Virtue versus virtuosity

What is the primary purpose of education? Is it to enable our children to be successful in a worldly sense? Is it primarily meant to pave the pathway to a remunerative career? Or is it to enable our children to be successful in that other-worldly sense, in which they are shown how to become holy? Is it primarily meant to pave the pathway to heaven?

As Christian parents, we will presumably agree that the primary purpose of education is to teach our children what it takes to be holy, but I’m sure that most of us hope that our children will also be able to look after themselves financially at some point and that this goal, though secondary, should also form a part of their education. It is, therefore, not either/or but both/and, as long as we put things in the right order.

If, however, the primary purpose of education is the attainment of heavenly health, as distinct from worldly wealth, we need to teach our children the difference between being good and being the best. The paradox is that being good is better than being the best, and that being the best is not always the best thing to be.

Perhaps a practical example might help, and indeed a personal example.

Our daughter is learning to play the piano. She is learning to do so because it is good for her to learn to play a musical instrument. She is improving in her musical ability, to be sure, but she would be even better were she to practice more. As parents, however, we are much more concerned with her growth in virtue than in her virtuosity. She needs time to do her other studies, time to help with the education of her special-needs brother, time to read, time to play, time to pray, time to be with friends, time to be with us.

All of this encroaches upon the time she has to practice the piano. In learning to be the proverbial Jack- or Jill-of-all-trades, she is destined to be master or mistress of none. And this is the way it should be. If the specialization in one area leads to the neglect of other equally important areas, it is detrimental to a child’s growth in knowledge and the experience of many things necessary to a growth in virtue.

At the heart of this understanding of education is another paradox as seemingly perplexing as the paradox that the best is not always best. This other paradox was coined by G.K. Chesterton. It is that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Such a paradox is so counterintuitive that we are tempted to move from perplexity to apoplexy, insisting that it is nothing but arrant nonsense.

Obviously, anything that is worth doing is worth doing well. How can anyone suggest that it should be done badly? What on earth was the usually sagacious Chesterton thinking when he uttered such nonsense masquerading as paradox?

If we are to answer these questions, we need to take a step back so that we can see what Chesterton was actually saying. In saying that a thing worth doing is worth doing badly, he is not saying that it is not worth doing well. It’s not an either/or scenario. It’s a both/and scenario. A thing worth doing is worth doing badly and it is worth doing well. Indeed, it is worth doing badly because it is worth doing well. And here is the heart of the paradox: It is impossible to do a thing well until you have done it badly. Unless you are prepared to do it badly, you will never do it well. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect.

And what is true of playing the piano is true of even more important things, such as growing in virtue. We need to practice the faith, however badly, because doing it badly is worth doing. It is infinitely better than not doing it at all—however badly we do it. Of course, we should try to do it better; indeed, we should always be trying to do it better. And yet in doing things better we should not be trying to be the best because we can never be the best. God is Best. We can only get better by becoming more like the Best, knowing that we can never be the Best. This is the way of virtue which transcends relative trivialities such as virtuosity.

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.