Why You Can’t Name the Virtues

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Our culture has abandoned a wealth of teaching on character formation. Let’s revive these lost arts.

For the past several decades, American evangelicalism has been concerned about morality—and for good reason. Sexual promiscuity, pornography, abortion, divorce, materialism, racism, and countless other ills so permeate our culture—even among the churched—that they seem to be the rule rather than the exception.

But moral choices flow from moral character. Perhaps if we wish to reform morality, we should turn more attention to the formation of character.

Of course, everyone agrees that good character is a desirable thing. But “good character” today has been largely boiled down to being honest, hard-working, and sexually abstinent until marriage. Our culture, including the church, has abandoned a wealth of teaching about character formation that contributes not only to the flourishing of individuals but to the whole of society as well. It’s time to recover that ancient wisdom.

Sometimes Christians emphasize a rule-based or outcomes-based ethic, and although rules and outcomes can certainly be helpful in making ethical decisions, good character is a more essential and durable predictor of true virtue.

As I explain in my new book, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life in Great Books, so-called “virtue ethics” began with the pagan Greek philosopher Aristotle, who studied the human qualities that help us to flourish. Aristotle could see the uniqueness in human beings—what we as Christians recognize as God’s image within us. Aristotle called the qualities that make people excel “human virtues.” Among the virtues he identified are justice, magnanimity, courage, temperance, friendship, and honorableness. He believed that these and other character qualities are the …

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