With every new crisis, I mistakenly think I lose the ability to be shocked. Yet, in 2022, I continually find myself shocked to the point of despair. The world is overwhelmingly plagued with the violence of war, the existence of extreme poverty, the increasing awareness that many refuse to do simple things to stave off sickness, the reality that some encourage dehumanization for the sake of political power, and the revelation of corruption in every institution of meaning. With every approaching day, I wonder, how can we live good lives in a bad world?
Fred McFeely Rogers passed away almost twenty years ago on February 27, 2003, and I don’t think I have recovered. As a child, Fred's voice often soothed my anxious soul, and even into my late adolescence, Fred still provided that comfort. In adulthood, I find myself more and more appealing to Fred as a means to cope with the world's anxiety. Yet, even to this day, the most compelling feature about Fred was the virtuous life that he lived in public that lends itself to flourishing.
Virtue in the ancient tradition was an attempt to find eudaimonia. The standard English translation of the word (happiness) tragically does not convey the original intention of the phrase. Ancient philosophers recognized eudaimonia not as a call to a general state of mind or pleasure but rather as a shared understanding of a life well-lived. Undoubtedly, eudaimonia is satisfaction, but satisfaction in perpetuating certain habits and acquiring desired virtues. To them, the moral life was an end in itself, not a means to posture or gain power. In fact, such pursuit of this latter kind ran counter to eudaimonia's aim. The virtue ethics tradition broadly recognizes four cardinal virtues: prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice. Pursuing practices and habits to be shaped into these virtues enabled one to live well. Like an athlete perpetually training in the fundamentals of their sport to play the game well, these virtues help humans live their lives well. To be clear, living well is not necessarily a life of financial success but rather a life of flourishing.
Briefly, the four cardinal virtues all exist within a similar recognition structure. Individuals might highlight similar virtues for all categories if asked what makes up a good roommate, friend, or spouse. That is because the virtues we desire in one another circle around each other in similar ways. Therefore, the virtues share a singular vision for life when defined appropriately. Temperance, for example, forms the agent into desiring actions that do not lead to the performer’s destruction. It means avoiding that which might bring harm or shame and doing that which brings life. It encourages the practice of complementary virtues such as humility, gentleness, and sobriety. Like Temperance, Prudence also affirms a kind of moderation. However, the prudent person must weigh the competing goods in any given situation to make the most morally appropriate choice. In this way, prudence is the mother of all virtues. This virtue most aligns with the true practical reason that allows humans to develop the skills necessary to evaluate and perform the good simultaneously. The prudent person does not merely repeat a universal moral code abstract of context but can truly discern what is just and upright in any given situation and often times seeks the wise counsel of others. The vices that the prudent person resists are impulsivity, inconstancy, and negligence. Justice is probably the most commonly known virtue of all and involves recognizing and delivering what is due to another. The one who practices justice not only refrains from evil acts against one's neighbor but also acts in such a way to affirm another's dignity. Though there are many subtle elements of justice, such as the restorative, distributive, and legal aspects of its practice, it is sufficient to say that justice concerns one’s ability to think communally. The community of justice, for example, can act in the interest of the common good. Finally, fortitude is the resolution in the face of difficulty. One can recall Paul's admonition to the Thessalonians as a call to fortitude, "hold fast to what is good.” (1 Thess. 5:21, NRSV) Fortitude, thus, is the ability to do good in the face of uncertainty even if you are the only one doing it. A virtue closely related to fortitude is magnanimity which encourages one to rejoice in the practice of virtue even if one is not lauded by others. Fortitude is a kind of resilience that finds joy in doing good only for the sake of doing good.
How do the virtues lead to eudaimonia or a life well lived? The answer lies in flourishing. In our late modern world, flourishing is primarily expressed as economic prosperity. In other words, the wealthy flourish. However, flourishing is not a call to accumulate wealth but to grow in contentment with oneself and the world. Flourishing in the virtuous sense is a communal concept. As we see from the cardinal virtues, they encourage both internal and external discernment. Temperance is a kind of self-care wherein one commits to loving oneself and recognizing oneself as a person worthy of love and affection. Justice is the recognition of that same love and respect due to another. In other words, virtue leads to a shared recognition of our own and one another's dignity to shape our actions in such a way as to honor that dignity.
