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#1.3 – Exploring the roots

Is character and virtue education something new or a long-standing (and forgotten) tradition?

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You have probably heard about virtue education before.  But perhaps not, and you may have impression that it a new trend.  It is not.

As you consider committing to a plan of virtue education, you are standing on the shoulders of giants.  When we speak of character and virtue education, in fact, we are latching onto a millennial historical tradition that can be traced in many global cultures and philosophies as well as in Christian theology.

Here are some tasters.  This section is a little longer than others, and you may consider it as material for a couple of sessions.

Roots in Christian theology

We start with theology. If you are a Christian in a faith community or in a theological school, you will be most interested in the theological roots of virtue education. The examples below, come from philosophical traditions or from other religions and cultures, but what about Christianity?  In particular, what do Christian theologians and the Bible have to say about virtue education?

As you can appreciate, this is a huge question. Here are just a few examples:

  • First the theologians.  The list of Christian theologians who have engaged with the topic of virtue is long, and includes Origen, the desert fathers, Cassian, Ambrose, Augustine, St Benedict, St Francis, Abelard and Aquinas (the latter basically revisited Aristotelian theory from a Christian point of view).   Although around the time of the Reformation there was a decline in interest around the virtues (for reasons we won’t get into), but today there is a renewed interest in virtue and influential Christian thinkers like Hauerwas, McIntyre and N.T. Wright are again writing on the topic.
  • Second, the Old Testament.  There are many stories in the Old Testament, and these can be read as virtue education devices for the Jewish nation. We see the prudence of Joseph, the wisdom of Solomon, the courage of David, the faith of Abraham and the hope of Moses.  But we can also see that a good deal of the Old Testament wisdom literature is directed to the praise and practice of virtue.   Psalm 15, for example, is a manifesto of virtuous character  and the ‘wisdom’ of Proverbs is grounded in the practices of virtue.
  • It is embarrassing to write only a few lines about the rich tradition of virtue in the New Testament. As in the Old Testament, we also have many stories about virtue and vice, provided for our imitation or avoidance. These range from Paul who we are called to imitate in his magnanimity, temperance and constancy, to Judas, Pilate and Mark who stand out as bad examples of greed, cowardice and inconstancy.   We can also consider word studies, like the use of the terms ‘virtue’ (arête from the Greek) and ‘righteousness’ (dikaiosune was used by Athenian philosophers in relation to virtue).  Or we might look at the ethical lists in the New Testament, where we find at least fourteen lists of virtues and eight of vices.   But the most profitable study is probably to read through the epistles that are remarkably virtue-rich.  Philippians, for example, tells us to work out our salvation through the virtues of civility, love and humility. Colossians defines pleasing the Lord in terms of an ethical list of virtues and 1 Thessalonians associates sanctification with a holy life of virtue. James is an entire book about practical virtue and the letters to Timothy and Titus list the virtues necessary to be a church leader.

Of course the Bible speaks about many other things, and virtue is surely not the main topic of God’s revelation.  But, there is no doubt that it is one of the very important topics! The more you look the more you will find.

Further study

If you are working through this site with a Christian group (a church, a discipleship group or a formation group in a theological college), this might be a good place to pause, and take a few weeks of time to do some extra study.  You might, for example:

  • Look at key biblical texts, like 2 Peter 1 that calls to add virtue to our faith, or the re-read book of James and explore relationship between faith and works in terms of growing in virtue. If you are looking for something more ‘meaty’, then consider Romans 6 and do some research on the ‘recapitulation’ theory of the atonement.
  • Study key biblical terms in reference to virtue and vice, like holiness, sanctification, righteousness, blessing, sin, disobedience and wisdom.
  • Look at the stories of biblical heroes and villains from the point of their virtues and vices.
  • Identify dynamics in the epistles that have to do with character and virtue. You might explore, for example, the typical “theory–practice” structure of several letters or the presence of ethical lists.  Or, you might read first Corinthians as a case study of a church that is living with many vices and is being called back to virtue.

