We had a list of sixty-some-odd virtues to start with. I think, as of today, that list has grown to more than seventy. These virtues are a mish-mosh of Biblical virtues, character traits, psychological states, philosophical notions.
As I have said previously, this list is non-exhaustive. We add to it regularly; as a matter of fact, I just added to it this morning when I was reading in 1 Chronicles about King David, as he gave his son Solomon the responsibility of building the temple with “discretion and understanding“.
Discretion was, as a matter of fact, one of the first virtues we wrote on our list. Understanding, on the other hand, was not. We had Learning, Knowledge, Wisdom and Teachability, but Understanding was not there. So I added it. (BTW, if you think all those things mean the same thing, then we are going to have some very fun debates forthcoming!)
Just to be clear, we are not going to get knee-deep in the discussion of virtue without having practical application of all this theory. The goal of studying virtue is to become more virtuous., not just to get smarter. And, as Aristotle says, “Happiness is the exercise of virtue.” Who are we to argue with Aristotle, right?* So in the end, the goal of studying virtue, really, is happiness.
*My indulgent husband takes issue with the premise that Aristotle is not to be argued with. I am noting his objection. Sustained.
Virtue is not everything
“Apprend-moi à vivre ici-bas.” That’s French, y’all. It means: Teach me to live down here.
I have made no secret that I am a believer, even if my behavior doesn’t always reflect it. I am saved by grace and the mystery of reconciliation with God through Jesus. This grace and this reconciliation are gifts that I in no way deserve, but that I receive with gratefulness.
While this divine grace and forgiveness have reserved me a place in Eternity, I am still down here, on Earth, constrained by time and my propensity for selfishness and waywardness.
I have God’s word, the Bible, as my most direct way of knowing God’s thoughts. I make it a habit to read my Bible everyday, and on some days, reading it feels like I am reading a love letter written directly to my heart. Other days, it feels like I am trudging through a textbook on royal genealogies or a bizarre anthropology treatise which makes my eyes roll into the back of my head.
Enter Apprend-moi à vivre ici-bas. I wrote this little sentence down in the edge of my Bible notes about twelve years ago. Recently, I saw it splashed across a screen at church as a lyric to a song, and something in my heart started to vibrate. That is what my study of virtue has become to me: learning how to live down here.
Salvation is crucial. But we still have to figure out how to live down here while we wait for Eternity to get started for us.
The Origin of Virtue
I will not pretend to actually know where virtue comes from. I am not the philosophy teacher. I am just a Philosopher Princess. What I do know is that my indulgent husband (whose dayjob is philosophy teacher, thank you very much) and I have debated on many occasions which virtues to put on our list. Did we want only Biblical virtues? This would have been ideal.
However, the Bible doesn’t, for example, name Humor, which I consider to be tremendously life-giving virtue. It doesn’t mention Teamwork by name, but my indulgent husband considers this to be an essential virtue.
There is a philosophical notion of Virtue which dates back to Aristotle. Plato, in The Republic, touches on it. I have asked my indulgent husband to write a little treatise on the history of the philosophical idea of Virtue, provided that it doesn’t make our eyes roll to the back of our heads. I mean, while we may have put on our nerd glasses and our pocket protectors for our current discussion, we are still here to have fun. Humor is a virtue, although neither Biblical nor Aristotelian (awwwwwyeah. I just used the word “Aristotelian” in a sentence.)
No, this non-exhaustive list of virtues that we developed included more modern notions that could not be captured by Biblical or Philosophical principles. For example, the virtue of Availability, for us, was the essence of having the physical, emotional and psychological bandwidth for being present to another person. Availability is a psychological state first and foremost, which has a visible, practical application of, for example, putting down the damn phone. Quite obviously, this is not found in the Bible, nor in the philosophical record. (Unless there was some time-traveling Stoic that I don’t know about. We’ll talk about the Stoics another time.)
To sum up, the virtues on our list are Biblical, Philosophical and Psychological.
Those virtues specifically mentioned in the Bible are, what we call with great originality, the Biblical Virtues. Among these: Justice, Forgiveness, Mercy, Perseverance, Discretion, Humility, Wisdom and many many more.
Take just a second and think about those big words in the previous paragraph. Separate out the idea that they are Biblical virtues. Do any of these words find a home in your daily life? When was the last time you talked to someone about perseverance, or mercy, or discretion?
I can tell you the last time I did. It was yesterday, and it was about discretion because my eldest child was shrieking like a banshee at the playground as he slid down a sliding pole and I was embarrassed by him. Sure. I could have just told him to be quiet because he was the only the child making that much noise.
Instead, for both him and for myself, I framed my comments in terms of virtue. I told him that even King David expected his son to be discreet. This being a conversation that comes up regularly because my eldest scalawag has zero filter and zero regulator on his voice box, we get to talk about discretion a lot. Certainly, it doesn’t have any immediate impact on his behavior, but he hears the word Discretion talked about as something to strive for, and knows it something that his indulgent father and I desire for him.
I can tell you that this does bear fruit, though, and that he does understand the concept: he recently, at his own impetus, returned a pair of rollerskates a friend loaned him to try at the park because he felt that the ruckus their use was causing was not discreet. Lots of other kids began pestering his friend to use the rollerskates, and the friend wasn’t happy about it. My scalawag didn’t like the attention the whole thing was garnering, and gave them back quickly in the name of Discretion.
That a little boy of nearly six years old would understand and act on this virtue is proof that it is worth teaching it, even when the result comes long after the teachable moment.
Philosophical and Psychological Virtue
I promise that a more thorough, non-eye-rolling-to-the-back-of-the-head treatment of these topics will be forthcoming. We will be relying on a greater mind than my own for this discussion, so we must be patient and wait on genius. Genius cannot be rushed.
One Virtue which informs and influences all the others
The word Philosophy comes from the Greek, meaning love of wisdom.
In the Bible, God is the source of all wisdom. He is Wisdom.
Somewhere in there, there is a tautology which means that Philosophy is therefore to love God; I am just not a smart enough person to make it.
If you are willing to make that logical leap with me though, founded as it may be on quite obviously biased premises (although not necessarily false premises), then Wisdom becomes the through-line of every study of virtue that I desire to make. My love of God means that I love Wisdom, because he is Wisdom.
I am not a smart enough person to make high-minded arguments about why this is true. It is simply something that my soul whispers: Wisdom was there at the foundation of the world. I want to believe that. At some point, we decide that something is worth believing, even if we can’t explain it.
Wisdom is what takes a worldly principle and turns it into something divinely inspired. Wisdom is what can cause us, even in the midst of decidedly unpeaceful lives, to experience supernatural peace. These things surpass our understanding.
That is why each and every virtue we will examine must be viewed through this divine, supernatural lens. Each virtue has a flip-side: what the virtue would look like without wisdom. We will be examining that, too.
Tomorrow, we will look at that dangerous Flip-Side of a virtue as well as the Orientation of the virtues. I will try to make it as interesting as possible: no promises, but I don’t think you will fall asleep.
You may now remove your pocket protector.
This article is part of a series called Philosopher Princess.