Virtue (Latin virtus; Greek ἀρετή) is moral excellence. Personal virtues are characteristics valued as promoting individual and collective well-being, and thus good by definition. The opposite of virtue is vice.
Etymologically the word virtue (Latin virtus) first signified manliness or courage. In its widest sense, virtue refers to excellence, just as vice, its contrary, denotes its absence. The term as used by moral philosophers and theologians signifies an operative habit essentially good, in contrast to an operative habit essentially evil. What are traditionally known as the four cardinal virtues, enumerated by the classical Greek philosophers have been translated into English as Justice, Courage, Wisdom, and Moderation. The three virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity are central aspects of the of the Judaic, Christian and Muslim traditions.
Virtue may also be identified from another perspective: it can have either normative or moral value; i.e. the virtue of a judge is to justly convict criminals; the virtue of an excellent judge is to specialise in justly convicting criminals, this being its normative value, whereas the virtues of reason, prudence, chastity, etc. have moral value.
In classical Greek, virtue is more properly called ἠθικὴ ἀρετή (ēthikē aretē), or "habitual excellence", something practiced at all times. The virtue of perseverance is itself a necessary adjunct to each and every individual virtue, since, overall, virtue is a species of habit which, in order to maintain oneself in virtue, needs to be continuously sustained. Nietzsche, however, expressed the view that "when virtue has slept, it will arise all the more vigorous."
Virtues and values
Virtues can be placed into a broader context of values. Each individual
has a core of underlying values that contribute to our system of beliefs, ideas and/or opinions (see value
). Integrity in the application of a value ensures its continuity and this continuity separates a value from beliefs, opinion and ideas. In this context a value (e.g., Truth or Equality or Greed) is the core from which we operate or react. Societies have values that are shared among many of the participants in that culture. An individual's values typically are largely, but not entirely, in agreement with their culture's values.
Individual virtues can be grouped into one of four categories of values:
- Ethics (virtue - vice, good - bad, moral - immoral - amoral, right - wrong, permissible - impermissible)
- Aesthetics (beautiful, ugly, unbalanced, pleasing)
- Doctrinal (political, ideological, religious or social beliefs and values)
- Innate/Inborn (inborn values such as reproduction and survival, a controversial category)
A value system is the ordered and prioritized set of values (usually of the ethical and doctrinal categories described above) that an individual or society holds.
Some virtues (a virtue is a character trait or character quality valued as being good) recognized in various Western cultures of the world include:
Four classic Western virtues
The four classic Western cardinal virtues
This enumeration is traced to Greek philosophy, and was listed at least by Plato, if not also by Socrates, from whom no attributable written works exist. Plato also mentions "Holiness".
It is likely that Plato believed that virtue was, in fact, a single thing, and that this enumeration was created by others in order to better define virtue. In Protagoras and Meno, he states that the separate virtues cannot exist independently, and offers as evidence the contradictions of acting with wisdom (prudence), yet in an unjust way, or acting with bravery (fortitude), yet without wisdom (prudence).
Aristotle's golden mean
In his Nicomachean Ethics
, Aristotle describes every virtue as a balance point between a deficiency and an excess of a trait. The point of greatest virtue lies not in the exact middle, but at a "golden mean" closer to one of the extremes than the other. E.g.:
- courage is the balance between cowardice (deficit of courage) and foolhardiness (excess of courage), lying closer to foolhardiness;
- proper pride is the balance between undue humility (deficit of pride) and empty vanity (excess of pride), lying closer to vanity;
- generosity is the balance between miserliness (deficit of generosity) and prodigality (excess of generosity), lying closer to prodigality.
Prudence and virtue
, the Roman Stoic
, said that perfect prudence
is indistinguishable from perfect virtue. Thus, in considering all consequences, a prudent person would act in the same way as a virtuous person.
