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The Art of Living

The Six Core Virtues

Massimo Pigliucci finds six ethical ideals shared by all cultures.

The notion of virtue was central to much ancient discourse in ethics, most obviously in the ‘virtue ethics’ tradition we usually associate with Greco-Roman philosophies such as Stoicism, Epicureanism, Aristotelianism and Skepticism. But some scholars have made the point that the ethics of at least three of the big Eastern traditions, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism, also share a family resemblance with virtue ethics.

The word ‘virtue’ has nowadays fallen into disuse, perhaps because it reminds people of decidedly old-fashioned Christian virtues such as chastity and purity. Yet, ‘virtue’ comes from the Latin vir, which was in turn the translation of the Greek arete, and arete means excellence in the broadest sense, not limited to the moral realm. For example, not long ago I bought an arete bread knife, which cuts bread both cleanly and easily. Excellence, in other words, applies to anything or anyone that carries out its proper function well. Aristotle, as well as the Stoics, thought that the proper function of a human being is to use reason and live in harmony with other people, because those are the fundamental characteristics that distinguish our species. But who wouldn’t want to be excellent at reasoning and at carrying out harmonious interactions with fellow human beings?

Traditionally the Greeks recognized four cardinal virtues, mentioned by Plato in Book IV of his Republic (426–435). Here is how they are defined, in part, in the Plato Dictionary (ed. Morris Stockhammer, 1965):

Phronêsis (prudence/practical wisdom): The ability which itself is productive of human happiness; the knowledge of what is good and bad.

Dikaiosynê (justice/morality): The state that distributes to each person according to what is deserved; the state on account of which its possessor chooses what appears to him to be just; social equality.

Sôphrosynê (temperance/moderation): Moderation of the soul concerning the desires that normally occur in it, and the pleasures than ensue; the state by which its possessor is cautious about what he should choose to do.

Andreia (fortitude/courage): The state of the soul unmoved by fear; self-restraint in the soul about what is fearful and terrible; boldness in obedience to wisdom; being intrepid in the face of death; or fortitude with respect to virtue.

What makes this short list of virtues so compelling is that modern research shows it to be pretty much universal, at least across cultures capable of reading and writing. Katherine Dahlsgaard, Christopher Peterson, and Martin Seligman co-authored a paper, ‘Shared Virtue: The Convergence of Valued Human Strengths Across Culture and History’ (Review of General Psychology, 9(3), 2005), which looked at cross-cultural convergence over the concept of virtue. They found six virtues, which they refer to as ‘core,’ shared by Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Greco-Roman philosophies, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These core virtues include the four cardinal ones mentioned above, plus two more:

Humanity: Interpersonal strengths that involve tending to and befriending others; examples include love and kindness.

Transcendence: Strengths that forge connections to the larger world and thereby provide meaning; examples include gratitude, hope, and spirituality.

These latter two were also recognized by the Greco-Romans, but they were not labelled as virtues. For example, the Cynic and Stoic concept of cosmopolitanism – the notion that we ought to treat everyone else on earth as if they were our brothers and sisters – is a type of ‘humanity’. And the Stoic idea of Providence, which implies that we are parts of the cosmos at large, is a type of ‘transcendence’.

This is interesting because human beings the world over seem to have recognized that certain behavioral dispositions are conducive to better social living. And good social living is in turn necessary for individual flourishing, because we are fundamentally deeply social animals. Moreover, practically speaking, these six core virtues are together useful as a moral compass of sorts. Every time we are about to do something important we ought to ask ourselves whether that something is prudent, courageous, just, and temperate, as well as whether it is in line with the concepts of humanity and transcendence. If the answer is yes, we should go ahead and do it; but if the answer is no, we should refrain.

For instance, suppose I walk into my workplace and see my boss harassing a colleague. Should I intervene? How? Well, prudence tells me that intervening is good, because it helps my colleague out; further, to do so requires courage because I could suffer retaliation from the boss; it is just, because my colleague is not being treated with fairness and dignity; I can also intervene while exercising temperance (no violence needed); my intervention shows kindness toward a fellow human being; and my sense of transcendence is enhanced by the feeling of doing something that is not just a selfish act.

So let’s practice the six core virtues whenever we can. Both the world at large and we ourselves will be better off because of it.

© Prof. Massimo Pigliucci 2023

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His books include How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books) and The Quest for Character: What the Story of Socrates and Alcibiades Teaches Us about Our Search for Good Leaders (Basic Books). More by him at massimopigliucci.org.

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