It’s elegant language: “Let it be ‘Laus Virtutis Actio,’ which we interpret literally ‘the deed is valor’s praise’ and symbolically “virtue is its own reward.’”
I was undoubtedly struck by these words on first hearing them read from our beloved ritual. As is often the case in our ritual, the language is poetic, stirring, and enigmatic.
Along with references to the Christian Bible, poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Freemasonry, our ritual includes phraseology in Latin, Greek, and was written by countless brothers. Its language is taken from two millennia of ideas and includes the loftiest sentiments of Judeo-Christian and Greek stoic traditions. Sigma Nu’s ritual is challenging to understand and even harder to live up to.
Yet, as Sigma Nus, this is exactly what we are charged with: living virtuous lives worthy of Honor.
This is what brings us to the mysterious phrase about virtue.
So what exactly does “virtue is its own reward” mean?
Originally, I thought this phrase meant doing things that weren’t very fun and not expecting to get any reward for it. I equated virtue – doing the right thing – with always eating your vegetables. The thing is, we all really want dessert and the only reason we eat vegetables is to get dessert. In this equation, being virtuous was like eating vegetables without getting a dessert afterwards.
That’s what I used to think. Then I listened a little closer. Our ritual tells us that “virtue is its own reward.” Rather than comparing virtue to eating vegetables, a more appropriate analogy compares virtue to enjoying an exquisite steak. It takes most of us a while to cultivate a taste for steak; after all, most children don’t eat steak. They prefer macaroni and cheese, French fries, and candy; their flavor palates haven’t fully formed.
Reaping the rewards of virtue only come after cultivating our appetites for things we aren’t initially attracted to.
The child’s natural preference for junk food doesn’t mean, however, that he should perpetually eat food on the kid’s menu. How strange would it be to see a 40-year-old man order from the kid’s menu or get a Happy Meal?
Instead, the adult, as he matures, develops a refined sense of taste. Generic macaroni and cheese no longer sates his desire and he gains an appetite for finer food and drink. Like a perfectly cooked, tender steak.
The virtuous life is the same way. Reaping the rewards of virtue only come after cultivating our appetites for things we aren’t initially attracted to. Virtue is hard and requires a willingness to push through the natural desire to give up when the going is tough. Moreover, this can only come after one has realized that there is more to life than living for Friday and Saturday nights.
The rewards of virtue are found after getting your hands dirty at a Habitat for Humanity building site, planning and executing a successful philanthropy, acing a test that you spent many hours studying for, and choosing to do what is right rather than what is easy.
Striving for the rewards of virtue also leads to a subtle change in desires. Much like learning to appreciate fine foods, virtuous living gives a reward that is inaccessible to those who don’t attempt it. How can the man who has never dined in a fine steakhouse understand his friend who raves about it? Likewise, the one who never attempts the virtuous life can’t comprehend its higher rewards.
Teaching young men the virtuous life is exactly what Sigma Nu does. It teaches the fundamentals of virtue and encourages young men to continue until gaining its reward. Every LEAD session, properly run chapter meeting, or successful philanthropy event is an opportunity to grow in the pursuit of virtue and gain some of the rewards it promises.
All Sigma Nu brothers should join in the pursuit of virtue, trusting that its rewards outweigh the cost of pursuit. Like a child trying steak for the first time, believe that the taste is worth it.
Teaching young men the virtuous life is exactly what Sigma Nu does.