[By: Martin Grunburg]
In theory, there may be no better “cause” than the development of one’s virtue. Having said that, there is a fair degree of uncertainty about exactly what virtue is, why it’s important, and perhaps most importantly, the process by which to cultivate it. Add to that news stories and repeated scandals related to the Catholic church and other religious groups, and the idea of virtue may be somewhat tainted.
What Virtue Is Not
To become virtuous does not mean your intention is to become better than others. Rather, it means you’re attempting (key word denoting effort) to become better than you used to be.
Wayne Dyer used to put it this way: “True nobility (virtue) isn’t about being better than others; it’s about being better than you were before.”
Now, I fully recognize there is popular psychology out there that wants you to believe you are just perfect — exactly as you are.
I’m nearly certain YOU are not the little snowflake they believe you to be. So, allow me to help you with that:
You are indeed just perfect AND you need a lot of work. We all do.
Both you and I and everyone else has plenty of “sweeping” we can do “at our own front door” — beginning with our character.
Now, if for some reason that is offensive to you and you don’t want to think of cultivating your virtue in terms of improving your character, how about considering these 4 major dimensions related to one’s well-being: Mind, Body, Spirit, Social.
Can you tell me (or, better yet, yourself) that you are a 10 (on a scale of 1-10) in each of those categories? If the answer is a resounding yes, than I guess you are perfect. Chances are good, though, that there are NO tens on your scorecard, and that is a GOOD thing. There are plenty of things to work on and improve— hence, the cultivation of your virtue!
Why Develop Virtue?
In short, it’s great for you and arguably the very best gift you can give your loved ones!
There’s a lot of talk these days about Stoicism, largely because of this guy, Ryan Holiday (stoicism post).
A recent article explains what the Stoics viewed as the “highest good,” a Latin phrase, “Summum Bonum.”
These were the highest virtues for the Stoics: Wisdom, Temperance, Justice & Courage. (See the Great Ted-Ed.com video below!)
Ultimately, like Zeno (above video), we come to realize that the refinement of our character is the highest good and might well be the very best gift we can give our loved ones. Not money. Not knowledge. Not a new car. Not a trip around the world… just your very best self.
The Path To Virtue
And we arrive at the kicker…the coup de gras…the pièce de résistance.
The path to virtue is habit. (You probably saw that coming ; )
Don’t take it from me, though; here’s what Aristotle had to say in Nicomachean Ethics:
“We become builders building, we become harpists by playing the harp. Therefore we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions . . . Virtue, then, is a habit or trained faculty of choice.”
The fascinating thing about virtue is, it does not exist without habit.
In other words, if Jim Bob is known for possessing the honesty virtue, it’s because he habitually acts honestly.
What We Ultimately Learn About Virtue
It’s the very same lesson that Benjamin Franklin (of course!) figured out centuries ago. What did he NOT do?
As a young man, Ben found many flaws in his character. So he began a practice to track 13 virtues he hoped to develop. Each he identified as a weakness that needed improvement, and in so doing, his character and (he reasoned) his life would improve.
How did it go for little Benji?
Well, while we could simply say, “The rest is history,” I’ll let him take it from here. The following is a direct statement about his practice of intentionally crafting his virtues as he wrote in his autobiography:
“I hope, therefore, that my descendants shall follow this example [tracking his virtues] and reap the benefits.”
Please allow that statement to sink in.
Perhaps the most accomplished man ever to have lived cites the tracking of his virtues (habits) as the most rewarding experience of his life. Not inventing bifocals, nor the lightning rod, or his other accomplishments. Not becoming the first U.S. Post Master General. Not drafting the Declaration of Independence.
It was tracking his habits.
“Character is long-standing habit.” ~Plutarch
Until next time, as always, thanks for reading and sharing.
Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics
Lecture 9: Virtue and Habit 1