The same rationale was followed by Plato in Meno, when he wrote that people only act for what they perceive will maximize the good. It is the lack of wisdom which results in the making of a bad choice, rather than a good one. In this way, wisdom is the central part of virtue. However, he realized that if virtue was synonymous with wisdom, then it could be taught, a possibility he had earlier discounted. He then added "correct belief" as an alternative to knowledge, proposing that knowledge is merely correct belief that has been thought through and "tethered".
- Auctoritas — "Spiritual Authority" — The sense of one's social standing, built up through experience, Pietas, and Industria.
- Comitas — "Humour" — Ease of manner, courtesy, openness, and friendliness.
- Constantinum — "Perseverance" — Military stamina, mental and physical endurance.
- Clementia — "Mercy" — Mildness and gentleness.
- Dignitas — "Dignity" — A sense of self-worth, personal pride.
- Disciplinae — "Discipline" — Military oath under Roman protective law & citizenship.
- Firmitas — "Tenacity" — Strength of mind, the ability to stick to one's purpose.
- Frugalitas — "Frugalness" — Economy and simplicity of style, without being miserly.
- Gravitas — "Gravity" — A sense of the importance of the matter at hand, responsibility and earnestness.
- Honestas — "Respectability" — The image that one presents as a respectable member of society.
- Humanitas — "Humanity" — Refinement, civilization, learning, and being cultured.
- Industria — "Industriousness" — Hard work.
- Iustitia — "Justice" — Sense of moral worth to an action.
- Pietas — "Dutifulness" — More than religious piety; a respect for the natural order socially, politically, and religiously. Includes the ideas of patriotism and devotion to others.
- Prudentia — "Prudence" — Foresight, wisdom, and personal discretion.
- Salubritas — "Wholesomeness" — Health and cleanliness.
- Severitas — "Sternness" — Gravity, self-control.
- Veritas — "Truthfulness" — Honesty in dealing with others.
The Jewish tradition
In the Jewish tradition God
is the Compassionate and is invoked as the Father of Compassion: hence Raḥmana
or Compassionate becomes the usual designation for His revealed word. (Compare, below, the frequent use of raḥman
in the Qur'an
Sorrow and pity for one in distress, creating a desire to relieve, is a feeling ascribed alike to man and God: in Biblical Hebrew, ("riḥam," from "reḥem," the mother, womb), "to pity" or "to show mercy" in view of the sufferer's helplessness, hence also "to forgive" (Hab. iii. 2); , "to forbear" (Ex. ii. 6; I Sam. xv. 3; Jer. xv. 15, xxi. 7.) The Rabbis speak of the "thirteen attributes of compassion." The Biblical conception of compassion is the feeling of the parent for the child. Hence the prophet's appeal in confirmation of his trust in God invokes the feeling of a mother for her offspring (Isa. xlix. 15).
Lack of compassion, by contrast, marks a people as cruel (Jer. vi. 23). The repeated injunctions of the Law and the Prophets that the widow, the orphan and the stranger should be protected show how deeply, it is argued, the feeling of compassion was rooted in the hearts of the righteous in ancient Israel.
A classic articulation of the Golden Rule (see above) came from the first century Rabbi Hillel the Elder. Renowned in the Jewish tradition as a sage and a scholar, he is associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud and, as such, one of the most important figures in Jewish history. Asked for a summary of the Jewish religion in the most concise terms, Hillel replied (reputedly while standing on one leg): "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah. The rest is the explanation; go and learn."
Post 9/11, the words of Rabbi Hillel are frequently quoted in public lectures and interviews around the world by the prominent writer on comparative religion Karen Armstrong.
The Christian tradition
, the theological virtues
, a list which comes from 1 Corinthians 13:13 (νυνι δε μενει πιστις ελπις αγαπη
τα τρια ταυτα μειζων δε τουτων η αγαπη pistis, elpis, agape
). These are said to perfect one's love of God and Man and therefore (since God is super-rational) to harmonize and partake of prudence
There are many listings of virtue additional to the traditional Christian virtues (faith, hope and love) in the Christian Bible. One is the so-called "Fruit of the Spirit," found in Galatians 5:22-23:
- "By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things."
