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WEEK 2 – About virtue and character

What do we mean by virtue and character?

Home > #1-Understand > Week 2 -Why virtue and character

Although you may be anxious to begin the practical part of educating virtue in your character, you first need some basic understanding.

The first stage of virtue education, in fact, involves your mind and knowing more about virtue is the first building block in making your virtuous.

The philsopher Socrates went as far as saying that if we remove ignorance about virtue we will become virtuous. That’s probably going a little bit too far, and Augustine is correct in reminding us that we have a fallen will (and not just a bad memory),and that therefore knowledge alone will not produce virtue. As depicted in the Caravaggio painting, it is perfectly possible, for example, to know about virtue and still cheat.

Nonetheless, knowledge about virtue is important and it does contribute to making us virtuous. It would be unthinkable, in fact, to imagine a person growing in virtue without knowing anything about it.

So, let’s build a little bit of virtue literacy with some basic questions. What do we mean by virtue? How is it related to character?  And what do we mean by educating virtue in our character?

What is virtue?

The word ‘virtue’ has sadly slipped out of our contemporary vocabulary and most of us would struggle to define it with any degree of precision.

Try writing the word ‘virtue’ into your search engine and see what comes up on the internet. You may want to refine your search to find definitions of virtue, or lists of virtues in different traditions.  If you are working in a group, this might be a good activity to do together and discuss. As you will discover, there are many definitions. But there are also some common features. Can you identify them?

Here is a nice, complex definition:

Virtues are stable dispositional clusters concerned with praiseworthy functioning in a number of significant and distinctive spheres of human life’ [JA].

Let’s try something simpler.

Virtue might be defined as ‘the habit of being good’.  It is the expression of a moral person and the foundation of all ethics.  We can also think it as the opposite to vice. Or, if you are a Christian, you might find it helpful to think of virtue and vice as synonyms for the biblical terms ‘righteousness’ and ‘sin’, with the former representing the perfect moral character of God and un-fallen human nature, and the latter indicating everything that falls short of that.

We can break this lofty concept down even further by thinking about the virtues (in the plural, rather than in the singular).  The virtues, in fact, can be listed, organised and classified in ways that give a fuller understanding of what virtuous character actually looks like.

In the diagram above you can see some common virtues (click here for a high resolution file of the ‘Virtue Wheel‘).

  • The Cardinal virtues which include prudence, justice, temperance and courage
  • The Foundational virtues which include constancy and humility
  • The Theological virtues which include faith, hope and love
  • The Social virtues which include kindness, compassion, decency, loyalty, diligence, honesty, friendliness
  • The Personal virtues which include zeal, dignity, integrity, ambition, gratitude, humour
  • The Intellectual virtues which include attentiveness, creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness
  • You might also find it helpful to think of lists of vices, such as the 7 capital vices of pride, avarice, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth (Thomas Aquinas, by the way, considered these the source of all ‘sins’).

These lists are not exhaustive, and there are plenty more.   The virtue education project that you will follow through this site will focus on 13 of the main virtues taken from these lists.

What is character?

Now, let’s move on to the second question.  How is virtue related to character? And what do we even mean by character?

The word character may translate in different contexts and languages to mean several things.  In English, for example, it is often used to describe different personality traits such as being introverts or extroverts. But that is not the use that we are making of the term. When we speak about character, we are describing the core essence of our moral being.  Our character is about who we are in relation to goodness. And so character always has moral value. Personalities can vary, but character should always aim at virtue.  

Character is like your moral DNA.  It is a written code that determines our moral being.  Think back to the story of Beatrice.  Her character was missing moral DNA code around the virtue of justice, but also contained flawed code around the vice of selfishness.  This deeply influenced her actions, such as bad driving habits, but it also influenced her feelings, desires and the ways that others perceived her.   All these external manifestations had their root cause in the moral essence of her being.  When we talk about educating characer and virtue, we are therefore aiming at a transformation of this basic moral DNA.

And this is why it is important to understand virtuous character as a stable disposition.  This means that virtuous character not just about occasionally doing good actions that are external to what we are.   When Aristotle said that ‘one swallow does not make Spring’, he was saying that a few isolated virtuous actions are not enough to shape your character.  We can’t, for example, just perform one act of compassion and, because of that, consider ourselves to be a compassionate person.

You may have approached this site about virtue education thinking that you would find a ‘bucket list’ of rules and a call to slavish obedience.  Sorry, that is not is the case. Virtuous character is not external conformity to a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ and virtue education is not simply about telling you what is good and expecting you to do it.

Virtue education is a process of transformation that will change you so that you naturally do what is good, as a result of a new stable disposition of your character. Virtue education is not just a superficial coat of paint, but a process of changing your deep moral being into something that is better where you will find it natural to be virtuous, perform virtuous actions, feel virtuous feelings and decide on virtuous grounds.

Why education?

You will have noticed that this site often uses the three words together ‘character and virtue education’.  The word education here is important, for it denotes an intentional process to develop something.  In this case, it is about developing  your character. Even more specifically, it is about developing your character in virtue.

We could use many other words, like training, growing, cultivating, mentoring, facilitating or discipling.  But we have chosen the great old word ‘education’ that comes from the Latin educere, which in turn is composed of two words, the suffix ‘e’ (out) + ‘duco‘ (to lead).  Therefore education is literally ‘to lead out…’

This is beautiful.  Education thus is not about pouring in, but about pulling out what is inside of us.  Of course, there is also a time to pour in, as we do not know everything and there is always so much to learn.  But the emphasis of education here is on leading out of us the virtue which is part of our natural being, and allowing it to flourish in our character.

The image of the seed is a good one.  As humans, we have the seeds of virtue inside of us.  But they may be suffocated, diseased or poorly nourished.  Character and virtue education is the intentional process to develop those natural virtues.

These were some short introductory thoughts to some very deep and complex issues.   In the next section you will look a little more at the roots of character and virtue education to help you appreciate the vast traditions that are behind virtue education.

Additional resources

Next > Week 3-Exploring the roots


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