard’s favorite theme is love.

Nietzsche (1844-1900) was an ardent critic of the Christian virtues which he believed weakened people, blocking their will to power. In accordance with his thought, we have such expressions as “meekness is weakness”, “chastity is its own punishment”, “faith is folly”, and “hope is for losers”. He personifies the idea that virtue can hurt you.

However, Nietzsche did not live up to his image of the “superman”. At 45, he suffered the total loss of his mental faculties with paralysis. He spent his last years under the care of his mother until her death in 1897, then of his sister Elisabeth. The man who sought to free himself from Christian virtues was finally the daily recipient.

For Kierkegaard (1813-1855), a Christian and fervent believer in God (Nietzsche said that God is dead), nothing was more important for a human being than to love. “That’s all I know for sure,” he wrote, “that God is love. Even if I was wrong on such and such a point: God is no less love. Our ability to love is the result of God’s love flowing within us. In a rather beautiful passage, he declares that “As the still lake is fed by the flow of hidden springs, which no eye sees, so the love of a human being is founded on the love of God. If there were no source at the bottom, if God were not love, there would be neither lake nor human love.

Now, there is an inherent limitation in love. Although God can send his love directly to us, we cannot do the same to our neighbors. It’s not enough to tell people you love them. We need a connector or conduit that allows us to conveniently transfer our love to the people we love. A firefighter cannot put out a fire, even if he has access to an immense amount of water, without the use of a hose. Likewise, to direct love where it is needed, a conduit is needed, and that conduit is virtue.

Just as a person has many needs, there must be many virtues that can be administered to each of those needs. Patience imparts love to those who are restless, hope to those who are discouraged, and compassion to those who suffer. Love is expressed to anyone through courtesy, justice and kindness. Piety expresses love towards our ancestors, cheerfulness towards those who are sad, and reverence towards all holy things.

Courage is the virtue that gives us the strength to help others at a time when we put ourselves in danger. Chastity respects the sexual integrity of the other, whose sincerity shows our honesty and our openness towards them. Gratitude is our thanks for being loved. Generosity is our love of being loved.

The more virtues we have, the better we are able to help our neighbour. And our set of virtues defines our character. Virtue is the ambassador of love which produces salutary effects wherever it is assigned. A car mechanic is not ready to go into business if he does not have a wide variety of tools for the simple reason that a car can have many problems.

Having an abundance of virtues is equivalent to an archer having a good amount of arrows. Separating virtues from vices can be difficult. As GK Chesterton has observed, “a new philosophy usually means, in practice, the praise of an old vice.” A reliable way to distinguish virtues from vices, however, is to recognize that the core of all virtues is love.

Vice takes us in the opposite direction of love. It is ruinous to our character and exacts a terrible price. We can change the title of this brief essay to make it more realistic: Vice has a price, but virtue will never fail you.

Image: Shutterstock/Troy Rocco

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