“Great,” you’re thinking.

But last week I watched the first half of Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin broadcast by the Met, and noted in the subtitles this line, sung by the mezzo to the baritone about the soprano: “She is beautiful without the arrogance of beauty, noble without the arrogance of nobility, pious without the arrogance of piety.”

I liked it because the virtues (whether the 4 cardinal or 7 holy ones) have always seemed like obnoxious impossibilities. It’s like when I first started talking again to Jesus and reading about his deeds and ideas. I’m supposed to live as he did? Who can possibly compete?

The living as turns out to be key. Here, the mezzo (a) points to how the virtues become more virtuous and useful when we see them as ways for acting, guidelines for one’s behavior and comportment, while (b) simultaneously warning us against exemplifying or being characterized in full as any one of them.

In other words, make the virtues adverbs, not nouns.[*]

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. You might want to point out that the mezzo extols the soprano’s virtues with adjectives. She “is beautiful” and “is pious”, but I’m reading those as effects of verbal actions. Or better: how is her generally being-a-person? Oh she does-be’s beautifully. She is-acts nobly.