One of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis from his classic work Mere Christianity is his observation that “even attempted virtue has its rewards.” He does not happen to elaborate on this thought any, given that it was a small observation in a slim and excellent work, but at the same time when I look around me I see that there is a lot of insight that this particular quote can give us to consistent difficulties in our times. One of the lamentable aspects of our time, one that is not unique to our times but is fairly regularly present in times of crisis, is the constant and ferocious divide over truth and the general absence of common ground because of serious worldview difficulties. So, in examining problems of truth and love, let us examine how even attempting virtue leads to improved matters as opposed to unfettered vice.
First, virtue must be attempted and not merely assumed. It is all too easy in times of crisis and deep conflict to assume that our worldview enemies are without virtue whatsoever and are pure evil. Certainly pure evil exists in this world, but far more common is an unequal mixture of good and evil in both ourselves (and “our side”) and in our opposition. Far more common than pure evil among political opponents (and this is true whether those politics are family politics, organizational politics, national politics, or geopolitics) is that people have a variety of legitimate concerns and desires that they may lead them to illegitimate actions in order to bolster or support. For example, a legitimate desire for power and position may lead many to illegitimate political tactics, as a love of power outweighs a love of truth. Frequently in political disputes people on all sides adopt the view that the noble ends of one’s political worldview justify whatever sordid means are required to attain those noble ends. Likewise, the belief that our enemies are pure evil absolves us of any need to love them, convince them, cajole them, reason with them, explain ourselves to them, or think of them as human beings worthy of respect and concern for their needs and wishes. Seeing our opponents as a mixture of good and evil and as possessing legitimate concerns (even if their worldviews are seriously flawed and in error) allows us to behave more virtuously toward them, which can help preserve a sense of decorum in our dealings even as it makes us greater people of honor ourselves.
Second, attempted virtue rewards us with perspective. Aside from whatever moral rewards may come to those who try very hard to be good, even if they do not succeed, those who attempt virtue and do not merely presume its existence in their lives quickly understand that virtue is difficult. Remember, it is not virtuous to do what is right, as that is merely continence, but in order to be virtuous our thoughts and feelings and motivations must be right as well. These are considerably more difficult matters (and none of us under the sun do this perfectly), but its difficulty is not troublesome in that it gives us a great deal more sympathy with those who are attempting virtue and also makes us more merciful of the occasional stumbles of ourselves and others, knowing that we are all engaged in a difficult task. Even if some of us (myself included) are fairly demanding people, we who attempt to live a life of virtue are very merciful and kind to understanding to those who attempt virtue themselves, even if our hostility to vice and corruption does not waver. If you seek to do good you will be friends with those who do likewise, and you will also begin to see the challenges of living life in a godly and virtuous way.
Attempted virtue also rewards us with improvement. Attempted virtue is the struggle against whatever sin and corruption lies in our nature, our habits, and our behavior. All of us (myself certainly included!) have habits that are less than optimal in dealing with other people. Even where these habits are not themselves directly sin, they can certainly lead to problems with others and can certainly lead to sin. For example, addictive personalities can easily find things to be addicted to that allow us to become slaves/addicts to sin. And we are all prey to such matters in one way or another, depending on our own experiences and temperament. But any struggle against such sins gives us improvement. It denies our sins the complacency they need to make themselves truly at home with us. Even attempted virtue that does not succeed is making effort in moral improvement and is a sign of recognition of our fallen state and our need for salvation and redemption. Surely at first, and for a long time afterward, we are not likely to be very good at living the right way or showing proper love and respect to others, but struggling mightily to do so denies our native vice and disrespect its home within us, and makes them unwelcome guests within our hearts and minds, and that has the reward of changing our allegiance and improving our conduct. And that is a good thing.
We may ponder long on attempted virtue (sadly, time constraints do not permit me this today), but hopefully what has been said is enough to provoke thought and reflection. What is vital is that we do not presume that we have already obtained virtue and need to do nothing more, but that we are attempting virtue and that success depends on our receiving help and aid from above–and that our own strength is not sufficient to reach virtue. The humility that results from accurate self-knowledge allows us to be more understanding of others, and allows us to recognize the legitimate concerns even of those who behave very illegitimately. We gain improved perspective and conduct as well as sympathy for others who are struggling likewise against sin and vice by struggling ourselves. And that perspective is definitely a good thing, and a necessary thing if we are to be in harmony with God and with others.