Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Core Principles of Beautiful Living (Part II): The Greco-Roman system of Virtue-Centered Living

In my last post (Part I), I briefly touched on the nature of civilization and our place in it and also described elements of the Hebraic system whose influence, particularly through the Bible, reached into early American colonial settlements.

In my last post, I also mentioned that the past is full of examples, constructive and destructive, of the rise and fall of civilizations. The roots of the current American civilization are found in both ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman systems. In this post, we will continue to explore how influential groups saw the role of virtue as a center for beautiful living, and what we can take away from them that is uplifting, edifying, and inspiring as we search for systems that create real happiness and lead us to fulfill lives of meaning.

The Greco-Roman Concept of Virtue

Let’s briefly start with the Greco-Roman definition of virtue. It’s pretty incredible. Interestingly enough, our understanding of how the Greeks and Romans understood virtue can be traced through the different translations of the Bible’s New Testament. For better context, it’s important to understand how words in the Bible have been translated. In 1890, Dr. James Strong, an English professor of theology, published a study tool to help any “student understand the Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic meaning behind any word in Scripture” (Source: This book is called Strong’s Concordance and is still in use today. In his book, Dr. Strong numbered the words he translated. Virtue is number 703 and in Greek, it is areté. According to Strong’s Concordance, at the website, areté has the following meanings:
ἀρετή, ἀρετῆς, ἡ (see ἄρα at the beginning), a word of very wide signification in Greek writings; any excellence of a person (in body or mind) or of a thing, an eminent endowment, property or quality. Used of the human mind and in an ethical sense, it denotes:
1. a virtuous course of thought, feeling and action; virtue, moral goodness (Wis. 4:1 Wis. 5:13; often in 4 Macc. and in Greek writings): 2 Peter 1:5 (others take it here specifically, viz. moral vigor; cf. next entry).
2. any particular moral excellence, as modesty, purity; hence (plural αἱ ἀρεταί, Wis. 8:7; often in 4 Macc. and in the Greek philosophers) τίς ἀρετή, Philippians 4:8. Used of God, it denotes
a. his power: 2 Peter 1:3.
b. in the plural his excellences, perfections, 'which shine forth in our gratuitous calling and in the whole work of our salvation' (John Gerhard): 1 Peter 2:9. (In the Septuagint for הוד splendor, glory, Habakkuk 3:3, of God; Zechariah 6:13, of the Messiah; in plural for תְּהִלּות praises, of God, Isaiah 43:21; Isaiah 42:12; Isaiah 63:7.
But wait, there’s more! According to, the word areté is also used in Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey. In this context, the word areté is used:
to describe heroes and nobles and their mobile dexterity, with special reference to strength and courage, but it is not limited to this. Penelope's areté, for example, relates to co-operation, for which she is praised by Agamemnon. The excellence of the gods generally included their power, but, in the Odyssey (13.42), the gods can grant excellence to a life, which is contextually understood to mean prosperity. 
This idea of virtue, then, is what empowered truly means! To live according to principles of excellence, strength, courage, cooperation, and prosperity. Whenever I hear the word empowered in context today, it doesn’t seem cooperative. It sometimes even seems selfish and self-centered or self-aggrandizing for one’s own glory and gain, usually at the expense of someone else. It doesn’t always come across as a virtuous use of power but of gaining power as a means to control others or situations outside of one’s own circle of influence. Have you noticed this, too? It’s not always like that, but I have noticed it. I think I’ll keep paying more attention to this from now on.

Areté was a significant part of the educational system of the Greeks known as the Paideia: the training of boys to be the ideal citizen. The schooling in areté included physical training, mental training, and spiritual training which centered around their concept of excellence or virtue. (Source: It was of vital importance to the Greeks that their children be raised with principles of virtue or rather, principles of excellence in body, mind, and soul.

The Greco-Roman System

The Greco-Roman system of virtue was highly influential on the generation responsible for the American founding. The Greeks, who greatly influenced Roman culture, art, politics, and philosophy, wrote extensively about man’s need to find meaning, purpose, and happiness. I particularly love Aristotle’s discussions on these themes. The online Encyclopedia Britannica biography of Aristotle (384 BCE—322 BCE) describes him as an:
Ancient Greek philosopher and scientist, one of the greatest intellectual figures of Western history. He was the author of a philosophical and scientific system that became the framework and vehicle for both Christian Scholasticism and medieval Islamic philosophy. Even after the intellectual revolutions of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, Aristotelian concepts remained embedded in Western thinking. (Source:
His writings have lasted through millennia of time because they reach our minds and hearts as universally true ideas and principles. His topics are vast but share a common theme: virtue is the foundation of happy, meaningful--or what I’d call--Beautiful Living. According to the article "Aristotle's Ethics" published in the online edition of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Aristotle follows Socrates and Plato in taking the virtues to be central to a well-lived life." The article continues to describe Aristotle’s philosophy as including the following:
"What we need, in order to live well, is a proper appreciation of the way in which such goods as friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor and wealth fit together as a whole. In order to apply that general understanding to particular cases, we must acquire, through proper upbringing and habits, the ability to see, on each occasion, which course of action is best supported by reasons. Therefore practical wisdom, as he conceives it, cannot be acquired solely by learning general rules. We must also acquire, through practice, those deliberative, emotional, and social skills that enable us to put our general understanding of well-being into practice in ways that are suitable to each occasion" (
Aristotle essentially teaches the same principles that Paul and Timothy shared with the early Christians in the city of Philippi: “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report” (Philippians 4:8). These virtues fit together naturally and, when learned and understood, can be attained by establishing habits.

