RESOURCE WRITING A Hastily Written Guide to the Virtues


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While I would like to discuss the virtues, especially in comparison to other systems of ethics like deontology or consequentialism, that is a conversation that is better left to the comments. This initial guide focuses on the utility of the virtues when it comes to writing, much as my earlier hastily written guide did not mean to delve into the praxis of astrology, to which end I must again note that the virtues here to be discussed are traditional, because of their historical use outside of the field of moral philosophy, and Western, because that is what I know. And with all that in mind....

What are the virtues?

A virtue is tersely defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as "an excellent trait of character", and to that account, there's not much else to add. Being something "excellent", a virtue is no mere habit, but being a trait of "character", its exercises can't all be intentional. Even limiting ourselves to "traditional, Western" virtues yields us plenty of lists, some of which may seem rather contradictory, so for this guide I shall further limit ourselves to four.

First List: The Cardinal Virtues.

Perhaps the earliest systematic treatment of the virtues that we have is that which is found in the works of Plato, from whom we derive our first list. The lead of this Ancient Greek philosopher continues to be followed, in fact, by even the most current of Western philosophers, such that two of the remaining three lists are simply expansions or elaborations thereof, and so the thought of this one philosopher requires a lot more background than the rest.

"Ancient Greece" in the time of Plato was no monolith. The Greeks themselves were organized into various city-states, the leading two of which were Athens and Sparta. Athens, you may already know, is the so-called "birthplace of democracy", because all of its citizens had a say in how the city was governed. Sparta, on the other hand, was ruled by a number of oligarchs: two kings and five ephors, with one group limiting the powers of the other.

Consequently, Sparta saw Athens' very existence as a threat to its constitution, though this likely oversells the nature of the Athenian democracy. Less than a third of the city's residents were citizens: among adult males, most were either metics -- resident foreigners -- or slaves, while all women were barely considered human. Sparta was a lot fairer to its women, who enjoyed nearly the same amount of power as their male counterparts, albeit said males, if they were citizens, lived a highly militarized way of life. This was in large part because the divide between Sparta's citizens and the slaves1​ that supported them was much starker, the former having to regularly organize massacres of the latter.

The differences between the two city-states came to a head in the Peloponnesian War. Plato, an Athenian, was not yet born when the war began; Socrates, his teacher, was around 40. Long story short, Athens lost, with its democracy briefly dismantled in favor of another oligarchy. While Socrates had distinguished himself in the fight against the Spartans, many of his students, such as Alcibiades, Xenophon, and Critias, would end up serving either this oligarchy or the foreign government that supported it. Within a year or two, democracy returned to Athens, and in less than half a decade, Socrates would be formally accused of impiety and corrupting the youth.

The subsequent trial is detailed firsthand in two separate accounts, both titled Apology, by Plato and Xenophon. In short, Socrates considered the charges against him to be intimately tied to his vocation as a philosopher, which literally means "Lover of Wisdom". He spent much of his time engaging the people of Athens in what we now know as the Socratic method, where an initial statement is posed, a question is asked in response to clarify said statement, another statement is used to answer said question, another question is asked to clarify said answer, and so on. Because Socrates pursued these discussions with an earnest belief that he himself knew nothing of the topic at hand, he never descended to the level of certain intellectually bankrupt pundits working in our present day, but many of the people whom he engaged, once the inconsistencies of their opinions were highlighted, nevertheless felt angry or ashamed. This was all essential, Socrates believed, to the pursuit of Wisdom, a task which he also believed was given to him by the gods; as for corrupting the youth, could he really be blamed when his students imitated his methods, arguing with their elders, and said elders proved unequal to the task?2​

Needless to say, Socrates was found guilty and condemned to death. Plato's early dialogues -- dialogues, by the way, are sort of like philosophical stage plays, although with Plato's critique of poetry I imagine he would resent such a summary -- often provide somewhat straightforward accounts of Socrates' discussions, most of which ended in aporía, i.e. an impasse. His middle dialogues still have Socrates as their "protagonist", but the Socrates of these dialogues seems to take a more positive role as an instructor. Finally, Plato's later dialogues most often deal with nature, a subject his earlier and middle dialogues expressly ignore, and metaphysics, where he seems to take more literally what were only analogies in his early and middle dialogues. Socrates' role in these later dialogues is greatly diminished, with the Laws not having Socrates as a character at all, probably because, at this point, Plato had really come into his own as a thinker, while the shadow of Socrates' death looms over his earlier work.

