A Manifesto on Virtue
When I was in college at San Jose State, I took Latin classes from Marianina Olcott. That is where I learned about the Roman concept of Virtus (pronounced “where-tuus”). It was a trait that the Romans respected, but it did not mean just virtue. It included other qualities too: prudentia (prudence), iustitia (justice), temperantia (self-control), and fortitudo (courage).
As I look around in the world today, I see that these traits are no longer honored and respected as they were in the past. Maybe that is why I love reading and why I have certain favorite movies I watch over and over again. You see, in my favorite books and films, the stories that grab me are about Virtus. All right, they can be cheesy sometimes. But I love that moment in Return of the Jedi when Luke throws down his light saber and tells the Emperor he failed to turn him to the Dark Side. That despite everything that will happen to his friends and (gulp) his “sister”, he surrenders and takes the blast of Force lightning full in the chest. That is Virtus.
I’m also a huge fan of the classics for the same reason. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables grips me because Jean Valjean gives up a comfortable career, a position of respect as a mayor after struggling for years to escape his criminal past. And he gives it up because another man was accused in his place. The rest of his life is devoted to safeguarding a child he does not truly bear any responsibility for. That is Virtus.
Virtus may have been seen as a manly quality in ancient Rome, but it isn’t limited in my mind. All of my favorite characters demonstrate it. Jane Eyre leaves Edward Rochester after learning he has a wife, despite his urgent pleas for her to forsake her morals and pretend to be his. “Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?”
It is Samwise Gamgee bearing Frodo up the mountain on his back, refusing to abandon his friend. It is the Elven girl Amberle willing to give her life to save a people who hate her and the humble healer Wil Ohmsford who protects her along the journey at great personal cost.
As I have studied biographies of some of the great ones in history, I have found many examples of Virtus echoed through the ages. They are not perfect people. They are always rare.
The problem is, they are becoming even more rare. As I read many of the popular books in the genre I love, I can hardly find any trace of Virtus left. Sure, there is a spattering appearance of it now and again, but the core of the story and the general plots are thick with meaningless violence, no self-control to speak of, and heroes so flawed I am not sure I even want them to succeed.
In the world I live in, there is plenty of harsh realities. But when I want to enjoy a movie or delve into a book, I want to be inspired. I want to see someone rise to the challenges instead of submit to them. I want to see more Virtus. I want to cheer for Eliza Bennett when she realizes the man she despises the most is the one just right for her. I want Taran the Pigkeeper and Eilonwy to stay behind and heal the world of Prydain instead of sailing off to a fair country. I want to cry when Harry goes into the Forbidden Forest alone with his ghosts.
Virtus isn’t about being a super cool vampire with too much time and money on his hands. It is about trying to be someone bigger than yourself, despite the odds, falling down, getting scuffed up, and still going. Even when the one you love goes another way. Even when you fail sometimes.
That is what I like to read and watch.
And that is why I write.