The Production of Righteousness

In the middle of the night I awoke with a brainstorm about economics. The basic problem at every moment is simple: what is the right thing to do now, the best thing to do?

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Life is not therefore about the production of goods, but the production of goodness. Likewise, ergo, and a fortiori, for a society and its political economy. The Platonic society will produce a great many holy lives; and those that are not quite holy will be often righteous, or at least predominantly excellent. Mere goods are secondary factors, instruments or by-products of righteousness and virtuous behavior. It is only righteousness that can result in true human flourishing, no matter how many goods there may be scattered about the landscape; for righteousness constitutes the proper approach to reality, and the enaction of policies really fitted to the truth of things. Is it not obvious that only such policies are likely to succeed, mutatis mutandis?

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Is it not therefore also obvious that the righteous society will generally produce more and better goods of the sort that are genuinely supportive of true human flourishing; that it will be, not just better, but wealthier (more powerful, more influential, more capable) than its less excellent competitors, mutatis mutandis?

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Properly speaking, “property” is that array of causal powers, also known as wealth – which, technically, is the stored capacity to perform work, to exert a causal effect – that are truly proper to a person, given his office and station. In a sane and rational and moral society, that office and station are in turn products of his decisions and actions, of their sagacity and value, their true moral worth; and of the decisions and actions of his parents (for children and heirs), patrons (for artists and intellectuals), liege lords (for warriors and statesmen), bosses (for servants and employees), or masters (for apprentices, students, monastics, and journeymen at any trade).

Assets must therefore be allowed to flow to those who have demonstrated sagacity and righteousness, and then to devolve from them to their subsidiaries, their wards.

Assets likewise must be allowed to flow from those who have demonstrated foolishness and immorality.

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Creaturely social arrangements cannot produce sanctity, of course, cannot manufacture it. But they can be established so as to provide a fitting and nourishing and encouraging environment for its appearance and development. Ditto for righteousness. Values can be taught, and can be demonstrated, but not generated. You can lead a horse to water …

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To maintain a social tone of virtue, you need constant selection pressure in its favor, and against vice. In the wilderness, or in situations of dire poverty, that pressure is easy to maintain. In a prosperous society, where there is lots of wiggle room – such as is generally inherited by a society with a history of preponderant personal virtue – a sufficiently painful negative selection pressure against vice is difficult to maintain. But not so for positive selection pressure in favor of virtue. It is always possible to live a more virtuous life, a better life; a life of greater spaciousness and power and capacity, of greater happiness and depth. These things are alluring in their own right.

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The impoverished, embittered, nihilistic rich are those who have mistaken the material sequelae of virtue for virtue itself, and who have been disappointed in their expectation that the accumulation and enjoyment of all their wealth would produce for them the hedonic reward that accrues alone to virtue – a virtue that, paradoxically, does not particularly care about the material goods appurtenant to virtuous living, or for that matter about any good subsidiary to the Good itself.

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Whatever prevents people from discovering their errors reduces their capacity for achieving righteousness, which is the absence of error. Such obstructions introduce noise and increase moral hazard to the operations both of the person and of his society. So, people must be allowed to suffer the consequences of their actions. To buffer them from these consequences is to misdirect them; is to train them to be wicked.

Not that we should not ever help our brothers who find themselves in dire straits. But if we are not to encourage sinners in their wickedness, and provoke them to ever more vicious insults to the body politic, we must allow them to experience such straits as truly dire. The monasteries should be open to all who need shelter. But the test of whether someone does really need shelter from a monastery should be whether they are willing to agree to participate in the Mass and work on the monastic estates in exchange. For the inveterately wicked, such an agreement will seem repellent until the moment that they hit bottom, realize they have been wrong about everything, and decide that they must make a fundamental change, or die.

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Holiness is the flower of righteousness, prudence the root.

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Moral hazard is a fancy term for the risk that people will cheat. It is the likelihood that people will err about reality, and so make bad decisions, and so behave immorally.

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Society may track reality but poorly, but sooner or later she does indeed catch up (if only by dying). Cheating at the social game is thus a mediated way to cheat reality.

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Immoral behavior is organized as if there were some sublunary relief from conservation laws; from causal orderliness. It likes to pretend that it will not be discovered, that it will not have to pay for what it takes. But the cosmos is a seamless garment, you can’t fight Mother Nature, and God is not mocked.

