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.”
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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.
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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.
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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.