Why do we admire Zelensky? The endurance of cardinal virtues

Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP

“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.”  — CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter 29

Why has Volodymyr Zelensky turned into a worldwide hero? Bret Stephens raised this question and provided some substantial answers to it this week in the New York Times. The situation and nearly impossible odds Zelensky faces make him a remarkable candidate for hero-hood, even for just refusing to back down. The stark moral contrasts between Zelensky and Vladimir Putin make it even more likely that the former would be heralded as a hero, contrasted against such dark and dangerous villainy.

He is, as Stephens poetically and accurately writes, David against Goliath, Moses against Pharaoh. Even more accurately, Zelensky is Jan Masaryk and Edward Beneš against Adolf Hitler in 1938, before and after Munich. We recognize Zelensky’s heroism in part because we recognize his refusal to surrender even after betrayal by his allies. Stephens gives a number of reasons relating to the nature of self-governing republics and democracies and the hope that they can produce such leaders, and perhaps no small amount of pessimism as to those prospects.

In all this, I concur. However, the lionization of Zelensky comes also at least in part to a deeper and more ancient truth. Despite all of the post-modern, existential, nihilistic moral relativism, Zelensky reminds us that cardinal virtues still exist and that they still matter. Plato’s dissertations on virtue in Republic and other writings identified four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, and courage) that helped form Western civilization, and were later adapted into Catholic teaching by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Unfortunately, these virtues matter most in crisis, and the worse the crisis, the more they matter. In soft times, we often forget the necessity of moral clarity and cardinal virtues — or rather than forgetting, we create pseudo-crises so we can then redefine communal values to suit our own vanities. Without really knowing it, humans yearn so much for tests of their self-regarded virtue that they create crises to claim them. We see this often in politics and the “culture wars,” which aren’t “wars” at all but instead self-indulgent attempts to eliminate truth so as to disregard virtue. We reflect back on the crises of old to choose sides and adopt virtue-signaling slogans like “never again,” only to dispense with them when convenient. Virtue becomes so inconvenient in these eras that we stop teaching them and instead promote passion and self-love over truth and commitment.

Only when true crises come do these virtues become obviously necessary and valuable. And only in such crises do they become instantly recognizable in others. CS Lewis also wrote in The Screwtape Letters about this phenomenon as a prelude to the quote at the top in Letter 29:

We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, the Enemy permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone, and there is still at least one vice of which they feel genuine shame. The danger of inducing cowardice in our patients, therefore, is lest we produce real self-knowledge and self-loathing with consequent repentance and humility. And in fact, in the last war, thousands of humans, by discovering their own cowardice, discovered the whole moral world for the first time. In peace we can make many of them ignore good and evil entirely; in danger, the issue is forced upon them in a guise to which even we cannot blind them. There is here a cruel dilemma before us. If we promoted justice and charity among men, we should be playing directly into the Enemy’s hands; but if we guide them to the opposite behaviour, this sooner or later produces (for He permits it to produce) a war or a revolution, and the undisguisable issue of cowardice or courage awakes thousands of men from moral stupor.

This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy’s motives for creating a dangerous world—a world in which moral issues really come to the point.

There is no reason to think that Ukraine was somehow immune to the same numbing effect of moral relativism and self-indulgence, at least before the 2014 Russian invasion. This isn’t an issue of nationality or of ideology either; it is a human failing, and it impacts all of us. A true crisis shakes us from such slumber, and that effect can even be seen in Ukraine, where bitter enemies like Zelensky and Petro Poroshenko end up both becoming inspiring figures of courage at the testing point by fighting against the evil that has befallen them and their countrymen.

In a real sense, Zelensky reveals to us our desire for virtue and truth, as well as our phony attempts to manufacture it. One might even call it crisis envy, even if no one would want the actual crisis that has fallen on Zelensky’s shoulders. His plight and that of his fellow Ukrainians strip the façade from our own silliness and make our own unseriousness undeniable.

This brings me to the one point in which I disagree with Stephens. It takes a true crisis, and maybe even an existential crisis, to remind us of the invaluable grounding of virtue and truth in society — and we haven’t yet arrived there:

We admire him because, in the face of unequal odds, Ukraine’s president stands his ground. Because he proves the truth of the adage that one man with courage makes a majority. Because he shows that honor and love of country are virtues we forsake at our peril. Because he grasps the power of personal example and physical presence. Because he knows how words can inspire deeds — give shape and purpose to them — so that the deeds may, in turn, vindicate the meaning of words.

We admire Zelensky because he reminds us of how rare these traits have become among our own politicians. Zelensky was an actor who used his celebrity to become a statesman. Western politics is overrun by people who playact as statesmen so that they may ultimately become celebrities. Zelensky has made a point of telling Ukrainians the hard truth that the war is likely to get worse — and of telling off supposed well-wishers that their words are hollow and their support wanting. Our leaders mainly specialize in telling people what they want to hear.

That may well be true, but why? It’s because unserious and self-indulgent republics will allow unserious and self-indulgent leaders to rise to the top. In that sense, Ukraine got lucky with Zelensky, whose background hardly suggested the fierce, patriotic fortitude that Zelensky has demonstrated. However, without such a true crisis staring the rest of us in the face, we may never really know the measure of our current leadership in that regard. We certainly would find leaders more oriented to those cardinal virtues, especially courage, if we broadly recognized and accepted their value and the necessity for grounding our polity in truth.

It’s too soon to write off the current crop of leaders. It’s not too late to generate better leaders, either, by remembering what Western civilization likes to repeatedly forget. Rather than indulging our vices, we need to return to organizing our society around the cardinal and enduring virtues. That starts with us, not with our leaders, and it begins with educating children on that basis rather than flavor-of-the-month ideologies that indoctrinate rather than inculcate character, knowledge, and prudence. And our recognition of Zelensky’s heroism strongly suggests that we all know this to be true, even if it’s still not convenient to reorganize ourselves to achieve this — yet. Let’s hope that the existential crisis will not be upon us before we do recognize it.