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Death may be understood as the means by which the moral accounts – assets and liabilities – of a failed biological system are fully marked to the causal market that human economies – whether personal or social – try to track, and anticipate, so as to keep living. If you fail to track the real causal situation, and place your wagers accordingly, you’ll go bust, and you’ll die. Of course, you’ll die eventually anyway, because the game is stacked in favor of the house; the house never bets wrong, but all the players eventually do. So, you can’t beat the house, any more than you can consistently beat the stock market. Sooner or later – usually it’s sooner – the market is going to beat you. And so will the house.

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Death cashes out a life, rather as the house cashes out a gambler at the end of his session. Death, then, just is Judgement Day, so far as our own causal order is concerned. You stand before the Judge, and your books are reckoned against the Ledger of Life, in which are infallibly and completely accounted the causal balances of all actualities. Once you have performed your last worldly act, placed your last moral bet, why then the bottom line of this reckoning follows inexorably.

All the Judge then does is tell (he tells you, not himself; he knows all along – indeed, all he is doing is reading out his Word from the Book of Life) whether you used some of your creaturely ontological assets to buy his offer of redemption from the moral debt you will otherwise find has piled up inevitably and irreparably against you. When you made that formal bid on his option to buy everlasting life, were you then still trying to cheat the system? Were you evading the invasion of your being by the spirit that gives life, instead only obeying the letter that kills? Were you, that is to say, selling something that did not exist: your honest commitment? Did you just try to borrow salvation, without pledging any collateral? If so, well, you welshed on the deal, and it is off. Indeed, because you executed the agreement in bad faith, there was never a deal to begin with. Tough.

Oh, you may have inked a deal de jure; indeed, you may even have fulfilled the merely formal requirements of your end of the bargain – obeyed the Law, prayed a lot, given to the poor, and so forth. But was it de facto? Did you present your very body, a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice? Or did you take the Name in vain?

The Judge deals in facts; and God is not mocked. You cannot cheat your way out of your cheats. “Not all who say to me ‘Lord, Lord …’“

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How do we know that we are afflicted with sin, that we can’t get ourselves out of it, can’t find the exit? Because we can’t ever be totally sure that we have indeed made good on our end of the deal, rather than having merely made a show of compliance. I suppose the very greatest saints are certain of their good faith, but most of us won’t find out for sure, perhaps, until we stand before the Mercy Seat.

The glory of martyrdom is that its complete sacrifice of all subsidiary goods vouchsafes to the martyr that he has made his agreement in utmost good faith. There is no way to cheat at martyry!

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There is in the procedures of the Heavenly basilica no option to declare bankruptcy. If you have it in the back of your mind to declare bankruptcy, then, you’d better do it soon, here below, where you can still repent and so purchase redemption.

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The only free lunch anywhere is the sacrifice of the Lamb given to us at the Eucharist. God is the only free meal to be had, anywhere – whether in this world, or in any other. At the Eucharist, we offer ourselves as sacrifice in thanksgiving, but not for food we have been freely given. Why? Because we haven’t been given any free food; not naturally, anyway. No, we’ve had to earn our food by the sweat of our brow.

At the Eucharist, we give thanks for the gift of mere existence; for the capacity to eat in the first place, and to work; for somatic actuality, for our very bodies, and their world.

When we thus give thanks, we get … free food, the bread of new and unending life. This happens even though we are unworthy, and our sacrifice is messed up, polluted, insufficient. How can we tell? Because we keep existing; the world keeps existing. “New every morning is the love our waking and uprising prove.”

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27 thoughts on “The Production of Righteousness

  1. “what is the right thing to do now, the best thing to do?”

    I’d say that the answer to this, on a quotidian level, is to prepare for the imminent collapse of the US economy and the hyperinflation that will ensue. (“Imminent” means “perhaps as soon as tomorrow, but certainly within the next 4-5 years.”)

    This means getting all your dollar-denominated assets out of the dollar and into a currency that will probably be stable because the country in question has not dug itself into an inescapable hole.

    It also means stockpiling food. Six months’ worth is better than none, but two or three years’ worth would be safer.

