Last month, I described how I was going to undertake the self-improvement method created by Benjamin Franklin. The goal of Franklin’s method was to “arrive at moral perfection” by living in accordance with 13 moral virtues. This brings up the question, “What is virtue?” While I’m certainly no expert in the philosophy of virtue, this month I’ll try to explain how I view the concept of virtue, or excellence.
The type of virtues we’re interested in here are what Aristotle referred to as character virtue, or moral excellence. If I understand Aristotle correctly, it is these virtues that result in human happiness, the sort of happiness that comes from living as one should. Although we should be virtuous because it is the right way to treat others, the ultimate reason to be morally virtuous is to be happy, to live a flourishing life.
There are several key points to make about virtues. First, virtues involve standards of conduct. These standards are those that we accept as being valid for a set of circumstances that we are likely to encounter throughout our lives. According to Aristotle, we’re not born with these standards somehow hard-wired in our brains. We learn these standards through examples and instruction. Parents teach these standards to their children, and teachers to their students. We also develop our understanding through our interactions with others. While we may initially have these standards forced upon us, eventually to be a person of good character we must grow to live by these rules freely and happily.
This brings us to our second point. Since moral virtue isn’t something we’re born with, becoming a person of good character takes practice. This is why Aristotle describes being virtuous as being in a “state.” You become a person of character, a virtuous person, by acting virtuously until acting in accordance with virtue becomes habit … no more than a habit, it because part of your being. You go from being someone who consciously acts virtuously to someone who simply is virtuous.
So, to be virtuous, we must first learn what it means to be virtuous, then we must practice living virtuously. In what may be my favorite line from Aristotle, he says “For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time does not make a man blessed and happy.” (Aristotle was discussing the pursuit of virtue as the only way to be truly happy.) To me, this means that to be happy, truly happy, we must make the pursuit of virtue a practice that ends only when our life ends. Through the active pursuit of virtue, we become virtuous. This is one of the beauties of the Franklin’s method; first, he studied virtue to understand what kind of person he wanted to be, then he systematically and consciously practiced virtue with the goal of becoming virtuous. Franklin gives us a practical, easily understood way to cultivate the virtues that matter to us. Aristotle helps us understand the role of moral virtue, Franklin give us a way to develop it.
It’s also important to understand that virtues are relative to the individual and the situation; they’re not one-size-fits-all. Take generosity. Different degrees of generosity may be appropriate in different circumstances. Giving a ten-year-old child $10,000 is overly generous, but giving $10,000 to a relative to help her buy her first house may be appropriately generous. Our roles in life may also dictate the appropriate degree of a virtue. It’s appropriate for a firefighter to have a higher degree of courage than would be appropriate for most of us. This may make more sense when we understand that Aristotle described virtues as being the mean between two vices, one of which is the absence of the characteristic and the other of which is an overabundance of the characteristic. Consider thrift. At one extreme (too much thrift), we are stingy; at the other, we are spendthrifts. So, the virtuous mean between cowardice and foolhardiness is different for a firefighter than it is for a college professor.
To Aristotle, and philosophers from other traditions, the only way to flourish as a human being – to be happy – is to live in accordance with virtue. Let me leave you with this. It is within your power to live with virtue, to be happy, to flourish. As Aristotle so aptly put it, “’Tis within ourselves that we are thus or thus.” If you want to be happy, forget about external pleasures; focus on becoming virtuous. We write our own life story. Take control of your life and your happiness by becoming the type of person you want to be, live a virtuous life. FBN
By Craig Van Slyke, Ph.D.
Craig Van Slyke, Ph.D., is the dean of the W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University
The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University is home to over 3,000 undergraduate and Master’s students. The College’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the success of its students and the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: http://www.franke.nau.edu/. I welcome comments and feedback on these columns. Email your comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow me on Twitter @cvanslyke.