This virtuous way bumps up against the fabric of the world, which is profoundly dehumanizing. One need not look any further than U.S. politics today to see the grotesque capitulations one must make to participate in political partisanship. It is not enough to disagree with one another, but there must exist inside all people a kind of hatred that disables justice and prudential weighing of the good. In addition, one can also see the vile destruction that a single political leader can enact due to an unquenchable desire for domination that disables true fortitude as the ability to humbly question one’s course of action and receive council. Humans mistakenly think that ethics calls for giant, nation-shifting decisions and our feelings about those positions. So long as we believe the right things and have the right ideas, we are moral. However, this neglects the fact that ethics is not primarily about decisions on this scale, but rather it is about the small formations we go through in everyday life. A failure to account for the cultivation of virtue in the mundane, regular features of life results in the inability to live well. This is because the cultivation of virtue must occur in the ordinary to be practiced in the extraordinary. Flourishing, thus, is a life not sequestered from the flourishing of others. In this way, the virtuous life is akin to the South African ethical posture of Ubuntu (“I am because you are”). In short, recognizing the shared dignity of our neighbors is the only path to flourishing.
Fred offers a hermeneutic to resist the structuring structures of our world, namely to view the virtues from a child's perspective. Fred learned to live virtuously through his care and presence with children, whether intentional or not. Fred often spoke words that we still associate with him, but these words' power was first directed at children. For example, the soothing music of songs like “What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel?” encourages young children to have the prudence to discern their emotions and the fortitude to stop when they are about to do something wrong, even if they feel mad. Or one could think of Fred's constant refrain that a child can be loved as they are as a kind of temperance that sees the child’s feelings and humanity as real and special, thus enabling them to make choices out of an awareness of what is best. Further still, Fred taught young children the precious gift of a neighbor as a way to develop the social consciousness required of justice.
Fred’s goal, though unarticulated, was the offering of eudaimonia to every child. His actions were always guided by the idea that a child knowing they can be loved exactly as they are gives them the best possible chance to become the most healthy and happiest of people. Only when the pursuit of virtue for virtue’s sake outweighs the quest for power does the world become better. It is a kindness to ourselves, our near neighbors, and our global neighbors to live and love in such away. As Father Gregory Boyle states, echoing an unarticulated ideal of Fred, “sooner or later we all discover that kindness is the only strength there is.”1
To be clear, Fred was not the norm; he was an anomaly. He was a person in the spotlight that carried the responsibility of speaking for children. His posture reflects the care of a person who knows how to love children well. Fred lived a life in public the same way he did at home, showing that one must exhibit the same care and fascination for the mundane to live an extraordinary public life. He showed kindness and compassion to every living reality he came across, revealing the dignity obscured by a world structured according to vice; he was disciplined. He knew that with great power and influence comes the responsibility to do good things with the time one receives. However, Fred did not believe himself to be an extraordinary person or a saint. He thought that such a title suggested the life he lived was out of the reach of everyday people. He denied this and attempted, through his own ministry, to show people a different way. In this way, we are still in need of Fred as a neighbor and a teacher.
It is especially noteworthy that along with remembering Fred's passing, we also, in the Christian tradition, begin the season of Lent. In the liturgical calendar, Lent is a time to examine and specifically to examine the enclaves that we create to keep God at bay. In an especially poignant passage of the Church Dogmatics, theologian Karl Barth illustrates the call of Lent in his description of the scene of the crucifixion using the parable of the Good Samaritan. Barth argues that the structure of the world as false can only treat the truth as a falsehood by condemning it to death. The truth that the "crucified man Jesus Christ has to say to us" is that the vicious structures of the world leave humanity in the nakedness of their corruption.2 Therefore, Christ, not us, is "the Good Samaritan who shows mercy" on us.3 Only in this way do we see the good life contrasted with a bad world but also the way forward. The mercy offered in Lent is the repentance demanded of the malformation of this bad world, and the cardinal virtues provide a way to participate in the True Witness of Christ.
Remembering Fred in Lent is a call to try a different way, but it is also the vision of a different world. In the career of Fred Rogers, he offered children various stories from the land of make-believe so that they might learn the habits, disciplines, and affections necessary for a life well-lived. Yet, for everyone still today, these stories are parables for a different world. Fred invites us to a neighborhood in a far country, one where a wolf lies down with lambs, where those who mourn will be comforted, and the blind see. The moral life is a yearning for this far country and to live nevertheless at the gate of its arrival.
The challenge of ethics in the present day is not to live a life in the limelight but to live a moral yet mundane life in the places we inhabit. As George Eliot writes in his famous work Middlemarch, “…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
How do we live a good life in a bad world? It is simple and ordinary. We must remain each other's neighbors, as Fred taught us.
- Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. (New York: Free Press. 2010), 124.
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: Doctrine of Reconciliation IV.3.2 Study Edition vol 28. Trans. Geoffrey Bromiley. (New York: T&T Clark. 2009), 47.
- Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.3.2, 47.