Virtue and the building of character
September 8, 2022
The young woman eulogized her Mother offering a framework of the virtue and purity of spirit her Mother embodied. She told the gathered mourners, “Over the last two weeks since Mother’s death, I have tried to think of her across a framework of four categories of virtues that I read about.” Drawing from work from being done in character education by the University of Birmingham, England, she outlined a pathway to character that would benefit all of us to reflect on.
We begin with a little understanding of the Four Pillars of Stoic Practice, also known as the Cardinal Virtues. Around 308 BCE, a School of Philosophy was founded in Athens, Greece. Members called themselves Stoics and their practice of living virtuously was called Stoicism. Greek and Roman Stoics believed that “virtue is the only key to true happiness.” We might make a correlation with the grievance and dis-harmony of our time and the waning of virtue among us. Not being accusatory. Just observing behaviors around me, it seems as if we easily drift into the Passions we have come to know as the Seven Deadly Sins. Passions eat at our soul. When we lose the basic virtue among us, good will, generosity, acceptance, our very humanity risks being chipped away.
The Stoics described the framework of virtue in four core values: Prudence/Practical Wisdom, Justice/Morality, Fortitude/Courage, and Temperance/Moderation. The daughter framed her Mother’s life around four virtues: Intellectual Virtues, Moral Virtues, Civic Virtues, and Performance Virtues. Either list gives shape to practices that develop personal character, as well as the character of a people when a practice of virtues is held in common.
If we look at either of these lists, it’s easy to see some of what is going on or not going on in America. Those systems and institutions we historically relied on for building a corporeal character have been waning in influence since the 1950s. Churches and Civic Organizations have declined and devolved. I think we are seeing that if we do not practice and embody virtue, we will not be a very kind people.
Prudence and Practical Wisdom meet a world still leaning into the passions. Self-control and making good choices are something we hope our children will learn. It’s glaring when people are out of control and choices cause harm. The practicality of making good choices impacts all parts of life from vocation to life partners. Forgetting or ignoring the internal guidance of reason leaves us at the whim of whatever impulse drives us. That is sometimes trouble.
Justice and Morality seem like they are just what good people try to live. We learn these things in Sunday School, in Scouts, Civics Class, and around the dinner table. Talking justice and talking Morality are a lot easier to do than they are to live. Human decency takes years to develop, even when all the forces that shape us align. Seems like mean-spiritedness floats through the air and when we inhale it, it permeates our souls. A life full of grace and goodness, morality and doing what is right for all people is a blessing.
Fortitude and Courage require deep mustering of all the internal strength we have. For people of faith, this is when we draw on God. Strength to push through all the disappointment, sadness, loss and worry of life takes real work and soul searching. Keeping on with hope and living without fear free us for joy. We admire strong people and see them as having character.
Temperance and Moderation. Now we’re meddling. Over-indulgence, over-eating, over- drinking and over-spending are part of the culture. Some people think our consumer culture and media advertising contribute to the lack of moderation among us. Reining in desires that take over our good decision-making reason, for some, are almost like dealing with the devil.
We begin to get a picture of what we are up against as we think about living a virtuous and decent life. The interior work of character building is something we have to want and do for ourselves. We build character that we to live life together in unity on this small planet. People can teach us and coach us, but we are easily swayed. We fall off wagons and diets. We hang with people who may be exciting but may persuade us in unhealthy ways. If we ever think the world is going to hell in a handbasket, maybe it is time for some discussion around virtue and character.
The woman’s daughter gave a picture of what a long, good, and grace filled life looks like. Look around. Look in a mirror. Wonder what our own children would say about us?