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What is Virtue?

by Rick Lewis

“You are a citizen of a great and powerful nation. Are you not ashamed that you give so much time to the pursuit of money and reputation, and honours, and care so little for truth and wisdom and the improvement of your soul?” Socrates, The Apology*

Socrates said that we should be concerned with the improvement of our souls, and this is, after a manner of speaking, the focus of one of the two special features in this issue. For the subject of our first two articles is the nature of virtue, and how can the development of virtue be described except as the improvement of one’s soul? One of the classic questions of philosophy is “what should I do?” However, from the earliest times some have argued that this question is less important than the question of what kind of people we should be. If we can become better people, they say, then good actions will follow naturally.

This approach to life is known as ‘virtue ethics’, and was first advocated by Confucius, but in the West it is particularly associated with Aristotle. Recently it has enjoyed a bit of a revival. This may be partly a backlash against all the ethical systems so earnestly discussed in the past few centuries which have attempted to lay down sets of rules for how we should behave. Whether Kant’s idea about our having duties founded on the categorical imperative, or Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism, which is based on considering an action’s consequences, the aim has been to work out how people should behave in different circumstances. In other words, the focus has been on people’s consciously-chosen actions. But some have found this kind of rule-following ethics to be desiccated – they claim that it doesn’t take enough account of the emotions and affections of the moral agent, for instance, or encourages people to do good deeds grudgingly, even resentfully. Virtue ethics by contrast doesn’t look at morality in isolation but as something which is inescapably in the context of our lives and of society. Virtue ethicists suggest that we can acquire virtues in two ways. The first is by following the example of inspiring individuals (a soldier might be inspired with courage by the example of some great hero; or somebody might be inspired with tolerance and benevolence by the example of Gandhi). The other way is through practice – for instance, if one practices the virtue of patience, over time one becomes more patient (Or so I’m told. I’ve never tried it myself, actually).

But what exactly are the virtues that we should cultivate in this way? Kindness? Honesty? Courage? Diligence? All of the above and more? There are many virtues, so what is the nature of each, which are the most important and how do they interrelate with one another? Our first two articles in different ways both look at what virtue is. Philip Vassallo examines the gradual development of the idea of virtue or arête in ancient Greece. And Philip Cafaro examines some thoroughly modern conceptions of virtue with the aid of a shelf-full of self-help books. (This is a genre at which philosophers tend to sneer; but Cafaro points out that their vast sales suggest they reflect well some popular notions of virtue, and besides, he says, they also contain some very good insights and arguments.)

The other special feature in this issue is about one of the great 20th century existentialists, namely Peter Wessel Zapffe (1899- 1990). Zapffe was and is well known within his native Norway, partly due to his other careers as a humorist and mountaineer, but has been rather neglected elsewhere. Thanks to translator Gisle Tangenes, we are delighted to bring you the first-ever English publication of Zapffe’s classic 1933 essay ‘The Last Messiah’. Zapffe was clearly a remarkable thinker and a wonderful prose stylist, and Tangenes’ lively translation really does him justice. An introductory article by Tangenes sheds some light on Zapffe’s colourful and engaging personality as well as on his ideas. Tangenes remarked that as a philosopher, Zapffe is reminiscent of Camus, but “not so optimistic.”(!) He also reminded me that “there are a lot of fascinating thinkers around whose work remains buried in less-spoken languages, and it is nice to be able to do something about one such.” We’ll obviously have to keep a lookout for more such – so as usual, all suggestions welcomed!

[* with friendly acknowledgments to the philosophy TV show ‘No Dogs Or Philosophers Allowed’, which uses this quotation as its motto.]

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