Virtue: Heroism or Pretentiousness

A conversation with Charming Fields.

It’s been a while since we’ve talked about virtue, but it’s a subject my indulgent husband and I have been talking about a lot lately! You met him on the podcast a few weeks ago, yes, he really does exist, and no, he does not sound like Pepe LePew the way I have made him out to sound! 

Since our arrival in France in 2007, he has been a philosophy teacher. He began his career in 1998, but took a break for seven years when we lived in the USA. He stayed busy while we were in the US, having worked as an administrator at a language school, as well as with me in Guest Relations at Walt Disney World. He also studied Law and passed the bar exam.

I have asked him to help us understand the historical and etymological origins of the idea of Virtue. It is with great pride that I present my chéri, Charming Fields! 

Chéri, tell us!  I know you love etymology. Where does the word “virtue” come from?

Charming: “Virtue” comes from the Latin, virtus, of which the root is vir, which we find in the word “virile” and “virility”. Let’s admit that this is intriguing, to not say a bit strange.

Lily: Fascinating, yes! Are we to conclude, then, that their origins are related? 

Charming: Apparently, yes. “Virtus” designates physical strength but also the strength of character or courage that a roman soldier would have needed to demonstrate. The virility of men–and the few women who were in the Roman army–was measured by their courage, solidity of character and their discipline.

Lily: I appreciate that you included women in your explanation. I didn’t know that there were women in the Roman army, but now I want to know more about these women of courage and discipline!

The idea of virility is no longer associated with virtue. So what happened?

Charming: The meaning evolved…from “virile strength” it took on a more general and more moral meaning, coming to mean the firm disposition of the soul to do good and to flee evil. In Sanskrit, “Vīra” (वीर) signifies “hero”. Got me wondering if this is a kind of invitation? Are we ready to be heros? 

Lily: Oh la la!  I love this comparison! In the podcast, I often say, “You are the hero of your story.” What I mean by that is that we are heroes when we choose to confront our difficulties, relying on wisdom and virtue. So hey! Chéri! You are a real hero!

Charming: Let’s not get too carried away yet, Chérie. Let’s get back to “virtue” and its Greek equivalent. Greece is the cradle of western philosophy, so I can’t resist the call of ancient Greek… 

Lily: Ancient Geek is more like it…

Charming: LOL. (Audible eyeroll.) The Greek equivalent of “virtue” is the word  “ἀρετή” which is pronounced “araytay”. I’m not perfectly proficient in Greek, I want to be candid about that. I’m approaching the word with a rather simple understanding of the word “ἀρετή”. The word can be applied as much to a man or an animal or a musical instrument. The “araytay” (ἀρετή) of a man, an animal or an instrument is what makes it excellent and what makes it able to accomplish its purpose.

Lily: Sorry to interrupt, but I want to clarify something. Before, you said that “virility” was applicable to both men and women. Here, in the Greek, is that true too? 

Charming: That’s how I understand it, yes.

Lily: Perfect. Merci. You were talking about virtue as excellence?

Charming: Exactly. What is the virtue of a violin? What makes it excellent? Its aptitude to fulfill its purpose as a violin. A violin without a bow can’t really fulfill its purpose. We also might want to add that rarity makes it excellent–the violin maker who made it. Not everyone is Stradivarius! Also, the state of repair of the violin would count.

So what is the virtue, then, of man?

Lily: Or of a woman?

Charming: Absolutely! What is the virtue of a man or a woman? His ability to fulfill his function as a man, his purpose as a man.  

Lily: Purpose as a man? What in the world does that mean? 

Charming: Well, we have to believe that (wo)man has a function, or a role to accomplish. To his/her role as a father, mother, spouse, worker, we should add his function of fulfilling his purpose as a human.

If a violin without a bow cannot really fulfill its purpose, then a (wo)man without virtue, without principles, cannot fulfill his/her purpose as a human.

Lily: Ok, I am 100% with you on that. Historically, what were the virtues that allowed humans to fulfill their purpose as a human?

Charming: Plato designated four of them: strength or courage, prudence, justice and temperance. These four virtues constitute what we could call “moral perfection”. A (wo)man who has these four qualities or virtues is therefore, “perfect”. If we use the meaning of the word “ἀρετή”, I would say that he/she who pursues them, who strives to live according to these four virtues, is excellent.

Lily: He/she is excellent, therefore worthy of being called a hero! 

Charming: That sounds about right! 

To summarize, what makes someone excellent? His human qualities. Virtue does not measure excellence in victories or trophies or compensation or accolades. Virtue measures the  excellence of a person by his/her capacity to live according to a certain number of principles, which, taken together, are like the puzzle pieces revealing a beautiful image: that of an accomplished man or woman who is happy and wise; a person who will have known how to live and will leave behind him/her a sparkling legacy.

Lily: Oh, I love the image of the puzzle! When I talk about virtue and values to my podcast listeners, I always use this metaphor. I like to say that virtue and values are the edge pieces of the puzzle of our lives. It’s within that framework that the rest of our lives start to make sense. Without the edge pieces, we can get spread out. Decision making is more difficult and we don’t know where to start. With the edge pieces, we have landmarks.

Charming: To prepare for this discussion, I read an article consecrated to the notion of virtue in the “Encyclopedia Universalis”. Here is a passage that jumped out at me:

“[…] to believe possible a definition of virtue would be the work of hypocrites raising knowledge above practice; to establish the canons of virtue would be the work of the pretentious, who seek to impose virtue by words rather than acts.” 

Lily: Ouch. That hurts. 

Charming: I’m not sure that I agree. I don’t feel like the discussion you’ve been encouraging about virtue is hypocritical or pretentious. 

Lily: I sure hope not…my hope is to open a discussion about virtue, a subject which, admittedly, does have a little aftertaste of hypocrisy and pretentiousness… 

I guess…I want to make virtue an adventure, and to present this adventure with its highs and lows, successes and failures with authenticity, curiosity and humor. 

Charming: The most excellent violin can be out of tune sometimes. In the same way, the most excellent, most wise, most honest, most motivated person who wants to live virtuously can be out of tune and fail.

Lily: Might as well play loudly, then! Thank you Chéri, for this introduction to virtue!

You can hear more from Charming Fields in Episode 14: Know Thyself.

Episode 63: Foresight Sing With Your Feet

This week, we look at how we can love ourselves better by planning ahead.
  1. Episode 63: Foresight
  2. Episode 62: Memory
  3. Episode 61: Novelty
  4. Episode 60: How to Have Great Sex
  5. Episode 59: I Have A Theory

Published by Lily Fields

I am passionate about contentment. This is a challenge, because I am equally passionate about progress. I get up at 4:00AM to chip away at a solution to this monolithic problem: how to make progress on my contentment. Born and raised in the USA, I married a French philosophy teacher in 1999. We have lived in France since 2007. We stayed young and carefree until life threw us two curveballs in the form of little humans one after another in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Now I am a slightly older, slightly more exhausted version of myself, but with mystery stains on my walls and a never-ending pile of laundry.

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