Teaching Virtue

Christine Whelan | Posted on 03/22/10

To acquire a virtue, Aristotle explained, is to acquire the habit of exercising the virtue. Most of us know what is right. It's the doing that's difficult.

Writing for a site like this has made me ponder a basic idea: We teach virtues to our children when they are young, but can virtues be taught to adults?

Indeed, I believe we can all learn-and relearn-virtues. And the best of self-help can guide us along the way.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis suggests that adults can live a more virtuous and Christian life simply by "acting as if" they were Christian. "Do not sit trying to manufacture feelings. Ask yourself, ‘If I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?' When you have found the answer, go and do it."

Lewis believed that it was possible to train the habits of faith and virtue. We must be continually reminded of what we believe, he argued, and must "make some serious attempt to practice Christian virtues" for at least six weeks.

This practical approach to virtue has been embraced by self-help authors for centuries, most notably Benjamin Franklin. Franklin is credited as being foundational to the roots of American values and character, a marriage of the practical and democratic Puritan values of thrift, hard work, education, community spirit, self-governing institutions, and opposition to authoritarianism both political and religious, with the scientific and tolerant values of the Enlightenment. And Franklin clearly believed virtue could be taught.

According to Walter Isaacson's 2003 biography of Franklin, he was "the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become." Isaccson wrote:

His morality was built on a sincere belief in leading a virtuous life, serving the country he loved and hoping to achieve salvation through good works. That led him to make the link between private virtue and civic virtue and to suspect, based on the meager evidence he could muster about God's will, that these earthly virtues were linked to heavenly ones as well. As he put it in the motto for the library he founded, "To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine." It is useful for us to engage anew with Franklin, for in doing so we are grappling with a fundamental issue: How does one live a life that is useful, virtuous, worthy, moral and spiritually meaningful? For that matter, which of these attributes is most important? These are questions just as vital for a self-satisfied age as they were for a revolutionary one.

Over the years, Franklin created a list of virtues by which he thought it best to live. These virtues consisted of temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.

To help himself adhere to these virtues, Franklin placed each one on a separate page in a small book that he kept with him for most of his life. He would evaluate his performance with regard to each of them on a daily basis. He would also select one of the virtues to focus on for full week. Despite this effort, he often failed in his quest. As C.S. Lewis quipped, "The main thing we learn from a serious attempt to practice the Christian virtues is that we fail."

But practice is the key: To acquire a virtue, Aristotle explained, is to acquire the habit of exercising the virtue. Most of us know what is right. It's the doing that's difficult.

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