The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989).
22 Ὁ δὲ καρπὸς τοῦ πνεύματός ἐστιν ἀγάπη χαρὰ εἰρήνη, μακροθυμία χρηστότης ἀγαθωσύνη, πίστις 23 πραΰτης ἐγκράτεια· κατὰ τῶν τοιούτων οὐκ ἔστιν νόμος.
Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Matthew Black, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger and Allen Wikgren, The Greek New Testament, 4th ed. (Federal Republic of Germany: United Bible Societies, 1993, c1979).
The Muslim tradition
In the Muslim tradition the Qur'an is, as the word of God, the great repository of all virtue in earthly form, and the Prophet, particularly via his hadiths or reported sayings, the exemplar of virtue in human form.
The very name of Islam, meaning "acceptance," proclaims the virtue of submission to the will of God, the acceptance of the way things are. Foremost among God's attributes are mercy and compassion or, in the canonical language of Arabic, Rahman and Rahim. Each of the 114 chapters of the Qur'an, with one exception, begins with the verse, "In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful".
The Arabic for compassion is rahmah. As a cultural influence, its roots abound in the Qur'an. A good muslim is to commence each day, each prayer and each significant action by invoking God the Merciful and Compassionate, i.e. by reciting Bi Ism-i-Allah al-Rahman al-Rahim. The Muslim scriptures urge compassion towards captives as well as to widows, orphans and the poor. Traditionally, Zakat, a toll tax to help the poor and needy, was obligatory upon all muslims (9:60). One of the practical purposes of fasting or sawm during the month of Ramadan is to help one empathize with the hunger pangs of those less fortunate, to enhance sensitivity to the suffering of others and develop compassion for the poor and destitute.
The list of Muslim virtues is a long one: prayer, repentance. honesty, loyalty, sincerity, frugality, prudence, moderation, self-restraint, discipline, perseverance, patience, hope, dignity, courage, justice, tolerance, wisdom, good speech, respect, purity, courtesy, kindness, gratitude, generosity and contentment.
Hinduism, or Sanatana Dharma
(Dharma means moral duty), has pivotal virtues that everyone keeping their Dharma is asked to follow. For they are distinct qualities of manusya (mankind), that allow one to be in the mode of goodness. There are three modes of material nature (guna), as described in the Vedas and other Indian Scriptures: Sattva (goodness, creation, stillness, intelligence), Rajas (passion, maintenance, energy, activity) , and Tamas (ignorance, restraint, inertia, destruction). Every person harbours a mixture of these modes in varying degrees. A person in the mode of Sattva has that mode in prominence in his nature, which he obtains by following the virtues of the Dharma .
The modes of Sattva are as following.
- Altruism: Selfless Service to all humanity
- Restraint and Moderation: This is having restraint and moderation in all things. Sexual relations, eating, and other pleasurable activities should be kept in moderation. Some orthodox followers also believe in sex only in marriage, and being chaste. It depends on the sect and belief system, some people believe this means celibacy... While others believe in walking the golden path of moderation, i.e. Not to far to the side of forceful control and total abandon of human pleasures, but also not too far to the side of total indulgence and total abandon for moderation.
- Honesty: One is require to be honest with themselves, honest to their family, friends, and all of humanity.
- Cleanliness: Outer cleaniness is to be cultivated for good health and hygiene, inner cleaniness is cultivated through devotion to god, selflessness, non-violence and all the other virtues; which is maintained by refraining from intoxicants.
- Protection and reverence for the Earth.
- Universality: Showing tolerance and respect for everyone, everything and the way of the Universe.
- Peace: One must cultivate a peaceful manner in order to benefit themselves and those around them.
- Non-Violence/Ahimsa: This means not killing, or being violent in any way to any life form or sentient being. This is why those who practice this Dharma are vegetarians because they see the slaughter of animals for the purpose of food as violent, when there are less violent ways to maintain a healthy diet.
