Proposing a Framework for an Education toward Virtue

By Josh Dyson

In the section on Justice in his The Four Cardinal Virtues, Josef Pieper states, “Fundamental truths must constantly be pondered anew lest they lose their fruitfulness. In this lies the significance of meditation: that truth may not cease to be present and effective in the active life.”[1] A couple pages later he continues, “… human actions are properly human because they have taken reality as their measure.”[2]

For Pieper, contemplating, understanding, and aligning to reality is the most fundamental characteristic of virtue. In this book, Pieper places Prudentia (Prudence or Wisdom) as the “mold and mother” of all the other virtues.[3] While on the one hand he remarks that “it is exclusively the business of Prudence ‘to form a right judgement concerning individual acts, exactly as they are to be done here and now,”[4] on the other hand, he roots Prudence first and foremost in the contemplation of existence—of reality. This is indeed the basis for the very understanding of what it means to be virtuous—to be “a good man”. He summarizes virtue, saying, “The good of man consists in being in accord with reason. Once more we just add what cannot be said too often: that here the word ‘reason’ comprised all modes of perceiving reality, and that above all the ‘reason’ of Christians perceived also the realities of faith.”[5] Therefore, since perceiving reality is fundamental, Pieper states that one must have, “… above all the ability to be still in order to attain objective perception of reality.”[6]

That’s a lot of Pieper in a short introduction! So much to contemplate. I highly commend Pieper’s book (though I would encourage anyone to start with his work Leisure: the Basis of Culture).

So what of it? Historically, the goal of education has been Virtue, and most of our classical schools have explicitly codified this in our school mission statements. So, here are a few thoughts based on Pieper’s insights that I believe may help us think about education for virtue.

1. Perhaps the most accessible take away is the simplicity of Pieper’s understanding of virtue. You may be thinking, “What? There’s nothing simple about all those Pieper quotes!” Here is a distilled version: a person is virtuous to the extent they are aligned with reality itself.

2. If aligning ourselves to reality is most essential to virtue, then to be virtuous we must first apprehend reality. First and foremost, we must believe that there is such a thing as objective reality and that it can be known.

3. It is not enough to believe that reality exists, but we must apprehend this reality. This happens by being still enough to listen, watch, perceive, learn, reflect. Lest we think this is simply the “Philosopher’s” endeavor, the Lord himself tells us through the words of the psalmist, “Be still and know that I am God”[7]. This is a slow process. It requires us to allow reality to be steeped in us like tea leaves in the water.

4. The “most real” of all reality is God Himself. All reality is real because of Him. Therefore, His Word is the reality that we must keep perpetually internalizing. Return and re-read the very first Pieper quote above. Meditation on Truth, the very truths we “already know”, must never cease. This is the beginning of education.

5. Beyond the Scripture, God has revealed reality (and thus himself) throughout His universe both in history and in the present. Based on the foundation of God himself, education contemplates God’s reality revealed (Natural Revelation) beyond the Scripture (though not apart from it).

6. Once we have come to apprehend reality in history and in the present (God, of course, being ever present in past, present, and future), then are we ready to contemplate what action is needed. Actions are virtuous because they are rooted in these realities above, and thus seek to act in future reality, as best as it can be predicted based on contemplation of these past and present apprehensions of reality.

If virtue formation is the chief goal of our education, which is true for many (if not all) of our Classical schools, then perhaps a simple framework for an education toward virtue might be this:

Reality through the lens of what is past.

Reality through the lens of what is present (or timeless)

Reality through the lens of the future (action)

This is a simplified framework of Prudence (contemplation of reality in past and present in order to make wise and just decisions in the future). This framework presupposes that while all virtue is the end of education, Prudence is the “mother” and source of the others. Therefore, this becomes primarily a “Wisdom” education, and all components of this education are evaluated and determined by correlation to the above framework.

Perhaps this could be conceived of in a common application of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric in our classical Christian schools.

We might say that the Grammar refers to the past (What happened?—the “What”).

The Logic refers to the present/timeless principles (What principles are at work?—“Why?”)

The Rhetoric refers to the future actions or decisions (What does this mean for the future?—“What of it?”)

Personally, as I wrestle with what it means to fulfill our school’s Mission “to cultivate Wisdom and Virtue” in our students, I have been reflecting on new ways to conceive of our curriculum that explicitly ties it at all levels to the cultivation of Virtue. My concern is that perhaps we have not given serious enough attention to our curriculum when it comes to Virtue formation in our students.

Here are some possible reflection questions:

1. Do we have a shared understanding (among our school administration/faculty/parents) of what Virtue is?

2. Is our community able to enumerate the cardinal and Christian virtues?

3. In our community, do we have agreed upon definitions and applications of these virtues?

4. In our community, are we able to articulate the relationship and interactions of the virtues?

5. In our community, have we developed ways of aligning our curriculum and lessons to these virtues?

6. In our community, do we have a clear understanding of how we are cultivating Virtue in our students?

[1] Pieper, Josef. The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance. University of Notre Dame Press, 2011, p. 51

[2] ibid., p. 53

[3] ibid., p. 22, 31, etc.

[4] ibid., p. 28, quoting Thomas Aquinas.

[5] ibid., p. 24

[6] ibid., p. 13

[7] Psalm 46.10

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