Giving it all Away
Pier Giorgio Frassati was born in 1901 to a family of the wealthiest class in Italy. As a boy he already began acting differently than other kids in his social class. Pier gave away the shoes off his feet on walks home, rode his bike to buy food for the hungry with his bus fare, and even shared meals with children who were contagiously sick, just so they didn’t have to eat alone.
As a teenager, Pier and his friends would go on mountain-hiking adventures where Pier would offer his luxurious lodging to his companions who couldn’t afford a fireplace in the snowy mountain ranges. When he was given a car for his 18th birthday, he sold it that same day and made housing payments for those who could not afford their homes. In fact, by age 21, he was supporting about 125 families with food, housing, clothing, medical needs, and tuition.
Pier began hiding his charity more and more, even telling those he served that his name was “Brother Jerome,” so that his well-connected and very-public father would not hear about these virtuous works. To his affluent and powerful folks, Pier’s life was a stain on the family reputation.
Or so they thought.
On July 4, 1925, Pier Giorgio died quietly at home after contracting Polio from a stranger. He was only 24. When his parents held his funeral a few days later, they couldn’t believe their eyes. 10,000 people showed up. And they weren’t political or aristocratic types. They were thousands of the city’s poor, and they were there to say, “Thank you,” for this astounding young man’s virtuous life.
Pier Giorgio Frassati was a man of virtue. Stemming from the Latin “virtus” (power, strength) and the Greek “arête” (excellence), virtue is moral excellence. Virtues are powers or strengths of excellent living rightly, and they promote both the common and individual good. Pier believed that what he had was given him to share, that loving his neighbor was the rule for life. Contrary to his social standing—power, prestige, and separation from other classes—Pier Giorgio believed in justice, in meeting needs of all.
In Virtuous Leadership, Alexandre Havard, attorney and director of the Havard Virtuous Leadership Institute, writes, “Leaders either strive to grow in virtue as surely as they breathe or they are not leaders. Life for them is a quest for personal excellence.”
Hundreds of educational institutions, leadership organizations, social groups, authors and others have invested so much seeking a list of virtues that “transcend” religious, cultural, historical or other divisions. Why? We want what is true – for all people, of all times, in all classes and contexts. We want a moral standard that transcends what divides.
Let’s start looking at when we don’t see virtue.
We easily recognize deficiency in “justice” or an excess in “self-control”. Too much “hope” becomes superstition, and not enough “temperance” leads to promiscuity. These are easily recognized as un-virtuous, and we innately want better for ourselves and for the collective whole.
Virtuous action? Well, it’s found in the middle. As found in his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle taught that virtue can be found between extremes. For example, “courage” is the mean between the extremes of cowardice (deficiency) and foolishness (excess). The virtue of “hope” would be the middle point between the extremes of unrealistic wishing and the lost hope of depression. As state officers, the virtue of “socializing” or “friendship” might be found between being unapproachably cold and obnoxiously imposing.
It is easy to find lists of all kinds of virtues, but the most widely-accepted and most time-tested list includes prudence, justice, courage and self-control, found in Plato’s writings. Today, many add faith, hope and love. However, what seems to be of more significant concern isn’t which virtues, but how to live them in concrete, messy, everyday life.
Pier lived the virtue of justice to the max. This Italian teenager gave away to the point of becoming poor, even losing his life. Yet this virtue was the acme of his existence! His friends were more interested in typical teenage things: fashion, entertainment, and partying. But when they were around Pier, they recall acting differently. They said that it wasn’t his verbal commands for virtuous living that influenced them. He was simply a virtuous person, and being around Pier influenced others for good.
Toward the Top
In the September article, we discussed how character is the impression we make on others—in person or online, positive or negative. We talked about how Nelson Mandela chose to be expelled rather than give in to what he knew was wrong.
Pier and Mandela are both dynamic, contemporary, young models for virtuous living. And, often, a model like them—or maybe someone we personally know—is the best concrete revelation of encountering virtue in action. Asking yourself, “What would Pier have done?” or “What did Mandela do in a similar circumstance?” is a sure route to building good character for yourself. Virtuous action forms a solid character.
Pier Giorgio had a saying, Verso l'alto!, “Toward the top”. Let’s go, then, toward a way of life that is for our good and the good of all!
Want another idea for taking a personal inventory of virtue? Before you retire for the evening, do a short examination of your day. I’d recommend keeping it short. This should be something you could do even at the end of the most exhausting of days...
As you continue to examine your days, you will begin growing in virtue, finding the middle ground between the extremes of living.
Originally published for the National FFA Organization's Bright Ideas magazine, November 2013