    Along with food, one should stockpile other necessities—toilet paper, toothpaste, motor oil, tires, batteries, etc.—that will be anywhere from hard to impossible to obtain when the inevitable price controls are imposed.

    There’s more, of course, but this is not an economics forum. Even so, what good are we to the future of our society if we do not survive the impending collapse?

    I hope I don’t sound like a defeatist (I’m not) or a nut (I hope I’m not). Kristor, you are in finance; perhaps you would be so kind as to respond on my off-topic comment.

    • Better an ant than a grasshopper at any time, I suppose. But while many of the measures you suggest seem simply sensible, I can’t say more than that without running afoul of the compliance policies I myself have helped establish for my firm. I can talk about anything I want online, except finance. Sorry!

    • Maybe the collapse won’t come. Is your entire plan for virtuous living to hope society collapses?

      People need to think about how to live virtuous lives even in the society in which we live. A return to Biblical economy probably isn’t in the cards.

      • Maybe the collapse won’t come. However, given the current situation and the trends we can identify, I see that possibility as remote.

        I’m afraid you misread me. I do not hope that society collapses, but I fear that it will. All I want to do is be ready for that eventuality. Stockpiling is a kind of insurance: you hope you never need it, and begrudge not a single penny you spent on it if you do.

  2. These are hard sayings Kristor – who can bear them? :)

    “Fear not little flock, the Father is pleased to give you the Kingdom”.

    What is He is going to do pretend God-likeness isn’t arduous from where we are? We know now we are to be like Him, “many Kings and prophets longed to see what you see but did not see it” Luke 10:24

    There’s no avoiding it now for those that come after Simeon’s Song, we’re in the position of “to whom much has been given much is expected,” and as for bodily commitment, “Do not fear those who can kill only the body, fear Him who has power to destroy body and soul in hell”.

    For me it’s of absolute necessity to take as many short cuts as there are – He gives a church, magisterium and sacraments? I’m bloody well using them. Which is where the parable of the dishonest steward comes in I suppose: “the children of the world are more prudent than the children of Light”

    • Amen. But NB that the church, sacraments, scriptures, &c., while they are indeed shortcuts, are ipso facto also the strait and narrow path along the razor’s edge and through the camel’s gate. They are more arduous than the low road, and more perilous. Going to Mass is the very most dangerous thing one can do. And, so far as the worldly wise are concerned, the most foolish.

      The dishonest steward is the one who goes to the Mass, but takes the Name in vain. His attempts to operate on the Church will catapult him into the abyss that yawns on every side of the Holy Mountain.

  3. Righteousness produces trust, and trust produces wealth in society. This is well documented in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

    Good religion produces righteousness. Unfortunately good religion is rare. All of the major religions had good times, when they produced righteousness, and bad times, when they didn’t. Our modern times are bad times for all of the major religions.

    I am doing what I can to promote righteousness with my Act Biblically project. My meetup went public a week ago and I have 3 other members now. I will organize a meeting soon. One of these members I met at a John Birch Society meeting. (I have been going to any group that I think may have potential members for Act Biblically.) My feeling is that there probably aren’t more than a handful of people in El Paso, where I live, who are serious about morality. So my hope is to leverage these people by organizing classes for kids to teach them biblical morality through Bible study as well as developing their minds in other ways. I am hoping to get the adults in the Act Biblically group to help with these classes. That is my current plan, but I am open to suggestions.

  4. “To maintain a social tone of virtue, you need constant selection pressure in its favor, and against vice. In the wilderness, or in situations of dire poverty, that pressure is easy to maintain.”

    Whoa, there, Nellie! These two sentences seem to be saying that it is easy to maintain a selection pressure in favor of virtue and against vice in situations of dire poverty. There are _mountains_ of empirical evidence that this is not true as a general rule. There are plenty of people in situations of great poverty who are promiscuous, who abuse substances (which they purchase or barter for with what small resources they are able to get hold of), who beat their wives and/or children, who gravely neglect their children, who sell their children into slavery, who sell their own bodies to get food or sorely needed money. Poverty _definitely_ carries its own set of temptations away from virtue and toward vice. It is *by no means* easy to maintain a social tone of virtue in situations of dire poverty. Moreover, if an entire group (a town, say) is sunk in great poverty, it is by no means more likely that that town will be able to maintain social pressure on people to, say, treat their families well or not abuse substances. Indeed, people will be so busy trying to survive themselves that it would seem the greater temptation will be to mind one’s own business if old Mr. Jones beats the heck out of his wife or gets roaring drunk every night (and maybe both). It is societies with a little more disposable income that can afford to worry about such things.

