Virtue, Aristotle tells us, is a mode of action that operates as a mean between two emotional extremes, or ‘vices’. When properly developed, a virtue allows a person to act readily, easily, happily, and reasonably – in a word: excellently - with regard to the action which corresponds to that particular virtue. The virtue of temperance, for example, allows one to enjoy bodily pleasures properly. A temperate person would eat neither too much nor too little; he would eat a healthy amount and he would enjoy doing so. In addition to virtues, there are certain habits of the mind that a person can develop which can help him to act virtuously. Continence, for example, describes the ability of a person to resist the urge to overindulge in bodily pleasures.
The fact that virtue is a mean between two extremes is important to remember. Human experience shows that most people tend toward one extreme more than the other; it is easy to find a person who can’t resist chocolate cake, but it is hard to find a person who completely lacks a sweet tooth. It is important to keep this in mind when aiming to develop a certain virtue. Aristotle suggests that you should aim toward whichever extreme you do not tend toward naturally, then stop when you hit the mean.
Since they’re nothing but a group of people, societies share this tendency to favor one vice over its opposite. Being aware of this, and perhaps also of Aristotle’s suggestion to aim towards the vice to which one is not inclined, subcultures often develop in reaction to the particular brand of viciousness of the society at large. I think that the straight-edge movement of the 1980′s which favored a brand of rebelliousness that disallowed the use of alcohol, tobacco, and uncommitted sex provides an interesting example. These punk rockers, sickened by the drug abuse and licentiousness of the popular music culture of the time reacted by promoting a culture with inverted values.
The straight-edge movement was probably a good one over all, but sometimes such reactionary subcultures take things too far. In present-day North America, there exists such a subculture – comprised of conservative-minded Christians – which has me worried. These Christians rightly observe that modern North American culture promotes overindulgence in sex. Their typical response is to try and beat ‘purity’ into their children – particularly into their daughters – in order to protect them from the licentiousness of the greater culture.
Purity, as I understand it, is intended to be a form of continence that is applied specifically to sexuality. Continence in general describes the ability to resist urges to indulge in physical pleasures; purity refers specifically to sexual pleasure. Just as continence can help one to develop the virtue of temperance, so purity can help one to develop the virtue of chastity. Over-continence, however, would be an impediment to the development of temperance; such a person would not enjoy physical pleasures enough. Such a case sounds strange – and indeed it is – but people, if appropriately conditioned, can develop all sorts of strange behaviors.
This is, I believe, what has happened to a large portion of the children of the conservative-minded Christians which I mentioned above. Their children exemplify a particular brand of purity which goes so far as to make them afraid of sex and anything that leads to it. Effective purity, that is, purity which would actually promote sexual wholesomeness (ie, chastity), would not go so far as to make people afraid of sexual pleasure; it would only make them wary of seeking sexual pleasure improperly. I therefore contend that the form of purity which goes so far as to make people afraid of sexual pleasure is impure, since it does not actually promote the wholesomeness that the name implies, and have for this reason placed it in inverted commas. Conceived in an effort to avoid the vice of lust, it has dodged a bullet only to be hit by an arrow. Lust it is not, but nor is it chaste. It is ‘pure’.
Sex is a good thing. It makes babies, it brings people together, and it feels good. It is, however, very easy to misuse it, which is why people are so careful about it. We cannot, however, be afraid of sex. If Christianity is to survive to the next generation, there is going to have to be a next generation. Generation requires procreation, procreation requires sex, sex takes place within the context of marriage, and dating and romance are the processes that lead to marriage. I have seen cases in which people are so infected with ‘purity’ that they are terrified of dating. These people also tend to be those whose greatest goal in life (and it is indeed a great goal) is to marry and have children. What a paradox! To aspire toward an end but be repelled by its means!
Parents should indeed warn their children about the ways in which sex can be misused and protect them from falling into the licentious habits that prevail in our contemporary culture. However, in doing so, they need to be careful to communicate the fact that sex is a good thing and the processes that lead to its being used properly – while they should be undergone with great care – are desirable.