Is Non-Conformity a Virtue?

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 As a fiction writer I find virtuous characters to be the hardest to write about. Maybe it’s a case of the darkness not being able to abide the light. Is it that I find it too hard to believe that anyone would take themselves so seriously as to strive for virtue? Does it make it easier to overlook my less than virtuous thoughts and actions if I deride people who make the effort? Or am I just cynical?  What about you? What do you think of the word virtue? Does our society still value the trait  once considered necessary in a democratic republic? And what about on a personal level?

According to Google, the word VIRTUE has gone dramatically down in usage over the past few centuries. I wonder what that means (if anything at all).

LINK to Ngram: VIRTUE WORD USAGE DOWN OVER TIME (When you enter phrases into the Google Books Ngram Viewer, it displays a graph showing how those phrases have occurred in a corpus of books –e.g., “British English”, “English Fiction”, “French”– over the selected years.)

VIRTUE:
1.

moral excellence; goodness; righteousness.
2.

conformity of one’s life and conduct to moral and ethical principles; uprightness; rectitude.
3.

chastity; virginity:

to lose one’s virtue.
4.

a particular moral excellence.

5.

a good or admirable quality or property:

the virtue of knowing one’s weaknesses.
6.

effective force; power or potency:

a charm with the virtue of removing warts.
7.

virtues, an order of angels.

Compare angel (def 1).
Dictionary.com

30 thoughts on “Is Non-Conformity a Virtue?

      • what I was thinking is that Chaucer uses it slightly differently sometimes, simply as ‘positive characteristic’ as well as the embodiment or root of all good things (Of which vertu engendred is the flour) etc. The more modern logic is embodied by Pacience is an heigh vertu, certeyn.
        I think its meaning has simply narrowed over time. In fact the above are really two separate words with varying pronunciation – note even Chaucer spelled them differently. I don’t know quite when we lost the difference – early on I guess.

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      • You add a unique perspective which I much enjoy!

        I was definitely thinking in terms of modern culture where the word and the striving for “virtue” seem to be something to be scoffed at as puritanical and old-fashioned. From a pop-culture stand point I imagine the ridiculous (and stereotypical) Christian neighbors on the Simpsons so out of touch with everyone “cool.” Maybe coolness or hipsterism or whatever it’s called now is the replacement for what we’ve lost as Americans once we started teaching that all the founders were evil hypocrites instead of flawed individuals striving to live virtuous lives but coming up short as we all do.

        But you’ve given me new things to think about. Thank you.

        A

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  1. I think it is a sad loss both in language and life. I suspect its lack of use in the language does actually say it all. But oh, my, it’s almost impossible to write ‘good’ characters; they should always have some not so virtuous characteristics. After all, no one is perfect, except for me, of course!

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    • Yes, no one’s perfect but some people are very, very good. I’m having a very difficult time finding any flaws in one of my female characters (of course my favorite female character despises her) but is it unfair to paint a picture of the world with no people who actually get most things right? (if I’m allowed to make a judgment here! LOL)

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  2. Yes, I believe it is unfair because there are people who get most things right and including such characters give us all hope for the future. Perhaps you could give her an inconsequential vice like eating too much!

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  3. Speaking as a reader, we readers want characters like ourselves or acting out what we can’t do ourselves. So we like the mixed-bag characters–even if they are virtuous, they need serious flaws. We tend not to like people in real life who present as “perfect,” which is often equated with virtuous. As a writer, I am leery of a character too virtuous because I am projecting what readers will think. Of course, conflict can arise from the virtue of that virtuous character, but then it’s usually paired with stubbornness or some trait like that.

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  4. I try to virtuous while my true virtues, the good parts of my nature, have a life of their own. Dynamic characters reveal the mixture of good and bad. No one is ever all good or all bad.

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    • I just wonder if virtue is even seen as a value at the moment. Tolerance may have taken it’s place–but even that is a flawed concept that almost always ends in hypocrisy. Such is life.

      How would you define your true nature? That’s a tough one to ponder.

