Skip to main content
Select Source:

Virtue

VIRTUE

VIRTUE. Virtue refers to a valued human characteristic or to excellence, or to the sum of such qualities. Hence, the term has an inherently normative or evaluative connotation, since it selects out forms of knowledge and action that are approved and commended. The notion of virtue in Western thought stems from the Greek word arete as translated into the Latin virtus. The concept has a long history in Europe and was widely employed in a number of contextssocial and political as well as moralduring the early modern period.

In its earliest Greek expressions, "virtue" denoted the superlative prowess of the heroic warrior and thus possessed both highly individualistic and gendered implications. Although the latter never fully disappeared (hence the etymological connection between virtue and virility, both derived from the root vir, 'man'), the former was subsumed into the communal sphere with the rise of the classical polis. Virtue and the virtues came to be regarded in the city-states of the ancient world as coordinate with the laws and customs of a given community. Thinkers as diverse as Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle agreed that the moral character of the individual constituted a microcosm of the political character of the city. The Greeks commonly identified four so-called cardinal virtuescourage, wisdom, justice, and temperancealthough they also upheld the worthiness of many other qualities.

The ancient Romans and the European Christians generally embraced both the private and the public aspects of virtue. The popularity of philosophical schools such as Stoicism and Epicureanism among cultivated Romans and the other-worldliness and asceticism of Christianity tended to locate forms of virtue in the individual and to promote the priority of personal happiness over public good. Yet the Romans (particularly in the period of the Republic) also hailed the sacrifices of leaders and fellow citizens who were motivated by purely civic goals. Likewise, medieval Christians expected that government would be conducted by rulers whose actions fully accorded with standards of earthly rectitude, justice primary among them. To the list of cardinal virtues came to be added the so-called Christian or theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

The conventional wisdom about the fate of virtue in modern Europe charts an arc of its repoliticization during the Renaissance (in the guise of so-called civic humanism), followed by a period of redefinition and disappearance from the public sphere occasioned by the Protestant Reformation, the emergence of liberalism, the rise of commercial society, and the spread of Enlightenment values. This interpretation requires some qualification, however, inasmuch as the process was less one of straightforward decline than of complex transformation.

The association of the Renaissance itself (especially in Italy) with the glorification of civic-minded virtuethe ethos of sacrifice for the sake of one's fellow citizens and cityshared by members of a community (the so-called "civic humanism" thesis pioneered by Hans Baron) has come under serious and deserved challenge. While it is true that many of the greatest humanists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries embraced citizenship as the fullest expression of a virtuous human life, taking the Roman statesman-orator Cicero as their exemplar, others adopted alternative views. Praise of Caesar and the Roman Empire, and hence devaluation of civic virtue, was quite common among leading humanists. A further group of Renaissance thinkers maintained a more orthodox Christian account of virtue as essentially a mark of God's grace or a trait that demonstrated one's worthiness for salvation. Moreover, there was nothing essentially urban about the idea of public virtue as the foundation for a good state; such a view was as widespread at the courts of territorial monarchs as in the cities of the Italian peninsula. Conceptions of virtue in Renaissance thought simply lacked the uniformity implied by the civic humanism thesis as commonly stated.

Early modern Europe witnessed numerous attempts to redefine, challenge, or criticize both conventional public and private ideals of virtue. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527), who enjoys an infamous reputation for his attack on virtue, especially in its standard classical and Christian versions. In his Il principe (15131514; The prince), Machiavelli argues that virtue as taught by ancient philosophers and preached from pulpits is very often incompatible with effective use of political power. A ruler who seeks to govern according to the cardinal and theological virtues will lose his office, since others who are prepared to employ tactics that lack moral sanction will oust him in their own quest for position and glory. Machiavelli peppers his little book with tales of virtuous magistrates who have been ruined and vicious ones who have succeeded. According to Machiavelli, the only assurance that the prince can overcome the vicissitudes of politics is a readiness to act in a manner inconsistent with virtue when circumstances require it. The Machiavellian ruler is not above counseling murder, deception, manipulation, and nearly every other mode of conventionally immoral conduct, if these acts prove efficient in maintaining hold on the levers of power. Machiavelli calls this moral flexibility virtù (the standard Italian word for 'virtue'), thus apparently turning the conventional discourse of ethics on its head.

Yet Machiavelli is not guilty of "teaching evil," despite the accusation made against him. In fact, his conception of virtù suggests that the ruler should always act according to commonplace virtue whenever he can do so without undermining his own power. Conventionally evil means should only be used when absolutely necessary, and even then the prince must do his best to ensure that people do not perceive him to be acting immorally, lest his reputation be harmed. Moreover, Machiavelli seems to think that this advice pertains only in the case of holders of public office; Machiavellian virtù is, one might say, a distinctively political way of acting, not to be commended to private persons in their interactions with one another. Nor ought it be forgotten that in his own political loyalties and other political writings, Machiavelli stood for a republican conception of civic virtue that lauded the sacrifice of personal goals and desires for the sake of attaining the communal glory of one's city.

Machiavelli was not alone among early modern European authors in reformulating ideas about virtue inherited from the classical and Christian past. For example, many humanists posed questions about the connection between virtue and nobility as it had customarily been conceived. In this period, as in early times, blood and birth were regarded as bestowing nobility upon an individual, and nobility in turn qualified a person to wield power and rule over natural inferiors. But humanist writers proposed that virtue alone prepared men for political office, since those who were most virtuous were most likely to act for the common good. Hence, it was the virtuous who possessed true nobility (vera nobilitas), and virtue was by no means coextensive with paternity and landed wealth. In Italy and even more noticeably in northern Europe, invocations of virtue could easily be translated into challenges to the cherished principle that some people were "naturally born" to rule.

