The English word virtue is a modern translation of the word from its Greek and Latin origins. Arete (or aretai) is a Greek term meaning “character excellences” or “excellence in being”(1). When translated into Latin, the word is “virtus,” meaning, “effectiveness in action” (2). Although it seems that the word “virtue” has become obsolete in the eyes of much of mainstream society today, it is important to recall that “virtue” has thousands of years of history; ancient and medieval ethics were focused on character development and virtue cultivation (3). “Virtue theory” has a history of nearly 3,000 years: it began with the ancient Greeks with great minds such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (4). As history tells us, we know that the concept of “virtue” is valid, time-tested, tried and true. Throughout history, great minds have recognized that good societies can only be produced by people of good character, thus necessitating the value of virtue (5).
Ultimately, virtue is the means by which each of us can cultivate good character, because it provides us with a moral compass and is the key to unlocking human flourishing and fulfillment (6). That said, there is a precursor to understanding virtue: wisdom (7). Wisdom, which begets self-knowledge, is the key to unlocking the path to living a virtuous life. Cultivation of self-knowledge is the foundation upon which every person can build a virtuous life (8). To grow in self-knowledge, we must use both the heart and the mind, and acknowledge that both faith and reason, which blend seamlessly in the human person, are integral components on the path to flourishing (9). To deny one or the other, is to ignore the body-soul unity of the human person. Those who are able to gain a sense of wisdom (self-knowledge) “...understand what is truly worthwhile, truly important, and thereby truly advantageous in life, who know, in short, how to live well”(11).
Ultimately, all the virtues (humility, justice, courage, etc.) nurture wisdom, and in turn are nurtured by it (12). Therefore, by growing in the virtues, we improve our ability to reason rationally. Virtue pushes the human person towards a continual upward spiral of growth and is a driver of human growth and development on an intellectual and moral level (13).
Furthermore, wisdom and virtue at large, are essential to a properly functioning republic (Core Virtues Foundation, 2018). Virtue not only promotes the human person’s intellectual and moral capabilities, but also civil responsibility. Thus, the need for virtue in society today is crucial to sustaining a thriving civilization. Virtue promotes the enhancement of the human person beyond what has been imposed upon us by societal standards, dominant ideologies, and our own wounds (14). Virtue teaches us that we must think, act, and speak based on moral principles, not based on how society or the media tells us to. Having virtue as the ultimate aim, leads to the fulfillment of human potential: it aids the human person in upholding moral principles and pushes the human person to strive for human excellence and to discover their dignity and God-given abilities. Contrary to misconceptions held by mainstream society, virtue doesn’t inhibit us, but frees us up to fulfill our God-given human potential (15).
In the end, without the concept of virtue, we are left with our vices. When an individual is left to their vices, immorality is sure to follow. Thus, the answer to helping society flourish lies within each and every one of us: we all have the capability of cultivating virtue, and passing it on to future generations. As we know from many great leaders in history, virtue builds character. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in a work entitled, “The Purpose of Education,” (1947): "We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education."
1, 2, 8-9, 12-14. Havard, A. (2018). From Temperament to Character: On Becoming A Virtuous Leader. Scepter Publishers, Inc. 9781594173370
3. Aretai Center on Virtues
4, 7, 11. Hursthouse, R., & Pettigrove, G. (2016). Virtue Ethics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/
5, 15. The Jubilee Center for Character and Virtues, 2016.
6. Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing. (2017, 30 03). What is Flourishing and Virtue? Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing: The University of Oklahoma. Retrieved 10 11, 20, from https://www.ou.edu/flourish/virtues
10. Vitz, P. C., Nordling, W. J., & Titus, C. S. (2020). A Catholic Christian meta-model of the person: integration of psychology and mental health practice. Divine Mercy University Press.