In Praise of Virtue

In Praise of Virtue

Virtue may be defined simply as doing the right thing and heroic virtue as doing the right thing at great personal cost. Some claim virtue is always in short supply because opposing behaviors such as malice, complacency, indifference, and cowardice are more numerous. Others say virtue is more common than we imagine but just not as well reported as negative stories, which sell better than inspiring ones. Each view has some merit.

Heroic virtue is seldom recognized immediately, because more often than not it goes against some prevailing view. That is also the case with great wisdom. It takes time, often a lot of it, for insight to dispel false belief.

One person recently in the news for her act of heroic virtue is former Levi Strauss and Company’s executive, Jennifer Sey. A former Olympian, mother of four, and 20 year employee of the jean company, Sey was slated to become the next president of the company. But when she spoke out publicly about California’s school closures, other employees complained to management and she was informed that her job would be in jeopardy if she did not stop speaking about the school closures. After she refused to be silent, she was offered a one-million dollar severance payment if she would sign a non-disclosure agreement about the events surrounding her dismissal. The offer was tempting for her, as it would have been for anyone, but she nevertheless decided that to accept it would compromise her integrity and refused it.

A young man who demonstrated similar virtue is Enes Kanter, a Turkish Muslim who played basketball for the Boston Celtics. Two months ago I wrote about his heroism, which was prompted by this incident: “One night while walking through the arena tunnel to the basketball court, he passed a woman who said to him, ‘How can you remain silent when your fellow Muslims are being persecuted in China?’ She was referring to the more than a million Uighur Muslims held in detention centers in far western China.” After pondering the woman’s question, he made the decision to speak out against oppression in public forums, and he had messages for that cause printed on his basketball shoes. In time, his championing of freedom led him to become an American citizen and to legally change his name to Enes Kanter Freedom.

That is not the end of Enes’ story, however. Before long the Boston Celtics traded him to the Houston Rockets on the final day of trading and the Rockets then waived him, which could well mean that Enes’ basketball career is over. There is little doubt that he is being punished for his virtuous stand about the plight of his fellow Muslims in China.

The stories of Jennifer Sey’s and Enes Kanter Freedom’s virtue are reminiscent of the story of a man named Franz Jägerstätter that I first heard more than a half-century ago. I found it inspiring then, and still do.

Jägerstätter was the illegitimate child of an Austrian farmer and a chambermaid. He left school at age 14. As a young man he was known as “a jolly, robust, fun-loving, hot-blooded, ‘he-man’ type.” At age 29 he married a religious woman. The couple traveled to Rome, received the blessing of Pope Pius XI, and in time had three children. During this time Jägerstätter became a devout Catholic.

When Hitler invaded Austria in 1938, he was the only person in his village to accept the Nazi occupation, and wrote, “I believe there could scarcely be a sadder hour for the true Christian faith in our country.” He refused to be drafted into the Nazi army, offering instead to serve as a medic; the Nazis ignored his offer, arrested him, and in time scheduled him for execution. Before he was guillotined, he was offered a chance to save his life by signing a document rejecting his opposition to the Nazis. When he refused to sign it, the execution was carried out. He was 38 years old.

From the time he first opposed Nazi occupation to his death, Franz Jägerstätter’s fellow villagers pressured him to approve the Nazi takeover of his country. At one point even his village priest visited him in prison and urged him to join the Nazi army. Nevertheless, he remained firm in his decision. For doing so he was scorned even after his execution. In time, however, his heroic virtue became honored in his own country and far beyond. In 2007 Pope Benedict declared him a martyr for the faith. In 2019 a film about him titled A Hidden Life premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

Jennifer Sey, Enes Kanter Freedom, and Franz Jägerstätter. Three different cultures, three different causes, and two, perhaps three different religions (I do not know Sey’s religious belief). And all three with a common characteristic—the willingness to act on principle despite scorn, condemnation, and great personal cost. Their stories are a powerful reminder that people of all faiths, all cultures, all backgrounds share the same human nature and therefore the same potential for virtue (as well as vice), and the same ability to act in ways that ennoble (or demean) themselves. That truth is a reminder to all of us to live nobly by doing what is right despite the danger of being “cancelled,” ostracized, and rejected by others.

Copyright © 2022 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero