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  • Writer's pictureSarah Gibbs Underhill

Unfinished Dissertation on Virtue and Vice

Updated: Jul 23, 2022


Goody Underhill's Catechism, or

Considering a Basic Template for a Moral Life


I was going to call this "The Seven Deadly Virtues". Turns out that's been taken long ago, as lyrics to a song in "Camelot", sung by Mordred the Evil. He lists the Virtues as Courage, Purity, Humility, Honesty, Diligence, Charity and Fidelity. I came up with a similar though not identical list. But the gist of his philosophy does not differ from mine so very much. He sees the virtues as liabilities, cynical creature that he is. And I was raised cynical, although my natural Pollyanna tendencies do shine through, trustingly, often enough. But still I wonder: to what extent are the virtues maladaptive? And can't we devise and live in a world in which the vices are maladaptive instead? The same question has been asked, plaintively no doubt, throughout the ages. And we are still working on it, so many of us, every waking moment that we aren't distracted by all the other stuff we have to deal with- crying babies, poverty, the rack, Youtube. How do we build a better world? I was raised cynical and rational, Apollo and Darwin my comforters rather than Jesus and Mary. But secular humanism was there too, a promise to try for a new Golden Age. "When Saturn did live, there lived no poor; the king and beggar on roots did dine…"

Looking at Mordred's list I see the virtues of a good servant. I assume that the list was devised by the church, hand in glove with the state, as a means of social control, to maintain the hierarchy so convenient for those at the top of it. "Your Humble and Obedient Servant". I certainly don't sign off on letters with that particular salutation. The virtues were for the servants and the vices were more often enjoyed with impunity by those in power. Do as I say, and not as I do. The vices correspond to the virtues so they should be easy to deduce. Although when they were carved into the ornate limestone decorations of Roslyn Chapel near Edinburgh by my St. Clair Scottish antecedents one of the workmen CARELESSLY reversed the icons for "Greed" and "Charity", listing Greed as a virtue and Charity as a sin. Whether he was editorializing will never be known.

Courage/Cowardice, Purity/Lust, Humility/Pride, Honesty/Deception; Charity/Greed; Fidelity/ Betrayal. Hold on- I don't think betrayal and deception and cowardice are in there, because that would leave no room for sloth and gluttony. Gluttony is only a subset of greed. It must be obvious by now that I NEVER went to Sunday school, where I'm sure they teach all this stuff constantly.

Here's the actual list of the vices: Greed, Lust, Sloth, Envy, Gluttony, Pride, Wrath. Nasty attributes for any servant to have, indeed. Or any master. Well, except for Lust. I have no problem with Lust as long as, like all other freedoms, it is enjoyed without coercion of any kind. And the Gluttony and Sloth when taken in moderation are not so very evil, more like things one can appreciate when on vacation, as a break from being good all the time. Greed and Envy and Pride and Wrath are some of the annoying attributes of the dominant, power seeking types who walk among us. Definitely worthy of the appellation "vice".


Silence is not on the list of virtues, nor is discretion. It goes under Deception I suppose, a sin, although it was also called "Golden" at times as I recall. It certainly has its uses. I am pondering the efficacy of silence as a weapon. How did I know all my life how to use it so consistently? Was it the heritage of habit, passed down from the long suffering Quaker women before me? The passive aggressive silent treatment: I will ignore you if you pain me until you go away or I die, whichever comes first. I suppose it is at least something to have in the arsenal when one does not possess superior strength, or wealth, or weapons, or influence. Guile and charm are wonderfully effective to the extent that one possesses these qualities, but when they fail it is the shocked muteness of sheer terror that becomes selective muteness, that may sometimes unnerve one's foe [who wanted attention, after all, to get some kind of a reaction when it poked you with that stick] But can it ever backfire. Often enough it was a weapon I turned on myself, as I kept too many things to myself. The cat got my tongue and the retort was never spoken. Nothing was spoken. The lesson I modelled from my haute WASP parents, was to never reveal one's hand, to be secretive, to be an introvert. That has been my strength and my liability. I am just beginning to grow out of it, or, as was once said I'm sure: just when I finally learned how to talk I now have to learn how to shut up.

But where do our other strengths lie, and how can they best be cultivated? And why is it that I am generally always happy wherever I happen to be, regardless of which virtues and vices I indulge in? A lucky accident of temperament? Is it just my sheltered and fortunate life? I have after all lived in [usually genteel] poverty all my life except for between the ages of ten and sixteen and for the past three or four years, and I have moved multiple times and my parents divorced, and I ran away from home [not in that order], and I never went to college until I was in my thirties, and my spouse fooled around on me and I had abortions and miscarriages and my marriage broke up and then he died and two of my kids have severe mental health disabilities and have attempted suicide and my apartment just had bedbugs in it! All these misfortunes. Yet I am currently capable of having a great deal of fun, exploring, traveling, involved in my community, being creative, enjoying my life. Is it nature- nurture- nature- nurture [like the scene in "China Town"- "She's my daughter- my sister- my daughter- my sister"] It's nature and it's nurture. And medication, don't forget that. Actually I don't take any medication. Do you think maybe I should? Just kidding.


