What Is Virtue?

The harder the reformers try, the worse they make the American school. They just can’t seem to get it right. Their errors are so fundamental that only a complete rebooting will help.

Conventional education is based on three principles and one application.

1. There is no Truth.
2. If there is Truth, you can’t know it.
3. If you could know Truth, you couldn’t communicate it.
Application: Therefore, there is no point teaching children how to seek truth and wisdom, but only power.

Christian classical education, on the other hand, is also based on three different principles and one application as well.

1. Truth is.
2. Truth is knowable.
3. Truth can be communicated.
Application: Therefore, the arts of truth-seeking define our curriculum and pedagogy.

Believing in Truth, the Christian classical educator sets different goals, orienting education toward wisdom and virtue.

What, then, is virtue? Our word “virtue” comes from the Latin virtus, which grows from the root vir, or “man.” While virtue can mean power, courage, or excellence, its essential meaning points to a human being attaining excellence.

Practically speaking, a specific virtue can be defined as a refined faculty. A virtue is a God-given, natural ability trained to a pitch of excellence. Humans have the natural faculty or ability to talk. That ability refined becomes the virtue of eloquence.

There are four different kinds of virtue:

1. Moral
2. Intellectual
3. Physical
4. Spiritual

Moral virtue is what most of us think about first when we hear the word. While all have the ability to tell right from wrong, not everybody develops it. Moral virtue, therefore, is the ability to do what is right and to avoid what is wrong. Moral virtues include faithfulness, purity of heart, diligent labor, courage, etc. The cardinal moral virtue is justice.

Intellectual virtues are the virtues of understanding. We all have the ability to perceive Truth, but some refine this ability into a virtue. Intellectual virtues include the effective use of language, logical reasoning, the ability to identify likenesses and differences, and so on. The cardinal intellectual virtue is wisdom.

Physical virtues include speed, strength, coordination, and so on.

Finally, spiritual virtues can be summarized by the words “Faith, hope, and love” oriented toward God.

The Christian classical tradition, devoted as it is to wisdom and virtue, has spent millennia exploring how to cultivate them. In this tradition, two activities are considered essential to the formation of virtue:

First, we must exercise the God-given faculty. While this may be most obvious when we look at the physical virtues, mentored discipline is at least equally necessary for intellectual, moral, and spiritual virtues.

Second, each faculty depends on an “organism” that must be fed properly. For the physical virtues, this organism is the body. For the moral and intellectual virtues, it is the soul. For the spiritual virtues, it is the spirit.

Spring1.inddIn short, the body, soul, and spirit must be properly fed and exercised for one to grow in virtue and wisdom.
All of these virtues are properly developed when the spirit is attended to first. That is why the Christian classical curriculum and pedagogy are best summarized in Philippians 4:6-9, where Paul writes:

6 Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.
7 And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
9 Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

Originally published in The Classical Teacher Late Summer 2012 edition.

Leave a Reply

Skip to content