As the late Middle Ages became the Renaissance the idea of classical Greek and Roman virtue came back into man’s view. The world in Renaissance Italy, especially in Florence where the Renaissance is typically credited with its beginning, was changing faster than the locals could keep track.
One day the government might be a republic run along classic democratic ideals, the next it was run by the Medici family, a foreign king or some other noble. There was even the madness of the Dominican friar Savonarola.
Peasants became merchants who became partisans of the powerful families or of their republican enemies.
The science of philosophy and art flourished in ways that had never before been seen. Men began to look at the world in the late 1300’s very differently from their grandparents a few years earlier.
The Christian ideal of virtue was challenged by a new ideal. Men sought after virtu. Virtu became an amalgamation of both Christian and classic Greek and Roman virtues. A man who possessed virtu was a good, decent and honest man in the Christian sense. He also possessed an almost indescribable nobility. There was about him an air which went beyond medieval chivalry.
Such a man was what every man of every estate sought after in his life.
The whole concept of virtu caught my mind and soul when it was presented to me in a university class on Renaissance Italy. Coming from a small town in the middle of cow and corn country in the middle of America I knew almost nothing about Italy. It was somewhere a few thousand miles away. It was where the Renaissance had started and with a major in Renaissance English history it seemed like a good idea to learn more about it.
People from the Medici to Machiavelli, Michelangelo to da Vinci had either been in Florence, the city where it all began. But the idea that caught my imagination more than anything else I learned about it was this thing called virtu.
It keeps recurring over time as a somewhat spacey, airy fairy idea.
It has nothing to do with the practicalities of my mundane life. Listening to music or looking at art may bring back the concept of virtu, but what has it to do with life almost eight hundred years after the Renaissance began?
Virtu and virtue, manly or human, were both greatly missing at the time of the Renaissance. Then as now we live in a world filled with venality. The banality of evil, the ordinariness with which we permit and even invite evil into our lives pushes away virtue. We drive it out with all of the energy and vigor with which we pursue money, power and domination over other people in our lives.
Hardness of heart and pettiness drive out tolerance and decency. It is not something to search for under rocks. It’s all inside.
We think evil and the failure to do good are something outside our door. That is why I am usually called upon to perform an exorcism or other spiritual work. My job is to help someone see possibility within themselves.
We allow the failure of goodness in our lives. We forget to open the door to virtue—and virtu—from the first instant of a thought or action.
There is a secret which I see in virtue every time someone has asked me if they will meet their true love, if they will get a new job, if whatever it is they want will come to them. I don’t always answer. Sometimes I ask them what they see for themselves. Do they see good in themselves to give to themselves and others?
When you look for virtue, look within.
When you look for virtu, look even deeper within for goodness and merit.