The Beauty of Virtue


Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525)

My blood runs cold when I hear of acts that demonstrate a blatant disrespect for life.  It sometimes comes in the form of small daily injustices, like the person who rushes to cut before a slower elderly person in the cashier’s line;  or bolder acts such as the delinquent who tries to furtively force open a locked car door with the intent to steal what is on the seat, or worse  yet, a  hit and run driver who just keeps on going after plowing over an animal or human, whose body just seconds before was filled with life and  vibrancy. What is going on?

Renaissance philosopher Pietro Pomponazzi  wrestled with the notion of the soul’s immortality. Evident in his writing was a fearless  tendency to change the course of his thoughts as his reasoning process spontaneously evolved. This cognitive flexibility, to me, was a sign of his great intellect. The big question, that he went back and forth on was the argument of the soul’s immortality. Pomponazzi , originally holding that the soul is mortal and inseparable from the body, later on reasoned that although we cannot conceive of an immortal soul in earthly terms, that does not mean it doesn’t exist.  What emerged from this debate over the nature of the soul  was the exploration of virtue, and whether humans are  inclined to do virtuous acts  only if external rewards and punishments are dangled before them , such as the expectation of Heaven or Hell that religion serves to remind us of; or is  true virtue prompted by a sense of internal satisfaction  when one does good and  a guilty conscious when doing wrong. Pomponazzi believed that virtue should be its own reward.

I would agree.

The research on moral development (doing right, avoiding wrong) certainly indicates that many people never get beyond the stage of needing external rewards and punishments for them to do the right thing and avoid temptation to do wrong.  While laws are indispensable for maintaining an orderly society, how can we as individuals, strengthen our internal sense of morality? By putting ourselves in the “shoes” of others the next time we are uncertain about what to do. This is called empathy.  True virtue, in my opinion, has empathy as its foundation.

Fortunately, I see examples of true virtue much more often than I witness the dark side of human nature. The fire fighter who saves a child’s life; the soldiers who put their own lives on the line for fellow countrymen they have never even met; the neighbor who brings a fresh baked cake over to the sick; the teenager who finds a fallen sparrow and gently carries it home to nurture back to flight. These are exquisite examples of everyday heroes and heroines who do  good deeds  selflessly, without any expectation of praise or fear of criticism. While we can do little to force a moral code in others, we can continually make strides in being the person WE know we should be and could be. By asking ourselves how we would feel if we were the other person, we  can align ourselves with Pomponazzi’s urging to let  virtue be its own reward. After all virtue, is what truly makes humankind beautiful.

October Italian Heritage Month–Pledge to Reconnect with Your Ancestry

with my Zia Immacolata in the 70's
with my Zia Immacolata in the 70’s

In the early 1900’s it is important to understand that the courageous Italians who risked life and limb in search of a better life in America, wanted to make sure that they and their offspring did everything they could to be “good” Americans. In many cases they discouraged their children from speaking Italian when out in public, and because they were often judged negatively for some of their traditions, they increasingly assimilated into American life. Rightly, they should be heralded for their bravery, courage, and hard work; all of which led to an opportunity for you and me to enjoy this great country. However, their zealousness often left subsequent generations feeling empty with respect to wanting to feel more connected to their Italian Heritage, and not knowing where to begin.  Let me suggest three ways for you to feel a greater sense of belonging to the Italian heritage that is rightfully yours. I like to use the acronym KDL: Know, Defend, and LIVE your heritage.

1.       Know what Italian heritage is really about. If you rely on media, as many people do for their information, you will get a very distorted and negative perception of Italian Americans. I would encourage you to study the Italian language, take a trip to Italy if possible, and follow Italian news headlines. Learn also about the Italian American ethnic identity. According to the latest Census statistics, about 1 in 10 people in the US identify themselves as having some Italian blood in them, making us the 5th largest ethnic group in this country.  Many have no idea of the vast contributions that those of Italian heritage have made in making this country starting from  the American Revolution and profoundly influencing almost every important area in society:  the arts, sports, business, education, medicine, science, entertainment and politics. You can visit the NIAF (National Italian American Foundation) and OSIA (Order of the Sons and Daughters of Italy in America) and find a wealth of information on this topic.

2.       Defend your heritage.  Unlike with other ethnic groups, it seems there is no political correctness with respect to Italian ethnicity. Every time I turn on the TV or go to the movies where Italians are portrayed, there is most often a blatant depiction of Italians as mobsters, buffoons, or over-emotional idiots. But these inappropriate perceptions extend beyond media.  In social circles and in many workplaces pervasive innuendos and jokes that slam Italians on a day to day basis go on as a matter of course. Sadly, this is tolerated by many Italian Americans, which is part of the reason it continues.  While I encourage everyone of Italian heritage to be respectful and polite, it is also important that we correct negative perception by referring to the facts, and that we defend our heritage by letting advertisers, producers, or even our co-workers know that their portrayals or jokes are offensive and uncalled for.

3.       Live your heritage.  Try to recall some of the positive traditions your grandparents and parents maintained as you were growing up, and re-incorporate those traditions into your own life on a daily basis. Some examples are the tendency to have pride in a job well-done, Sunday sauce simmering on the stove, the mindset of “arrangiarsi” (confidence that you will make it through your challenges), family get-togethers, and  the evening passeggiata (stroll through the neighborhood). You might reproduce a special cake that your grandmother baked on a regular basis, or frame the old photos of your Italian ancestors and hang them on your walls to remind yourself of your lineage.

As you begin reconnecting to your Italian roots through the KDL method, you will no doubt discover more and more ways to keep the traditions of your Italian heritage alive.