Why should we care to think about virtues? Perhaps because our normal listing of them, like any classification system, obscures their deeper meaning for our lives.
Saint Martin of Tours, a 4th century saint who was drafted by the Roman military, is famous for using his sword to cut his military cape in half to give to a beggar in the cold of the northern French winter. The virtues of Saint Martin are many, and one might say the episode with the beggar is evidence of great charity, or of compassion or kindness or mercy, or even of courage.
But if we are to believe Hildegard of Bingen, Martin is surely most fundamentaly motivated by humility. In her Ordo Virtutum (Order of the Virtues) Hildegard shows the travails of a soul on its journey and her assistance by the virtues through many hardships. It is the earliest morality play for which we have both the text and music, and might be called the earliest opera, with the music subservient to the text. The soul and the virtues are portrayed as female – the devil is the only male character. The choir of 17 virtues sometimes woos the soul away from her wayward life, often sings to each other to educate the audience, and vigorously denounces the devil and his vices. The virtues are portrayed as a powerful, formidable, group.
And the queen of this group of virtues? Humility. This seems odd to the modern mind. But for HIldegard, humility marshals the virtues, calling them to do battle on behalf of the soul. Humility leads the virtues as they vanquish the devil, and cast him down. She encourages and sings the praise of the other virtues, and calls them to their duty. She is decisive and forceful, not timid –she decides and then moves vigorously to implement her goal.
A militant humility like this seems decidedly unhumble. We are used to the timid, uncertain, hesitant, self-effacing coward as our picture of humility. Hildegard provides us with an entirely different understanding. But it was not, even to her, a new understanding. Evagrius, writing in the deserts of Egypt in the fourth century (about the same time as St. Martin, and eight hundred years before Hildegard) had placed Humility as the central virtue. And this was because real Humility is not self-effacement, but self-recognition. It is not about thinking oneself a worm, but about seeing oneself as a child. A child of God. And this gives us courage, and charity, and mercy. We are not the center of the universe, and knowing this frees us to cultivate the other virtues in service of others.
And this is why it is good to study the virtues. In doing so we see them in a different light than just our mother's admonition to "be a good boy" and we are woken up to how we might live more freely.