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What is the Difference between
Virtue & Enlightenment?

Before we congratulate ourselves upon the absence of certain faults we ought to ask ourselves why it is that these faults are absent. Are we without the fault because we have the opposite virtue? Or are we without the fault because we have the opposite fault? It is a good thing assuredly, to be innocent of any excess; but let us be sure that we are not innocent of excess merely by being guilty of defect. It may be that a man living on a desert island has a right to congratulate himself upon the fact that he can meditate at his ease. But he must not congratulate himself on the fact that he is on a desert island, and at the same time congratulate himself on the self-restraint he shows in not going to a ball every night. . . [so] let us not be too arrogant about the virtues that we cannot help having. Our England may have a right to congratulate itself upon the fact that her politics are very quiet, amicable, and humdrum. But she must not congratulate herself upon that fact and also congratulate herself upon the self-restraint she shows in not tearing herself and her citizens into rags. Barbarity, malignity, the desire to hurt, are the evil things generated in atmospheres of intense reality when great nations or great causes are at war. We may, perhaps, be glad that we have not got them: but it is somewhat dangerous to be proud that we have not got them. Perhaps we are hardly great enough to have them. Perhaps some great virtues have to be generated before we can have these vices at all, even as temptations.

G. K. Chesterton

Self-righteousness is the inevitable fruit of simple moral judgments.

Reinhold Niebuhr

[From a letter dated July 30, 1918 to Miss Rinder when Bertrand Russell was 46.]

All moral condemnation is utterly against the whole view of life that was then new to me but is now more and more a part of my being. I am naturally pugnacious, and am only restrained (when I am restrained) by a realization of the tragedy of human existence, and the absurdity of spending our little moment in strife and heat. That I, a funny little gesticulating animal on two legs, should stand beneath the stars and declaim in a passion about my rights—it seems so laughable, so out of all proportion. Much better, like Archimedes, to be killed because of absorption in eternal things... There is a possibility in human minds of something mysterious as the night-wind, deep as the sea, calm as the stars, and strong as Death, a mystic contemplation, the ‘intellectual love of God.’ Those who have known it cannot believe in wars any longer, or in any kind of hot struggle.

It’s one thing to see the vision and another thing to grasp it.

[For the purpose of comparing virtue and enlightenment, it may be helpful to substitute the word “enlightened” for the word “clever” in the following bit of verse.]

If all the good people were clever,
And all clever people were good,
The world would be nicer than ever
We thought that it possibly could.

But somehow ‘tis seldom or never
The two hit it off as they should,
The good are so harsh to the clever,
The clever, so rude to the good!

So friends, let it be our endeavour
To make each by each understood;
For few can be good, like the clever,
Or clever, so well as the good.

Elizabeth Wordsworth (great-niece of the poet)

Thoughts about Virtue & Enlightenment

A good test of character is how one reacts to the weaknesses of other people.

It’s a sign of maturity not to be scandalized.

Flannery O’Connor

All the settlement and sane government of life consists in coming to the conclusion that some instincts, impulses or inspirations have authority, and others do not.

G. K. Chesterton

Telling us to obey instinct is like telling us to obey ‘people.’ People say different things: so do instincts. Our instincts are at war.

C. S. Lewis

Blaming or scapegoating someone always implies the claim that we would have done better in their shoes. It’s a way of protesting our innocence and brightening our self-esteem.

David Cayley

Nobody can doubt that nine-tenths of the harm in the world is done simply by talking.

G. K. Chesterton

Courtesy is to virtue as words are to thought.

Joseph Joubert

No man can put more virtue into his words than he practises in his life.

Hugh Kingsmill

I shouldn’t be surprised if the greatest rule of all weren’t to give pleasure.


There are many people who know how to love and yet don’t know how to please.

It is absurd to blame any class or any sex, as a whole. Great bodies of people are never responsible for what they do. They are driven by instincts which are not within their control.

Virginia Woolf

As I know more of mankind I expect less of them, and am ready now to call a man a good man upon easier terms than I was formerly.

Samuel Johnson

Intellect follows love, and if the love is errant, so also will be the judgement of practical intellect, or “conscience.”

Michael Novak

A man’s conscience and his judgement is the same thing, and as the judgement, so also the conscience, may be erroneous.

Thomas Hobbes

Intolerance is the besetting sin of moral fervour.

Alfred North Whitehead

God is tolerant, man is not tolerant; Omniscience pardons, frailty is inexorable.

Sidney Smith

Moderation is a conspicuous proof of our strength of character.

La Rochefoucauld

All empty souls tend to extreme opinion.

W. B. Yeats

The human mind is generally far more eager to praise or blame than to describe and define. It wants to make every distinction a distinction of value.

C. S. Lewis

Be sparing in praise, and more so in blame.

William Langland

The mystic in us should surpass the moralist. It’s not a matter of ignoring the moral virtues, but not becoming entangled in them.

Professional moralists have made too much of self-denial, and in so doing have put the emphasis in the wrong place. Conscious self-denial leaves a man self-absorbed and vividly aware of what he has sacrificed; in consequence it fails often of its immediate object and almost always of its ultimate purpose.

Bertrand Russell

The peak of tolerance is most readily achieved by those who are not burdened with convictions.

Alexander Chase

The real test of tolerance only comes after one is deeply committed to certain ideas, and deeply intolerant (by logical necessity) of the opposing ideas. To be able to show tolerance towards human beings who disagree with our passionate convictions is the vindication of tolerance.

The simple realization that there are other points of view is the beginning of wisdom. Knowing what they are is a big step. The final achievement is understanding why they are held.

Bigotry is an incapacity to conceive seriously the alternative to a proposition. It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.

G. K. Chesterton

The test of good manners is to be patient with bad ones.

Solomon ibn Gabirol

Certain good qualities are like the senses: people entirely lacking in them can neither perceive nor comprehend them.

La Rochefoucauld

There are people whose defects become them, and others who are ill served by their good qualities.

La Rochefoucauld

One of the happiest men and most pleasing companions I have ever known was intensely selfish. On the other hand I have known people capable of real sacrifice whose lives were nevertheless a misery to themselves and to others, because self-concern and self-pity filled all their thoughts.

C. S. Lewis

To understand everything makes one very tolerant.

Madame de Staël

To understand anyone it’s essential to know what they’ve been through in life.

Tolerance applies to persons, but never to truth. Intolerance applies to truth, but never to persons. Tolerance applies to the erring; intolerance to the error.

Fulton Sheen

A large part of mankind is angry not with the sins, but with the sinners.


Tolerance is a tremendous virtue, but the immediate neighbours of tolerance are weakness and apathy.

James Goldsmith

Tolerance in excess is as much a vice as any other virtue in excess.

Malcolm Muggeridge

Virtue does not consist so much in abstaining from vice, as in not having an affection for it.

W. T. Eldridge

There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as moral indignation which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue.

Erich Fromm

Virtue would hardly be distinguished from a kind of sensuality, if there were no labour—no opposition—no difficulty in doing our duty.

John Henry Newman

If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly.

Robert Bolt

We are condemned to rub shoulders with injustice all our lives, and we are often judged by our acceptance of this fact. The spirit in which we manage it can even be said to be a measure of our maturity.

Peter Ustinov

To talk quite reasonably about your own quite real wrongs is the quickest way to go off your head.

G. K. Chesterton

What most people consider as virtue after the age of 40 is simply a lack of energy.


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