In the additional resources of this site you may want to use the brief study guides dealing with the Virtues in the Bible, dig deeper through the Selected Resources on Virtue or watch a video or two from the Video Resources.

Aristotelian roots

We move on to briefly consider the contribution of Aristotle. Of all ancient Western thinkers, he is undoubtedly the key figure in the development of theories and practices related to virtue and character.  In Aristotle we find more than just a Western philosophical tradition, for he has deeply influenced classical culture and much Christian thinking in this area and much of what he wrote is resonant with other cultural traditions.

Some Christians may find it unusual to consider a secular philosopher as a valid source, but if we believe in the doctrine of common grace, we recognise that God can bring good things into the world through many means (see more here on the meaning of common grace).  What Aristotle has written about character and virtue, is one of those good things.

Here are some highlights of what Aristotle said:

  • Humanity has a purpose (telos), and that purpose is found in being agents of goodness and virtue.
  • When human purpose is fulfilled, we find deep happiness (eudaemonia).  This means that virtue is the road to human flourishing.   In the Nichomachean Ethics he claims that “human happiness is the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue”.
  • The soul is always developing, either towards vice or towards virtue, and education is the force that will make the difference. The education of virtue should, therefore, be a central activity for human communities.
  • To educate virtue we need a holistic approach that includes reason, knowledge, emotions, the will and action.
  • There is no one ‘bag of virtues’ that can be prescribed for everyone at all times (maybe with the exception of the cardinal virtues).  Individuals instead must be conscious that virtues take on different faces in different contexts and this means that wisdom (prudence) is the first virtue will help us discern the best available good in any given circumstance.
  • Virtue is often found in the middle between the extremes of defect and excess.  So, the virtue of courage is the ‘golden mean’ between the vices of cowardice (defect) and excess (recklessness).  To grow in virtue, you must know therefore whether you need to correct defect or excess, and avoid going in the wrong direction.
  • Virtue gradually  becomes a natural part of our character through repetition.  This is called habituation and is the main feature of stage , #3 – Habituate.

Aristotle wrote about many other things (some good, some less good) which are not mentioned or evaluated in this site. The point here is just to show you that virtue education is rooted in an articulated tradition that is centuries old.

Global dimensions

What about the tradition of character and virtue in global contexts? Here are some examples:

  • Confucianism is rich with references to character and virtue. The essence of Confucian practice, in fact,  is found in becoming ren, which is best understood as becoming a loving person through virtuous qualities. The main properties of ren are the virtues of li as propriety, xiao as filial piety, ti as brotherly love, zhong as loyalty, shu as tolerance, yi as righteousness, zhi as wisdom and xin as integrity.
  • In Islam too, there are universal virtues that are meant shape our lives as moral human beings. These are called the guiding virtues and the prophet Muhammad himself  said that he had been sent ‘to fulfil the virtues which go with nobility of character [masarik al-ahhlak].
  • Virtues are emphasised in Indian epics such as the Ramayana or the Panchatantra stories.  The Bhagavad-Gita also lists virtues like fearlessness, purity of heart, steadfastness in knowledge and devotion, benevolence and self-control.
  • In Sumerian praise literature, the virtues are either explicitly praised or taught through the tales of heroes. One of the most famous epics, the Epic of Gilgamesh, can be interpreted as a journey into wisdom, humility and moral growth.
  • There are many contemporary examples of the revival of character and virtue education in primary and secondary schools across the world.  And trends are beginning to appear in higher education as well.
  • Character and virtue are also becoming popular today in the professional paradigms of law, health, media, business, professional workers, high finance, the corporate management world and the sciences and a growing body of research is being produced in these fields.

Clearly, these are tasters, but hopefully they are enough to make you look harder into your own culture and context to see the roots and signs of virtue education.

Having briefly considered the giants in virtue education, are you ready to stand on their shoulders and commit to a plan of virtue education?

Next > #1.4 – Committing to the plan

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