    • It depends on how one examines virtue. Look at TFR. Notice that it is frequently higher in those societies that are less developed? Clearly having children is not the only virtue, but to the extent that it is a virtue it is clearly practiced less often amongst the more economically advanced nations.

  5. No, it really doesn’t depend upon “how one examines virtue,” because clearly there _are_ non-virtuous patterns evident and rampant in impoverished societies, which falsifies the general claim that pressure in favor of virtue is “easy to maintain” in conditions of dire poverty. Just one example:

    I have friends who are missionaries to South Africa to the black groups there. They say without exaggeration that among the people they serve marriage has virtually ceased to exist. They are having to reinvent the nuclear family from scratch. It would be completely false to say that in these Africans’ lives (in which the poverty is so dire that my friends, husband and wife doctors, are attempting to introduce the growing of *sunflower seeds* as a source of some sort of protein) it is “easy to maintain” societal pressure towards virtue.

    This isn’t a matter of one’s perspective. No society in which stable marriage is virtually unknown is a society in which it is easy to maintain pressure towards virtue!

    Moreover, there are specific ways in which poverty creates temptations to wrong behavior, which are exploited by others. Prostitution is an example. In third-world countries many women feel that they have no choice but to prostitute themselves for money, because of their poverty. A more esoteric example is the growing practice in India of women’s renting their wombs to Westerners as surrogate mothers. Another example in India is the murder of daughters, encouraged in part by economic factors such as high bridal prices, combined with poverty.

    Examples like this could be multiplied. Temptation to theft or fraud is a simpler one.

    These are not mere matters of opinion.

    • I will point out that you are discussing in the case of South Africa, a highly urbanized circumstance of poverty. It is deplorable, but that form of poverty is the product of development, urbanization, and the welfare state as much as it is a result of material want.

      In your example of prostitution, I need only point out that Japan was in general more virtuous in the context of a licensed brothel system of restrictive prostitution (where women often did prostitute themselves for money), rather than in the context of present day sexual freedom which allows far more degeneracy. Today a girl who has sex outside of wedlock does not have the excuse of feeding her baby brother, or herself. It is usually only because of personal enjoyment.

      I can’t be sanguine about material development, I am afraid.

      If you want an example of family size vs GDP look here:
      http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/43/TFR_vs_PPP_2009.svg

      And religiosity vs GDP one need only look here:
      http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2010/09/04/opinion/0904OPEDBLOW_600sub.jpg

  6. Why do you assume that people who have so little protein that they are being encouraged to use their land to grow sunflowers for their seeds are in an urban environment? That is definitely _not_ the impression I get from my missionary doctor friends.

    If you think that a system of legal prostitution is somehow a good thing, then I can’t help you. It could not, in any event, be called virtue.

    Besides, the statement I was answering *expressly* said that it is *easy* to keep pressure in place in favor of virtue in conditions of dire poverty. I have now counterexampled that. Your answer seems to be, “Yeah, but somehow, there’s _more_ virtue in conditions of poverty than in our present world.” Not only is that not really to the point of the specific statement I have counterexampled (which was a general and absolute statement about easiness, not a comparative statement), it is not clear to me that your examples prove it.

    Prostitution to get money because one is poor is a horrible thing. If you think you can compare Moral Horror A with Moral Horror B and come up with something positive to say about Moral Horror A, then I simply don’t live in the same moral universe that you live in!

    If you want to be sentimental about the alleged great virtuousness of human society under conditions of deep poverty, I’m just afraid that facts don’t support you, and I cannot agree with you. Immorality is caused by the human heart, which is not made virtuous by casting in question whether people will have the bare necessities of life.

    • Lydia is of course correct that poverty is no guarantor of virtue. There is no such thing, so far as I can tell. She is right also that for the poor there are few good options – few options that are Good. This is almost a definition of poverty, no? And it is also plain that vices such as promiscuity are correlated with poverty – that they are one gate in the vicious cycle of positive feedback that keeps the wicked poor from climbing out of poverty. Vice causes poverty, and poverty increases the short term relative payoff of vice.

