The Key To Virtue

“When one ceases from conflict, whether because he has won, because he has lost, or because he cares no more for the game, the virtue passes out of him.” — Charles Horton Cooley

There are three concepts here that represent an unusual juxtaposition: “conflict,” “the game,” and “virtue.” Robert Lynd said, “No doubt there are other important things in life besides conflict, but there are not many other things so inevitably interesting. The very saints interest us most when we think of them as engaged in a conflict with the Devil.” Conflict can certainly be interesting either as a participant or as an observer; but “the game” and its relationship to “virtue” may be even more interesting.

The game must first offer real and present, win/lose possibilities. If it doesn’t, the virtue passes out of you. More to the point, an immediate possibility of losing is the key to virtue. Here, “virtue” is doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong.

The virtuous person pursues winning while doing only what is right. “Conflict” is, then, not the tension between winning and losing. Rather, it’s the responsibility of “right” vs. the risk of “wrong.” The truly fatal risk is not losing. It’s succumbing to the temptation to sacrifice one’s virtue on the altar of success.

It’s tempting to put forth a few moral pronouncements about right and wrong; but it’s your call. The take home point is simply that, if you are a virtuous person, you know what’s right and understand what’s wrong. “The game,” for you, is doing what’s right and avoiding what’s wrong, while playing to win, every time. To do otherwise is to let the virtue pass out of you.

Perfect Virtue

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather we have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” — Aristotle

The idea that excellence is a product of training isn’t surprising. Athletes, musicians, and those who achieve preeminence in other areas requiring superior personal performance are well-aware of the necessity and value of continuous training. The point that may not be as obvious is that training and habituation are prerequisites for areas of excellence beyond developing physical skills and individual talents. They are necessary for emotional excellence, moral excellence, interpersonal excellence, as well as intellectual excellence. The point that may be even less obvious is that Aristotle also said that training and habituation are prerequisite to virtue. People have the capacity to be virtuous but become virtuous people only through training and habitually acting rightly. One becomes virtuous by acting virtuously.

How does one act virtuously? Cicero advised, “It is our special duty, that if anyone needs our help, we should give him such help to the utmost of our power.” Confucius said, “To be able to practice five things everywhere under heaven constitutes perfect virtueÂ… gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness.” Although how one practices “gravity” is less than obvious, the other four requirements need no explanation. John Wesley was even clearer when he said, “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” Now that leaves little room for doubt or negotiation.

The message has not changed over the millennia. Dante said, “He who sees a need and waits to be asked for help is as unkind as if he had refused it.” Gandhi said, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” Is virtue the path to personal joy and fulfillment? Probably not. George Bernard Shaw said, “Just do what must be done. This may not be happiness, but it is greatness.” Why? As George Eliot put it, “Our deeds determine us as much as we determine our deeds.” Remember Aristotle’s message, “We are what we repeatedly do.” The choice is to habitually act rightly or to act wrongly. At that level, it’s not much of a choice. The key is remembering that acting virtuously is an essential part of one’s ongoing excellence training.

Now you know and there you go.