What a liberating philosophy! I have always felt within myself, the power to act even when I feel discouraged and exhausted mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. We can create habits of happiness through systems! It’s so trendy to talk about being empowered, but how? And in what way empowered?

In their article "Roman Virtues," the authors L. Curtius Philo, L. Hostilia Scaura, and P. Iunius Brutus (I assume these are pen names?) write at length about the nature and structure of the Roman concept of virtue. They argue that even though the Romans did not organize the key virtues nor codify the virtues specifically, there is a pattern to their system. Some virtues were more associated with the private or inner life whereas other virtues were more applicable to the public or socially interactive life. The diagram these key virtues as follows:

However, please note, when discussing the nature of virtue and the Romans viewed it, the authors at explain that:
Historically, some modern interpretations of the virtues have separated the traits into public and private spheres. For example, virtues applicable to private life versus public office being separate exclusive lists of traits. The Roman Republic argues that this delineation is somewhat artificial at best and confusing and misleading at worst. We believe that thinking of the virtues as strongly context specific does not reflect the views of antiquity. The ancient understanding of the virtues suggests ubiquity across both public and private life, at least in regards to the most fundamental and widely agreed-upon virtues" (
In other words, their idea of virtue was so deeply ingrained in their culture: their beliefs, their education systems, their political ideals, their family structures, that they didn’t have to catalog it. They didn’t have a national checklist just like our societies don’t have quantified lists today. It was understood by the majority. It was the ideal. It was understood that those who could embody those qualities, genuinely, and to greater degrees, were sought for as leaders on all levels of society. Prospering civilizations desire the same types of citizens and leaders. Decaying civilizations ignore them, or worse, despise them, to their peril.

Aristotle’s Golden Mean

I taught high school for four years in a local charter school called Karl G. Maeser Preparatory Academy. The school strives to provide a classical education to the students and has embraced the motto: Truth, Honor, Virtue. I took this motto seriously and wanted my students to develop a deeper level of discernment with regard to virtue. In order to do this, I rearranged all my previously planned Friday classes and instituted what I called “Virtue Fridays” instead. We read classic short stories from well-known authors and discussed the virtues, or lack of them, as a class.

In order to prepare my students for these discussions, we had to get a clear handle on the Roman understanding of virtue. Together, we read and discussed sections of Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” specifically Book II. One principle Aristotle believes is that virtue is a matter of balance just like physical health is a matter of balance:
First of all, then, we must observe that, in matters of this sort, to fall short and to exceed are alike fatal. This is the case of strength and health. Too much and too little exercise alike destroy strength, and to take too much meat and drink, or to take too little, is equally ruinous to health, but the fitting amount produces and increases and preserves them. Just so, then, is it with temperance also, and courage, and the other virtues. (Source:
By this he means that too little of something and too much of something are both damaging. He believes that virtues “are destroyed both by excess and defect, but preserved by moderation.” This concept of moderation is also called the Golden Mean--or the perfect center or balance of all virtue--to do the right thing, in the right way, at the right time.  An informative list of what the excesses, defeciencies, and golden mean might look like is this:


He also argues that virtues are, “developed by training,” that being exposed to virtuous acts and practicing virtuous acts, one could develop a habit of virtue. He says, “Moral virtue is acquired by the repetition of the corresponding [morally virtuous] acts.” As a teacher, whose school focused on virtue, I took these principles to heart and decided to begin a study of virtue through the great short stories of reliable writers. I have provided a list of some of the stories we studied and discussed as a class.

Book Club Ideas...

If you’d like to start a “Virtue Friday” discussion group to better understand and recognize these virtues, too, let me help you get started by giving you the reading list and worksheet I provided to my students!
In preparation for “Virtue Friday,” I assigned the whole class a classic short story to read. Then, five different students were assigned to prepare for and lead a discussion about the virtue of their choice that they thought the story illustrated. I provided a copy of the short story, a worksheet to help them prepare their discussion questions, and a reminder note at the beginning of each week. It was important to me that all the short stories were written by authors who had created other classic works or who we were going to study that semester. This is my partial list of short stories:
  • “The Bet” by Anton Chekhov
  • “Jeannot and Colin” by Voltaire
  • “The Blind Men and the Elephant” Buddhist Text translated by John Godfrey Saxe
  • “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant
  • “The Great Stone Face” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allen Poe
  • “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce
  • “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
  • “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin
  • “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell
  • “God Sees the Truth But Waits” by Leo Tolstoy
These short stories are free online. Just type them into a search engine and they will come up easily. A really useful resource for short stories can also be found at the website:

