- - Tuesday, November 4, 2014

By Jonathan Last
Templeton Press, $24.95, 202 pages

The financial success of Bill Bennett’s “The Book of Virtues” (1993) proved that longing for the good life was far from dead. I was one of 2.2 million hungry souls that opened their wallets and minds. I can’t say that I read Mr. Bennett’s effort, which came in at a whopping 830 pages, from cover to cover.

By contrast, “The Seven Deadly Virtues” is 202 readable pages written by a witty group of 18 peculiar moralists, and it deserves similar success. You just know that you are in for a treat when a book on the subject of virtue starts with P.J. O’Rourke and ends with Chris Buckley. In between them, you’ll discover the architects of a new conservative cool that shows that is possible to be moral without being moralistic and authoritative without being authoritarian.

“The Seven Deadly Virtues” is prescriptively timed for a post-midterm examination of the prospects of conservatism going forward. Everyone has an opinion as to what just happened, and here is mine: Yes, the liberal brand is in serious trouble, but it is not morning in America for conservatism, either. “We the People” are politically deadlocked because in large part we are morally deadlocked. Independents and chastened liberals just don’t trust conservatives with overseeing the moral contents of life.

The value of conservatism is in the end it aims to conserve, most notably self-government and the governance-of-the-self. Conservatives, by and large, are good at extolling the virtue of the limited government, but not so good at articulating the virtue-of-virtue, particularly to mixed audiences.

“The Seven Deadly Virtues” is a notable exception, and for that reason ought to be read by all. Jonathan Last, the intellectual organizer of this effort, has an eye for the talent that conservatism needs to imitate if it is to get out of its moral wilderness and into the cultural and political mainstream.

Mr. O’Rourke’s “The Seven Deadly Virtues and The New York Times” artfully displays the depth of human understanding that quietly informs those who make us laugh for a living. Like the Ten Commandments, the cardinal virtues are difficult to list — prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope and charity — let alone define with any precision. Mr. O’Rourke breathes meaning and humor into these seven qualities of mind and heart in just nine pages. In a democracy, short and funny is much better than long and boring.

There is consensus among the many authors that mercy or charity needs to given a greater primacy in the contemporary moral mix, particularly as a check on a tendency of conservatives to focus too much on justice and its call for moral judgment.

What can possibly be the problem with putting justice at the top of the moral pyramid? While everyone might not know the name Rob Long, the co-executive producer of “Cheers,” he makes the case that justice is “The One Virtue Nobody Really Wants.” It is not simply because we are a postmodern people who value non-judgmentalism above all else. It turns out that justice has a temptation toward hypocrisy — to apply its exacting standards to other folks’ behavior and not one’s own. No one wants justice for himself when he is the one in the dock. According to Mr. Long, “it’s not hard then, to see how the simple message of a Jewish carpenter in Nazareth became so popular. Jesus didn’t talk much about justice. He talked about mercy.” Conservatives need to stop playing the starring role of the Pharisees and genuinely ask “What would Jesus do?”

Whenever a contributor appears to letting down his moral guard, he does so with the cover of good authority. Matt Labash’s essay on chastity is certainly not for everyone. It has a “South Park,” icky, feel to it, but within is a beautiful quote from C.S. Lewis on how “the sins of flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all the sins.” Mr. Labash’s own reflections also beautifully capture man’s natural in-between condition: “We are neither angel nor devil (usually), but have both influences and need to balance them all the time.” Pascal could not have said it better.

My favorite essays are those of Mollie Hemingway, Jonah Goldberg and Michael Graham. Ms. Hemingway is senior editor of The Federalist, a new online magazine that is fast becoming the voice of millennial conservatives. Her charitable advice on charity is not to answer liberal snark with conservative snark, but to be gracious to one another. “[T]he most pernicious aspect of snark,” she writes, “is after consuming it day and night for years, it dulls the moral palate.” After reading Mr. Goldberg on integrity, you’ll never watch your favorite cable shows in the same way. If you want to understand popular culture and its effects, it is all here, and again, in only nine pages. Mr. Graham’s essay on courage ought to be read by every prospective parent and every young man and woman in the making. Let the last word on this important book be his:

“Courage is the essential virtue. What good is intelligence, if you’re not strong enough to stand up for good ideas? What’s the point of moral understanding, if you lack the guts to do the right thing? What help is love, if you don’t have the heart to defend those precious to you? Without courage, then prudence, wisdom, charity — every virtue on the list — all come to naught.”

David DesRosiers is president of Revere Advisors.

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