What is Virtue?

  • May 5, 2014 · 7:00 PM
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Virtue: “behaviour showing high moral standards”; “goodness”; “integrity”; etc.

The Cardinal Virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

Socrates: “Virtue is the nursing-mother of all human pleasures, who, in rendering the just, renders them also pure and permanent; in moderating them, keeps them in breath and appetite; in interdicting those which she herself refuses, whets our desires to those that she allows; and, like a kind of liberal mother, abundantly allows all that nature requires, even to satiety, if not to lassitude.”

  *  *  * 

In an age of the ‘selfie’, is ‘Virtue’ relevant? How do we ‘jive’ the two extremes? Is 

virtue observable?  Identifiable? Is there ‘time’ for it? Or is there no ‘time’ for it? Is it pragmatic? Or is it simply an esoteric notion, a lost cause which disappeared with ‘slower’ times; with the heroism and, in some cases, asceticism, of the ancient Greeks, for example?

Does ‘Virtue’ not rest, fundamentally, upon, at the very least, some fundamental self-knowledge?  And, to this end, are we living in an age of conditions favourable to self-knowledge? How would we know? 

Furthermore, why would anyone wish to invest in the cultivation of ‘virtue, with its painstaking consumption of focus, time and effort, fighting the unpropitious current of today’s fast-track world? Surely one would have to become a hermit or  retire to a monastery to be able to do so. Or is there a way within today’s global village to practice virtue without withdrawing from society?  And would it be convenient to pursue a life of virtue? Or must the notion of virtue remain a concept belonging to ‘nobler’ times? To an age, such as the Golden Age of Greece, wherein feats of strength, honour, integrity, nobility were sought with apparent alacrity; and to an age in which virtue was the most highly-acclaimed ‘prize’, the most sought-after state desireable for human achievement.

   *  *  *

Let us consider the pursuit of virtue:

If  “Virtue is its own reward”  (Sir John Vanbrugh),  then it follows that the effort to acquire and maintain virtue is one from which we all benefit, individually and collectively as a society, a culture.  Nevertheless,  the concept of virtue carries with it a sense of the erstwhile, for reasons as lengthy as the passage of time itself; and as this word has traveled through time from the ancients to modernity, so has its meaning

evolved from its original denotative meaning to its numerous connotations resembling

a prismatic kaleidoscope. But most definitions and various writings suggest the desireability of the virtuous act, the virtuous state, as of some holy writ. And yet, we might do well to ponder the question: is virtue worthy of the effort required in its acquisition and maintenance…?

Well, the response “Yes!” would seem to be natural enough if, as says Vanbrugh: “There’s pleasure in doing good which sufficiently pays itself…”,  until one rotates the kaleidoscope to realize the further ironical consequence that, while “Virtue is its own reward, and brings with it the truest and highest pleasure; but if we cultivate it only for pleasure's sake, we are selfish, not religious, and will never gain the pleasure, because we can never have the virtue.”  (John Henry Newman)

The preceding is just one of the possible prismatic shifts in trying to embrace the desireability one might invest in trying to live the virtuous life: from Vanbrugh’s pragmatism to Newman’s religiosity.  And where does that leave us?  I would suggest that there is a philosophically spiritual ground somewhere between pragmatism and religion which is most appropriate for the times in which we live and for the purposes of our discussion, and that a review of some, if not all, of the innumerable thinkers and their writings on  ‘virtue’  act as a springboard for an understanding of this subject.

  *   *  *

Which definition(s) and/or description(s) resonates most with you? Let us consider a few of the thousands of thoughts upon the nature of virtue:

Socrates: Virtue is the beauty of the soul. 

Voltaire: Heaven made virtue; man, the appearance. 

Emerson: The only reward of virtue is virtue. 

Plautus: He who dies for virtue does not perish. 

Plato: Virtue is voluntary; vice involuntary 

Montesquiue: Virtue is necessary to a republic. 

Carlyle: Virtue is, like health, the harmony of the whole man. 

Addison: Sweet are the slumbers of the virtuous man (woman). 

Horace: I wrap myself up in my virtue.  

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  • Julianna O.

