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A Civilization at Risk: Whatever Became of Virtue?


In an age of "anything goes", virtue is a revolutionary thing. In an age of rebellion, authority is the radical idea.


A prominent Christian businessman is exposed as a crook and a bigamist. A historic Christian denomination goes on record as favoring a woman's right to abortion. The second fact is even more shocking and serious than the first.


A brilliant Christian writer and pastor leaves his wife and children and runs off with another woman. Then he writes a book justifying it. The second fact is more shocking than the first.


Nearly as many of the marriages of Christians end in divorce as those of non-Christians. Most Christian denominations permit divorce, though Christ did not. The second fact is more shocking than the first.


In each of the above cases, the first statement shows only the perennial fact of hypocrisy, of not practicing what one preaches or believes. But the second statements are something altogether new. They represent a changing of the rules that makes hypocrisy impossible!

Matthew Arnold defined hypocrisy as a "tribute that vice pays to virtue". With that tribute no longer paid, we no longer need virtue. The first of each set of facts above shows a lack of virtue; the second shows a lack of knowledge of virtue. This is new. Christians, like other sinners, have always been susceptible to vice, but today we no longer seem to know what vice and virtue are.

The solution to the first problem is repentance and divine grace — something a book cannot help much with. But the solution to the second problem is knowledge, and there a book can help.

Help is desperately needed exactly now. For exactly at the time when the fatal knowledge of how to destroy the entire human race has fallen forever into our hands, the knowledge of morality has fallen out. Exactly when the vehicle of our history has gotten a souped-up engine, we have lost the road map. Exactly when our toys have grown up with us from bows and arrows to thermonuclear bombs, we have become moral infants.

If a child's moral growth does not keep pace with his physical growth, there may soon be no child. Could this explain why the most common age for suicide today is adolescence? The human race is now in its adolescence and standing on the edge of a cliff.

The most terrifying things (other than demons) ever to appear on our planet — thermonuclear bombs — have done a wonderful thing, a thing all the moralists, preachers, prophets, saints, and sages in history could not do: they have made the practice of virtue a necessity for survival. In W. H. Auden's simple and perfect formula, "We must love one another or die."

However, to practice morality, we must first know it. To be men and women of virtue, not vice, we must know what virtue and vice mean.

Our modern Western civilization is a freak because it is radically different from every other civilization that has ever appeared on this planet. How? Most obviously in its technology. But more deeply, in the spiritual origin of its technology, which is a new philosophy, a new answer to the most important of all questions: Why was I born? Why am I living? In what should I invest my hopes, my dreams, my longing and living and loving? What are the best things in life? What is the summum bonum, or greatest good?

To that perennial question Francis Bacon formulated the new answer: "Man's conquest of nature." C. S. Lewis wrote a prophetic little masterpiece of a book about what happens when this new philosophy is combined with the loss of the knowledge of morality and virtue. The title says it neatly: The Abolition of Man.

[The term man in the phrase "man's conquest of nature" is a sexually chauvinistic term, not because all use of the traditional generic man is, but because we have a civilization that is in the midst of what Karl Stern called (in another prophetic title) The Flight from Woman. We extol action over contemplation, doing over being, analysis over intuition, problems over mysteries, success over contentment, conquering over nurturing, the quick fix over lifelong commitment, the prostitute over the mother.]

Long ago, Aristotle taught that there are three reasons for seeking knowledge. The most important one is truth, the next is moral action, and the last and least important is power, or the ability to make things: technique, technology, know-how. Bacon and modernity have turned Aristotle upside down.

We have sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind. This generation, we and our children, not some vague, safely distant future generation, now stand at the reckoning point. The most important decision in history is ours to make. We cannot return to technological ignorance, nor should we want to. But we can return to the knowledge of morality (and we should at least want to) — the knowledge that makes us the kind of people who can use these terrible new powers responsibly. What kind of people would that be? One with character and with virtue, two words which are seriously out of fashion, even embarrassing, today. That is precisely our problem.