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  5. I think the most interesting characters in books are those who discover that they are not as virtuous as they’d once believed, but who use that discovered flaw to improve themselves and save the world. Of course, that’s just in stories. In real life, each of us are deeply flawed. We must find what we can tolerate in our friends as they find the same about us.
    I ended a very long friendship with a woman who had been a dear and close friend. I could no longer tolerate her lies or the way she used me to cover an affair she had, exposing me to ridicule from mutual acquaintances. A scandal yes, but one that hurt me and others deeply.
    So, would she work as a character in a book? Maybe one day.
    Virtue is something to aspire to but we must each determine what we find virtuous. Other people might dismiss me for not standing by my friend.

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    • I’ve often found the little flaws in my friends the most attractive things about them–especially if they can laugh about them. In a book the author can take the time to really explore certain flaws and play them up or down. In real life we can go for years being totally blind. It is those moments when we see who we are that we have big choices to make (if our pride will let us).

      I think as a society it’s important to have a collective sense of virtue (but then utopias never work, do they?). Buck goes to a utopian society in the next book. It was so much fun writing about “virtues” being turned on their heads and Buck being yet again caught in the middle. LOL.

      If I had found a utopian cult when I was younger I may have joined but I wouldn’t have lasted.

      I never know what to do about cheating friends–I love them and gently try to help, but if they ever threw me under the bus I’d probably dump them (I say that but then I have a short memory!) Sorry to hear your friend did that to you–but it does sound like a great story idea!

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  6. I believe that virtue is an attribute of reason and will. To be virtuous is to determine what is right and then to do that, regardless of how one feels about the matter. So I see it as something to be continually striven for, rather than something that is attained. In fiction, characters fall short of being virtuous either by a failure of reason or a failure of will–sometimes both. (And sometimes they do the right thing for the wrong reasons.) It is in the striving, I think, that the deepest conflicts arise. So, no, I don’t write characters who are virtuous, I write characters who try to be virtuous, and I suppose the degree to which they succeed is what determines whether what I have written is drama or tragedy.

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    • Thank you so much for weighing in, Misha! What a perfect to see virtue. Yes, that striving is so full of wonderful conflict! It’s what we writers live for. Imagine how dull a perfect world would be–be then I guess I see heaven from a flawed human perspective (as there are no successful utopian experiments here on earth that I know about. 🙂

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  7. I still quite value and definitely pursue virtue, though I realize it is not as much in fashion as once it was. Interestingly, when the U.S. Constitution was framed, the idea of the “pursuit of happiness” included the idea of virtue and being kind to others — it wasn’t just about self gratification. Conformity to a set of moral or ethical principles is pretty much the foundation of civilization. As for non-conformity, I think it depends on what you’re conforming to. If the pressure is to conform to bad ideas (such as smoking or drinking to excess or doing illegal drugs), then non-conformity is a virtue. If you conform to moral principles, then non-conformity is the opposite of virtue. So the term “non-conformity” is meaningless unless there is a context that speaks of that to which one conforms. But if no one conforms to any moral ideals, than society blows apart. Which is what we’re seeing in many places.

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  8. Before I reached the part about the Google Ngram Viewer, I was saying to myself that people don’t use this word anymore. Perhaps in Christian circles…

    People relate to characters like themselves. No one is altogether virtuous. I may not subscribe to mocking the virtues a character possesses, but I enjoy reading about a character’s moral dilemma.

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    • Perfectly put. The moral dilemma is key. The craziest depiction of this that comes to my mind is Crime and Punishment. I found that book so difficult emotionally to read but at the same time so compelling I couldn’t put it down (except at first when I was getting used to the Russian names!).

      My character, Buck Crenshaw stumbles in to one moral dilemma after another–he’s always in tight spots when it comes to morality. I think that’s why I love him so much. He doesn’t always handle himself in the noblest way.

      I remember reading Proverbs 31 for the first time about the virtuous wife. I was tired just reading how perfect she was. Hahaha.

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