Why are we often suspicious of virtue? Why are we cynical and skeptical of people who are supposedly good, kind, even heroic? That’s just the image they project–we reason–but behind that façade they are just as self-interested and wicked as the worst of us. Their apparent virtue is just their way of justifying and masking of their self-serving hunger for power. In a curious democratization of baseness, we don’t believe that virtue is possible, and suspect the worse motives as soon as a model person is raised up. It is a curious process, which makes Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler end up looking not much different from each other.
And this begs the question: how did we get here?
It is a point raised by Eric Metaxas, the renowned biographer of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In an interview to Books & Culture about his newest book about seven model men, Metaxas got precisely this objection: why are your chapters about these men mostly positive? Isn’t that not objective? His response was:
Why is our generation obsessed with the flaws of famous men? … We’ve got to regain our common sense and be able to tell the difference between heroes and villains—and yes, those categories still exist—without endlessly feeling the hand-wringing obligation to say that some hero wasn’t perfect. … We owe it to ourselves—and to young people especially—to be able to make the distinction between Joseph Stalin and Christopher Columbus. And we have got to snap out of the adolescent habit of saying that unless we report on the one bad thing someone did, we’re not telling the “whole” story. Our constantly tearing down leaders and over-focusing on their flaws has had a tremendously baleful effect on the culture at large. It’s made us all cynical and world-weary.
I think he has a great point. We are usually interested at good examples, but we are fascinated with flaws and missteps. Just look at the gossip magazines around, all serving the juiciest pictures of who betrayed who, who wore the ugliest dress of the week, of pretty women without make-up and not so much in shape at the beach. Or just look at our news headlines, which rarely extol good examples but irresistibly report tragedies, crimes, hypocrisy, spectacular falls from great heigths.
Chantal Delsol, a French philosopher, also detects this cultural pattern in one of her books, Icarus Fallen. In a chapter about the clandestine ideology of our time, Delsol writes about how we are daily trained to be “suspicious of the virtuous, who invariably must be disguising hypocritical vices even more dangerous than the vices of the depraved.” It is a sort of relativization of virtue and vice that, by focusing on the vices of even very admirable people, preaches that, at bottom, everyone is alike: self-interested, cynical, dirty, depraved.
Deviance hence becomes relative, or mundane, while ‘virtue’ undergoes the same treatment but in reverse. Relativist ideology … reduces evil and detects evil in the good. The result is the jumbling of previous points of reference, and from that point onward any judgment sounds unfounded and backward.
How are we respond to this? I would say, in a nuanced and clear-sighted way. Nuanced because everyone is indeed crooked and sinful. Surely Mother Teresa had her flaws, and we should be healthily skeptical of people extolled as unqualified models and heroes. I think part of the reason we are so obsessed with famous’ people flaws is because we are so sick of propaganda and slickness and perfect couples, and we know that these people are flawed too. So we instinctively react cynically to the torrent of plastic entertainment poured on us daily.
But we should also be clear-sighted, because there are people who are really virtuous out there. We should be mindful of their flaws, but not in a way that denigrates the good that they’ve accomplished. As Metaxas puts it in that interview, “…most of [the men he profiles in the book] were so genuinely wonderful that it would be a disservice and a distortion of the truth, especially in a short chapter… to think of one negative thing to say, just to be ‘fair’ … [T]hat would in fact be deeply unfair and wrong.”
As much as we long to confuse the two, there is vice, and there is virtue. Every virtuous person is flawed, and every flawed person has good character traits too. Let’s keep both in mind, not as to confuse and relativize the two, but to avoid one and strive for the other. And let us praise and remember the good people around us, and rise to their greatness, instead of bringing them down to our mediocrity.
 Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in the Modern World, 84, 86.