I have never read any three sentences that go more deeply to the heart of our civilization and its distinctiveness than these from The Abolition of Man:

There is something which unites magic and applied science [technology] while separating them from the "wisdom" of earlier ages. For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. For the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique.[1]

Two World Views

With this new practical philosophy of the conquest of nature comes a new theoretical philosophy that objective reality is only nature, that nature is all there is. This is Naturalism, the reduction of objective reality to matter, time, space, and motion.

The alternative to this philosophy is Supernaturalism, the belief that objective reality includes also something more than nature, something like God. If "objective reality" means God, then we had better conform to him, and it is silly to try to make him conform to us. But if "objective reality" means only nature, then we can conquer it, and it is silly to conform to it.

The common principle of both philosophies is that the inferior should conform to the superior, not vice versa. The premodern practical philosophy, or life view, flowed from the premodern theoretical philosophy, or world view: there is a God; therefore conform to him. The modern life view flows from the modern world view: there is no God; therefore we play God to the world (see below). Both philosophies are consistent, but one of the two must be wrong, disastrously wrong.

Two World Views
















Until recently, our civilization could still feel optimistic about its new ideal and its associated myth of universal and necessary progress. There are two reasons why the optimism is dying. One is, of course, the fear of collective thermonuclear or social suicide, but the other cuts even deeper. It is Freud's simple observation in Civilization and Its Discontents that we simply are not happy with our new, godlike powers.

We control nature, but we cannot control our own control. We control nature, but we cannot or will not control ourselves. Self-control is "out" exactly when nature control is "in", that is, exactly when self-control is most needed.

If we can conquer everything except ourselves, the result is that we do not hold the power. More and more power over nature is placed in hands that are weaker and weaker. Heredity, environment, the spirit of the times, "the inevitable dialectic of history", the media — something is always in the driver's seat instead of ourselves.

The Weakest Civilization

How are we weak?

Not technologically, of course. We are like King Midas, swollen with new powers and riches, although at a price: everything we touch has gone dead and cold.

Not intellectually. We learn more and more, though it means less and less. We are overwhelmed with knowledge as well as with power. Our heads are about to burst. Some do.

Nor are we morally weaker. I do not think we are necessarily more wicked than our ancestors, overall. True, we are less courageous, less honest with ourselves, less self-disciplined, and obviously less chaste than they were. But they were more cruel, intolerant, snobbish, and inhumane than we are. They were better at the hard virtues; we are better at the soft virtues. The balance is fairly even, I think.

But though we are not weaker in morality, we are weaker in the knowledge of morality. We are stronger in the knowledge of nature, but weaker in the knowledge of goodness. We know more about what is less than ourselves but less about what is more than ourselves. When we act morally, we are better than our philosophy. Our ancestors were worse than theirs. Their problem was not living up to their principles. Ours is not having any.

We have lost objective moral law for the first time in history. The philosophies of moral positivism (that morality is posited or made by man), moral relativism, and subjectivism have become for the first time not a heresy for rebels but the reigning orthodoxy of the intellectual establishment. University faculty and media personnel overwhelmingly reject belief in the notion of any universal and objective morality.

Yet our civilization, especially the two groups just mentioned, talk a good game of ethics. Ethical discussion has grown into the gap left by a dying ethical vision. It is the kind of discussion Saint Paul described as "ever learning and never coming to a knowledge of the truth". (Perhaps he had a prophetic vision of our modern TV talk shows!) It is intellectual ping-pong, "sharing views" rather than seeking truth. For how can we seek something we do not believe in? The notions that there is objective truth in the realm of morality and that an open mind is therefore not an end in itself but a means to the end of finding truth are labeled "simplistic" by the intellectual establishment when, in fact, they are simple sanity and common sense. (As G. K. Chesterton says, an open mind is like an open mouth: useful only to close down on something solid.)

In an age of "anything goes", virtue is a revolutionary thing. In an age of rebellion, authority is the radical idea. In an age of pell-mell "progress" to annihilation, tradition is the hero on the white horse.

