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Diagramming sentences teaches you a good deal about language.  It also makes you realize some odd things about it that you had taken for granted before.  Grammar is not the Platonic form of language.  What it is is a good tool.

The West doesn’t think much about virtue.  We do have a rich and neglected treasury of practical experience out there, and a decent amount of engineering knowledge, for those who look for it.  We also have thinkers who address first principles and meta-ethical questions.  What is the nature of the good? and so on.  What we don’t have is anything in between.  It is as if the study of biology knew evolution (along side stockbreeders who knew practical things) but had never invented anything like taxonomy.

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A while back I accidentally invented a sophisticated tool for investigating virtue.

Everyone feels at some level that vice is the opposite of virtue.  That is the instinctive way we have of classifying vices and virtue.  Love and hate.  Honesty and dishonesty.  Bravery and cowardice. 

The vice that opposes or contradicts a virtue is usually the vice of having too little of that virtue.  In other words, the vice is the crippled form of the virtue, although I did not realize that until later.

My first tool was very basic: find a virtue, or a vice, and look for its opposite.

This crude method led to three types of insight.

1. Trying to think of the opposite of a virtue/vice pair forces you to think more carefully about what they actually consist of.  Is the opposite of bravery fear or is it cowardice?  It depends on whether bravery is fearless or not.

2.  Some virtues have virtues that are close to being their opposite.  Take the virtue of frugality for instance.  The first opposite I thought of was “lavish.”  But being lavish is not clearly a vice.  In a host, being lavish is a virtue.   Alongside courage and skill in war, being lavish was the aristocratic virtue par excellence.  Synonyms for lavish are openhanded and generous.  An open-handed, generous man is in that way a virtuous man.

The vice that actually is the opposite of frugality is being a spendthrift.  Prodigality might be a synonym.  Interestingly, being a prodigal and a spendthrift looks a lot like being openhanded and generous, except to a fault.

I realized that some virtues have “opposite” virtues and that these “opposite” virtues are akin to the opposite vices.

3. Some virtues have multiple elements.  It can sometimes be hard to pick just one opposite, because which vice is the opposite depends on which element of the virtue you choose to oppose.  It is almost impossible to oppose all elements of a virtue at once.   Vice works by distorting virtues, not by creating something of its own.


The second and third insights pointed to another tool.

Among Christian thinkers from C.S. Lewis to Augustine, it’s a commonplace that vice is just a parody of virtue.  The old proverb, “The Devil is God’s ape” is using the old idea that apes made pretty gross imitations of people.  To ape someone is to copy them badly.


My new tool was to look for vices that seemed like parodies of virtues.  I also took vices and unparodied them.  I asked what are the cancerous versions of this virtue?  What are the non-malignant versions of this vice?

Once I started using the second tool, my prior insight that some virtues have “opposite” virtues immediately suggested a further refinement.  I saw that the vice that opposed a virtue was usually just the bloated form of the “opposite” virtue.  And the vice that opposed the “opposite” virtue was usually just a bloated form of the original virtue.  Virtues came in pairs, it appeared, and the vice that bloated one virtue of the pair was the vice that crippled the other virtue of the pair, and vice versa.


I combined my two tools and my insight that virtues (and vices) came in pairs.  The result is the virtue chart.


Do you know that feeling when everything clicks into place and unrelated things turn out be connected, unfolding into a greater whole?  I know you do.  That was the feeling I had when I saw the tools combine.


Here is an example that I wrote for this post.  What I call “Flesh Flaunting” should probably just be immodesty.



The two virtues on the chart are a virtue pair or tandem virtues.  They are also complementary virtues, for reasons I get into below.  Loosely, one can also call them opposite virtues.

The two vices on the chart are a vice pair or tandem vices.  They are also complementary vices.  The same as the virtue pair, the vice pair can also be loosely called opposite vices.

The vice that exaggerates a virtue is its parody.  The vice bloats the virtue or is a bloated version of the virtue.   In the chart above, immodesty is bloated comeliness.  Cowardice bloats prudence.  Recklessness parodies daring.

The vice that contradicts a virtue opposes it.  The vice cripples the virtue or is a crippled version of the virtue.  In the chart above, uglification is crippled comeliness.  Cowardice cripples courage.   Recklessness opposes prudence.

The combination of the virtue pair and the vice pair on a virtue chart is a virtue set.  The example above charts the modesty-comeliness virtue set.

A final note on terminology.  Vicious is the adjective for vices, just as virtuous is the adjective for virtues.

Virtues (and vices) have more than one element, so some virtues and vices can  have more than one pair.  A virtue or vice can appear on more than one virtue chart.

The virtue chart is a tool.  It is not the Platonic form that goodness takes. Ultimately, all virtue is One.  Other ways of thinking through virtue can be valid.

The virtue chart is pretty useful.  It shows where our society has a weak or nonexistent understanding of a virtue or a vice.  I do not believe in a strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  Even so, if we don’t have a term for a vice or a virtue, or if the term is very old-fashioned, its because we do not think about it much and maybe don’t want to.   If, for example, we have a strongly used term for a virtue but no term for the bloated vice of that virtue, it is very likely that we usually take that virtue to excess.  In the virtue chart above, modesty and immodesty are not used much outside Christian subcultures.  Inside our subcultures, they are very active.  But no one at all uses comeliness.  Its extremely out of date.  Synonyms like “attractive” and “pretty” are used as neutral terms, not virtues.  Meanwhile, “uglification” is a word I had to repurpose.  We just have no distinct concept as a culture of the vice of embracing dowdiness and self-marring.  Our understanding of the modesty-comeliness virtue set is extremely lopsided.   The chart makes that clear.


Think of virtue charting as something similar to looking at a sink under UV light.  You suddenly expose all the dirty places.


The chart also shows some remarkable complementariness between apparently opposite vices or opposite virtues.   For instance, although uglification and immodesty are in a sense opposites, they go hand in hand almost all the time.  There may be comely porn out there, but as far as I can tell (I don’t intend to research the question) its almost all trashy and ugly.  I believe that is part of the appeal.   Men like Harvey Weinstein get off on the degradation. The brutally cut hair, the body piercings, the tattoos, are all uglification that signals the kind of self-contempt that makes a girl willing to use her body cheaply.


On the other hand, modesty is almost necessary for comeliness.  The sexual signals of the female form are too powerful for the whole appearance to be taken in as a whole unless those signals are muted a little.  Immodest attempts at comeliness are like a concert band where the tuba is right next to the microphone.  All bass, no melody.



In doing virtue charts, I have noticed some general trends.  We have lots of terms for virtues that are pretty old-fashioned.  We used to know more about virtue than we do know.  There are new terms for vices though.  One example is the internet troll or the flamer or griefer.  But there usually aren’t virtue terms that go with them.  I suppose we just don’t make the same amount of effort to praise good behavior as we do to complain about the bad.  A friend once pointed out if you want to virtue signal, its difficult to go around talking about how good you are, because bragging about your virtue is not virtuous.  What you can get away with is denouncing other people’s vices.  By implication, you are a better person than them.   Praising other people, on the other hand, does nothing to bolster your own virtue credentials.  The Nameless  Virtue continues to be one of the big holes in our culture’s approach to virtues—we just don’t appreciate the virtue of praising other people for qualities that you may  not shine in yourself.

Comments welcome.

Addendum–Virtue Charts:


Sincerity-the Nameless Virtue


Obedience–Breaking the Letter of the Law to Keep the Spirit

Prudence – Trusting God to Provide




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