Let me also share a list I gave to my students to help them select virtues to discuss.  In preparing for discussions, I also had them prepare questions that explore the excesses, deficiencies, and golden means of any virtue they could look at more closely.  Please note that this list is not meant to be comprehensive:

Private Virtues

These are the qualities of life to which every Citizen (and, ideally, everyone else) should aspire. They are the heart of the Via Romana — the Roman Way — and are thought to be those qualities that gave the Roman Republic the moral strength to conquer and civilize the world. Today, they are the rods against which we can measure our own behavior and character, and we can strive to better understand and practice them in our everyday lives.
  • Virtus (Virtue/Manliness/Womanliness): Being the best of all that you are capable of being.
  • Firmitas (Tenacity): Strength of mind, the ability to stick to one's purpose.
  • Gravitas (Gravity): A sense of the importance of the matter at hand, responsibility, and earnestness. Seriousness of conduct, speech, temperament, dignity.
  • Integritas (Integrity): Living in congruence with principles. 
  • Honestas (Respectability): The image that one presents as a respectable member of society.
  • Pietas (Dutifulness): More than religious piety; a respect for the natural order socially, politically, and religiously (that natural order is God, Country, Family). Includes the ideas of patriotism and devotion to others. 
  • Veritas (Truthfulness): The quality of being in accordance with fact, truth. The state of being real; the true nature of a thing. Honesty in dealing with others.
  • Humilitas (Humbleness, humility): Being grounded.
  • Comitas (Humor): Ease of manner, courtesy, openness, and friendliness.
  • Clementia (Mercy): Mildness and gentleness. Quick to forgive.
  • Dignitas (Dignity): A sense of self-worth, personal pride. The quality of being worthy; excellence.
  • Industria (Industriousness): Hard work. Diligent activity directed to some purpose; a purposeful activity.
  • Prudentia (Prudence): Foresight, wisdom, and personal discretion; practical understanding, proficiency.
  • Salubritas (Wholesomeness): The quality of promoting health and cleanliness.
  • Severitas (Sternness): Gravity, self-control. Strict and uncompromising conduct in dealing with offenders, strictness of morals, austerity.
  • Humanitas (Humanity): Refinement, civilization, learning, and being cultured.

Public Virtues

In addition to the private virtues which were aspired to by individuals, Roman culture also strived to uphold Virtues which were shared by all of society in common. Note that some of the virtues to which individuals were expected to aspire are also public virtues to be sought by society as a whole. These virtues were often expressed by minting them on coinage; in this way, their message would be shared by all the Classical world. In many cases, these Virtues were personified as deities.
  • Abundantia (Abundance, Plenty): The ideal of there being enough food and prosperity for all segments of society.
  • Aequitas (Equity): Fair dealing both within government and among the people.
  • Bonus Eventus (Good fortune): Remembrance of important positive events.
  • Clementia (Clemency): Mercy, shown to other nations.
  • Concordia (Concord): Harmony among the Roman people, and also between Rome and other nations.
  • Felicitas (Happiness, prosperity): A celebration of the best aspects of Roman society.
  • Fides (Confidence): Good faith in all commercial and governmental dealings.
  • Fortuna (Fortune): An acknowledgment of positive events.
  • Genius (Spirit of Rome): Acknowledgement of the combined spirit of Rome, and its people.
  • Hilaritas (Mirth, rejoicing): An expression of happy times.
  • Justica (Justice): As expressed by sensible laws and governance.
  • Laetitia (Joy, Gladness): The celebration of thanksgiving, often of the resolution of crisis.
  • Liberalitas (Liberality): Generous giving.
  • Libertas (Freedom): A Virtue which has been subsequently aspired to by all cultures.
  • Nobilitas (Nobility): Noble action within the public sphere.
  • Ops (Wealth): Acknowledgement of the prosperity of the Roman world.
  • Patientia (Endurance, Patience): The ability to weather storms and crisis.
  • Pax (Peace): A celebration of peace among society and between nations.
  • Pietas (Piety, Dutifulness): People paying honor to the gods.
  • Providentia (Providence, Forethought): The ability of Roman society to survive trials and manifest a greater destiny.
  • Pudicita (Modesty, Chastity): A public expression which belies the accusation of "moral corruptness" in ancient Rome.
  • Salus (Safety): Concern for public health and welfare.
  • Securitas (Confidence, Security): Brought by peace and efficient governance.
  • Spes: (Hope): Especially during times of difficulty.
  • Virtus (Courage): Especially of leaders within society and government.
In my next post, I’ll share with you some examples of how the Greek focus on virtue affected the founding leaders of pre and post-colonial America. Until then...

Live Beautifully!

Heather Butler
Founder and CEO of Beautiful Living Systems, Inc.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.