    I am not certain, Alice, that " we have lost a claim to virtue". I think we are in a difficult place in our society mainly because what used to be " agreed upon" or common values may not be quite as clear today as they were perhaps 50 years ago. Is it a globalization adjustment where people from diverse cultures/religions/norms find themselves together in a more secular ( not religious) context ? I think we recognize virtue when we see it e.g. the young Malala from Pakistan who suffered disfigurement because she stood up for education for girls, but did not renounce her beliefs.
    I looked up the origin of the word: " Middle English "vertu", virtu, from Anglo-French, from Latin virtut-, virtus strength, manliness, virtue, from vir and virility." I think it evolved to a moral concept but was founded in an idea of strength--a definite quality.

    1 · May 3, 2014

    • alice g.

      Yes, certainly lack of common values is one of the main forces at work; I would add, as well, that globalization has created a climate of disenfranchisement in which human beings do not feel encouraged to aspire to virtue. Re "vertu", the word made its debut/ appearance into the English language centuries after its birthplace (as far as we know) in the Greek language. Thus, the English is an adaptation rather than a place of origin.

      May 3, 2014

    • alice g.

      Addendum: Interestingly, "arrete" (ancient Greek for virtue) signified knowledge which thus becomes the highest 'good' of the virtuous individual.

      1 · May 3, 2014

  • Julianna O.

    Thank you, Mila, for putting together these interesting notes and organizing the meetup.I think that, in an age of moral relativism, I would agree with Montesqieu who states: ": Virtue is necessary to a republic. "In other words, republics (organized societies) need a Gandhi, a Martin Luther King, a Churchill to move us all forward, not backward, and help us find the " right way".
    Generally speaking, virtues are learned, not innate.They are not innate, like eyesight, but are acquired by practice and lost by disuse. They are part of the characterisitics of our behaviour that differ differ from momentary passions such as anger and pity. They are usually expressed through purposeful action dictated by our moral ( not synonymous with religious) learnings throughout our lifetimes. For Aristotle, for example, virtue is expressed in actions that avoid excess and result in greater wisdom, for him the ultimate virtue.

    May 2, 2014

    • Mila

      Ni Julianna. Thank you for you nice comment and sharing your thoughts, but the introductionn was written not by me.
      Alice Grove, who has been contributing her thoughts and feelings to Ottawa Socrates Cafe discussions for almost three years now. kindly agreed to moderate t"What is Virtue?" . She developed the topic and wrote the introduction you and me can enjoy and benefit from. Mila

      May 2, 2014

    • alice g.

      If, as you say, virtues "are acquired by practice and lost by disuse...", would you conclude that we, as a society, have lost a claim to 'virtue' overall by not practising it, or do you feel that we are a virtuous society/culture (here I refer to western culture in general)...? And, ,let us say, that by VIRTUE we refer to the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance for starters.

      May 3, 2014

  • Julianna O.

    Apologies for the mistake, Alice. I have not yet been to an actual meetup. Thanks for taking the time to prepare the notes and for offering a variety of views.

    1 · May 3, 2014

    • alice g.

      No worries Julianna! Just clarifying :)

      May 3, 2014

  • Mark

    why is this meetup at the same location and day of the other "Ottawa Socrates Cafe" meetup

    April 15, 2014

    • Gavin

      I am confused by this as well. AFAIK, the Westboro version was created (on a different evening) to allow those who could not attend the Cafe version. However, the same group could have had multiple events. Now there are two groups in the same location and time, but their own attendance limits.

      April 15, 2014

    • Mila

      That's right. We simply divided 20 seats at the Royal Oak between two Socrates groups.

      May 1, 2014

  • Gavin

    It looks like my class that changed to Monday evenings has created a scheduling conflict. You might see me again in the summer. Best wishes to everyone.

    May 1, 2014

  • Christo

    Sorry I can't make it. Will go to the next one

    April 29, 2014

  • Kathleen

    Mila, thank you for your time and effort in organizing these weekly meetings. I look forward to attending my second meetup.

    1 · April 15, 2014

    • Gavin

      Yes, thanks to Mila!

      1 · April 15, 2014

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