Indeed, what Socrates most often discussed, according to Plato's dialogues, are the virtues, though each dialogue tends to focus on one particular virtue, rather than on all the virtues in general. Even the text I am to focus on here, his middle dialogue the Republic, chiefly concerns the virtue of Justice (in Greek, Dikeosýni), and whether or not it should be considered a virtue in the first place, to which end Plato's Socrates suggests to take, for a model, the ideal city.

Whether Plato's political vision remains ideal is debatable at best, as it was a point of contention even during his time. Plato's ideal city was to be divided into three classes. The majority -- farmers, husbandmen, common artisans, and the like -- form the first class, for whom Plato does not elaborate their particular way of life. The second class was to be composed of the guardians, or those guarding the city from internal and external threats, all of whom are necessarily well-educated. From the best and brightest of the guardians came the third class, the philosopher-kings, who would generally prefer to be left to their intellectual pursuits, but otherwise served the city for everyone else's benefit.

As you may be able to tell, Plato did not think highly of democracy, although his vision was not entirely totalitarian either. The producers, while having little say in what the other two classes may do, were not to be restricted in the same way as the other classes; as for how exactly these other classes are restricted, the guardians and philosopher-kings were to keep most of their property in common amongst themselves. And for these guardians and philosopher-kings, women, too, were to receive a much greater degree of freedom than those with whom Plato actually lived, as they were to receive the same education and responsibilities as the men.

From this tripartite division of the city followed Plato's tripartite division of the soul. You have the Appetites (Epithymitikón), in charge of bodily desires; the Spirit (Thymoidés), which desires fame and honor above all; and Reason (Logistikón), which is the most inclined to seek Wisdom. It will be noted that these three parts not only have their own desires, but also their own beliefs and even emotions, though whether they are mere concepts or subjects all on their own is up for debate. As such, the virtue of Wisdom, which in Greek is Sophía, may be defined as the operating principle of the philosopher-kings, pertaining as it does to the excellence of one's Reason; Fortitude/Courage, in Greek Andría, pertains to excellence of Spirit, and is the operating principle of the guardians; Temperance/Moderation, in Greek Sophrosýni, is important to everyone, as it generally indicates consent over which part, either of the city or of the soul, should rule; and Justice, as a virtue, harmonizes between the three parts of the individual soul, as well as the three classes of the ideal city.

Second List: The Peripatetic Virtues.

Little needs to be added to the above account to properly apprehend the context behind Aristotle's list of virtues, Aristotle having been one of Plato's students, although it will be noted that, while Plato was a citizen of Athens, Aristotle was a metic; that Plato's turn to metaphysics was something Aristotle himself was ambivalent towards, at least when he was composing his treatise on the same subject; that Aristotle wrote treatises -- the sort of dry, systematic texts more often associated with philosophy nowadays -- rather than dialogues; that, through his treatises, Aristotle pioneered the separation of the various fields of philosophy, such as ethics and politics, never writing an individual text as gargantuan in scope as the Republic; and that Aristotle's most notable student was not a philosopher, like the successors of Socrates and Plato, but the warrior-king Alexander the Great.

Ultimately, while the list found in his Nicomachean Ethics3​ may be summarized as expanding on that of his teacher, Aristotle's conception of the virtues is fundamentally different, his approach being more intimate and practical. Even as the Republic claims that the final end of the virtues is for the individual to live well, which for both Plato and Aristotle is functionally similar to achieving happiness (evdemonía), a greater sense of what it actually means to live well is given by Aristotle, insofar as he considers, for instance, the effects of fortune. Likewise, the Republic is one of Plato's dialogues where he expounds on his metaphysical theory of Forms, which in terms of his ethics reduces all of the virtues down to a kind of knowledge; Aristotle more credibly allows for individuals to truly know what the virtues are, yet because of some great feeling (páthos) is unable to act on them, a condition he calls incontinence (akrasía). In much the same way that incontinence is not really a state of vice, Aristotle also defines continence (enkrátia), or the condition wherein the individual merely resists the aforementioned great feeling, as not necessarily a state of virtue.