We Live in Two Worlds

Moral values have become both privatized and collectivized. On the one hand, the modern mind has fallen victim to what C. S. Lewis calls "the poison of subjectivism": the idea that morality is manmade, private, subjective, a matter of feeling, a subdivision of psychology. "I feel" replaces "I believe".

On the other hand, sociology has socialized and collectivized morality; consensus determines rightness or wrongness, and democracy becomes our religion: vox populi vox dei ("the voice of the people is the voice of God"). These two developments, privatism. and collectivism, may seem contradictory, but they have happened simultaneously in the modern West.

Their effect is that we live in two separate worlds. Our feeling life, our inner world of "values" (no longer real goods), is set against the outer world of behavior, a world governed by social "mores" (no longer real morals). "Values" are like thoughts, like ghosts, undulating blobs of psychic energy. "Mores" are like brute facts, like machines, ways people do in fact behave, not ways they ought to. We are like ghosts in machines.

What happens if we bring together these two halves of our alienated world? What happens when we realize that our subjective consciousness is a prophet of objective reality? What happens when we realize that objective reality includes not just brute facts but also goods, not only is's but also oughts, not only the fact that society does do such-and-such, but also the fact that society ought to do so-and-so?

When this meeting of the two hemispheres of our cracked world takes place, it is like a homecoming between alienated lovers. A shudder reaches us, deep and breathtaking. We have run away from that shudder for centuries. Martin Buber writes:

At times the man, shuddering at the alienation between the I and the world, comes to reflect that something is to be done.... And thought, ready with its service and its art, paints with its well-known speed one — no, two — rows of pictures, on the right wall and on the left. On the one there is ... the universe. The tiny earth plunges from the whirling stars, tiny man from the teeming earth, and now history bears him further through the ages, to rebuild persistently the ant-hill of the cultures which history crushes underfoot.... On the other wall there takes place the soul. A spinner is spinning the orbits of all stars and the life of all creation and the history of the universe; everything is woven of one thread, and is no longer called stars and creation and universe, but sensations and imaginings, or even experiences, and conditions of the soul....

Thenceforth, if ever the man shudders at the alienation, and the world strikes terror in his heart, he looks up (to right or left, just as it may chance) and sees a picture. There he sees that the I is embedded in the world and that there is really no I at all — so the world can do nothing to the I, and he is put at ease; or he sees that the world is embedded in the I, and that there is really no world at all — so the world can do nothing to the I, and he is put at ease....

But a moment comes, and it is near, when the shuddering man looks up and sees both pictures in a flash together. And a deeper shudder seizes him.[2]

Moral Education Values Clarification

Two recent developments are an index of our value-ignorance: Values clarification is "in", and proverbs are "out". What does this mean?

Proverbs are the summaries of the accumulated practical wisdom of the past, the experience of our ancestors. They are moral truths, half-truths sometimes, but truths. They describe real virtues. But we no longer believe in real virtues. Therefore we do not believe in proverbs. We believe instead in discussion, in moral ping-pong, in "values clarification".

Values clarification is essentially the following. "Facilitators" (no longer teachers, for there is no longer anything true to teach) encourage students to state and clarify their own personal values by asking questions. This sounds like Socrates so far, but wait.

These questions are never about the roots or grounds of values, about principles. Instead, they are about feelings and reasonings, calculations. For example, if you were in a lifeboat with four people and there were only enough food for two to survive, what would you do? Such questions do not touch the roots of morality. They never ask questions about virtues and vices, about character, but ask only about what you would do, or rather what you would "feel comfortable" doing. A choice to have or not to have an abortion is put to the student in the same way, and with the same tone, as a choice between Christmas presents or foods. And tone is a factor that children (and the child in us) are very sensitive to.

The facilitator theoretically does not lead the students in any way. The one moral absolute in values clarification is that there are no moral absolutes, and the only thing forbidden is for the facilitator to suggest that his beliefs are true, or even to suggest that there is objective truth in the realm of values, for that would mean that some of the students are wrong, and that would be `judgmental", the only sin. in fact, the very procedure itself teaches a nearly irresistible lesson: values are all up for grabs, are matters of individual or social taste; no one has the right to teach another here; values are "my" values or "your" values, never simply true values; values, in short, are not facts but feelings.

