The Nature of Virtue - Talk 1: CatholicCare Reflection Day

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Today I want to explore the idea of virtue with you. We will firstly consider a little about the place of virtue in human life and then I will focus in the second session on one virtue in particular – the virtue of hope.

What is virtue? Maybe a simple way to understand virtue is to consider its opposite – vice. It is easy to think of examples of vice. We could consider some commonly accepted examples, like smoking, or excessive gambling, or over-eating. When we are truly honest with ourselves, it is relatively easy to identify some vice that we are subject to - it may be a simple weakness or something which has a significant effect on our life and relationships.  While, hopefully, we can honestly acknowledge our vices, it is also true that some people cannot face up to and acknowledge their vices, like the alcoholic who refuses to believe that he or she has a problem.

We will return to this question a little later. Suffice to say that the average person is able to identify aspects of their character which they see as weaknesses and we call them vices. We all experience the tension between what we know is good for us and what is not, like the attraction of another piece of chocolate cake or another scoop of ice cream.

We can all relate to the inclination to do good and bad things within ourselves. If we give in to the temptations to do the wrong thing repeatedly over time, we develop patterns of behavior or vices (for example, gluttony) and when we chose to do the good things we develop virtues. Developing virtue is like strengthening a muscle, in this instance our will. It becomes a little easier next time we go to do it, but similarly if the muscle has lost its strength, it is also easier to fall for the temptation again. I am thinking here of the ads about quitting smoking.

So a virtue or vice is a habit that we have formed over time as opposed to a one-off good or bad decision. We all struggle with our vices, be they big or small.

We struggle with our vices. We know that they are not healthy and good for us. We would all like to have our vices under control.

So thinking about vices, we can then see more clearly what virtues are. Virtues are our good habits. While modesty may lead us not to dwell too much on our virtues, we can readily recognise some of the virtues we have. Probably it is true that other people are better judges of our virtues than we are. When they are acknowledged we shyly recognise that we have these virtues.

Again the attitude of not trumpeting our virtues is matched by our capacity to see our vices. At times, we can wallow in a sense of our weaknesses and failings, especially when things go wrong.

As part of our work in CatholicCare in helping people, I am sure you seek to help people develop a realistic assessment of themselves, highlighting their strengths and gifts.

A definition

Today, I would like to examine the notion of virtue more closely.

Firstly, we can offer a simple definition of virtue: virtues are firm attitudes and stable dispositions that govern our actions, order our passions and guide our conduct towards the good.

Virtues actually forge the health and soundness of our character and orient us towards good action.

Interest in the place of virtue in human life was explored by the early philosophers of Greece and Rome. Plato and Aristotle, Seneca and Cicero, were convinced that the way to a happy life at both the personal and social level was through the cultivation of the virtues.

One underlying understanding they had was that human flourishing is the result of being other-directed rather than self-focused. The pursuit of virtue, they saw, was the path to self-mastery. Virtue became its own reward and its flow-on was personal happiness and, at a social level, a healthy society.

One of Aristotle's most influential works is the Nicomachean Ethics, where he presents a theory of happiness. The key question Aristotle seeks to answer is ‘What is the ultimate purpose of human existence?’

He argues that while seeking pleasure, wealth, and a good reputation have some value, they are not the chief good for which humanity should aim. He argues that for something to be an ultimate goal, it must be – and I quote – "that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else". Aristotle argues that happiness is what people seek and the way to happiness is not found in money, pleasure, and honor. 

For Aristotle virtues are habits of the soul by which one acts well, that is, for the sake of what is fine and noble. As Aristotle puts it, virtuous actions express correct (or right) reason. They are acquired through practice. One becomes virtuous by acting virtuously.

He argues that the virtuous person comes to take pleasure in acting virtuously. But virtue is difficult to attain and requires discipline. He understands that we all have a tendency to simply follow our own more basic inclinations. He says that even though we have a natural desire for happiness, our inborn inclinations often lead us away from our true happiness.

Four cardinal virtues were recognized in classical antiquity and have become enshrined in traditional Christian teaching. The ancients settled on four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, courage and temperance.

Plato identified the four cardinal virtues in his book on social life, The Republic. He describes the qualities that create a good society. Interestingly, he sees these virtues reflected in different groups within the society. Temperance was common to all classes, but primarily associated with the producing classes, the farmers and craftsmen; fortitude was assigned to the warrior class; prudence to the rulers. Justice stands outside the class system and rules the proper relationship among the three of them. Plato did consider religion as an additional virtue.

Aristotle in his book Rhetoric composed a slightly different list: “The forms of Virtue are justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, wisdom.”