As for what virtues are in his list, he generally defines them as fitting between two extremes. Fortitude is between the states of Cowardice and Rashness, with all of these terms being somewhat self-explanatory. Temperance is between the states of Insensibility and Decadence -- while Decadence isn't hard to understand, Aristotle could provide no special term for those who are "Insensible", being a state of failing to take pleasure in anything that he claims cannot be found even in other animals.

This next set of virtues, I'd generally class under Temperance, though Aristotle evidently did not consider them as such. Generosity (Elevtheriótis) lies between Wastefulness and Stinginess, while Magnificence (Megaloprépia) lies between Vulgarity and Meanness; both entail the giving away of wealth, but the former is concerned with much smaller amounts. A virtue which some may class as a vice is Great-Mindedness (Megalopsychía), lying between Vanity and Small-Mindedness: it entails a high, but not unjust, valuation of the self, and much like Magnificence it has a counterpart for smaller honors, though as with "Insensibility" Aristotle lacked a proper name for it. Between Irritability and Spiritlessness, which are extremes in the way of anger, lies Gentleness (Praótis); between Contentiousness and Over-Complaisance lies something "most like Friendship (Philía)"; between Exaggeration and Self-Deprecation lies Truthfulness (Alithía). Perhaps the most parochial of all Aristotle's virtues is Gracefulness (Evtrápelos), a term which normally refers to physical movement, but here concerns conversation -- the extremes between which it lies are Buffoonery and Sternness. He sums up the section of his treatise that details what I would consider to be his "lesser" or "Athenian" virtues by talking about Shame, which for him is "more of a feeling than a moral state".

The two Aristotelian virtues which are not necessarily defined as fitting between two extremes are Justice and Wisdom, albeit Wisdom, like Temperance, seems to be more of a category than an individual virtue itself. Aristotle, in discussing Justice, distinguishes not only between Justice in the city and Justice in the soul, but also between Justice as a general sense of lawfulness, Justice as a form of redistributing goods, and Justice as a form of correcting redresses, although in laying out these distinctions he also blurs the line he had originally set for himself between ethics and politics. As for Wisdom, to which we would be more accurate in referring as the intellectual virtues, it is a category of five: Art (Téchni), Science (Epistími), Practical Wisdom (Phrónisis), Theoretical Wisdom (Sophía), and Intuition (Nous). Suffice it to say that Art, insofar as it refers to one's abilities to practice a certain craft, is not really a virtue in the same sense as all others; that Theoretical Wisdom, as defined by Aristotle, is the exceptional combination of Intuition and Science; and that Practical Wisdom, rather than its Theoretical counterpart, has the greater share of Aristotle's attention.

Third and Fourth Lists.

Plato's thought was transmitted into the Hebrew world through the likes of the Wisdom of Solomon and the Fourth Book of the Maccabees. When the Hebrew world split into that of the Jews and that of the Christians, such transmission was preserved mainly through the Christians, with both of the aforementioned books being in the canon of the Eastern Orthodox Church,4​ though the Christians, starting with the works of St. Paul, later developed their own distinct sets of virtues. The so-called Theological Virtues are the ones which said saint was most often keen to repeat -- Faith (Pístis), Hope (Elpís), and Love (Agápi) -- though only the first and last had the benefit of receiving comprehensive, if a touch too figurative, definitions, to be found in the Epistle to the Hebrews and the First Epistle to the Corinthians.

Faith is not exclusive to religion. There are things we have to believe in that are otherwise unprovable, like the reality of the things we sense, or else few of us have the privilege to fully engage with their proofs, like much of the knowledge produced by academia, such that those lacking in Faith are not so much atheistic as they are narcissistic or nihilistic. As for what Faith is when distinguished from Hope, my best answer comes from St. Augustine's Enchiridion, where he claims that Hope always refers to some future good, while Faith is bound neither to time nor to goodness. It is Hope, for instance, to believe that one will not lose an arm in the future; it is Faith to believe one has actually lost said arm once one loses it.

