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Public and Private Virtue

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This month we have so far learned that happiness is best achieved through moral virtue and the proper application of Aristotle’s cardinal virtues: courage, justice, temperance, and prudence. Aristotle taught that virtue is the moral mean between extremes of excess and deficiency in matters of action and emotion. In other words, it is the model for how one ought to act.

Philosophers, poets, and prophets have studied concepts of morality for thousands of years and have come to remarkably similar conclusions. Correct or proper action is termed “moral.” Moral excellence is called virtue. The Latin foundation of the word virtue is strength. Virtue is an inner commitment and voluntary outward obedience to principles of truth and moral law. 

Virtue is readily learned, loved and best nurtured while in our youth. Specific private moral virtues include justice, wisdom, courage, temperance, reverence, prudence, charity, and integrity. Public virtue is the character to voluntarily sacrifice or subjugation of personal wants for the greater good of other individuals or the community. We see this exhibited when people serve in charities, public office, or churches without remuneration. Private and public virtue are the foundation of self-governing virtuous citizens in a free republic. 

The Form of Government, which you admire, when its Principles are pure is admirable, indeed, it is productive of every Thing, which is great and excellent among Men. But its Principles are as easily destroyed, as human Nature is corrupted. Such a Government is only to be supported by pure Religion or Austere Morals. Public Virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics. There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real Liberty: and this public Passion must be Superiour to all private Passions. Men must be ready, they must pride themselves, and be happy to sacrifice their private Pleasures, Passions and Interests, nay, their private Friendships and dearest Connections, when they stand in Competition with the Rights of Society.

John Adams to Mercy Warren 16 Apr. 1776

Said another way, private moral virtue is the only fence around truly free people. Unselfishly using your gifts for others builds public virtue and strong communities. You will know when a society is becoming corrupted and void of virtue when the laws become so numerous that nearly all human activities and actions are dictated by them. In contrast to private virtue, public virtue is the voluntary sacrifice or subjugation of personal wants for the greater good of the community. George Washington exhibited this when he allowed himself to be called out of retirement three separate times to serve our country. Jefferson referred to such people as a “natural aristocracy.” It was a nobility of virtue, talent, honesty, and patriotism. Contrast that to an “artificial aristocracy” which is built on avarice, power, birthright, and frequently lacks virtue or ability. 

Moral Excellence and Special Excellence

As we develop moral virtue, we naturally begin to discover and develop our personal excellence or natural virtue. The Greek for personal excellence is “aristeia” or arete and it means using our excellence to benefit our family, community and country. This means we seek to use our talents to answer the following questions: What was I meant to do? What are my gifts? How should I use them?

Most of us are familiar with Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. He taught that our purpose in life is self-actualization, or a very narrow and more self-centered approach to personal pleasure and success.

In contrast, a modern-day philosopher and psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl put it this way, “The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.” When we use our special excellence to build and bless others we are benefited far more as the giver than receiver. 

Dr. Frankl went on to say, “For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.” In other words, if we help others get what they want, we will always get what we want. 

To be what is called happy, one should have 1) something to live on, 2) something to live for, 3) something to die for. The lack of one of these results in drama. The lack of two results in tragedy.

Cyprian Norwid

Once moral virtue and your special excellence or talents are discovered and applied they will provide you something to live on, live for and die for. A Classical Leadership Education, the one that we are starting here together on this site and the one I hope you will seek to establish in your communities, has the goal of producing good citizens and great souls. As we develop moral excellence from the cardinal virtues our character takes shape, and we discover our special excellence. We discover who we were meant to be personally and what we were meant to do professionally. This is what makes a happy life complete. “For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, Chapter 7)

Published by Dean Forman

I am co-founder and CEO of the John Adams Academies, an institution that is perhaps the most unique charter school system in America today. The Academies’ curriculum is designed to give its students an American Classical Leadership Education. This is an education that pursues truth, beauty and goodness and turns its scholars outward in search of those whom they can serve in becoming servant leaders. This website is dedicated to sharing the concepts of an American Classical Leadership Education with its readers so that more citizens can benefit from the truth, virtue and wisdom of the past. The thoughts and opinions I share on this page are my personal views.

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