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“This is not the golden age of virtue.” So opens Professor J. Budziszewski’s “Vicious Circles, Virtuous Circles, and Getting from One to the Other,” one of the afternoon lectures at the Summons of Freedom Conference .

Budziszewski is interested in decline, and that of two sorts: personal moral decline, and (the related, but not necessarily attendant) social decline. He considers several ways of describing the process of change before settling on the intractable problem of circles. Parents fail to raise their children to be virtuous, those children (not knowing how to be virtuous) do the same, and the perpetual cycle continues. Budziszewski examines the nature of the virtues and their interdependence to more precisely understand this process.

Of course, it was precisely on the question of how we escape vicious circles—socially and personally—and become virtuous that Budziszewski declined to give an answer, musing instead that outside of special grace the process of moral and social change didn’t seem possible. But Budziszewski’s presentation critiqued those strategies that attempt to solve this dilemma through utilizing bad motives to keep worse ones down.

Consider, for instance, the classical notion of the pursuit of glory. Budziszewski pointed out that it had been deployed to motivate people to seek a higher and more virtuous way of life. Closer to our own time, Adam Smith might be said to foster a love of gain, and to subordinate and utilize morality to that end.

But such strategies of using glory, or gain, as motivations toward virtue have multiple problems: for one, they are incomplete insofar as they are not able to account for what merits glory. More importantly, as Augustine points out, by using these bad motives we eventually destroy the vestiges of virtue that we attempted to preserve. While they may offer a sense of stability or permanence, they are not structurally sound. As Budziszewski puts it, if you use dragons to keep wolves under control, you eventually have to reward the dragons. And eventually they get so large that they do what they want.

Budziszewski’s warning is worth bearing in mind. Insofar as the social order is not founded on the transformative grace of Jesus Christ—and hence has the perfection of virtue—it is faulty. And the virtuous circles that we attempt to build will inevitably be proximate.

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