The list of the key four virtues are also found in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, and Christian thinkers like St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas spoke of these as the four cardinal virtues.

They understood that virtues are interrelated and they needed each other. They came to understand that the key to a good and happy life was not the acquisition of power, or the accumulation of goods, but the development of the inner quality of human character.

The Latin dictum, virtus in medio stat, points to an important truth about the interrelatedness of the virtues: irtue was the mean or middle position between extremes. No one virtue can stand alone. Indeed a virtuous person will be one who has fostered a range of virtues. The key virtues helped balance each other out. The result is a rounded, healthy character.

The pursuit of the virtues ensured the right ordering of the passions. A person was not dominated by feelings but moved to a deeper level – the level of the moral. Virtue ensured that feelings were rightly directed. Feelings were thus correctly governed and could find their place within a sound framework of character.

Virtues need to be learned. They are best cultivated from the earliest years, and are taught by one’s parents or significant others. Virtues are best taught by being modelled. Once identified and understood then they must be practiced. A person needs to be committed to developing good character. Healthy family life is a key to enabling a person to grow in virtue. I will address the lack of exposure to virtue later on.

Positive Psychology

The importance and value of virtue in human character emerged in the Positive Psychology movement, advanced by Marty Seligman. The development of the Character Strengths and Virtues handbook (2004) represented the attempt by Seligman and Peterson to identify and classify positive psychological traits of human beings. They drew on the ancient wisdom and applied it to psychology. As many of you probably know from your studies, they chose to identify six virtues and their associated character strengths.

They developed this list by combining a study of the great philosophies and spiritual movements and combining these outcomes with their experience of psychology.

Their list is as follows:

o wisdom and knowledge (creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective),
o courage (bravery, persistence, integrity, and vitality),
o humanity (love, kindness, and social intelligence),
o justice (citizenship, fairness, and leadership),
o temperance (forgiveness, humility, prudence, and self-regulation),
o transcendence (beauty, gratitude, hope, humour, and spirituality).

One criticism levelled at this theory is that it does not take account of the woundedness of humanity. Positive psychology, I agree, best serves those who are highly motivated in life. However, we do encourage every person, no matter what the limitations of their experience, to strive for their best self. 

I will briefly address the question of human fragility a little later. Now, I would like to offer a short time for personal reflection.

Exercise of personal reflection

Questions for Personal Reflection:
1. Which virtues do I identify in myself?
2. What virtues do I believe I lack?
3. Test this with one work colleague

Importance of virtue

The pursuit of virtue is really inherent in our nature. We have a natural orientation towards the good. It is worth considering for a moment why human beings have an orientation towards the good, even if not always realising it. Put simply from a Christian perspective, it was the good God who created us, as an act of love. Just like when a child is being born the parents are moved by love and want the best for their child, God made us in His image to strive towards what is good and true and beautiful.

Why have we chosen to be involved in community service? There is something in us that stirs us to want to make a difference. Deep within the human spirit is a desire to do good and for others to experience good in their lives too.

We would prefer to be good, virtuous individuals. The pursuit of virtue is a desire for self-transcendence. We want to advance our best self. We want to move beyond self-indulgence and self-interested desire to do something worthwhile for others, for society, for the planet. To make a difference.

However, we also know the reality of human frailty, of the presence of the temptation towards vice, for example, to be lazy or slothful, greedy, gluttonous etc.

One of the things we attempt to do in our counselling and programs is to help a person to realise their choices. We offer insight. We seek to educate. We seek to tap into the inner part of themselves that desires the good and encourage them to see this within themselves. However, we know that a variety of factors can inhibit their ability to respond even when they wish to.

We all see the fragilities of the human condition. Our experience with people whose lives are broken is that they are not by nature bad people, simply it is often the case that they have lacked the opportunity to experience the good. They have been disadvantaged, emotionally and morally.

St Paul, in reflecting on his own weaknesses, cried out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Rom 7:24). Human beings desire the good but need help to do the good. He then says in a simple declaration of his own experience: Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ.

At the heart of Christianity is a consciousness that we cannot save ourselves. This was the purpose of God becoming man in Jesus Christ. This is the meaning of the death of Christ on the cross. It was an act of redemption. 

The Christian understands that God offers us help in dealing with our weaknesses. We call this grace. Christian teaching speaks of this grace coming through three key virtues: faith, hope and love. Embracing these virtues will lead to what the Scriptures describe as the ‘new man’, or as we would say today, ‘a new person’.

One final reflection

Take a moment to consider one further consideration:

1. Of the six virtues identified by Seligman, which virtue would I see as the most important?
2. Within that virtue which character qualities should I seek to cultivate most of all?
3. Why do I consider this virtue to be this most important?