Virtue rediscovered

After an eclipse which has lasted decades, modern psychology says that happiness comes from living a virtuous life.
Andrew Mullins | Jul 13 2007 | comment  



Two of the biggest names in modern psychology are focusing their work on the development of virtues. Their work validates the Aristotelian vision of character, of the human person brought to maturity by virtues understood as good habits. The virtue-based model underpinned upbringing in the West for almost 2,500 years… until child rearing lost its way several decades ago.

Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, under the auspices of the Values in Action Institute, have produced a major work which is an analytical framework for discussion of character which they define as a composite of positive traits or habits. Seligman is a past president of the American Psychological Association and professor of psychology at University of Pennsylvania. His fame was established by groundbreaking work on resilience for young people. Peterson is professor of psychology at University of Michigan. Together they make a formidable psychological duo. Their work is entitled Character Strengths and Virtues. It was published by Oxford University Press in 2004.

Their avowed aim is to "reclaim the study of character and virtue as legitimate topics of psychological inquiry and societal discourse". They state, "We believe good character can be cultivated, but to do so we need conceptual and empirical tools to craft and evaluate interventions."

Character Strengths and Virtues is comprehensively researched, draws together major authors in the field, and all importantly, is clinically oriented. The importance of this work must not underestimated. It is indeed a modern day Nichomachean Ethics.

Virtue: a philosopher's gift to his son

Some 2,500 years earlier Aristotle produced his Nicomachean Ethics, one of the great texts of Western civilisation. It is named after his son, Nicomachus, for whom the book is said to have been composed. It laid down the principles followed by practically every study of business, medical and legal ethics up to our own day. But it is much more than even this. It is a systematic demonstration of what fulfills a human being, of what makes a human being happy. It draws a direct line, demonstrated from philosophical foundations, between virtuous conduct and happiness in life. If one accepts Aristotle’s reasoned first principles about the nature of man, his argument is irrefutable.

In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle outlined the path all human beings must follow if they wish to be happy. Clearly he regarded this as the greatest gift he could give his son. The work hinges on the crucial link between habit and virtue: "Moral virtue comes about as a result of habit".

Aristotle realised too that we need to become experts at fostering virtue. He wished to teach his son how to raise his own children well, emphasising the importance of building habits in the early years of a child’s life,

"It makes no small difference whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference."

It is difficult to overestimate the contribution to Western thought of Aristotle. He was the tutor of Alexander the Great… but his fame should not hinge on the achievements of a hyperactive pupil. As the Britannica puts it, Aristotle "perhaps more than any other thinker has characterised the orientation and content of all that is termed Western Civilisation." High praise indeed. The man who never lifted a sword contributed more to the civilisation than his student who never lost a battle and united the known world.

Aristotle’s thought was so revolutionary and original that his coming utterly changed the course of civilisation. Our contemporary world would be very different place had he not lived. The great German poet Goethe described his work as "a pyramid rising on high from a broad base on earth", thus stressing that his philosophy was founded on the rock of reality but reaching to celestial insights.

This intellectual colossus was also regarded as a kind and affectionate man. There are references in his will to the happy family life he had enjoyed. He provided with solicitous care for his children and servants. He paid tribute to Herpyllis, his wife, for the "constant love she has shown me". It is no surprise that this wonderful man wished to leave to his son guidelines for a happy life, as a precious legacy.

Virtue is not Victorian

Nevertheless Aristotle's notion of virtue has had more than its fair share of detractors. Virtue has had a bad name ever since the Victorian era. Mud sticks. Time magazine some years ago coined the disparaging phrase "the virtue industry" referring among other writings to the much publicized Book of Virtue of William Bennett, a former US Secretary for Education. This best-seller was light on theory and did little to win over the hearts and minds of the unconverted.

All too often even those who write about virtue have a woolly understanding of the word. They use the term interchangeably with values, as if virtue had nothing to do with established behaviour and instead belonged with values back in the realm of good intentions. And while contemporary philosophy has developed a niche area of study called virtue ethics its proponents have won scant recognition in the plethora of mainstream parenting books. But Seligman and Peterson have done what a thousand philosophers could not do; they have elevated discussion of virtues to a clinical basis through an evidence-based methodology.

Seligman and Peterson identify six umbrella virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, temperance, humanity and transcendence and a further list of character strengths subordinate to the virtues. It is no coincidence that their list resembles core virtues of the various traditions of man. For example the four cardinal virtues of prudence (sound judgement), justice, temperance, and fortitude that date back to Socrates and Plato align closely with the six of Seligman and Peterson. Possibly the Greeks would have rolled wisdom, humanity and transcendence into prudence, which Aristotle described as the "power of forming right judgements".

Under the six virtue headings the authors drill down to 24 character strengths, or stable traits of character. For example, wisdom is the umbrella virtue for creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, and perspective. The authors suggest that one can further descend to what they call "situational themes", habits manifesting the character strengths in specific circumstances. The whole process is thus from the abstract to the specific habits that manifest the virtues.

They are at pains to remind us that theirs is not the final word, but the work is most impressive nonetheless. Major sections in the book discuss aims and methodology of the project, the character strengths in detail, and assessment processes. Chapters on each character strength are the work of contributing experts in their own specific fields. Discussion of each strength follows a standard template: definitions, traditional approaches, measures, benefits, manifestations, cross-gender and cross-cultural variations, interventions for fostering, areas for future study, and bibliography.

Both the Nicomachean Ethics and Character Strengths and Virtues go to lengths to explain that virtues are deeply rooted habits of action, not wishful thinking or nice sentiments. Both argue that good habits can be cultivated and that these habits are foundation for the happiness of the individual. Aristotle summarises the general argument of his work in once sentence: "Happiness is the reward of virtue." Seligman and Peterson reflect an identical vision, "This handbook focuses on … the strengths of character that make the good life possible." May mankind be richer, and happier, for this rediscovery.

Andrew Mullins is headmaster of Redfield College, a school in Sydney for boys in Years 2 to 12. He is the author of Parenting for Character.

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