      But then, I wasn’t arguing that poverty engenders virtue, but that it punishes vice more swiftly and certainly than riches would. A rich man may do some very wicked things, lose a lot of his wealth, and still be quite rich, so that he suffers little on account of his foolishness. He has far more room for error than a poor man. Virtue is therefore far more valuable and important to the poor than to the rich, even as it is, like every other achievement, harder for them to attain.

      To the extent that vice is punished, it is discouraged, and so frustrated, at the margin, as compared to a situation where it is encouraged. That is the only point I was making in the passage that prompted Lydia’s comment.

  7. I think I understand, Kristor. You were using the term “selection pressure” in something more like a Darwinian sense, as in, “If you are a desperately poor alcoholic you are more likely to die young than if you are a rich alcoholic.” There’s truth in that, and indeed I’ve seen an article lately that argues that things like fatherlessness are less absolutely devastating for the rich Hollywood denizens who have designer babies, and for the designer babies themselves, than for the poor who have babies without fathers and for their babies. There’s some truth to that as well, though I for one find it difficult to compare the unnatural situation of some movie star’s little one whose poor little face I see on The Sun week after week with the situation of some impoverished child in the ghetto whose mother is addicted to crack. It’s an apples and oranges pair of messes, but I suppose that in selective terms the child of the movie star is more likely to survive to adulthood than the child of the impoverished crack addict. In _those_ terms, however, the “selective pressure” seems more than compensated for by the fact that the vicious rich have fewer children than the vicious poor.

    All of which I suppose only goes to show that negative selection pressure isn’t worth a whole lot, all things considered, when it comes to the maintenance of virtue and the discouragement of vice.

    • Also, while I did indeed use “selection pressure” in its Darwinian sense, I meant it to apply, not only to the generations of men, but to the generations of their ways: to their decisions about how they shall spend their days, about “what is the right thing to do next.” “Selection” is just another word for “decision.” This is why life – by which I mean, biological procedure of any type – is inherently a moral procedure.

    • There is also this: one of the social functions of the rich – or rather of the noble, of the oligarchical class – is to function as moral exemplars for the people at large. The manner of life of the “rich and famous” is the manner of life that ordinary folks of the more persuadable sort will tend to think is proper, and correct, not just for the rich, but for themselves. This is why, for example, it was *so critically important* for the King to ride valorously and lethally into battle at the head of his men, this being perhaps the archetypal, and bloodiest instance of the phenomenon I here notice. “If it’s good enough for King Harry, by God, it’s good enough for me,” an archer would think. And so it was that at Agincourt, Henry proclaimed that all his men were that day his own brothers, and that he would lay down his life for them. Really, it’s about as gorgeous and wonderful as humanity can get.

      But then, when the rich are corrupt, or vain, or wicked, or timorous, or mad, then the whole society is rotten, as Denmark in Hamlet’s day. In such times, the ordinary run of men as usual take their cue from their oligarchs, and so ruin their own lives far more thoroughly than their rulers do, who are cushioned and cosseted by their wealth, prevented from suffering the full wrath of nature at their mockery of her law.

      It’s one thing for a rich Hollywood actress to be a drunken adulterer, and quite another, more serious and horrible thing for her poor fan to imitate her.

  8. I understand Kristor, and Lydia.

    I do want to say that I tend to side with Kristor here. Today it is true that there seems to be immorality at every social level (there is) but I would contend there are some unique characteristics at this point that may not be present in the future and were not present in the past.

    • Actually, Anymouse, based on your comments above and Kristor’s clarification regarding the phrase “selection pressure,” I shd. be inclined to say that I suspect my position and his are closer together than mine and yours. I see in Kristor no inclination to make positive statements, even comparative ones, about legalized prostitution in Japan. To give just one example.

      I really have no patience with a certain type of trad-con or “Crunchy Con” romanticization of Anything But American Suburbia and the hasty attempt to find _some_ “but it’s comparatively better” comment to make about whatever factual horrors are revealed concerning the behavior, society, and situation of the alleged Noble Savage or Noble Poor, and I’m afraid that you seem to be trending in just exactly that direction, a tendency I don’t see in Kristor at all in the conversation as it’s developed.

