If you’re reading this, the word “virtue” probably has a lot of baggage. Not-so-fond memories of chewed gum and plucked flower petals, hemlines and sleeve lengths, and uncomfortable questions asked behind closed doors likely come to mind. However, despite its narrow application in Mormon discourse, “virtue” imbues so much more than sexual purity, modesty or chastity.
The New Testament (KJV) uses the English word “virtue” six times within the text. Most of these are translations of the Greek word “areté.” Areté (pronounced arr-eh-tay) is a difficult word to define. But in its loftiest sense areté refers to human excellence through virtue. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle attempts to explain how virtue/areté can be pursued, specifically by finding the mean or balance between two extremes. As Mormons, we’ve often heard the term “moderation in all things,” yet we rarely realize that this oft-used Mormon maxim can be found nowhere in our scriptures, but instead is a phrase attributable to the Ancient Greeks, particularly Aristotle.
The Athenians were master ship builders and navigators for their time. As such, Greek philosophy is replete with sailing analogies as they apply to various philosophical concepts, including this approach to virtue or areté. Since the Greeks lacked compasses and a knowledge of celestial navigation, they relied on maintaining visual contact with the shoreline while sailing the seas. However, the art of this navigation was found in balancing your distance from the shore. If a seafarer came too close to land he risked being spotted by enemies or being shipwrecked on the craggy Aegean coast. If he drifted too far from land he would lose his bearings and become lost in the expanse of the Mediterranean. Therefore the areté or virtue of ancient ship navigation was found in the ability to ensure that you were neither too close nor too far from the guiding line of the coast.
This analogy can be used to show how the noblest human attributes (virtues) are realized by finding the moderate balance between two extremes of excess and deficiency (called “vices” by Aristotle). For example, Aristotle explained that courage on the battlefield is obviously not found in the avoidance of conflict. But it is also not a foolhardy act of bravery. The virtue of courage is achieved by learning to find the subjective tension and balance between the opposing vices of cowardice and recklessness. The virtue of generosity is found with the tension between excesses of wasteful giving and selfishness. Likewise, the virtue of temperance implies finding a balance between indulgence and deprivation.
I was introduced to the concept of areté during an Ancient Political Theory course shortly before my faith transition began four years ago. It was serendipitous timing. Throughout my reevaluation of Mormonism I would often feel lost and rudderless. Without the Church’s static framework of morality, the challenge of redefining my moral compass was daunting. Thankfully, I realized early on that the Greeks had sturdy shoulders for me to stand on.
Achieving human excellence through virtue was a lifelong quest for the Athenians. It guided their devotion to their roles in society, their treatment of each other, and fueled their pursuit for enlightenment. It can do the same for us in the wake of a faith crisis. American philosopher Will Durrant wisely summarized Aristotle’s philosophy in The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers:
“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
We have all been forced into the choppy, uncharted waters of a life where the thinking is no longer done for us. The prospect of new adventures in sexual freedom, spiritual and intellectual independence, drinking alcohol and even experimenting with drugs often comes with the fear of becoming shipwrecked. However, virtue can ground us while we bravely explore our human experience. Our roles as parents, spouses, professionals, citizens, neighbors, friends, and lovers are well served when we seek virtue in our lives.
Now with the agency we were always supposed to have, this broader concept of virtue gives new meaning to teachings that once came with the burdens of anxiety, guilt and shame. “Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly” (D&C 121:45). It allows us to find our own path and choose our own adventure. It gives us the permission and freedom to make mistakes and experience new things. As we each navigate the new complexity of life like a ship on the sea, we can look to virtue to guide us on our voyage.