- Reverence for elders and teachers: This is virtue is very important to learn respect and reverence for those who have wisdom and those who selflessly teach in love. The Guru or spiritual teacher is one of the highest principals in many Vedic based spiritualities, and is likened to that of God.
The Buddhist tradition
Buddhist practice as outlined in the Noble Eightfold Path
can be regarded as a progressive list of virtues.
- Right View - Realizing the Four Noble Truths (samyag-dṛṣṭi, sammā-diṭṭhi)
- Right Intention - Commitment to mental and ethical growth in moderation (samyak-saṃkalpa, sammā-saṅkappa)
- Right Speech - One speaks in a non hurtful, not exaggerated, truthful way (samyag-vāc, sammā-vācā)
- Right Action - Wholesome action, avoiding action that would do harm (samyak-karmānta, sammā-kammanta)
- Right Livelihood - One's job does not harm in any way oneself or others; directly or indirectly (samyag-ājīva, sammā-ājīva}
- Right Effort - One makes an effort to improve (samyag-vyāyāma, sammā-vāyāma)
- Right Mindfulness - Mental ability to see things for what they are with clear consciousness (samyak-smṛti, sammā-sati)
- Right Concentration - Wholesome one-pointedness of mind (samyak-samādhi, sammā-samādhi)
Buddhism's four brahmavihara ("Divine States") can be more properly regarded as virtues in the European sense. They are:
- Metta/Maitri: loving-kindness towards all; the hope that a person will be well; loving kindness is "the wish that all sentient beings, without any exception, be happy."
- Karuna: compassion; the hope that a person's sufferings will diminish; compassion is the "wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering."
- Mudita: altruistic joy in the accomplishments of a person, oneself or other; sympathetic joy, "is the wholesome attitude of rejoicing in the happiness and virtues of all sentient beings."
- Upekkha/Upeksha: equanimity, or learning to accept both loss and gain, praise and blame, success and failure with detachment, equally, for oneself and for others; equanimity means "not to distinguish between friend, enemy or stranger, but regard every sentient being as equal. It is a clear-minded tranquil state of mind - not being overpowered by delusions, mental dullness or agitation."
There are also the Paramitas ("perfections").
In Theravada Buddhism's canonical Buddhavamsa the Ten Perfections (dasa pāramiyo) are (original terms in Pali):
- Dāna parami : generosity, giving of oneself
- Sīla parami : virtue, morality, proper conduct
- Nekkhamma parami : renunciation
- Paññā parami : transcendental wisdom, insight
- Viriya (also spelt vīriya) parami : energy, diligence, vigour, effort
- Khanti parami : patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
- Sacca parami : truthfulness, honesty
- (adhitthana) parami : determination, resolution
- Mettā parami : loving-kindness
- Upekkhā (also spelt upekhā) parami : equanimity, serenity
In Mahayana Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarika), lists the Six Perfections as (original terms in Sanskrit):
- Dāna paramita: generosity, giving of oneself (in Chinese, 布施波羅蜜)
- Śīla paramita : virtue, morality, discipline, proper conduct (持戒波羅蜜)
- (kshanti) paramita : patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance (忍辱波羅蜜)
- Vīrya paramita : energy, diligence, vigour, effort (精進波羅蜜)
- Dhyāna paramita : one-pointed concentration, contemplation (禪定波羅蜜)
- Prajñā paramita : wisdom, insight (智慧波羅蜜)
In the Ten Stages (Dasabhumika) Sutra, four more Paramitas are listed:
- 7. Upāya paramita: skillful means
- 8. (pranidhana) paramita: vow, resolution, aspiration, determination
- 9. Bala paramita: spiritual power
- 10. Jñāna paramita: knowledge
Virtue in Chinese philosophy
"Virtue", translated from Chinese de
), is also an important concept in Chinese philosophy
, particularly Daoism
originally meant normative "virtue" in the sense of "personal character; inner strength; integrity", but semantically changed to moral "virtue; kindness; morality". Note the semantic parallel for English virtue
, with an archaic meaning of "inner potency; divine power" (as in "by virtue of") and a modern one of "moral excellence; goodness".
