In our day the concept of virtue has come to have an almost exclusively religious meaning and while this is an important connection it is rarely the therapists job to discuss the theological virtues, but rather to ensure that the natural foundation for these, namely the cardinal virtues, is well prepared.
What are Virtues
Virtus is the Latin word for man. Contemporary speakers on Virtue have tried to sell this project to their listeners as the ancient concept of manliness, while this is true, for often the ancient soldiers Achilles, Aeneas, Pericles, Thucydides, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and even Socrates were all men of not only physical manliness but also moral manliness in their own way, this reduction of virtue can cause one to miss the point. What is especially manly about virtue is taking that which separates us from the beasts as a species – the intellect. Aristotle often has recourse to the phrase, “according to right reason” as he explains the various virtues in his treatise on human happiness, Nicomachean Ethics. If we behave as our emotions or temperament dictate we quickly find ourselves engaged in patterns of behavior – habits – which contradict what we know to be best for our happiness.
Those who have taught about the virtues for the past three thousand years have identified many hundreds, but each of these can be reduced to four cardinal virtues or four good habits upon which all others hinge: Temperance, Fortitude, Justice, and Prudence. Each of these require discerning actions according to right reason in different domains of our life. Temperance considers physical pleasures including food and sex. Fortitude is an established habit of reactions to fear, especially the fear of death. Justice looks to our actions with others and Prudence seeks to perfect our ability to apply universal principles to particular situations.
The Virtues and Therapy
Many come to a therapist at precisely the moment when established habits keep them from happiness. Much of therapy, regardless of the therapists individual theoretical orientation, is ultimately concerned with the establishment of habitual patterns of behavior which make their clients happy. As a student of Aristotle I bring very precise notions about the kinds of habits as well as the means of establishing those habits which make people happy. Rare is the client who seeks therapy with building up a particular virtue in mind, much of my work with clients centers around understanding the habits which of kept them from happiness.