How to Think of Virtue

In reaching for a description of what I am calling virtue, I might attempt some phrases like

  • perfection of soul,
  • excellence of the soul,
  • moral beauty,
  • fitness of soul,
  • nobility of soul,
  • moral fineness.

All of those are somewhat close to what I mean by virtue.

But this account of virtue represents only one way to hear the word, and it’s important to keep in mind that it is not necessarily the main way to understand it. To grasp what virtue has popularly connoted through the history of the West, we have to enter two main paradigms, which we could call the masculine sense and the feminine.

Let’s start with the one that will be more familiar to us. Not so long ago, the word virtue would bring to mind a gentle, virginal, pretty young lady. It’s not that this image was held to be the entirety of what “virtue” could mean, but it was the centre of gravity for the word’s other possible meanings, in popular thinking.

Many centuries earlier, the word carried a very different sense. It was originally a warrior’s term. Our word “virtue” is etymologically related to “virility.” To be virtuous was first of all to be manly, courageous in battle, admired among the brave.

For philosophers, however, the word held another sense, from very early on. Virtue meant, more or less, doing with your life what you ought to be doing with it. It meant a commitment to becoming the best human being you could be. In this way it brought with it the question of what it means for a human to be good, which turns out of course to be not such an easy thing to answer.

Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and Epictetus (and many more) urged that this account of virtue was the most important and most valuable thing for us as humans to focus on. I believe they make a compelling case.

We don’t really hear people talking in this way anymore, but I believe now is as good a time as any to start to return to it.

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