One of the most lasting and personally helpful insights that I gained through my experience of living in Europe was the ubiquitous use of the allegories of the virtues in Christian and Renaissance art. Masterpiece after artistic masterpiece, in places both religious and secular, the portrayal of the virtues carved into stone and impinged into plaster served as a clarion call to pattern one's life after these defining qualities of the good man. Alongside the mysteries of Christ's life, surrounding the depictions of the saints, or nestled into a niche on the facade of a government building, one would notice clearly symbolic women holding mirrors, a scale, or breastfeeding children: allegories of virtues such as prudence, justice, or charity.
Over time it became clear to me that the way that Christians saw their place in the world was much more clearly defined than the understanding that I grew up with in contemporary America. The allegories of the virtues, like the masterpiece allegory of faith painted by Johannes Vermeer (pictured above), spoke a symbolic language about what it meant to be a good man or woman, fully alive and most authentically human. The allegories of the virtues pointed to what was objectively good and called all onlookers to make that virtue their own.
Today, talk about virtues has become about as common as talk about quantum physics. Do some people talk about virtues and try to pattern their lives by them? Yes. But most of those people are about as secluded from common conversations as the people talking about quantum physics. When is the last time you praised someone for their virtue? Maybe it wasn't so long ago... you just didn't think of generosity, humility, or faith as a virtue.
One difference between America today and Europe centuries ago is that now we talk about values. Americans value tolerance and freedom. Italians value leisure. North Dakotans value hard work and family. Yet, there is a vast difference between a worldview defined by values and another defined by virtues. Values are dependent upon the person doing the valuing. I value faith. You may not. Virtues, on the other hand, stand athwart to any subjective claim to decide for ourselves what is good for the human person and human society. The greatest difficulty with values is that only the saint always values what is virtuous, but all people ought to value what is virtuous. Without the guidance of the virtues, people are left to themselves or formless values to find their way to a morally upright life. While only the perfectly good person will always value what is truly good, all the less than perfect people can look to the virtues to learn what they ought to value. This, I think, is eminently helpful in trying to live a good life, and eminently helpful for education of the youth.
So the next time you are sitting around the dinner table talking about life, perhaps when the conversation turns to values you can draw on the wisdom of our Christian forefathers and talk about virtue. It would be wise thing to do.
P.S. A good introduction to the virtues is entitled Back to Virtue by Peter Kreeft. I highly recommend it.