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The Changing, Cardinal Virtues of Western Society

Greek society constructed Hellenistic culture around four cardinal virtues: prudence (practical wisdom), courage, temperance (self-control), and justice.  Other virtues could be appreciated, but they were to be understood in terms of these cardinal virtues.

Christian Europe built on this.  To the four cardinal virtues of classical Greece were added three theological, Christian virtues: faith, hope, and love.  This was the foundation of 'Christian' Europe.

The Enlightenment removed Christian faith, hope, and love.  The old, classical virtues were not removed, but they were demoted from being cardinal virtues.  Instead, Western society introduced two new cardinal virtues, freedom and equality.  The history of the West from the end of the 18th century until the mid-20th century can be told as a social experiment in the construction of a society in terms of the cardinal virtues of freedom and equality: democracy, the end of slavery, women's right to vote, civil rights, and some related issues such as divorce and remarriage, contraception, the '60's sexual revolution, the legalisation of abortion.  The high point of the Enlightenment's morality was expressed in the United Nations' Charter, which was full of the language of 'rights'--defined in terms of 'freedoms' and 'equality'.

Postmodernity built upon the Modernist culture that developed out of the Enlightenment.  The difference was that, while Modernity believed in absolutes, Postmodernity encouraged an 'incredulity towards metanarratives' (Francois Lyotard).  With the demise of Empire and Ideology, it introduced two new virtues.  Increasingly since the second half of the 20th century, the West has once again had four cardinal virtues: freedom, equality, diversity, and inclusiveness.  Society constructed on these virtues has seen dramatic change: anti-nationalism (particularly in Europe), sexual diversity (especially homosexuality), the redefinition of 'marriage', multi-culturalism, unrestrained immigration.  This 'condition' described society from the 1960s to about 2010.  (To be sure, one era flows into another, without clear starting and stopping dates.)

Western society has taken a new twist in the 21st century that is best described as 'Western Tribalism'.  The Modernist virtues of freedom and equality now needed to be demoted in order to give more reign than Postmodernity had allowed to diversity and inclusiveness.  To the cardinal virtues of diversity and inclusiveness, Western Tribalism added two new cardinal virtues: political correctness and living against nature.  One could no longer 'permit' diversity but had to 'promote' it.  Freedom of speech and ideas on college campuses, e.g., have been dismissed whenever someone does not support the reigning Tribe's views ('political correctness').  Christianity--not mainline denominations that merely mirror society, but historic, orthodox Christianity--has been outrightly attacked (including by the mainline denominational leaders, who desire to be priests of Western Tribalism even as it really has no interest in religion).  Freedom of conscience, such as someone who will not participate in a homosexual wedding by baking a cake or issuing a marriage license or attending the ceremony, can not be tolerated, and such persons are fined, fired, or ridiculed as 'homophobic'.  In a strange development, the inclusion of Islam--a fundamentalist religion that was not built on any Western virtues--came to be symbolic of how far Western Tribalism could go to be diverse and inclusive.  

Living against nature is the exact opposite of classical Greece's Cynicism, which rejected all human inventions in order to live naturally.  It is also opposed to Stoicism, which understood the good life as living in conformity with nature.  It is decidedly against Modernity's affirmation of science as the ruling department in the university.  If homosexuality was accepted as an example of diversity in the era of Postmodernity, it, along with transgenderism, is now promoted as a way to live against nature.  Gender is (on this view) no longer equated with biology, and one can attempt, with drugs and surgery, to alter nature in order to conform to the identity one chooses.  For Western Tribalists, defining 'maleness' or 'femaleness' can no longer be tolerated for clothing, children's toys, participation in sports by gender, differentiating bathrooms, using gender specific names, and so forth.  Some have even advocated inventing new pronouns to affirm the new gender options, and political correctness adds that people unwilling to use them should be treated as socially deviant criminals.  All these innovations are the latest social experiments that result from elevating political correctness and living against nature to the status of cardinal virtues.

Watch this space: Western culture will continue to morph into something else.  One cannot draw out a trajectory and say where it will head, since a multitude of factors affect what happens.  What if Europe's indigenous population continues to decline (every country has a negative birth rate) and it is replaced by Muslim immigrants?  Western Tribalism's eagerness to affirm political correctness, even criminalising opposition, will easily morph into an Islamic, Sharia Law.  Diversity and inclusiveness will become vices, not virtues, let alone cardinal virtues. But what if living against nature becomes the greater focus?  In that case, an increasing lawlessness against nature will define Western society. Genetic editing of DNA could become the rule of medical practice, and those refusing the improvements will be considered an unwanted burden to society.

We do not know the interim developments that will come for Western society or, for that matter, any other society.  Jesus himself warned against speculating about when the end of this age would come (Matthew 24.36).  We do, however, know what the end will look like.  Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2 that the end, when Christ returns, will follow after a period of lawlessness.  (And what could be a better example of lawlessness than living against nature, as Sodom?)  He says that the end will come when people are so deluded that they believe what is false.  He says that the end will come when people take pleasure in unrighteousness.  And he says that the end will come when some ruler exalts himself over religion itself--over every god and every form of worship--proclaiming himself to be God.

Things are not looking all that good, frankly.  But the historian will remind us that, even in the first century, Paul's description of the man of lawlessness could have applied to Roman culture and emperors like Domitian.  The anthropologist would remind the Western-focussed narrative that most people live outside the West.  So, before we write the obituary for the world based on the current condition of Western countries, let us remember that we are called to focus on (1) ourselves being ready for Christ's return (the main point of Matthew 24-25), and (2) getting about the business of mission--the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ to every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.  We live between the Lord's missionary mandate ('Go and make disciples of all nations..;' Matthew 28.18-20) and the prayer of the persecuted righteous, 'Come, Lord Jesus' (Revelation 22.20).