The Importance of Character and the Virtues

“The true aim of education is not merely the cultivation of the intellect but also the formation of moral character. Increased intelligence or physical skill may as easily be employed to the detriment as to the benefit of the community, if not accompanied by improved will. Both do not necessarily go together. As it is the function of ethics to determine the ideal of human character, so it is the business of the theory or science of education to study the processes by which that end may be attained and to estimate the relative efficiency of different educational systems and methods in the prosecution of that end. Finally it is the duty of the art of education to apply the conclusions thus reached to practice and to adapt the available machinery to the realization of the true purpose of education in the formation of the highest type of ideal human character.” (Catholic Encyclopedia)

We must keep this all in mind as we begin this course. For this course will examine the cardinal virtues and their integration into character development; explore possible remedies advanced by “character education” and approach the relationship of the virtues with an authentic Catholic character formation from both speculative and practical perspectives. In any class, of course, the speculative aspect is emphasized, but in a course dealing with ethics, it is the application that is the final goal.

Aristotle tells us that ethics is primarily a practical science, as opposed to a speculative science or an art. A few of his reflections will be good to consider at the outset:

“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth… If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good.” (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book I)

Aristotle will go on to tell us that man’s ultimate aim, that “which we desire for its own sake,” is happiness. We may build a ship so that we can sail, and sail so that we can cross the ocean, and cross the ocean so that we can see our lost love ones, etc. But we don’t wish to be happy “so that…” We simply wish to be happy. It is an end and not a means to something further. The surprising thing, here, especially given our contemporary culture, is that the classic understanding of ethics was one of happiness.

Our contemporary culture would tell us that the key to happiness is freedom, but the modern understanding of freedom is extremely flawed. True freedom is not the “right” to simply follow the impulses of the will, but a true freedom is what is known as a “freedom for excellence.”

Servias Pinckaers uses the wonderful example of a piano player as a means to show what virtue can do for someone who seeks true freedom towards a specific end:

In the beginning the child, despite the desire to learn will often feel that the lessons and exercises as a constraint imposed on freedom and the attractions of the moment. There are times when practice has to be insisted upon…Of course, anyone is free to bang out notes haphazardly on the piano, as the fancy strikes him. But this is a rudimentary, savage sort of freedom… On the other hand, the person who really possesses the art of playing the piano has acquired a new freedom. (The Sources of Christian Ethics, p.355)

We see, then, that to truly be free to attain the very ends we were both made for and should aspire to attain to, that our freedom involves both a responsibility and a joy in becoming what we are meant to be. It should come as no surprise that, at the same time a new teaching on freedom overtook society (a freedom which emphasizes indifference rather than excellence) the virtues fell out of common knowledge and pursuit.

If we are to once again become a culture that seeks excellence, we must be a culture that strives after virtue. We are meant to be something, and we are meant to have a part in becoming that something. We are truly both what we are (as created) and what we make of ourselves: a sort of theistic existentialism. Made in the image of God, we are meant to be free, but free to be what He made us to be.

A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions. (CCC 1803)

The good is what the will seeks. God is goodness Himself. Therefore, the cultivation of the virtues help us to, here on earth, to follow the will of God. They give us the power (virtus, power) to overcome the passions if and when they lead us away from the path we want to choose.

Of course, we recognize the necessity of grace in all of this, and with St. Paul, although we must admit that “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am!” we also have cause to rejoice:

“Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:23-25)

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: