The Role of the Virtues in Character Education

In Aesop’s fable of the miller, his son, and the donkey, the trio are criticized by passersby as they make their way to town, first for not riding the donkey, then for making the young son walk, then for leaving the elderly father to walk, and then for overburdening the donkey. After each critique, they revise their traveling formation and finally, when the miller and his son tie the donkey’s feet to a pole and carry it between them, it kicks two feet free, falls into a river, and drowns.

The miller had clearly practiced the virtues of humility and openness to counsel, but he fell miserably short in the more central virtues of prudence and temperance, and because he had emphasized non-central virtues he fell short of excellent living.

In the character education literature of the past 40 years, one will frequently find imaginative configurations of two to twenty-four or more natural virtues recommended as the foundation of a character education program. It is a good baseline to found a character education program on virtues, admirable moral qualities, rather than on values, the standards, admirable or not, of any given person. Further, the recommended virtues are usually good ones. It is best, though, to cultivate desire for the virtues that are most central to a well-lived life, so that our efforts to live well are both productive and balanced. A misplaced emphasis on a non-central virtue can undermine the whole project of areté.

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The virtues hang together like a large branch that my son Jack espied one day during his outdoor play. He deemed the branch in need of relocation and tried to pick it up, but failed, as part of the branch dragged on the ground. He tried again, picking it up from a different spot, and failed for the same reason. Finally, he grasped the branch at its most substantial point, the point most central to its balance, and was able to lift it with ease. Thus do the virtues hang together, and thus is a life of excellence attainable to one who focuses his efforts on the right point.

The great minds of Western civilization have long attempted to identify these cardinal virtues—these virtues that are central to all the rest. Plato, although he named five cardinal virtues in Protagoras, identified four virtues as cardinal in The Republic. These virtues, among five others, were affirmed in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Plato’s four cardinal virtues were affirmed again by Cicero in De Inventione and De Officiis, by Augustine of Hippo in De Moribus Ecclesiae Catholicae, by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica, and by others counted among our greatest thinkers. They are temperance, the habit of tempering the passions; fortitude, the habit of engaging and persevering in noble pursuits; justice, the habit of giving to each his due; and prudence, the mother of the virtues, the habit of making practical and wise choices.

As an illustration of intemperance, one can take Tarquinius Superbus—the seventh, last, and worst king of Rome—known among other things for the abhorrent manner of his ascent to the throne. Driven mad by his lust for power, he could neither temper his ambition nor find contentment in his princely status as son-in-law of the king. He engineered the killings of his own wife, his own brother, and finally the king himself in order to achieve the throne. Contrast Tarquinius to the beloved Cincinnatus, that model of temperance, who, when absolute power was granted him, used it to muster a citizen army and save the Roman army from certain doom; then, using his power not once for his personal benefit, immediately surrendered his commission to the Roman Senate and returned to his humble life on his farm. A temperate person restrains the passions and thereby, for example, attends to a lesson, works diligently, speaks with civility and grace in pleasant and trying circumstances alike, and maintains healthy habits of reading, diet, and exercise. By practicing the virtue of temperance, we grow in our ability to live not as Tarquinius, but as Cincinnatus.

It is immediately obvious that temperance is not possible without the development of a second virtue: fortitude. Fortitude encompasses enterprise, in deciding to pursue a good thing such as regular reading or to resist a bad thing such as displays of anger. It also encompasses courage, when one must overcome fear in order to stand for what is right. Perhaps most importantly, it encompasses endurance, the firmness of mind without which one cannot hold fast to any of the other virtues. To act with temperance, for example, one must have both the enterprise to decide to be temperate and the endurance to follow through.

A good example of fortitude to have on hand is the story of the Roman hero Mucius, who attempted to assassinate King Porsenna of Clusium, besieger of Rome, who was slowly starving the city into submission. When his assassination attempt failed, Mucius was hauled off before the king, and he darkly threatened:

As an enemy I wished to kill an enemy, and I have as much courage to meet death as I had to inflict it. It is the Roman nature to act bravely and to suffer bravely. I am not alone in having made this resolve against you; behind me there is a long list of those who aspire to the same distinction. If then it is your pleasure, make up your mind for a struggle in which you will every hour have to fight for your life and find an armed foe on the threshold of your royal tent. This is the war which we, the youth of Rome, declare against you.

