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The ancient concept of “virtue” is all but dead. It’s time to revive it.

After 10,000 years of civilization, have we figured out what virtue is?
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach, David Costa Art / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • The issue of becoming a better human being has often been understood in terms of “virtue.”
  • The ancient Greco-Romans focused on four so-called cardinal virtues: prudence, fortitude, justice, and temperance.
  • A modern study coauthored by psychologist Katherine Dahlsgaard and colleagues found that these same cardinal virtues are near-universal across human cultures.

The following is excerpted from The Quest for Character, published by Basic Books on September 27. It is reprinted courtesy of Basic Books.

Can we make ourselves into better human beings? Can we help others do the same? And can we get the leaders  of our society — statesmen, generals, businesspeople — to care about the general welfare so that humanity may prosper not just economically and materially but also spiritually? These questions have been asked for over two millennia, and attempting to answer them is crucial if we want to live a better life and contribute to building a more just society.  

Within the Western tradition, with which this book is concerned, the issue of becoming a better human being has often been understood in terms of “virtue.” Before we can sensibly ask whether and how virtue can be taught, then, we need to discuss what exactly virtue is and why we should care about it. These days the word has acquired a rather old-fashioned connotation, as our thoughts are likely to wander toward Christian conceptions of virtues such as purity and chastity. The term has, accordingly, fallen into disuse. Google Ngram shows a pretty steady decline from 1800 on, plateauing for the past half century or so.  

That’s unfortunate, and it is a trend that we need to reverse, not because the old-fashioned notion is one to cling to but because an even more ancient conception still offers us much valid guidance on how to live today. The ancient Greco-Romans focused on four so-called cardinal virtues, understood as character traits, or behavioral inclinations, that ought to be cultivated and used as a moral compass to navigate our lives.  

Plato is the earliest source to articulate the virtues, and the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero considered them central to the conduct of our lives. They are

  • Prudence (sometimes called practical wisdom), the ability to navigate complex situations in the best way possible.  
  • Justice, understood as acting fairly toward others and respecting them as human beings.  
  • Fortitude (or courage), encompassing endurance and the ability to confront our fears.  
  • Temperance, the ability to practice self-restraint and to act in right measure.  

A modern study coauthored by psychologist Katherine Dahlsgaard and colleagues found that these same cardinal virtues are near-universal across human cultures, though they are sometimes accompanied by additional valued character traits, such as a sense of human connection and a sense of transcendence. We will return to this point near the end of the book. For now, it is easy to see why the four Platonic virtues are highly regarded across traditions: a person who acts prudently, justly, courageously, and with temperance is the kind of person we often see as a role model for ourselves and our children.  

While the word “virtue” comes from the Latin virtus, meaning specifically moral strength, the original Greek term was arete, which meant “that which is good” or, more succinctly, excellence. Not just moral excellence but excellence of any sort. For instance, an excellent athlete would be one who won many competitions at Olympia. And arete does not apply just to human beings. An excellent lioness is one skilled at catching antelopes and other prey so that she and her offspring can survive.  

This concept even applies to objects: an excellent knife, for example, is one characterized by a sharp blade that cuts cleanly. In general, arete has to do with the proper function of a thing and how well that function is carried out. The function of a knife is to cut; the function of a lioness is to produce and feed her offspring; the function of an athlete Is to win competitions. But what is the arete of a human being? Here opinions varied among the Greco-Romans, just as they vary today among both philosophers and scientists. But not, in either case, as much as one might imagine.  

The Epicureans, for instance, thought that human beings naturally seek pleasure and, especially, avoid pain. So an excellent human life is one that is devoted to minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure. For the Stoics, what distinguishes our species is the ability to reason and our high degree of sociality, from which it follows that we should spend our existence intent in using our mind to improve social living. Although these conceptions appear divergent, both the Epicureans and the Stoics agreed that we should act virtuously because doing so helps us live “in accordance with nature,” meaning our nature as a particular biological species.  

Modern scientists such as comparative primatologist Frans de Waal have also reached the conclusion that human nature is characterized by our use of reason to solve problems as well as by the unusually high degree of sociality particular to our species. Indeed, De Waal thinks that what we call morality evolved in Homo sapiens from preexisting building blocks found in other social primates. Morality, then, has a clear and important biological function: to regulate communal living so that individuals within a group can survive and flourish.  

It is interesting to note that the modern terms “ethics” and “morality” have revealing roots in this respect: the first one comes from the Greek êthos, a word related to our idea of character; the second one is from the Latin moralis, which has to do with habits and customs. Ethics or morality, in the ancient Greco-Roman sense, then, is what we do in order to live well together — the same problem faced by our primate cousins. In order to live a good life, we need a society where people act virtuously, a goal that is not that difficult to achieve within the small social groups that characterize much of the history of humanity and continue to mark other species of primates as well.  

In that sort of society, everyone knows and is likely related to everyone else. Under such circumstances, it is relatively easy to make sure that individuals act virtuously because if they don’t, the other members of the group will know and will exert physical punishment or enforce ostracism on those who do not comply. Explicit ethical teachings are not necessary for the task, and both early humans and other primates could rely on their evolutionary instincts.  

But human beings have not lived in small and manageable groups at least since the onset of the agricultural revolution, about ten thousand years ago. That event led to the evolution of increasingly larger stable settlements that eventually gave origin to the first cities. Those events were what ultimately triggered, in ancient Greece and Rome just as much as everywhere else on the globe, the need to develop explicit systems of ethics and related systems of laws. Simultaneously, people also began to consider whether and how they could teach the next generation to live virtuously, and especially how they might best select good leaders to handle increasingly stratified and complex societies — leaders who would act virtuously for the benefit of all.  

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In the West, one of the first pivotal figures to seriously explore the question of character and whether virtue can be taught was Socrates of Athens, who lived between 470 and 399 BCE, a period in which his native city, host of the first democratic government in the world, experienced its apex and fall.  

In the Platonic dialogue known as the Meno, the title character directly asks Socrates the question that underlies the book you are reading now: “Can you tell me, Socrates, is human excellence something teachable? Or, if not teachable, is it something to be acquired by training? Or, if it cannot be acquired either by training or by teaching, does it accrue to me at birth or in some other way?” 

Socrates seldom answered a question directly. Instead, he would respond by asking questions of his own, aimed at guiding his interlocutors through a process of reasoning that might lead them to an answer, or at least a better understanding of the issue. Such is the case in the Meno. Socrates begins by asking what virtue is, on the grounds that if we don’t know the answer to that question, then we have no hope of answering the further question of whether it can be taught. Things don’t go too well. Socrates informs Meno that he doesn’t know what virtue is, and moreover, he claims to be unaware of anyone else who does. Meno responds that, according to one of Socrates’s famous rivals, Gorgias, different people display different virtues depending on their roles in society: men in their prime are courageous, women are chaste, older people are wise, and so on. But Socrates will have none of it: virtue doesn’t depend on age or sex; it is a human universal.  


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