Confucian moral manifestations of "virtue" include ren ("humanity"), xiao ("filial piety"), and zhong ("loyalty") In Confucianism the notion of ren according to Simon Leys means "humanity" and "goodness". Originally ren had the archaic meaning in the Confucian Book of Poems of "virility", then progressively took on shades of ethical meaning. (On the origins and transformations of this concept see Lin Yu-sheng: "The evolution of the pre-Confucian meaning of jen and the Confucian concept of moral autonomy," Monumenta Serica, vol31, 1974-75.)
The Daoist concept of De, however, is more subtle, pertaining to the "virtue" or ability that an individual realizes by following the Dao ("the Way"). One important normative value in much of Chinese thinking is that one's social status should result from the amount of virtue that one demonstrates rather than from one's birth. In the Analects, Confucius explains de: "He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it." (2/1, tr. James Legge)
Chinese Martial Morality
- Morality of deed
- Morality of mind
, the quintessential book of the samurai
, Yamamoto Tsunetomo encapsulates his views on 'virtue' in the four vows he makes daily:
- Never to be outdone in the way of the samurai or Bushidō
- To be of good use to the master.
- To be filial to my parents.
- To manifest great compassion, and act for the sake of Man.
Tsunetomo goes on to say:
If one dedicates these four vows to the gods and Buddhas every morning, he will have the strength of two men and never slip backward. One must edge forward like the inchworm, bit by bit. The gods and Buddhas, too, first started with a vow.
Nietzsche on virtue
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche
often took a more cynical view on virtue. A few of his key thoughts:
- "One virtue is more of a virtue than two, because it is more of a knot for one's destiny to cling to."
- "Virtue itself is offensive."
- "When virtue has slept, it will arise all the more vigorous."
- ''"Genuine honesty, assuming that this is our virtue and we cannot get rid of it, we free spirits – well then, we will want to work on it with all the love and malice at our disposal, and not get tired of ‘perfecting’ ourselves in our virtue, the only one we have left: may its glory come to rest like a gilded, blue evening glow of mockery over this aging culture and its dull and dismal seriousness!" (Beyond Good and Evil, §227)
Virtues according to Benjamin Franklin
These are the virtues that Benjamin Franklin used to develop what he called 'moral perfection'. He had a checklist in a notebook to measure each day how he lived up to his virtues.
They became known through Benjamin Franklin's autobiography and inspired many people all around the world. Authors and speakers in the self-help movement report being influenced by him, for example Anthony Robbins who based a part of his 'Date with Destiny' seminar on Franklin's concept.
1 . Temperance.
Eat not to Dullness
Drink not to Elevation.
Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself.
Avoid trifling Conversation.
Let all your Things have their Places.
Let each Part of your Business have its Time.
Resolve to perform what you ought.
Perform without fail what you resolve.
Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself:
i.e. Waste nothing.
Lose no Time. Be always employ'd in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.
Use no hurtful Deceit.
Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.
Avoid Extremes. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Clothes or Habitation.
11 . Tranquillity.
Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.
Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another's Peace or Reputation.
Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
Source: Franklin's 13 Virtues Extract of Franklin's autobiography, compiled by Paul Ford.
The virtue of selfishness
talks about a rational egoism
and contends that the word "selfishness" denotes virtuous qualities of character since she adduces selfishness is defined as "concern with one's own interests"
, as explained in her philosophical system, Objectivism
, and in the Objectivist ethics
, a subset of the Objectivist philosophy.
