Defining the Virtues

Six Virtue Definitions

Understanding – The mind builds this capacity by taking in and processing ideas and sensory information. Constructivist educators say the mind “constructs” meaning from what it takes in. As these constructions accumulate the mind gains deeper understandings.

Imagination – The mind also works in the other direction as it directs action. Most of the time the imagination and body act synchronously and unconsciously, so we are unaware of their interaction. We just “do things,” so we don’t’ see the role imagination plays. Without “imagination,” however–the mind imagining and directing action–the body can’t act. At times the imagination sets out to explore completely new possibilities. The ability to take new, imaginative actions and make new things is the highest form of imagination. We call it creativity.

Strong Character – This capacity is built by confronting internal fears and inadequacies. Parker Palmer (1994) explains that, if we don’t confront the fears within us, we project them onto others. Strong character is built by addressing the fears we have about ourselves. Military boot camp, for example, builds strong character whenever soldiers confront their fear of not being able to go further, as they go further.

Courage – When strong character enables people to confront their fear, they are able to act with courage. Courage is often confused with risk-taking or acting in the face of danger, but dangerous acts may not be courageous in the virtue sense. For example, it is not virtuous courage to put oneself in danger on a dare. Such an act emerges from a fear of being regarded as cowardly. On the other hand, virtuous courage is evident when soldiers risk their lives to rescue wounded comrades. This specific virtuous courage emerges from the strong character that is built from the first day of boot camp.

Humility – This capacity is built by people knowing the following four things “at their core:” (1) they have special talents; (2) others care little about those talents; (3) others have their own special talents; and (4) the day after they die, the world goes on, just as it did the day before. Because humble people know these four things “at their core,” they don’t need a light on their accomplishments. This enables them to shine a light on the accomplishments of others, and it enables them to make situations better by giving their talents in ways that are outside the spotlight.

Generosity – Generosity is an act that puts the needs of others before one’s own. After one’s basic human needs for food, shelter and clothing are met, it is virtuous to give to others with a humble spirit. In the six-virtue scheme generous acts are compromised when they emerge from pride. As a Catholic high school development director I was repulsed by the fund raiser wisdom that said “People donate for the three ‘Gs’ of guilt, God and glory.” I was repulsed because I was expected to exploit donor pride and pretend they were virtuously generous. Pride seeks the light and casts a shadow on others. In the six-virtue scheme pride is a vice in the same way Medieval philosophers considered it the first of the seven deadly sins.

Six Virtue Scheme

The six virtues relate to each other in the following ways.

(1) They are an intellectual pair, a character pair, and a spiritual pair. These domains represent how humans differ from other animals. We have an intellect capable of deep understanding and creative thought. We can develop strong character by confronting our fears. And, when our basic needs for food, shelter and security are met, we can act in ways that reflect a humble, generous spirit.

(2) The first of each pair is a capacity and the second is an ability to act. Comte-Sponville (2001) said virtues are “what we should do, what we should be, and how we should live” (p. 35 in TSVOTEP)

(3) These are the six virtues of our educated human nature. The opposite six vices (ignorance, intellectual incompetence, weakness, fear of truth, pride and selfishness) characterize our uneducated human nature. We are all born uneducated, with the potential to become educated.

(4) This scheme is totally integrated. None of the virtues or vices are separate aspects of real-life situations. That is why TSVOTEP calls for an aesthetic paradigm for improving education. Aesthetic situations, like real life, can be broken down for purposes of discussion and study, but they are valued and experienced in their “wholeness.”

(5) These three pairs include the most basic virtues of the intellect, character and spirit. Understanding is the most basic intellectual capacity; imagination is the most basic intellectual ability. Strong character is the most basic character capacity; courage is the most basic character ability. Humility is the most basic spiritual capacity; generosity is the most basic spiritual ability. If there were such a thing as a brick wall of virtues, these six “bricks” would form the bottom row.

Or, if we use the analogy of baking a cake, the six virtues are the ingredients that make the cake. The ingredients exist apart from a cake, but a cake cannot exist without the ingredients.

An example of how this works is that, persistence is a virtue, only when its ingredients include both understanding and strong character. It is not virtuous to persist in something that is impossible (the person lacks an understanding of the impossibility), but it is virtuous to persist in something that is characterized by being possible and requiring strong character. Understanding and strong character combine to form virtuous persistence.