I never had to undergo anything like a scholarly teaching of virtues and vices . No Sunday school or catechism, no lectures on Ethics. Instead I "learned" them, if at all, as they are intrinsically taught within the culture I inhabit. And of course that 's the most effective way to teach many things- not by preaching but by story telling. Many of the vices are being taught extremely effectively by the powers of popular culture, the virtues of a loyal servant perhaps not so much. Let me list these seven deadly virtues, if I can only think of what I imagine they might be: patience, endurance, vigilance, reliance, compassion, fairness, mercy, courage? Virtues not of a servant necessarily but of a free being. I'll try to examine each one with an edifying tale, or an incoherent rant, whichever comes first. That I may learn of my strengths, and cultivate them.

In recounting my list I see that I have eight of them. Conflate compassion with mercy? Not quite. Empathy is different than kindness. Projecting one's idea of how someone or something else is thinking and feeling with accuracy is not an exact science at all, more of an art, a subjective one indeed. The paranoid projection of completely inaccurate motives and thoughts on another person can lead to all sorts of mischief. "To the jealous his own false terrors." The accuracy of one's judgment as to how another is feeling or will act, can be determined by observing and investigating the behaviour of both observer and observed. Kindness can just be across the board, more of a blanket policy.


How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? By now my list of Vices and Virtues has become so complex that I've had to chart it out, finding that I have added some vices that weren’t on the original list and come up with several virtues as well. Contentment, Moderation and Calm, as opposed to Envy, Gluttony and Wrath. The list now numbers eleven, and that leaves out Purity, Charity, Humility and Diligence! Fifteen virtues!

How do they evolve? What code is constantly woven and rewoven in the strands of DNA in the tiny mitochondria, those viral creatures which dwell in every single cell in my body and have created my body around themselves for their own mysterious ends, chiefly for their own survival? I’m sort of like their RV that they’ve constructed around themselves, a moveable home. What the anvil, what dread grasp dare its deadly terrors clasp, as Wm Blake would say. The matriarchal mitochondria, I should say, since they are passed down along the line mother to child regardless of the sperm and egg who frolic elsewhere. Now that I am grown to full witchhood, a middle aged woman with sufficient freedom and personal power, and at the moment I live in a society which it seems so far will not choose to exterminate people like me, at least not just yet, terrifying though we may be, I have yet another reason to be thankful: I am alive and free, and rarely hungry.

Patience. Loving aphorisms and axioms as I do, I often used the old "Patience is a virtue" on my children, to their chagrin of course as they didn't want to hear about it. Little scraps of old wisdom, the axioms, and for each an equal and opposite. The early bird gets the worm, but the early worm gets eaten. But yes, the ability to wait for things, to postpone gratification is a handy skill. And in excess- all things come to he who waits. Turns out that is not at always true, not by a long shot. He who hesitates is lost, lost I tell you. Carpe Diem. Fortune favors the bold. I am able to hold in my mind both ends of this spectrum, the arc in shades of liberal gray. Not just a black and white issue but a continuum we all exist on. North to south, male to female, hot to cold, yin to yang, manic to depressive, submissive to dominant, late to early. One of my own personal aphorisms that I do seem to live by is this: I'm late, but I get there.

Once at night while helping sail a racing boat down the Florida coast, alone at the helm for a couple of hours I wrestled the wheel in choppy, heavy seas as the compass needle swung wildly back and forth with the buck of the waves. Darkness was complete so there were no visual bearings to look up at but only the dim compass light and a constant compensation, then over shooting the mark and swinging the wheel back. I had the wise advice of Captain Walter Wotten up in Maine for when one is at the helm in these conditions re the compass: "Look at it, but don't stare at it". But there was nothing else to guide me in that darkness. I must have been staring at the compass and it was hypnotic and stressful at the same time. This induced in me a train of thought in which the battle for dominance in the universe was being played out: as the compass needle swung from east to west and I attempted to keep the vessel heading south, it seemed that from one direction the male, rational, left brain forces were arrayed against the female, intuitive, right brain forces in the equal and opposite pole. When I mentioned this to the crew member who relieved me at the wheel he gave me a funny look. Touch of the rapture of the deep going on here, he may have thought, and with good reason. Down below the ship rocked back and forth like a lurching cradle and flocks of onions and apples, carelessly stowed, had broken loose and were migrating back and forth, airborne by the motion, back and forth, east to west, pawns of gravity, like flocks of birds.

I have found much wisdom in axioms and nursery rhymes and old ballads where common wisdom is codified and honed and stripped down to its stark essence- a few words one can remember or repeat to oneself easily even when overwhelmed by the crushing and swirling forces, magnetic and otherwise, that eventually churn us to a powder and for some, for the poor and powerless, are ever present. Just give me a few words to remember or repeat. A Bible verse maybe, a song lyric, a Mother Goose rhyme. Everything from "For every evil under the sun, there is a remedy or there is none..." to "Monday's wash day.." A misremembered aphorism is the key to a short story I wrote once as a young and promising high school student pondering "Myself in the Year 2024". Rubbing salt on a wound was taken as medical advice, missing the point entirely and showing a woeful ignorance of salt and its harsher properties, ignorance of even the basic elements which make up the world. Happily I still remember what salt can do and 2020 has arrived.



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