The Virtue We Wish We Could Do Without

When the Tribune Chronicle stopped carrying Sydney Harris’s column, I abruptly cancelled my subscription. It was my habit to turn first to “Strictly Personal,” and only after that to check out the rest of the paper.

Harris’s famous aphorisms and colorful analogies made his work both wise and entertaining for a generation of readers. Nevertheless, I think he got it wrong when he wrote, “Perseverance is the most overrated of traits, if it is unaccompanied by talent; beating your head against a wall is more likely to produce a concussion in the head than a hole in the wall.”

True, perseverance will not produce talent in the untalented, but it will help the untalented accomplish more than they could otherwise. And in a talented person, perseverance will produce remarkable results. Consider Albert Einstein, who humbly claimed, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

President Coolidge made a similar point: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Perseverance is one of the most important virtues mentioned in the Bible. It is “through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures” that we have hope. When God gives people strength, it is usually does not manifest in awe-inspiring displays of might but in steady and determined perseverance.

According to the Bible, which takes a very dynamic view of human personality, people are under construction. It takes a variety of tools to build a great person, but none is more important than perseverance. Character is produced and maturity is gained through perseverance.

Yet perseverance is the one virtue we all wish we could do without. It requires us to do the hard thing, long after the desire for doing it is spent. The very sound of the word can make a person feel weary.

Despite its prominence in Scripture, perseverance is frequently missing from classical virtue lists, like the celebrated Cardinal Virtues – prudence, justice, temperance and courage. St. Ambrose gave them their title (from the Latin cardo, for “hinge”) in the fourth century, but the virtues themselves were extolled long before Ambrose, and even before the Christian era.

Perseverance didn’t make the cut for the so-called “theological virtues” (faith, hope and love) either. Perhaps if someone were to formulate a new category – “The Unwanted Virtues” – perseverance would finally make the list. It would sit right alongside chastity, which St. Augustine famously deferred, and that most elusive of virtues, humility.

It’s not hard to understand why perseverance gets so little love: it’s no fun. It’s hard work. It’s tiring. Yet perseverance is essential to the formation of character, and character (of a certain kind) is what God wants for humans. It’s what he’s been after all along.

The other virtues, including the cardinal virtues of St. Ambrose and the theological virtues of St. Paul, become expressions of character only through perseverance. This explains why God doesn’t just force us to do the right things. It’s not right things he’s after, but right people. He’s wants character, deliberately and freely chosen.

Virtue is not something that comes to us ready-made, from on high. C. S. Lewis described it well: God does not generally give us virtue. Instead he gives us the “power of always trying again. For however important [any virtue] may be, this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still.”

  1. T. Wright put it this way: “Virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices become second nature” – that is, become character. It is our choices, not our religious experiences (however extraordinary they may be) that most shape us. Mystical experiences may produce emotion and provide insight, but only our repeated choices, made with perseverance, can produce character.

Sydney Harris was wrong. Perseverance is not overrated but overlooked, unseen because it lies beneath and supports all the other virtues. And that is why St. James pronounced the one who perseveres through trials, instead of the one who has no trials, to be blessed.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/29/2017


About salooper57

Husband, father, pastor, follower. I am a disciple of Jesus, learning how to do life from him. I read, write, walk, play a little guitar, enjoy my family.
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3 Responses to The Virtue We Wish We Could Do Without

  1. Shayne, you make a strong case that persistence is woven into the very fabric of the Christian life, and even more generally into any life that is lived in earnest.

    All the time I was reading this, I thought about Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. (You probably know all of what I’m going to say, but it so closely parallels what you say in this essay, I want to point it out.)

    In Book 1, Chapter 9, he raises the question whether it is possible to consider people happy while they live. His reason for asking this is that he believes virtuous living is what brings happiness, and if a person doesn’t persist in living virtuously right up to the end, he might not be happy after all. The point he arrives at, in Chapter 10, is that “durability” is a necessary ingredient of the happy/virtuous life.

    He does not end up listing it as one virtue among many, however; instead, he builds it into the very definition of virtue. In Book 2, Chapter 1, he says a certain moral characteristic must become habitual in order to be considered a virtue, and in Chapter 6 he says a virtue has to do with the choices we make. His definition of virtue ends up being “a settled disposition” (in other words, a habitual leaning) in a certain direction (which, for him, was finding the mean “relative to us” between opposing pairs of vices).

    We may or may not agree with his final definition, but I just wanted to point out that what you say in this essay is very much in line with Aristotle’s overall views. Which just means that you’re in good company!



  2. salooper57 says:

    Thanks, Ron – great comment. When I was writing I wondered if calling perseverance a “virtue” might be confusing.

    it seems to me the light you bring to bear on Aristotle is also helpful when it comes to understanding the “right to … happiness” mentioned in the Declaration. If happiness is the result of a moment, the right we have to it looks very different than if happiness is the fulfillment of a virtuous life. I’ve often thought that Jefferson had this classical idea in mind when he drafted the Declaration.


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