Many theorists in the movement will admit explicitly that the deliberate purpose of values clarification in schools is a social revolution to undermine the authority of parents whose values are felt to be regressive and repressive, and thus to pave the way for social change. These traditional values are never attacked rationally, directly, and honestly, whether because the theorists no longer believe in the value of honesty or of reason or, more likely, because they cannily foresee that thereby they will suffer a devastating defeat. Values clarification is not an angry stroke of a sword; it is a sly, knowing wink. After all, what can parents without Ph.D.'s in sociology possibly know?

A Little Morality is a Dangerous Thing

There is a brilliant strategy behind teaching ethics without virtues and vices. This strategy is not an organized or conscious movement or conspiracy, at least not by human beings. But it is there and it has the effect of an inoculation. By a little ethics or pseudoethics we build up an immunity to the real thing, just as a weak dose of a disease germ such as cowpox builds up an immunity to the stronger disease of smallpox.

The immunity usually takes the form of thinking we already have the real thing and therefore scorning those who do, those who explicitly or implicitly criticize popular morality (the inoculation). It uses a powerful tool; the word fanatic. There is absolutely no word in our language which ostracizes a person from today's intellectual establishment more than this word, especially when combined with another dirty word to produce the supreme insult: "religious fanatic". Of course, no distinction is made between religious fanaticism and traditional religious belief as such.

If you confess at a fashionable cocktail party that you personally love to play with porcupines, or plan to sell CIA secrets to the communists, or that you are considering becoming a Palestinian terrorist, you will find a buzzing, fascinated crowd around you, eager to listen. But if you confess that you believe that Jesus is God, that he died to save us from sin, or that there really are a Heaven and a Hell, you will very soon be talking to empty air, with a distinct chill in it.

This is why great sinners, who are not inoculated with a little morality, become great saints more often than "respectable", inoculated people do. Ethics without virtue is "a little morality". It is like religion without God, at least the living God. Dealing with the living God is a little like a nuclear war: it can upset your whole day.

But so can atheism. We dislike being upset by any extreme. Many people have been lured to theism by the honest and unendurable despair of the great atheists like Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre. But the popular religion of a vague divine sense or "The Force", as in Star Wars, is a wonderful consolation against both the terror of ultimate nothingness and the equal terror of ultimate goodness.

Those who are sick, said Jesus, know they have need of a physician, but not those who are well (or think they are). Those who obviously have no ethics, the Machiavellians, are ripe for conversion: Saint Augustine, Saint Francis, Saint Ignatius, Chuck Colson. Those who seem to have ethics but actually do not are comfortably ensconced in illusion.

Ethics without virtue is illusion. What is the highest purpose of ethics? It is to make people good, that is, virtuous. Without a road map of the virtues and vices, how likely is it that we will find our way home, especially if we are lost? And the one thing nearly everyone knows is that modern man is lost.

Meanwhile, while ethics languish, discussion of ethics flourishes. One of the most popular elective courses in high schools and colleges is ethics. But the kind of ethics that is usually taught is ethics without bite, without substance, without power, for ethics without a vision of what a good man or woman is, without virtues and vices, concentrates on doing instead of being, just as our whole modern society does. Such ethics never asks the two most important questions: What is man? and What is the purpose of his life on this earth?

C.S. Lewis uses the image of the fleet of sailing ships to show that ethics deals with three great questions, not just one. First the ships need to know how to avoid collisions. That is social ethics, and that is taught. In the second place, they need to know how to stay shipshape, how to avoid sinking. That is the question of virtues and vices, and that is not taught. Finally, they need to know their mission, why they are at sea in the first place. That is the question of the ultimate purpose of human life. It is a religious question, and of course it is not asked, much less answered.

An ethic without bite will offend no one. The one thing no teacher dares to do is to tell anyone he is wrong and needs to change. We dare not confront. There is not a single biblical prophet who would be allowed to teach in a modern public university or to talk on network TV today without being labeled "fanatic", "authoritarian", "reactionary", "simplistic", and probably "fundamentalist" (which combines all these horrible things). Jesus himself — the real Jesus described in the Gospels rather than the "meek and gentle Jesus" of the selective modern imagination, which is only a thin slice of him — would be the most radically unacceptable of all. He would be crucified a second time, in words.

