John Henry Newman possessed many admirable qualities besides those that made him a saint. He was simultaneously an English gentleman, distinguished for his erudite prose style, and a conscientious man of the Church, just recently canonized. In his humility, he would be the last to draw attention to his own virtues, but he does discuss at length in several places these two dimensions of character. While he recognizes that “refinement is worthless without saintliness,” he nevertheless argues that it does not follow that refinement is “needless and useless with it.”1 An enormous swath of human life is admirable, the kind of thing we ought to pursue, even exquisitely precious without belonging to that ultimate core of spiritual and moral virtue, the sine qua non of a good life.

The reason for this is simple. If something belongs to the sphere of the moral, then it is absolutely obligatory. One must not murder. One must not steal. While circumstances might mitigate a person’s culpability, these prohibitions are nevertheless universally binding. If something is absolutely obligatory, then it must be—so long as there is to be any justice in this cosmos at all—the kind of thing that is attainable, in principle, by every human being. Regardless of wealth, class, upbringing, education, geographic location, or genetic makeup, a man must be honest. This “must” is non-negotiable. He cannot be a good person without it. This universal binding quality is the distinctive mark of moral values.2 We develop moral virtues by responding, again and again, to moral values. By God’s grace, the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) are added to the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance), and when perfected, these yield saintliness.

While paling in comparison to the achievement of that final goal and worthless without it, the refinement of a cultured life is nevertheless a worthy pursuit. Ideally, as we see so compellingly illustrated in Newman’s own life, the refinement of culture serves as a kind of superadded halo around the halo of holiness, a fringe of white around the field of gold.

By contrast with the moral virtues, the cultured virtues cannot be required of every man because they contain in their very essence a cultural inheritance that not everyone is fortunate enough to have and for which he cannot be held responsible. Literacy, for example, requires even at the most basic level a language with an alphabet. Unfortunately, not everyone on the planet has this. But I am certainly glad that I do, and no amount of money would persuade me to give it up.

Some cultured virtues require (or at least are greatly benefited by) certain natural endowments, such as a good ear for harmony, for which we can take no moral credit at all. Again, however, the development of musical taste on the basis of this good fortune is a precious thing.

Finally and most obviously, all the cultured virtues require a level of material prosperity sufficient for a person to devote time and energy to something besides the bare survival of his family. Again, someone can become a saint even in the depths of poverty (sometimes because of the depths of poverty), but I am grateful for a little extra to spend on books.

It can be tempting to think of the cultured virtues as merely lucky features of a personality, but on closer inspection, they show a close structural resemblance to the moral virtues. While they require a cultural basis for which we can take no credit, they do require a free, conscious response to value for which we are responsible. Like the moral virtues, the cultured virtues require a fundamental response to the Good, again and again, in such a way that we develop a stable disposition of character over time. They require the consistent application of effort, practice, and discipline. Hence, we are right to praise the possessors of the cultured virtues even though such people have benefited greatly by the good fortune of a lucky position in life. We can even continue to praise and admire the cultured virtues themselves even when, as often happens, their combination with a lack of moral virtue turns a man into an insufferable snob—or worse. As Dietrich von Hildebrand argues in Graven Images, cultured virtues or their counterfeit imitations are frequently used as a kind of replacement morality.3 People do this, Hildebrand argues, because they can point to their education, their taste, or their correct manners, and say, “See, I am a good person,” while leaving intact the deep centers of pride and concupiscence that dominate their hearts.

We should be on guard, therefore, against this all-too-easy temptation to get ourselves off the hook. But as I have argued in several other posts, temptations that attend the pursuit of certain forms of excellence are no definitive argument against pursuing them. Education, for example, can lead people into all manner of supercilious pride, but out of love for my children, I insist upon their education nonetheless—while also teaching them about the temptations.

I have tried to compile a list of the cultured virtues, each of which will receive an in-depth post of its own. While this list is not exhaustive, it does provide us with a place to start:

Literacy—A literate man is more than a man who can simply read words on a page. He is a man who has cultivated a habit of judicious reading over a long period of time and has thereby built up a stock of knowledge, judgment, and prejudice. Though not based in text, something analogous to literacy exists for other media such as paintings or film.

Cleanliness—A man with cleanliness cares for the general hygiene of his body, but more importantly, he exerts intelligent order on all aspects of his life. His environment is ordered, his time is ordered, his comportment is ordered. The opposite of cleanliness is slovenliness.

Manners—The core of good manners is treating other people well, which obviously implicates the moral sphere, but manners belong to the cultured sphere because they require a whole established cultural apparatus for the precise ways to treat other people well in determined cultural contexts. Good manners include what we might call “civility,” keeping the peace, but it extends beyond it.

Charm—Charm is the cultivated ability to be liked for things that are genuinely likable. Like good manners, charm involves the ability to get along well with others, but charm relies on the development of a distinctive personality, while good manners rely on the opposite, a common social machinery that works the same for everyone.

Taste—A man with taste possesses a capacity for judging the objectively good from the objectively bad, the better from the worse, and has built upon this capacity a learned enjoyment of the better.

Humor—A man with humor has learned to see the point of a joke without being told. He knows how to avoid taking things too seriously, not least of all himself.

Pietas—Pietas is the disposition to take serious things seriously. Principally, pietas involves a sense of reverence and decorum around that which is sacred, but that reverence and decorum extends to such things as one’s elders, historic places, funerals, military sacrifice, or libraries.

Elegance—Elegance requires a sense of aesthetic balance, infusing actions, places, words, or even simple daily objects with notes of grace. Elegance includes what Baldassare Castiglione called sprezzatura, the art of doing extremely difficult things without the appearance of difficulty.4

Style—While we typically use this word in connection with dress and writing, style applies to a wide variety of domains in which we express ourselves. Style is the ability to impress a developed inner personality upon some external medium without sliding into narcissism, hubris, or alternatively, servile self-effacement.

Depth—Someone with depth penetrates beyond the surface trivialities of life. Combined with good manners and a dash of humor, a deep man knows how to make small talk or laugh at trivial jokes, but he also knows how to go beyond them.

Refinement—Like dross being refined out of metal through a repeated process of purification, a refined man has a habit of cyclically reflecting upon everything in his life, sharpening what should be sharpened and smoothing what should be smoothed.

  1. John Henry Newman, Newman the Oratorian, ed. Placid Murray (Gill; MacMillan, 1969).↩︎

  2. In this regard, I am following Dietrich von Hildebrand, Ethics (Hildebrand Project, 2020).↩︎

  3. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Graven Images (Hildebrand Press, 2019).↩︎

  4. Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. George Bull (Penguin, 1967).↩︎