What is Virtue?

Socrates Wanted Poster

For I go around doing nothing but persuading young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul, as I say to you: “Wealth does not bring about virtue, but virtue makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively.” Socrates in Plato’s Apology, 30a-b

To re-iterate something mentioned earlier: the word “virtue” is being used here in the ancient sense. It means excelling, flourishing as a human being, and having “strengths” of character, or important “positive qualities” such as wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline. It’s a broader concept than the Christian virtues many people are more familiar with. There’s no modern English word that perfectly conveys what the Stoics meant, “virtues” is the closest, but a phrase like “excellent character traits” or “personal strengths” might be more accurate. It’s perhaps a slightly disconcerting observation that modern society doesn’t even have the right language express this idea!

We’d like you to clarify your own values with regard to your character and actions, i.e., your own conception of “virtue”. Then we’d like you to practice making these positive strengths or virtues your absolute priority over the next few weeks and monitoring your ability to act consistently with them, and cultivate them in yourself. You might refer to that as a form of “self-improvement”, which is in a sense both moral and therapeutic.  It deals with your own core values but does so in a way that’s likely to improve your quality of life. However, be under no illusions, “valued living” can be difficult and may mean sacrificing other things in life. It may also mean challenging your old habits, moving out of your “comfort zone” and even enduring anxiety and discomfort, or sacrificing short-term pleasures, for the sake of your own deeper values.

The Stoics believed that humans have “virtue”, and flourish, when they achieve moral wisdom and act with justice, benevolence, and fairness toward others. They also believed that in order to live wisely and act justly, we must conquer our own contrary fears and desires, through the two ancient virtues of self-mastery: courage and self-discipline. These were known throughout the centuries as the four “cardinal virtues”: wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Similar “virtues” still feature today in modern research on the psychology of personal strengths. However, you can just treat these as examples of what’s meant. As long as you’ve got the general idea, we’re going to encourage you to think for yourself about the meaning of “virtue” in terms of your own core values in life.

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