Why have we reduced him to "meek and gentle Jesus"? Because we have reduced all the virtues to one, being kind; and we measure Jesus by our standards instead of measuring our standards by him.

But why have we reduced all the virtues to being kind? Because we have reduced all the goods to one, the one that kindness ministers to: pleasure, comfort, contentment. We have reduced ourselves to pleasure-seeking animals.

But why have we reduced ourselves to pleasure-seeking animals? Because we are implicit materialists. Our ethics are always rooted in our metaphysics, and modern ethics is rooted in modern metaphysics, the modern world view, which is the superstition that all that is objectively real is nature, which in turn we have reduced to matter.

The Christian Response to the Cross

How have Christians responded to modern man's loss of the knowledge of virtue?

  1. Modernist or liberal Christians in all churches and denominations essentially reduce religion to morality. This is why they specialize in morality. Christianity to them is essentially an ethic, a way of living in this world rather than a way of attaining the next. Christ becomes essentially our human teacher and example rather than God our Savior. (He is both, of course; modernist Christianity is half-Christianity, not non-Christianity.) Ethics thus becomes supremely important for the modernist. It's his "thing", all he has left.

    The principle is obvious: the specialty shop does good work. Preaching, for instance, is supremely important for Protestants, and Protestants usually do a much better job of preaching than do the Catholics. Similarly, modernists usually do a better job at social ethics than do orthodox Christians.

    Yet even here, perhaps, they do not. Let us reconsider our principle of "specialty shops". To isolate a part of a living whole is not only to miss out on the other parts but also to pervert the isolated part. Idolize any part of life — sex, money, drink, a hobby — and sooner or later you will lose the real enjoyment of it as well as of the rest. It becomes an addiction. So the modernist, idolizing social action, often perverts it by collectivizing, organizing, and establishing it to death. He is usually more or less socialistic; and socialists miss not only the greatness of the individual but also the greatness of society, for a natural and happy association of free and generous individuals is more of a society than a mass of organized, bureaucratic, and socialized charities.

    By overemphasizing society and underemphasizing individuals, socialism does injustice not only to individuals but also to society. Likewise, by overemphasizing ethics and underemphasizing religion, modernism does injustice not only to religion but also to ethics.

    Here's how that works. Ethics without religion means sin without salvation. Though modernists avoid talking about sin, their concentration on ethics really fosters the very thing modernism accuses its enemy, fundamentalism, of fostering: guilt. That's why the modernist is always busily do-gooding. He has the same problem Martin Luther had before he discovered the gospel. And the problem of guilt is even greater for the modernist than for the fundamentalist, for even if the fundamentalist overemphasizes sin, he at least offers hope of salvation.

  2. What has been the orthodox Christians' response to the modern values vacuum?

    Conservative Protestants, both evangelicals and fundamentalists, have not been able to fill the ethical needs of our time mainly because of their suspicion of a traditional natural law ethic of virtues and vices with a foundation in a rational knowledge of human nature. They are suspicious of this approach as pagan, Greek, Roman Catholic, humanistic, rationalistic, or naturalistic. They think it results in a two-layer cake, with natural virtue on the bottom and supernatural virtue on the top. One of the purposes of this book is to show the oneness of the two, like body and soul.

    One of the most serious faults in the evangelical and fundamentalist ethic is its passivity. Its adherents say, "The Lord will work it out." Yes, and meanwhile the Lord has commanded us to act, not just to wait. The Lord is our heavenly Father, and fathers want their children to grow up and think and act for themselves. To insist that we take responsibility for ourselves and cultivate virtue is not to think that we work our way into heaven by piling up Brownie points with God. It is to see us as human beings rather than as wax dummies. It is to interpret the image of God properly (God is active and so are we). It is to see our proper response to God as a full and human one, and to distinguish justification (which is God's alone) from sanctification (which is ours and God's).