Porsenna, furious and terrified, threatened to burn him alive if he would not reveal the details of his plot. Locking eyes with Porsenna, however, Mucius declared, “Look! And learn how lightly those regard their bodies who have some great glory in view!” Then he thrust his bare hand into the scorching flame of a nearby fire, allowing it to sizzle and roast as if he were devoid of all sensation. Porsenna sprang from his seat in consternation. Due to the fortitude of Mucius, not only did Porsenna order his immediate release; following Mucius back to Rome were envoys from the unnerved king, carrying with them proposals for peace.

Fortitude without justice, however, can result in brutishness. Some criminals have been known to train and carry out their unjust exploits with great fortitude. To live well, then, an even more central virtue is required: justice.

Justice, the habit of giving to each person what is due to him, allows us to apply fortitude properly. Tarquinius Superbus, after gaining the throne by conspiracy and murder, killed many of the senators and began executing and seizing the property of anyone he suspected of treason. While he was away laying siege to the city of Ardea, his son Sextus committed the unjust act that would end his family’s reign in Rome. Sextus had been trained up in brutishness and injustice, but when he violated Lucretia, a virtuous woman from a leading Roman family, the woman reported the vile deed to her father and witnesses the next morning, finishing her tale by stabbing herself with a knife hidden in her garment. Her husband found her in time to hold her as she died, and a grief stricken household, led by Lucius Junius Brutus, holding by turn the bloody knife from Lucretia’s wound, swore this oath:

By this blood, most pure before the outrage of a prince, I swear, and I call you, O gods, to witness my oath, that I will henceforth pursue Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, his wicked wife, and all their children, with fire, sword, and all other violent means in my power; nor will I ever suffer them or any other to reign at Rome.

After long enduring the tyrant’s reign, Lucius Junius Brutus and the leading families of Rome expelled the Tarquins and instituted the Republic.

Nearly 500 years later, at the end of the republic, we see another example of justice in another Brutus. Marcus Junius Brutus led a group of conspirators to assassinate Caesar, the newly appointed dictator perpetuo, who was consolidating power and destroying the Republic, but Brutus, although his reason for killing Caesar was just, could see neither that the Republic had already failed nor that its people were desperate, after generations of civil war, for a strong leader such as Caesar to restore social order. So justice, like temperance and fortitude, is incomplete without an even greater and more central virtue.

The one remaining cardinal virtue is called the mother of all virtues, the North Star of the virtues, the charioteer of the virtues. As mother, this virtue is the one from which the others proceed; as North Star, it guides the application of all the other virtues; as charioteer, it harnesses the virtues together into a cohesive whole and drives them together in harmony toward the goal of the well-lived life. This virtue is called practical wisdom, the habit of right reasoning regarding action: prudence.

Prudence requires one to assess situations accurately and by the appropriate standards. Cicero, for example, the great Roman orator and senator, after learning of the plot of the ambitious and unscrupulous Catiline, a fellow senator and twice-denied consular aspirant, to lead an army against his own nation, shrewdly bided his time and gathered information through informants before acting. Because Cicero waited to gather adequate information and assess the situation, he, warned by his informants, escaped assassination when Catiline’s men came to kill him at his house. He then exposed and denounced Catiline in front of the Senate and had the conspirators executed. His prudent decisions thwarted the conspiracy.

The cardinal virtues, crowned by prudence, support a vibrant and effective character education program, using among other things stories such as those of Cincinnatus, Mucius, Brutus, and Cicero, which function for students as guiding beacons to balanced and well-lived lives, remaining in their memories like an afterimage of a brilliant light and illuminating moral possibilities beyond the realm of their own experiences.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Cincinnatus Receiving Deputies of the Senate” painted by Alexandre Cabanel (1823-89).


  • Sam Vanderplas

    Sam Vanderplas serves as Latin teacher and activities director at Founders Classical Academy of Lewisville. He has taught Grades 3-12 in private, public, and charter schools. He resides in Lewisville, Texas, with his wife and two sons.

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