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.
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].
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.
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:
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].
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.
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…
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?