Another modification of traditional conceptions of virtue came with the continuing commercialization of European economic relations and social values. Whereas for the ancient philosophers and medieval Christian theologians the private accumulation of liquid wealth had been widely viewed as incompatible with virtue, early modern authors began to reevaluate this doctrine. Some thinkers, such as the Italian civic humanists Leonardo Bruni (c. 13701444) and Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (13801459), contended that citizens should proudly acknowledge industriousness and self-acquired possessions as the foundation of morality and the greatness of their cities. Other authors went further. The Dutch-born Bernard de Mandeville (16701733) proposed in his Fable of the Bees (1714/1729) the famous principle that private vices yield public goods, which is to say that the pursuit of personal gain, and indeed the desire for comfort and luxury, lead directly to the enrichment of society as a whole and the consequent benefit of all its members.

In spite of recent claims that the Enlightenment project of grounding morality on human reason alone led to the erosion of virtue-based ethics, thinkers of the eighteenth century continued to uphold virtue as central to the worthwhile human life. The central document of the Enlightenment, the Encyclopédie (17511758) compiled by Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, treated virtue as an indwelling sense given to all members of mankind universally and without exception and thus invariable in its content across time and place. While the Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes (1755; Discourse on the origins of inequality) and the Émile (1762) of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) seem to treat the conventional virtues as affectations imposed artificially and detrimentally upon naturally good humanity, their author still insisted upon virtue as indispensable for a free society. Using language that any civic republican might endorse, Rousseau stipulated in Discours sur l'économie politique (1755; A discourse on political economy) that virtue is realized when citizens conform their particular wills to the determinations of the general will. While the discourse of virtue may have been further transformed during the early Enlightenment, it by no means disappeared.

See also Encyclopédie ; Enlightenment ; Machiavelli, Niccolò ; Political Philosophy ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Sources

Kohl, Benjamin G., and Ronald G. Witt, eds. The Earthly Republic: Italian Humanists on Government and Society. Philadelphia, 1978.

Kraye, Jill, ed. Cambridge Translations of Renaissance Philosophical Texts. Vol. 2, Political Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1997.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract and Discourses. Edited by G. D. H. Cole. Revised by J. H. Brumfitt, and John C. Hall. New York, 1993.

Secondary Sources

Baron, Hans. The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance: Civic Humanism and Republican Liberty in an Age of Classicism and Tyranny. Rev. ed. Princeton, 1966.

Burtt, Shelley. Virtue Transformed: Political Argument in England, 16881740. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1992.

Hankins, James, ed. Renaissance Civic Humanism: Reappraisals and Reflections. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2000.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 2nd ed. Notre Dame, Ind., 1984.

Pagden, Anthony, ed. The Languages of Political Theory in Early-Modern Europe. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1987.

Skinner, Quentin. Visions of Politics. Vol. 2, Renaissance Virtues. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2002.

Cary J. Nederman

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Virtue." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Virtue." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/virtue

"Virtue." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/virtue

virtue

virtue [Lat.,=manliness], in philosophy, quality of good in human conduct. The cardinal virtues, as presented by Plato, were wisdom (or prudence), courage, temperance, and justice. They are to be interpreted as descriptive of conduct rather than innate qualities and are achieved through proper training and discipline. They have been called natural virtues, as contrasted with the Christian theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. As early as the 14th cent. the Christian virtues were combined with the Platonic virtues and called the seven cardinal virtues, figuring largely, with the opposing seven deadly sins, in such medieval literature as Dante's Divine Comedy. Some contemporary philosophers, such as Alasdair MacIntyre, have argued that traditional notions of virtue provide the best framework for reflection in ethics.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"virtue." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"virtue." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/virtue

"virtue." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/virtue

virtue

vir·tue / ˈvərch/ • n. 1. behavior showing high moral standards: paragons of virtue. ∎  a quality considered morally good or desirable in a person: patience is a virtue. ∎  a good or useful quality of a thing: Mike was extolling the virtues of the car| there's no virtue in suffering in silence. ∎ archaic virginity or chastity, esp. of a woman. 2. (virtues) (in traditional Christian angelology) the seventh highest order of the ninefold celestial hierarchy. PHRASES: by (or in) virtue of because or as a result of.make a virtue of derive benefit or advantage from submitting to (an unwelcome obligation or unavoidable circumstance).DERIVATIVES: vir·tue·less adj.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"virtue." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"virtue." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/virtue-1

"virtue." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/virtue-1

virtue

virtue a quality considered morally good or desirable in a person; the important virtues are traditionally the four cardinal virtues (see cardinal2), justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude, valued by the classical philosophers and adopted by the scholastic philosophers, and the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, enumerated by St Paul.
virtue is its own reward proverbial saying, early 16th century; meaning that the satisfaction of knowing that one has observed appropriate moral standards should be all that is sought. The saying is found earlier in Latin, in the works of the Roman poet Ovid (43 bc–ad c.17).

See also cardinal virtues at cardinal2.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"virtue." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"virtue." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/virtue

"virtue." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/virtue

virtue

virtue †power, influence; efficacy, conformity to moral principles; excellence XIII; (arch.) high merit or accomplishment XIV; †valour. — (O)F. vertu = It. virtù :- L. virtūs, -tūt- valour, worth, merit, moral perfection, f. vir man (see VIRILE).
So virtual †effective XIV; that is so in essence or effect XVII (whence virtually XV). — medL. virtuālis; see -AL1. virtuoso XVII. — It. — late L. virtuōsus (whence, through (O)F. vertueux, virtuous †valiant XIII; righteous XIV).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"virtue." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"virtue." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/virtue-2

"virtue." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/virtue-2

virtue

virtue •statue • Machu Picchu • virtue

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"virtue." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"virtue." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/virtue-0

"virtue." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/virtue-0