      • Most likely you are closer to his views than mine (something I am perfectly content to agree with), and I will agree there is a tendency to ignore the importance of absolute morality and simply romanticize whatever seems to be better. I don’t want to get into that. And I am afraid of defending the “Noble Suburbanite” just as much as the “Noble Savage”.

  9. I do not believe people to be fungible, so a discussion of the woes betiding black South Africans is not germane to the woes betiding our allegedly developed nation.

    Our nation was far more virtuous before the prosperity of the post-war years. This is true of Europe and Japan as well. Why 1968 was a watershed year for all is beyond my understanding, but in many ways, it was Year Zero of the Cultural Revolution which continues to destroy our society. (This is not to deny the damage that started before that, such as FDR and his socialist policies.) Some say that the ruin that liberalism is wreaking can only happen in a prosperous society, where, as Kristor pointed out, prosperity shields people from the ill consequences of their choices more than would be the case were they poor.

    As evidenced by my earlier comment, I believe that we are on our way to financial ruin. A generation may pass, perhaps more, before we restore current levels of prosperity. Will post-collapse society be more virtuous than it is now? On the one hand, it seems hard to believe that our society could get any worse—yet I fully expect it to do so (before the collapse, anyway). On the other hand, some of our wickedness and decadence, such as public and institutional support for homosexual pseudo-marriage, is unprecedented. I can only hope and pray that after whatever collapse—financial, political, moral—comes, that liberalism will be firmly routed, and that we may live in a society that values the good over what feels good.

    • Bill Lewis, I only brought up the black South African poor because I was attempting to discuss the actual moral effects of conditions of dire poverty, and facts are important to that end. It is relatively easier to find conditions of truly dire poverty abroad than at home, and all the more so if (see Anymouse’s comments above) for some reason or other one is being told that the urban poor don’t count! Non-urban dire poverty is a good deal more common in the Third World than in the first world and indeed serves as a kind of laboratory in which we can test generalizations regarding the moral and social effects of dire non-urban poverty.

      Part of my concern here is (not that I believe Kristor himself is actually promoting this) there is a meme that goes about in certain traditionalist circles that an economic system that eradicates smallpox, lifts from the people the fear of epidemics of bubonic plague and typhoid, gives us clean water and indoor plumbing, produces abundant food, and in many other ways *manifestly* improves the lot of man is actually bad for us, because the poor are so much more virtuous. Hence, it would be better if we could destroy or tear down or perhaps tax our prosperous nations into poverty, because then the people of the erstwhile first world could share in all the wondrous moral benefits of semi-starvation. The left also shares this perspective at times; hence an odd rapprochement comes about between the anti-capitalist left and the nostalgic trad-right. We need to be careful not to give aid and comfort to such sloppy and foolish ideas, and to that end, yes, information about the actual moral situation of direly impoverished black South Africans is relevant.

      • I don’t want to get romanticist. We need to be realistic, because after all reality is what matters. I do contend that data driven arguments have their place as well.

        I perhaps took things a bit far in my earlier post, but Kristor does remind us that the “selection pressure” of poverty (and the effect of the elite) does mean something in a society. And sometimes those effects can be beneficial.

        I am afraid that I may be beginning to annoy Kristor at this point, and apologize if that is the case.

      • Lydia McGrew, I see your point, but part of my objection is that black South Africans are unlikely to pull themselves up out of mass poverty as we did ourselves, so their poverty may be intractable in a way that ours was not. As both the American and the African experiences show, blacks seem to be most virtuous when they are in a white-run society that demands adherence to Christian values, regardless of their prosperity. When they are on their own, or in a post-Christian society such as ours, they are more likely to lapse into moral turpitude than whites in the same society (relative crime rates of various races seems to be a favorite topic of the HBD crowd, but on that point at least they are right). (As an aside, I think Lawrence Auster’s views on the role of blacks in God’s creation are worth contemplating.)

        While the meme you talk about no doubt exists, I do not believe that improved technology (eradicating smallpox, public sanitation, etc.) is identical to increased economic prosperity. While the capitalist system is more likely than any other to bring about improvement in both technology and prosperity, it seems that it is possible to have advances in one area without advances in the other, so I think it is worthwhile to separate them. I also did not read Kristor as saying “the poor are more virtuous” as much as “abundance makes it easier to lose virtue.”

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