Virtue and vice
The opposite of a virtue is a vice
. One way of organizing the vices is as the corruption of the virtues. Thus the cardinal vices would be folly
. The Christian theological vices would be blasphemy
, and hatred
However, as Aristotle noted, the virtues can have several opposites. Virtues can be considered the mean between two extremes, as the Latin maxim dictates in medio stat virtus - in the centre lies virtue. For instance, both cowardice and rashness are opposites of courage; contrary to prudence are both over-caution and insufficient caution. A more "modern" virtue, tolerance, can be considered the mean between the two extremes of narrow-mindedness on the one hand and soft-headedness on the other. Vices can therefore be identified as the opposites of virtues, but with the caveat that each virtue could have many different opposites, all distinct from each other.
The seven capital vices or seven deadly sins
suggest a classification of vices and were enumerated by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. The Catechism of the Catholic Church mentions them as "capital sins which Christian experience has distinguished, following St. John Cassian and St. Gregory the Great." "Capital" here means that these sins stand at the head (Latin caput) of the other sins which proceed from them, e.g., theft proceeding from avarice and adultery from lust.
These vices are pride, envy, avarice, anger, lust, gluttony, and sloth. The opposite of these vices are the following virtues: meekness, humility, generosity, tolerance, chastity, moderation, and zeal (meaning enthusiastic devotion to a good cause or an ideal). These virtues are not exactly equivalent to the Seven Cardinal or Theological Virtues mentioned above. Instead these capital vices and virtues can be considered the "building blocks" that rule human behaviour. Both are acquired and reinforced by practice and the exercise of one induces or facilitates the others.
Ranked in order of severity as per Dante's Divine Comedy (in the Purgatorio), the seven deadly vices are:
- Pride or Vanity — an excessive love of self (holding self out of proper position toward God or fellows; Dante's definition was "love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one's neighbor"). In the Latin lists of the Seven Deadly Sins, pride is referred to as superbia.
- Avarice (covetousness, Greed) — a desire to possess more than one has need or use for (or, according to Dante, "excessive love of money and power"). In the Latin lists of the Seven Deadly Sins, avarice is referred to as avaritia.
- Lust — excessive sexual desire. Dante's criterion was "lust detracts from true love". In the Latin lists of the Seven Deadly Sins, lust is referred to as luxuria.
- Wrath or Anger — feelings of hatred, revenge or even denial, as well as punitive desires outside of justice (Dante's description was "love of justice perverted to revenge and spite"). In the Latin lists of the Seven Deadly Sins, wrath is referred to as ira.
- Gluttony — overindulgence in food, drink or intoxicants, or misplaced desire of food as a pleasure for its sensuality ("excessive love of pleasure" was Dante's rendering). In the Latin lists of the Seven Deadly Sins, gluttony is referred to as gula.
- Envy or jealousy; resentment of others for their possessions (Dante: "Love of one's own good perverted to a desire to deprive other men of theirs"). In the Latin lists of the Seven Deadly Sins, envy is referred to as invidia.
- Sloth or Laziness; idleness and wastefulness of time allotted. Laziness is condemned because others have to work harder and useful work can not get done. (also accidie, acedia)
Several of these vices interlink, and various attempts at causal hierarchy have been made. For example, pride (love of self out of proportion) is implied in gluttony (the over-consumption or waste of food), as well as sloth, envy, and most of the others. Each sin is a particular way of failing to love God with all one's resources and to love fellows as much as self. The Scholastic theologians developed schema of attribute and substance of will to explain these sins.
The 4th century Egyptian monk Evagrius Ponticus defined the sins as deadly "passions," and in Eastern Orthodoxy, still these impulses are characterized as being "Deadly Passions" rather than sins. Instead, the sins are considered to invite or entertain these passions. In the official Catechism of the Catholic Church published in 1992 by Pope John Paul II, these seven vices are considered moral transgression for Christians and the virtues should complement the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes as the basis for any true Morality.
Virtue in modern psychology
Martin Seligman, Christopher Peterson, and other researchers involved in the positive psychology movement, recognizing the deficiency inherent in psychology's tendency to focus on dysfunction rather than on what makes a healthy and stable personality, set out to develop a list of "Character Strengths and Virtues