As for Love....well, we already had a thread for that, but the thread didn't mention the many kinds of Love in both Christian and pre-Christian thought. Plato had a couple of dialogues on the subject, namely his Symposium, which deals with Éros, and his Lysis, which deals with Philía; C.S. Lewis, in his book The Four Loves, also mentions Storgí and the already mentioned Agápi. Éros, more commonly anglicized as Eros, typically pertains to romantic or sexual love, but most notable among the variety of viewpoints presented by Plato in his dialogue is this kind of love's eventual actualization into a love of Wisdom. Philía refers to Friendship, especially between two otherwise unrelated equals.5​ Storgí, better known as Storge, is the natural affection between relatives or those long bonded by, say, a job, while Agápi, or Agape, is the sort of selfless love that, for most Christian thinkers, issues from God.

While the list of seven formed by putting together the works of Plato and St. Paul is reasonably popular, more popular by far is the final list of virtues I here provide, though they are popular less in-and-of-themselves than as the counterparts to their corresponding vices. Such lists of vices actually originate from monastic guidebooks, such as St. John Cassian's Institutes, where there are eight "principal faults" -- Gluttony, Fornication (i.e., Lust), Covetousness (understood as Avarice or Greed), Anger, Dejection, Accidie (i.e., Sloth), Vainglory, and Pride -- though one also has the witness of Prudentius' Psychomachia, or War of the Psyche, an allegorical epic where we have Paganism, Lust, Anger, Pride, Luxury, Avarice, and Discord.6​ It seems to be from Pope Gregory I, also known as St. Gregory the Great or St. Gregory the Dialogist, that the classic Seven Deadly Sins originate, specifically from his Moralia on Job: to wit, he gives Vainglory, Envy, Anger, Melancholy (more or less a fusion of Dejection and Accidie), Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust, though I will note that in the passage where these are enumerated, he understands them to all spring from Pride.7​ The Capital Virtues, then, are Humility, Humanity (more often translated as Kindness), Patience, Diligence, Charity (which is the same Latin term used for Agápi), Temperance, and Chastity.


To summarize, I have detailed the following four lists:

The Cardinal, or Platonic, Virtues
  1. Fortitude​
  2. Temperance​
  3. Justice​
  4. Wisdom (Sophía)​
The Peripatetic, or Aristotelian, Virtues
  1. Fortitude
  2. Temperance
  3. Generosity
  4. Magnificence
  5. Great-Mindedness
  6. Whatever lies between wanting honour too much and not wanting it at all
  7. Gentleness
  8. "Something like Friendship (Philía)"
  9. Truthfulness
  10. Gracefulness in Speech
  11. Justice
  12. Art8​
  13. Science
  14. Intuition
  15. Theoretical Wisdom (Sophía)9​
  16. Practical Wisdom (Phrónisis)
The Theological, or Pauline, Virtues
  1. Faith​
  2. Hope​
  3. Love (Agápi, but may also include Éros, Philía, and Storgí)​
The Capital Virtues
  1. Humility​
  2. Humanity​
  3. Patience​
  4. Diligence​
  5. Charity (which is the same term as that for Agápi)​
  6. Temperance​
  7. Chastity​
While much of the above has long been in the making, this section on the application of the virtues definitely fits the title of "hastily written guide". I had to perform no small amount of research, describing these virtues, since most of my chief applications of them go far beyond my writing, but I must reiterate that what I am sharing here is neither a scholarly compendium nor some life advice. Instead, let us here consider three commonly accepted parts of most creative literature, though I don't see the need of further elaborating on theme, or how one may use the questions of whether Justice or Love are virtues, for instance, to compose, say, a philosophical dialogue, so I'll devote nothing more to the part than this one portion of a sentence.

