Only a Virtuous Person Can Live a Beautiful Life

An out-of-tune instrument cannot produce beautiful music, and an out-of-tune soul cannot live a beautiful life.


I have used an analogy involving a guitar for moral philosophy and ethics in the past, and it has been quite helpful in a variety of situations for making my point about the basis of morality: It is our nature that dictates right and wrong action, virtue and vice, and offenses against that nature do damage to the self.

But a new analogy occurred to me in a recent encounter with the instrument. My 5-year-old daughter was playing with one of our children’s toy guitars, which takes a lot of use and abuse. I watched and applauded her efforts, and then she presented the instrument to me. I took it in hand and attempted to play something that I knew on the four remaining strings. (Lest I begin receiving requests to come and perform, I should let the reader know that “play” is about all you can call what I do on the instrument.)

As I began to play I became immediately aware of the fact that the guitar was badly out of tune. Since it has been subjected to the use of the children, this was not a surprise. My daughter didn’t seem to mind. I played on, and I don’t think there was a single harmonious sound.

The thought that ran through my head was this: “No matter what I do with this guitar, I will not be able to produce beautiful music.” I rarely produce beautiful music in the first place, but now it was nearly impossible unless the instrument was first put in tune. An instrument that is out of tune cannot produce beautiful music.

So, too, a soul that is out of tune cannot live a beautiful life. A self that is in a state of discord can dream all it wants, strive for endless ambition and do deeds regarded as great in the eyes of mankind, but the life in itself will not be beautiful. This internal balance of the well-tuned soul is virtue, and only a virtuous person can live a beautiful life and do beautiful things. The more virtuous the person, the more beautiful the life. The more ordered the internal composition of the person, the more naturally well-ordered deeds will flow forth from the soul. 

There is nothing so beautiful in the world, apart from Our Lord Himself, as a saint. This is why we are so captivated by their lives and their acts of heroic holiness. Beauty arrests us, and beauty of soul is more attractive than anything else. God draws us to himself through the saints because that beauty, that virtue, finds its fountainhead in God. Beauty is only the appearance of goodness shining through.

In The Evidential Power of Beauty, Father Thomas Dubay wrote that beauty is the language of God. “The tens of thousands of details in a virtuous human life synchronized by free will decisions and orchestrated by prudence are fired by love into the matchless beauty of holiness.”

The saints were not born with souls in tune, though. There is a process whereby the person is internally ordered, and it is called sanctification. Each action, however small or seemingly insignificant, arranges the soul into more or less order. We cooperate with the grace given to us, or we do not, and the biggest consequence is what we do to ourselves. As we become more and more virtuous, our actions become more and more beautiful, and thus our lives as a whole.

This does not mean that people without virtue can’t do “good things.” Anyone can do something right, but the action is made more beautiful if it flows from the nature of the person and springs from right desire. The action is in harmony with its source if the agent is virtuous. Even our best deeds are often mixed with selfish motives, and that detracts from the overall beauty of the action.

As I reflected on this principle, I was consoled by the fact that we have a Heavenly Tuner and Master Musician who can take the instrument of any soul and make it right. God even has the ability to take the discordant notes of our lives to create a totally unique, totally elegant harmony in the grand symphony of eternity. His redeeming power and providence are beyond our understanding, and the grace of repentance, no matter what it follows, has supernatural strength to harmonize our lives. God can make any life a beautiful one. He makes all things new.

Even when an instrument is in tune, it still may not produce beautiful music. It must be placed in the hands of a master. In the case of the human soul, though, a virtuous person is, by nature, surrendered to the will of God, the Cosmic Conductor whose music, if we could hear it directly, would instantly catch us up into state of ecstasy. To be well-ordered internally is to be rightly ordered to God; they are not different things. Harmony within and harmony with the outside. Lord, may it be so!