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WEEK 3 – Exploring the roots

Is character and virtue education something new or a long-standing 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 historical traditions that can be traced in many global cultures, philosophies and religions.

The examples below have been roughly arranged chronological order.

Roots in great ancient cultures

When looking for virtue traditions, the choice of great ancient cultures of the world is vast and we might into the Egyptian, Indus, Inca or Mayan civilizations. Here we have selected the ancient Mesopotamian culture.

Although virtue and character are not a prevalent feature of ancient Mesopotamian literature, they are recurring motifs. Here are some examples.

In Sumerian praise literature, the virtues are either explicitly praised or taught through the tale of a hero. Lament literature was also often designed to express the loss of virtue or the longing for it. Codes were written to enforce virtues like justice, and the gods were often associated with these virtues. The famous Code of Hammurabi, for example, is one of the most ancient and perfect collections of laws meant to ensure justice, and its divine guardian was Marduk, the Lord of Wisdom.

The myth genre is also focused on the virtues and vices, mostly of the gods. Here we find mostly tales of betrayal, friendship, loyalty, pride, jealousy, wrath, courage, lust, guile and lying. Even the creation myths were often linked to struggles with the vices of laziness, ingenuity, intemperance and pride.

Epics also have an important place in Mesopotamian literature, the most famous of which is the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh. This story tells of the deeds of Gilgamesh and portrays the good life in terms of acceptance of mortality and a disposition to a moderate enjoyment of what is good. Gilgamesh is the hero whose character is to be emulated, and yet Gilgamesh is more than just a natural-born hero. He is a hero who, through pain, grows morally. He becomes wiser and more humble, thus learning what it is to be a man, what it means to lead, what communal responsibility is and what it means to die.

Closely linked to these epics, we find collections of wisdom literature that include proverbs, moral precepts, instructions and fables. Here the main themes revolve around human mortality, submission to fate and the need to mediate between gods and humans. But the figure of the pious person also emerges as one who is prudent, obedient, learned, intelligent and religiously devout [OX].

Confucian roots

There is much to be said about the commitment of Confucius to character and virtue. Central to Confucius’s teaching is the idea of ren as the “perfect virtue,” also translated as “benevolence,” or “goodness,” or “humanness.”

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.

We note that, for Confucius, ren is a quality that is available to all human beings and that can be cultivated and practised. It is not a special endowment for aristocrats or rulers but is the potential of goodness in each human being. The outcome of virtue in Confucianism is very similar to what we have been referring to as “human flourishing.” For Confucius, in fact, human beings become “more human and more humanised in proportion to their growth in ren.”

When it comes to virtue education, the cultivation of ren is the primary objective. Education for Confucius was considered as moral self-cultivation in communities of like-minded colleagues. The Confucian philosopher Xunzi makes it clear that human nature can be changed for the better through proper education.

For Confucius, virtue is particularly important for those who are in leadership positions. Confucius summarized the “five ways” of the virtuous leader as follows: “He who can enact five things in the world is ren.” When asked for details, he went on, “He is reverent, hence he receives no insults; he is tolerant, hence he gains the multitudes; he is trustworthy, hence others entrust him with responsibilities; he is quick, hence he has accomplishments; he is generous, hence he is capable of being placed in charge of others.”[CO] It is, in fact, embodiment of the high moral standards that makes a person fit to lead and to become a junzi: a gentleman or a morally ideal leader. Virtuous love of neighbour, for example, is seen by Confucius as the prime mark of a leader. Virtuous leaders, according to Confucius, will be able to transform society as they model virtue. When leaders are virtuous, society will be well ordered.

Aristotelian roots

The contribution of Greek culture to the tradition of character and virtue is immense, and no one has written more systematically about it than the philosopher Aristotle.  Of all ancient Western thinkers, he is undoubtedly the key figure in the development of theories and practices related to virtue and character.  Aristotle has deeply influenced classical culture and is still today an important starting point for anyone that is engaging in the revival of character education.

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” [A]
  • The soul is always developing, either towards vice or towards virtue, and education is theforce 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 – Practice.

Aristotle was also deeply influential in shaping both Christian and Islamic thinking in the area of character and virtue.  As many of the great Christian theologians write about virtue, they explicitly make reference to the work of Aristotle. St Aquinas is an outstanding example of this. It was the Islamic scholars Avicenna and Averroes who developed Aristotelian dialogue with Islam, which included the tradition of character and virtue.  The Prophet Muhammad said of himself: ‘I have been sent to fulfil the virtues which go with nobility of character [masarik al-ahhlak]’ [YA].

Roots in Christian theology

Let us look more closely at Christian 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 above, 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), 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 and the Hebrew tradition.  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 Old Testament wisdom literature 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 Christian Scriptures speak about many other things, and virtue is surely not the main topic.  But, there is no doubt that it is one of the very important topics! The more you look the more you will find.

Contemporary revivals

The information you have just read may lead you to feel that character and virtue education are relics from the past.  But it is not so.  There is today, a renewed focus on virtue and character that stands on the shoulder of these giants, generating cutting edge changes in many societies.

Just a few examples…

  • Character and virtue education are gaining a place  in primary and secondary schools across the world and trends are beginning to appear in higher education as well.
  • In Chinese culture, there seems to be a return to the Confucian past to reshape present moral identity and in Western culture, there is undoubtedly a revival of Aristotelianism in the area of character education.
  • In the academic world, there is a renewed interest in virtue ethics, as a viable alternative to other ethical theories.
  • 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.
  • In the field of religion and faith-based communities, discourse around character and virtue are gaining traction, especially when it comes to leadership training.

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.

Additional resources

  • Reflections from the Christian Scriptures on Virtue in Proverbs.
  • Reflections from Christian Scriptures on Ethical Lists in the New Testament.
  • More on virtue in Islamic contexts.  See the Quran, Surah 16:90 where ‘Allah commands justice and kindness and charity to one’s kindred, and forbids indecency, wickedness and oppression’ or Surah 17 that offers a summary of foundational virtues.
  • More on ‘ubuntu‘ as an African approach to virtue ethics (this is simply a link to a book abstract, but try typing ‘ubuntu + virtue’ into your search engine…
  • More for on contemporary character education developments, see video seminar on Four Accounts of Flourishing as the Aim of Education
  • In the additional resources of this site dig deeper through the Selected Resources on Virtue or watch a video or two from the Video Resources.

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 > Week 4-Committing to the plan

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