Setting is a little more interesting, what with all the paragraphs I've devoted to showing how different contexts lead to different conceptions of virtue. Of the lists above, I only directly use two -- the ones by Plato and by St. Paul -- because they're the ones that seem most "universal". I can't afford to be as Magnificent as the Ancient Athenian Aristotle advocates, while I have already implied in my footnotes how someone living in the present day may find a virtue like Chastity to be somewhat objectionable. It is these particular differences, however, that allow us to fully grasp any similar differences we may want to develop between the worlds we live in and the worlds we create, not to mention those among us who are engaged in historical fiction or literary realism.

Finally, you have character, and for this one may recall how Plato, in providing us with a system of ethics, also gave us a theory of psychology, which St. Paul complemented, despite the religious import of his work, by emphasizing the relationships between one's self and others. I suspect there's a lot of value in, say, structuring a character sheet according to their respective lists of virtues, with the Cardinal Virtues intimating a character's abilities, and the Theological Virtues intimating their convictions, goals, and relationships....


1​ - Referring to the helots, though by some accounts, they were more like serfs than slaves.
2​ - It is rather ironic that Socrates, even as he also participated in pederasty -- the Ancient Greek practice of associating an adult man with an adolescent boy for instructive purposes -- was among the few to prefer not to sexualize such relationships.
3​ - Aristotle is accepted to have written two treatises on ethics, the one here mentioned and the Eudemian Ethics, though the former largely subsumes the latter. There are some differences, of course, most notably with regards to the virtues which I later consider to be part of Temperance, but they don't seem particularly useful.
4​ - Canonicity is more complicated for the Orthodox, but suffice it to say that the Protestant Reformation was a largely Western phenomenon. The closest the Eastern Churches got to such a thing, with regards to the books of the Bible, was the dispute over the authorship of St. John's Apocalypse, but that was resolved within a hundred years or so.
5​ - Lewis gets a little weird, in the corresponding chapter, believing he has to perform what he considers to be a "tiresome demolition" of "the theory that every firm and serious friendship is really homosexual". To Lewis, Philia is something of a lost art, but for this he claims the Romantic movement's tendency to disregard anything that seems unnatural, leaving only the connections between lovers, siblings, and filiates, rather than to the same historical conditions that led to the homophobia in his opinion. For this, I recommend Alan Bray's book The Friend.
6​ - I have already noted the complicated relationship Plato's ideas have with feminism, and while similar disputes exist over, say, Aristotle or St. Paul, I'll only note how Prudentius personified both his virtues and his vices not only as women, but as women who wield swords and charged horses, and how his term for Lust -- Sodomita Libido -- seems to ignore the sexual dynamics of sapphism, considering the stricter definition of the term "sodomy".
7​ - The exact difference between Pride and Vainglory seems to be rooted in these authors' Christian milieu. Where some would describe Pride as "inward" and Vainglory as "outward", the emphasis in the writings of both St. John Cassian and St. John of the Ladder seems to be that Vainglory refers to most everything we would, from a secular mindset, term Arrogance or Boastfulness, whereas Pride is, more or less, a rejection of the benevolence of God. If I were to fully secularize the idea, Pride as a vice would refer to a person believing they are completely unable to do any good, or that goodness can no longer be found anywhere in the world, such that those who have so internalized their bigotry as to despise even the most innocuous use of, say, the rainbow flag are, ironically enough, its exemplars.
8​ - As noted, Aristotle might not have meant for this to be counted as a virtue.
9​ - It is interesting how terms like Sophía, Nous, and Theoría -- the contemplative life, which Aristotle considers as the life lived best -- have different meanings in Orthodox Christian theology. Sophía, in both Jewish and Christian tradition, is typically personified, and for Christians this personification is often equated with Christ; Nous and Theoría, meanwhile, have certain mystical significations that are, at this point, best left unmentioned.

One last note: while I could compile a decent-enough bibliography for this mess, the bulk of my citations would just be links to various articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which I used as a guide for my somewhat fragmentary reading of the primary sources. Most of the primary sources were originally in Greek, for which I am indebted to the translations available in Project Gutenberg and the transcriptions available in the Perseus Digital Library. Feel free to suggest any corrections!​
Add.: Moved from "General Chatting" to here.