Esse quam videri, or Virtue
The Education is for Life series
In Christopher Perrin’s lecture, “Eight Essential Principles of Classical Education,” he talks about educational virtues, but for these musings of mine, I want to expand it beyond education and to our lives generally and broadly.
While outlining this series, I wanted each of my principles to have a Latin motto, for consistency and parallelism and fun. Perrin didn’t have a Latin phrase attached to his “virtues” point, but Then, Tsh Oxenreider at The Art of Simple, used a Latin motto in a post title: “Easy there, cowgirl. Or, esse quam facere.” Esse quam facere is a neat one, but Google couldn’t find any other use of it. Instead, I found esse quam videri as an ancient and still popular motto. It means to be rather than to seem. Cicero used this phrase in his essay “On Friendship”:
Few are those who wish to be endowed with virtue rather than to seem so.
Listen to this post:
Is this true of us? Would we rather look good than be good, than do what is right? What if we prioritized being and doing good over looking good? And I’m not talking about makeup. It is simpler and more immediately rewarding to have people think we are good than to expend the effort and rise to the challenge of really pursuing virtue, regardless of people’s opinion of us.
At the park with our children, is it more important to us that we appear like good moms or that we actually do what our children need us to do, regardless of what the other park moms think?
When having people over, do we care more about making it seem like we have our act together or actually have our act together enough to prioritize keeping in fellowship with our children over conquering the dust, fingerprints, and crumbs, if we have to choose.
Being and doing good does not always give us the payoff of looking good, actually. If we must choose, which will we choose? Being or seeming?
Yet, actually having these virtues is hard work. Seeming to have them is easier than actually having them. Seeming to have them will make us more popular than actually having them, than actually obeying God’s commands.
To be virtuous, rather than simply seem so, will require diligence and perseverance in the midst of adversity. Virtue isn’t a magic trait that smooths paths and makes life soft and easy. Rather, the opposite is more true. Virtue is forged in the furnace of trial and temptation. You can’t have courage without fear. You can’t have patience without trial. You can’t have self-control without warring desires. Virtue is a fruit God grows in us through adversity.
But, paradoxically, the best tactic for pursuing virtue is to “act as though you already have it.” This is not quite the same as “seeming” instead of “being,” because the point is to be and not to simply appear to be. What we are is shaped by and formed by what we do. C.S. Lewis claims this when he writes
Very often, the only way to get a quality is to start behaving as if you had it already.
Virtue at Home
One thought I remember Doug Wilson saying in several contexts is that clean homes do not have fewer messes, they are just picked up more often. His point was that clean living, living in fellowship with one another, is the same way: being in fellowship doesn’t mean we never fight or disagree or sin against each other; it means we make it right, early and often. We can apply this both ways in our homes. A tidy home isn’t one where no one makes messes, but where the messes are tidied up regularly. A happy family isn’t one where no one disobeys or fusses or fights, but where such messes are made right afterward. You haven’t failed if, at one point in time, the house is a disaster. You just have a job to do, at some point soon. You haven’t failed if, at one point in time, you lose it with the kids. You just have a job to do: model repentance for them. You haven’t failed if, at a point in time, your child is throwing a temper tantrum. You just have a job to do: help them regain self-control and seek forgiveness. Look at the big picture and not the moment in time. Look at the direction you are headed and not where you are this instant.
Virtue in Schedule
T.S. Eliot has a line of poetry that comes to me with frustrating regularity:
dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
I often fall into this trap. I think that if I just arrange the schedule the right way, institute a reasonable housecleaning regime, or organize all the closets, then life will be easy. If I get my act together and my systems humming, then I will no longer lose my patience, be frustrated and unhappy, or speak unkind words. Moreover, if I only implement the right system, my children will no longer struggle either! They will always be kind, obey, and diligently apply themselves to their work.
Sometimes what I am seeking is not a way to faithfully steward my time and resources, but a way to achieve instant and complete perfection in one fell swoop.
I don’t actually think there is anything wrong with systems. They really can help, especially if you have a plan-oriented personality. However, they cannot actually control life. God controls life, and we have to trust Him rather than our systems. They can help us handle the life God sends, but they will never remove the need for us to practice virtue personally and constantly.
The point of the plan, the schedule, the organization, and the system, should be a method of applying of faithfulness. That daily application of faithfulness is never made obsolete.
Virtue as Mother
The wonderful thing about children is they always see through seeming. You cannot put on a facade for them. This is why being mother is so sanctifying. It is maddening sometimes, but it is good to be forced to face ourselves, forced to have our weaknesses made evident. It is painful, but it is the only way they can be dealt with. One of the blessings children provide is the opportunity for this sanctification to be worked in us.
As mothers, we also want virtue for our children. Sometimes we would prefer virtue in our children more than we desire virtue for ourselves. But, the best way to teach virtue to our children is to model it for them, because children learn through imitation. So, if we do not love and pursue virtue ourselves, our children will not learn to do so from us. And if we pursue and grow in virtue ourselves, then that is not unprofitable even if our children stray from the path.
Being called to model virtue for our children is also encouraging not because we ever will be perfect examples for our children to imitate, but because an important thing for our children to learn is repentance: both seeking and giving forgiveness. When we mess up, it is a chance to model apologizing and making things right. If we are able to live together, forgiving one another seventy times seven, then fruit is growing even in the midst of seventy times seven failures.
Remember that seeking virtue is a path we are traveling and not a destination we will ever achieve in this life. The momentary failures are made successes when we get back up and make it right.