This is explained more in Chapter 3 of TSVOTEP.

Readers are invited to offer their definitions of the educated person. Simply click on “Leave a Comment” to reply.


#1 David Onder on 10.29.09 at 9:59 am

While I agree that Humility is a virtue, I disagree with the premise of ‘people knowing the following … “at their core:” (1) they are good.’ Since the fall of man, it is very clear that people are not good at their core, but wicked. The only way to show humility, is to understand that I/we am/are wicked and the only way I/we can do good is through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Then, through this acknowledgment, I can show humility.

#2 Casey on 10.29.09 at 10:11 am

Thanks David. By trying to briefly define the virtues, I was not clear about what I meant by “good.” I am not suggesting that people are “good,” as in the debate over whether humans are fundamentally “good” or evil. Instead, I am trying to say that most people are “good” at different specific things. My point is that it is in those specific areas that they can be humble. They cannot be humble in areas in which they are not actually talented (good). Thanks for sharing your insight and beliefs.

#3 deborah cham on 07.26.10 at 8:38 pm

It’s amazing that the core to a successful person is, in fact, the development and understanding of these virtues. I work in a residential treatment facility whose clients are juvenile offenders. I have served over 2,000 young people during my tenure, and all (notice — I said all) lack two or more of these virtues. Somehow, early in their development, these were not clearly conveyed; or, I guess, not modeled in their lives. My concern is that we can’t implement this curriculum in schools that are so politically driven. In addition, how do we implement it in the early stages of development? Character education is one program that attempts to do this, but it does not probe as deep as teaching the virtues. My question is, “How do we convince the decision makers that a six virtue foundation is necessary if we are to make a real difference?” Thank you for your insight.

#4 Casey on 08.11.10 at 12:19 pm

If we try to convince the “decision makers” or higher political powers to adopt the six-virtue definition of “educated,” our attempts will be in vain. There is nothing in this definition for them. Williams (2005) wrote a book, entitled, Cheating Our Kids, in which he describes situations in which educational policymakers and administrators put their own interests before those of students. By the end of reading it, I thought, “Yes, this is what I have seen over the years. Well-intentioned adults, who lack the experience to know what students need, think they know how to educate children because they were a student at one time.”

The point of TSVOTEP is that teachers and principals simply need to adopt the six-virtue definition of what it means to be educated, explain it to their students, and ask those who do not define “educated” this way to explain what they mean by “educated.” All the definitions can then be examined for how deep and useful they are.

They should be “deep” because they are supposed to inspire us to greater depths of teaching and learning. They should be useful because, if they aren’t, they won’t tell us how to deal with a wide range of classroom and school situations. If they can’t guide action, what good are they?

#5 Mary Anne on 11.13.10 at 8:02 pm

Casey, it was great meeting you and squeezing in some intellectual conversation between tasks last week in North Carolina. Of course, I have not read your book yet, but I certainly agree with the virtues and their impact on the educated person. I would like to share two words that have powerful meaning for me: Relationships and Trust. I have been thinking a great deal about those two words and the power they hold in our daily living, our joy, our success, and other aspects. For organizational effectiveness and human fulfillment, I believe you cannot have meaningful relationships without being able to trust someone and you certainly cannot trust someone with whom you have no relationship. While those two qualities are very important to me, I can appreciate the interwoven value of the six virtues with my two qualities. Are we on to something here???

#6 Casey on 11.13.10 at 9:13 pm

Mary Ann,
Rafe Esquith is a 5th-grade teacher who wrote a book entitled, “Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire” (or something like that). In one of the early chapters he describes the beginning of year student orientation. His description of the trust that must be at the foundation of their relationship is a beautiful passage. When I read it I thought about the importance of the 2 words you pointed to. Yes — trust is the foundation of a relationship.

Does it form among people who share understanding, imagination, courage, and humility? Oops — there is that humility thing again. If we want to make the world better, humility paves the way, but pride stands in the way. If humility is so important and pride is so destructive, why do we proclaim our pride all the time? Do we fail to understand the virtue of humility because we are taught to be proud? Whose idea was that?

Let’s stay in touch. I met with Catholic school administrators from Antigua, Trinidad and Grenada yesterday. I gave them a copy of my book. I hope they read it and see how the six virtues are the foundation of a good education.

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