Detail of Raphael’s The School of Athens.

A few weeks ago, Jeff Worthy posted an article here titled “Hall of Virtue” (1). His article got me thinking about virtue and below I’ve jotted some of these thoughts. 

My Catholic upbringing had made the word “virtue” somewhat distasteful to me when I was younger. I got interested in the topic again, however, when I read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Virtue, in the Catholic catechism I was raised on, is about pleasing God. When I could no longer accept the Christian notion of God, I could not accept its notion of virtue either. 

Books have been written about just what Aristotle means by virtue, but the key idea I took away from Nicomachean Ethics is that virtues are about flourishing as a person. There is both a personal and a social side to how virtues help us flourish. At the personal level they help us develop our inner being – inner strength, clarity and happiness; at the social level, they help us become a more likable person, more authentic, more trustworthy, more generous. In short, Nicomachean Ethics taught me that it is my best interest to cultivate certain virtues, rather than something I ought to do for some other purpose.

Aristotle listed four key virtues, which came to be known as the cardinal virtues. These are temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice. I won’t go into details about what Aristotle meant by these terms; anyone interested can look tit up on Wikipedia. 

Once I got interested in the cultivation of virtue, I explored the virtues from other philosophical and spiritual traditions. It’s a very rich topic. Over the years, I developed my own list of “cardinal virtues.” I name these virtues: self-governance, good judgment, compassion/love, and honesty. Below is a brief description of what I mean by each of these terms.

This virtue combines three of Aristotle’s cardinal virtues, temperance, fortitude and prudence, along with mindfulness. These virtues require what is often called “will power.” A failure of these leaves us a puppet to our natural appetites. Overeating, excessive drinking or even addiction, inability to control sexuality, laziness, cowardliness can result. Cultivating the virtue of self-governance, strengthens us against these appetites. At its highest pitch, this virtue leads to what Buddhists call liberation.

Aristotle believed we should do all things in moderation, and I think this is pertinent to self-control. There are times to let loose, times to be passionate, times to let our appetites have their way. But after such a time, we need to have the inner strength to pull ourselves back, to recollect our self, or to use the original meaning of a Christian term, to “re-pent” our self. 

Before moving on to the next virtue, I think it is interesting to look at self-governance in light of the modern market economy and its “culture of consumption.” Marketing and advertising are largely geared toward encouraging people to indulge their appetites. A great triumph of marketing strategy is to make people “addicted” to their product. Addiction is the polar opposite of self governance.

I find it interesting that in that Catholic catechism of my childhood, the being that encouraged us to indulge our appetites and whose triumph was to make us slaves to those appetites is the devil. The United States is supposed by many to be a Christian country, yet we are largely the birthplace and champion of modern marketing and advertising, the voice of this devil.

Good judgment.
At the personal level, Aristotle’s virtue of justice is largely about the cultivation of good judgment. Good judgment requires concentration, knowledge and understanding. It also requires that we can distinguish between a fact and an assumption or opinion.

With good judgment, we can make good decisions and set well considered goals. We can think for our self and resist the peer pressure to accept a position just because others are doing so. 

Good judgment should be the goal of education, but I’m not sure it always is. In modern society, however, it is often where we have to start. Philosophy should be the particular subject we turn to in pursuit of good judgment, but in my experience, it seldom is. The ancient Greek philosophers, however, seem to me better models of this virtue that most of the moderns.

I wish I could say something more specific about how to cultivate good judgment, but I can’t. At the moment, I can’t even think of people who I would recommend as models of good judgment, though I know I’ve encountered many such people in my life. Perhaps, you the reader could offer the names of people you consider good models.

At it highest peak, good judgment becomes wisdom. Wisdom is a kind of habitual good judgment. But then I think that all the virtues I mention here are requirements of wisdom and that wisdom is the fulfilment of virtue. 

In my Catholic catechism, we were taught that in addition to the four cardinal virtues, there were three “theological” virtues: faith, hope and charity. I have come to think of both faith and hope as more often vices than virtues. But charity, in Latin, caritas, definitely has a place as a cardinal virtue. 

Charity, as I learned about it, is love for God and love for, and generosity towards, all humans. In my version, I replace love of God with love of the world. Love of the world was never mentioned in the religion I grew up with. Rather, we were taught to turn away from the things of this world, because our true home was elsewhere. Just why God had fashioned such an interesting world here, was never explained to me. 

Love and compassion are closely related. The difference between them is that compassion can be, and in Buddhism should be, free from attachment. Love, as understood here, involves some degree of attachment. It incites us toward activity. 

Buddha recognized that attachment leads to suffering, because that to which we are attached is necessarily transient. Yes, to love in an attached way does usually involve a degree of pain. Love opens us to the world, and makes us vulnerable. But to suffer for something we love, I think, is a noble kind of suffering. To shun love out of fear of the pain, seems to me a failure of virtue.

As I have cultivated the virtue of compassion/love, I find that I have come naturally to feel a degree of compassion for all living things, for I recognize that as a living being I share something in common with all others. I believe also that one should feel compassion for one’s own self, for like all other beings in this world each of us is subject to suffering, to weakness, to grief and despair.

While I feel compassion for all sentient beings, I find that I cannot and do not love all beings. I believe we can only love a few others in any meaningful way, and I think this is the right way to think about love.  I think there is more saintliness, for instance, in the person who can truly love their spouse and family throughout a whole lifetime, than in those who never make such a commitment, yet go off to do charitable works halfway around the world. Perhaps that is just shallow of me, but it’s what I have come to believe.

By honesty, I mean largely what is usually meant by this term. The commandment that “thou shalt not lie” says most of it, so I won’t add more about that. But I put a greater emphasis on being honest with oneself, than is usually the case. Being honest with oneself requires a degree of self-knowledge, the cultivation of which I include as a part of this virtue.  “Know thyself” is an ancient Greek maxim and was the first of three maxims inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.

The other two maxims were “nothing to excess” and “certainty brings ruin.” This last maxim is similar to Socrates saying that “I know that I do not know.” As I have gotten older, it has become clearer to me that the more I learn, the more aware I become of how meager this knowledge is against the great mysteries of being and the world (1). 

It is in this spirit of “I know that I don’t know” that I present these sketchy thoughts on how I have come to regard the pursuit of virtue. I’m sure many readers have their own list and their own understanding of virtue. But for any reader who may not give much thought to virtue, I will suggest that it might, perhaps, be worth your while to do so.

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  1. I explored this saying by Socrates in an article titled At the End of Knowing, published April 2, 2015.

1 thought on “Virtue?”

  1. Thomas, you asked for the names of people we would consider models of good judgment. I’ve been following the Ethicist column in The New York Times, written by Kwame Anthony Appiah, who teaches philosophy and law at New York University. Readers send in ethical dilemmas and he discusses the claims and views of the people involved. I’ve learned the complexity of good judgment from his empathy, his real-world perspective, and his insights into the letter-writer him/herself. In the on-line version of the column, readers can send in their own views of the case the following week. I recommend him.


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