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A review of The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories. Edited by William J. Bennett.

Feb 23, 1999

Simon & Schuster, 1993.

A book appeared recently entitled The Loss of Virtue. It made the point that virtue, both public and private, is becoming a rarity today. Indeed, vice, not virtue, seems to be in the ascendancy. Old fashioned virtues like faithfulness, loyalty and purity are scoffed at today, while vices like selfishness and greed seem to be promoted at every turn.

One commentator noted recently that we have taken Aquinas’ seven deadly sins and turned them into virtues. You know the old list: sloth, gluttony, envy, etc. For example, modern advertising has institutionalised the sin of covetousness.

As T.S. Elliot once said, “In the twentieth century we are obsessed with turning roses into weeds.”

Thus it is extremely refreshing to find a book that actually, unashamedly, promotes virtue. Bill Bennett has brought together a host of stories, poems, and adages that promote virtue. Many of the stories that over-40s would have grown up on, but which many young people today would never have heard of, are brought together in this unique collection.

Ten virtues are covered: self-discipline; compassion; responsibility; friendship; work; courage; perseverance; honesty; loyalty; and faith. For each virtue there are a number of stories, poems and essays included, bringing home the moral of that particular virtue. For example, in the section on courage, one finds such classics as Jack and the Beanstock, David and Goliath, Chicken Little, Hansel and Gretel, Ulysses and the Cyclops, William Tell, and Patrick Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech.

This book serves not only as a guide to the great works of moral education, but to the great works of literature as well. The range of great authors and sources is most impressive: Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Plato, the Brothers Grimm, The Bible, Hilaire Belloc, Robert Frost, C.S. Lewis, Longfellow, Abraham Lincoln, etc.

In reading these great stories, we both improve our cultural literacy and refine our moral senses. Indeed, being exposed to great literature, to great writers, and to great moral truths is a powerful combination. Young people and old will be inspired and motivated to live a more virtuous life after reading (or re-reading) these great moral stories. In an age which promotes vice and mocks virtue, this anthology serves as a much needed corrective.

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