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by William H. Benson

January 26, 2012

     During the Middle Ages, it was decided that human beings suffer from at least seven venial sins or vices, and they include: pride, envy, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, slothfulness. Standing in opposition to each of those sins is a contrasting virtue: humility, kindness, charity, chastity, patience, temperance and diligence. One is considered either proud or humble, envious or kind, greedy or charitable, lustful or chaste, angry or patient, gluttonous or temperate, and slothful or diligent.

     It is a neat system, dividing human behavior into seven categories that is further divided into two halves, one good and one evil, yet I wonder about this scheme, this dualism, this “either / or” division into two irreducible components. I wonder if it is the final answer when judging human behavior.

     I would agree that those people who demonstrate a preponderance of anger or lust or pride live misery-filled lives, and that those whose lives radiate patience and diligence and kindness evoke joy and contentment to those about them, but I question limiting it to seven, as if they are all-inclusive.

     Others would add to that list of seven vices “cruelty, dishonesty, fear, superstition, and deceit.”

George Bernard Shaw argued strongly for the virtue “responsibility.” The critic E. R. Bentley said, “The cardinal virtue in the Shavian scale . . . is responsibility; every creed he has attacked Shaw has attacked on the grounds of irresponsibility.”

     Then, there are the four cardinal virtues of “prudence, justice, restraint, and courage,” and the three theological virtues of “faith, hope, and love.” I would suggest that human behavior is a shade more complex than just seven vices and seven virtues, but that it is multifaceted.

     Also, instead of flashing only green or red, or residing at the north or south pole, I would argue in favor of a continuum of gradually-changing colors and of geographical points along the way between those poles. For example, consider pride and humility. Somewhere in that gaping distance between the two lies a strong sense of self-esteem, and lodged between greed and charity is ambition.

     Benjamin Franklin did not consider human failings so much as sins but as “errata,” human failings that needed correcting. One learns as one lives what is proper behavior and what is not. He thought that people come equipped in this life with an eraser, and that they should learn to erase their mistakes. In Franklin’s autobiography, he listed thirteen virtues: “temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.”

     He then worked hard to incorporate those thirteen into his daily living, but on occasion, as all human beings will do, he failed. “Yet,” he wrote, “I was, by the endeavor, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”

     I suggest concentrating on ideals, such as “prudence, discernment, and deliberation.” Prudence, according to the dictionary, is that “ability to govern and discipline oneself by use of reason.” Discernment is that “ability to grasp and comprehend what is obscure,” and encompasses other ideals: discrimination, perception, a penetrating mind, insight, acumen, and shrewd soundness of judgment.

     Deliberation is key. With deliberation, time slows down, as one ponders the issues, considers, sorts, balances, and turn over the consequences. All ideas, like pancakes, need flipped occasionally to see what is on the other side, and like a package, deliberation arrives at our door only after a series of brutal experiences. We learn what works and how to behave, and so we gain an inkling of judgment.

     I recently ran across a passage about Cotton Mather, the colonial New England Puritan. Of him, a biographer wrote, “He went through this world in a state of emotional exaltation, of passion and reaction, which left him in all the sixty years of his conscious life hardly an hour of that cool thoughtfulness without which any deliberation is impossible.” Deliberation is key.

     Our nation is now in the grip of the Republican primaries, and so a “fog of rhetoric” has settled down about us. Peering through that fog, we seek to process, evaluate, and judge each of the candidates’ virtues, vices, ideals, character, tactics, strategies, and political conclusions, and we want to know if they line up or agree even remotely with our own. If they do, we vote “yes.” Otherwise, “no.”

     Everyone carries within their minds a filter or a firewall that prevents viruses and foreign ideas from invading, and that filter is composed of our attitudes, habits, past experiences, what we have been told to believe, and what we believe now. My filter tells me that I am looking for a candidate with none of the seven vices, all of the seven virtues, plus countless other virtues, such as responsibility, plus healthy doses of prudence and discernment, and especially a talent for deliberation. Slow down and deliberate.

     It would also be nice if he or she displayed a sense of humor. William Falk wrote last week in The Week, “Humor humanizes. Make people laugh, and you’re halfway home to getting their votes.”