    Conservative Protestants are also often suspicious of traditional ethics for its reliance on human reason. There are two things to be said against this. The first is the theoretical point that reason, though fallen like the rest of us, is still part of God's image in us and is to be used, not despised. The second is the practical, tactical point that we can win battles using reason.

    To explain this second point, consider the problem of communicating with a non-Christian world if you abandon an ethic based at least partly on natural human reason. If we preach our ethics only from Scripture and faith and ignore God-given reason, then we have no common starting point and no common ground for dialogue with unbelievers on crucial issues like abortion and nuclear war. The case against abortion can be made on a purely rational basis, a basis the opponents will have to listen to, simply to be fair and reasonable, a basis they cannot fault as biased, a basis (reason) that will reveal their own position to be irrational. When we can clobber them with their own weapons, we are silly to retreat into our own weapon house, which they declare out of bounds. When we can beat them at their own game, we are silly to insist on playing ours when they will not. If anyone doubts that the case against abortion can be made definitively on purely rational grounds, I offer my own modest effort, The Unaborted Socrates, and, more systematic and complete, Steven Schwartz's The Moral Problem of Abortion.

    On the Roman Catholic side, some writers continue to write and argue on the basis of a traditional natural law and natural reason ethic with its scheme of vices and virtues; but many Catholic thinkers ignore this tradition and label it "pre-Vatican II", as if Vatican II instituted a new ethic and a new religion. Many Catholic theologians, like their Protestant counterparts, have sold out to modernism. But the Magisterium (the official teaching authority of the Church) has not, nor has the current philosopher-king, a personalist-phenomenologist philosopher named John Paul II.

    Although this approach was common to mainline Christianity for nearly two millennia, both modernists and fundamentalists have abandoned rational ethics based on human nature, with natural as well as supernatural virtues and vices. Modernists and fundamentalists are really in agreement about the impotence of reason and the unknowability of human nature as it really is.

    Evangelicals are poised between these two options. Historically suspicious of the traditional Catholic approach, they are rethinking this opposition, as Catholics are rethinking their anti-Protestant Prejudices. A new alignment is being forged. Catholics are rediscovering the need for evangelism, and evangelicals are rediscovering the need for liturgy, sacrament, and church unity. The crucial issue of our day that is forging this new alliance more than any religious issue is the issue of abortion.

    Since evangelicals, like Catholics, usually believe in objective morality, they want to avoid the silliness of saying) "I'm personally opposed to abortion, but I wouldn't dream of imposing my morality on others." There are only two places to look for the origin of this morality, God and human nature. Catholics look to both. God is the ultimate origin, and human nature made in his image is the proximate origin of morality. Natural law morality means both a morality known to natural reason and a morality based on human nature.

But a secular society will not look to God. Therefore if we will not look to human nature, we have no meeting place.

Why should Christians be afraid to look to human nature? It is fallen and defaced, yes, but a marred painting is still a painting. A sick man is still a man, with human needs. Both natural and even supernatural virtues are based on human needs, which are based on human nature — in itself, in its relation to other human beings, and in its relation to God. A full ethic has all three dimensions.

Let us sketch such an ethic.


  1. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1943), 87-88.
  2. Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Scribners, 1958), 70-72.

This is Meaghen Gonzalez, Editor of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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Kreeft, Peter. "A Civilization at Risk: Whatever Became of Virtue?" Chapter one in Back to Virtue (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 19-36

Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Back to Virtue - ISBN 0-89870-442-7.

The Author

kreeft1kreeftPeter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College.  He is the author of many books (over forty and counting) including: Ask Peter Kreeft: The 100 Most Interesting Questions He's Ever Been AskedAncient PhilosophersMedieval PhilosophersModern PhilosophersContemporary Philosophers, Forty Reasons I Am a Catholic, Doors in the Walls of the World: Signs of Transcendence in the Human Story, Forty Reasons I Am a CatholicYou Can Understand the Bible, Fundamentals of the Faith, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer,  Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, Prayer for Beginnersand Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1986 Ignatius Press

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