Craig A. Boyd & Kevin Timpe have provided an outstanding introduction to The Virtues in Oxford’s “Very Short Introductions” series. As with the other volumes in A Very Short Introduction series, The Virtues is an excellent offering. It is clear and uncomplicated, thorough and inclusive in approach, and helpfully outlined and organized throughout. 

Chapter 1 sets the stage. After carefully defining virtue and distinguishing it from other behaviors or beliefs, the authors provide a historical sweep through classical contributions of Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, and even Confucious. As expected, Calvin, Hume, Kant, Mill are highlighted, but I was especially pleased to see Linda Zagzebski mentioned, as her work in virtue theory is keen. 

Chapter 2 follows the rubric of moral virtue in which the well-known cardinal or chief virtues are found: prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. Examples of each of the four run throughout this chapter and provide helpful examples that portray their essence. Related attitudes, affections, and behaviors are shown to shore up the four and serve to facilitate them in some way (e.g., honesty, generosity, et al.). 

Chapter 3 moves to the intellectual virtues: honesty, curiosity, open-mindedness, perseverance, charity (namely, fairly and objectively representing opposing positions). These frame this chapter after an informative background from Greek thought. I was surprised to learn of Galileo’s lack of moral virtue, though he exemplified intellectual virtue. And I was pleased to see Aristotle once again stepping into the discussion showing that one can be intellectually gifted but morally lacking. One can know “what morality required of them and not do it” (pp 44-45). 

“Islamic and Confucian accounts of the virtues” (Chapter 4 title) present readers with an understanding of how the five pillars of Islam work through the virtues. The second half of the chapter outlines “the dao” (the way) in which an exemplary life is lived by cultivating character. In a Confucian context, the family unit is most basic and society is an extension of it. Therefore, a sense of others is quintessential to living a virtuous life for a Confucian ethic. I found this section especially helpful to show that the importance of virtues are not only connected to the Western philosophical tradition but play a vital role in a well-ordered society. 

While knowing and doing the good by developing dispositions that facilitate eudaemonia (flourishing) can be seen as ends in themselves, the virtues are often viewed as enabled by God. That is, their source is in a divine being. Chapter 5 fleshes out the notion of theological virtues. Whereas obedience is a factor, it is Judaism and Christianity that show ‘rule following’ is inadequate to become exemplars of virtue. Faith, hope, and love (charity) are explained in detail and, in my estimation, worth the price of the book. Cultivating inward dispositions that put love at the center of all behavior is the most significant contribution of the theological virtues. We love God and love others for God. 

I found their entry on humility contra pride to be especially helpful and clear. They write:

We can differentiate three specific kinds of pride: vanity, conceit, and arrogance. All involve a disproportionate desire for pre-eminence, but in different ways. Vanity requires an audience. The vain person perpetually needs to be the centre of attention. Conceit requires a comparison to others in a way that elevates the individual over all other competitors. And the arrogant simply consider themselves superior to others without bothering to investigate the competition. The narcissistic tendencies of all three of these versions of pride support the social science research that points to narcissists being excessively competitive, aggressive, domineering, angry, and hostile to others. As a result, the desire for pre-eminence naturally results in feelings of isolation and alienation from their communities. Humility has historically been viewed as the cure for pride. The same research indicates that since humble people lack the excessive desire for pre-eminence, they tend to value others much more than the proud do and so they also have healthy relationships…

 

Humility is that inward disposition that enables people to rightly value themselves as they ought. It provides a corrective to pride since it guards against the unhealthy overreaching we are tempted towards. Since pride desires a kind of inordinate excellence for the soul at the expense of others, humility tempers this desire by helping us to embrace our rightful place in the overall scheme of our various relationships. It provides a check on our tendency to falsely inflate our own value and importance… Where pride creates a kind of moral distance between ourselves and others, humility heals us — and our relationships with others — by providing a bridge where we see others as possessing the same kind of value we are ascribing to ourselves. (pp 93, 95).

I was surprised to read an Amazon review that takes a swipe at the authors’ mention of the theological virtues while also slighting them for not unpacking Aristotle more carefully. Perhaps they missed the nature of “Introduction” in the series title? Moreover, Aristotle is referenced repeatedly throughout this volume as the Index makes evident (clearly not a “mere passing reference”). Only one chapter is devoted to the possibility that God is behind the notion of virtue, but readers do not go away with a sense of bias. This hardly warrants the two stars given or the “poor production” title of the review.

The final chapter is aptly titled, “The capital vices: love gone wrong.” Here readers are taught by way of contrast. Pride, envy, avarice (greed), wrath, sloth, and gluttony are given their due and shown to inhibit the flourishing, fulfilled life. All of these vices are shown to be contrary to love: love of self, love for others, and/or love of God.

As stated in the beginning, this volume deserves a careful and keen read. It lays out the chief attributes that make us human and demonstrates the vital importance of knowing the virtues, practicing the virtues, and being a virtuous person. I came away invigorated with a fresh understanding of all that makes life worth living and a desire to inch my way forward toward flourishing.

 

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