The Life of Virtue – Honesty
I met an old lady once who had given her life to the ‘care of the well body’. This was how she described her subject and as far as I remember she was the first person in the United States to have a teaching position in it. She was not a medical person nor was she simply a beautician. Her task was to encourage people to keep well, and to present themselves well, with proper self-esteem and with the dignity appropriate to a human person. The life of virtue ought to move us towards this, a self-regard that is neither arrogant nor selfish, a humility and graciousness that are neither self-deprecating nor irritating.
Contemporary understandings, particularly in psychology, give a lot of attention to things like shame and self-esteem. Aquinas notices the importance of these in identifying diffidence (or shame) and what he calls ‘honesty’, honestas, as integral parts of the virtue of temperance. Temperance is about health, the health of the well person we might say, meaning not just good physical health with desires and appetites working properly but moral and spiritual health in those desires and appetites. The temperate person will be chaste, disciplined, humble, and restrained, as Aquinas goes on to explain, but these forms of temperateness, when they are truly the virtues in question, do not produce lean, cold, and anxious people but people who are warm-hearted, physically at ease, and sensitive to beauty in all its forms. We are animals with animal appetites that become gross and ugly when they are vicious (think of gluttonous excess, drunkenness, and sexual licence) but the same appetites are beautiful when they are properly virtuous (think of Babette’s Feast for food and drink, The Song of Songs for erotic love).
In his classic work on The Four Cardinal Virtues Josef Pieper says that the gift of beauty is particularly co-ordinated to the virtue of temperance. Temperate people are beautiful, glowing with the truth and goodness that radiates from every ordered state of being (this is their ‘honesty’). The temperate person is therefore strong so that temperance becomes the wellspring and premise of fortitude. Pieper writes that the infantile disorder of intemperance not only destroys beauty, it also makes a person cowardly, unable to ‘take heart’ against the wounding power of evil in the world. Temperance or intemperance, he concludes, loudly proclaim themselves in everything that manifests a personality: in the order or disorder of the features, in the attitude, the laugh, the handwriting. Temperance is the inner order of the human being but it cannot remain purely interior but must show itself in gracious and attractive physical presence and action.
Psalm 29:2 says we are to worship the Lord ‘in the beauty of holiness’. Diffidence and honesty, fear of depravity and esteem for our own well-being, keep us on the road towards that goal.