Philosophy and Virtue

Plato and Aristotle in the School fo Athens

As a father, I want to help my children develop good character—to learn self-control, humility, wisdom, perseverance, and similar virtues. I want the best for my children, and I believe that adults who exercise such virtues are more likely to achieve what is best for them. I have a similar attitude toward my students. I want the best for them, and I think certain virtues will help them achieve it. My role with my students, however, is more limited than with my children. I’m not likely to help my students develop more self-control than they already have, and life will probably teach wisdom better than I can ever hope to. However, there are two virtues I can help my students develop: humility and perseverance. I teach a Core introductory philosophy course that is required for all transfer students. In the class, we read difficult primary texts, and we work through a unit in statement logic. Both are difficult. Yet these challenges help my students develop humility and perseverance. If you have taken a good philosophy class, then you know the experience can produce humility. Not all opinions are equal. Some cannot be defended. Others are not so self-evident as the intellectually immature think. Philosophy challenges students to defend their opinions, and it confronts them with other well-defended opinions. Such exercises deflate unfounded self-confidence and produce humility, which serves one well in other areas of life. It leads one to listen more carefully to a spouse’s ideas instead of rejecting them outright. It helps one accept the constructive criticism that turns one’s ideas into even better ideas. It leads one to speak more carefully rather than demonizing fellow citizens with differing political opinions. It leads, in a word, to greater harmony with other people. And then there is perseverance. For many students, symbolic logic seems downright impossible. However, many a student who started out discouraged has gone on to master the logic. When I ask how it feels, students regularly respond, “Great!” It’s the same with reading primary texts. Many students have been fed pre-digested ideas in textbooks, but our Core classes ask students to do the hard work of digesting primary texts. They learn new reading strategies. They become accustomed to handling difficult syntax. Most of all, they learn that hard work done smartly leads to accomplishment. And that is precisely the kind of perseverance that will serve them well in the future as spouses, parents, community leaders, professionals, etc. I certainly hope that students in my class retain the most important content. Just as importantly, however, I hope they exercise more humility about their own opinions as a result of my class, and I hope they persevere in difficult tasks because of my class. If they do, then my little part of Concordia’s wonderful liberal arts Core Curriculum will have achieved one of the most important goals of the liberal arts: to help students develop virtues that contribute to a truly good life.

David W. Loy is Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics at Concordia University Irvine