If you hang around a classical school long enough, you will quickly hear what most perceive as odd, or even old and outdated words. It’s also easy to assume that classical schools are just playing word games and dictionary games. But the words we use, why we use them, and what they mean matter greatly.

School Speak, Part 1: Virtue

This week, we are tackling Virtue. In classical schools, our students often hear the word “virtue.” But what does it really mean and how should it practically display itself in the lives of our school community, our students, and our families? And how does it differ from value words?

People often assume that the words value and virtue are the same. Most words that you hear around typical schools are value words (commitment, honesty, kindness, loyalty, etc). Today, most students see these value words as subjective and ever-changing depending on the person or situation. In our current culture, value words are morally subjective. Even the word “value” sounds flimsy, as if it can’t bear any weight. For example, you might hear the phrase “family values,” which, in our culture, is extremely subjective.

Value words are largely behaviorally driven. They aren’t a part of who a person is, but rather, something they do, that they can switch in and out of.

Virtue is a broader concept than we try to nail down with values. Virtue is not moral behavior.

Virtue is one’s disposition, one’s typical reaction. It is the excellence of human nature, a joyous person! When someone is virtuous they are mature. They display the excellence of human nature.

Virtue= the good life; a full, flourishing, joyous life. The excellence of human nature.
For Aristotle, virtue is the activity of happiness.


So what does this practically look like?

There are four historic virtues

  • Temperance (Moderation)
  • Justice
  • Courage
  • Prudence (Practical Wisdom)

Often times, people naturally attribute temperance to the areas of food and alcohol. But it’s not simply a matter of balance vs. moderation. Balance suggests neutrality- this is just as heavy as this, and therefore it’s balanced, and therefore good. But, this is a weak measure. Temperance (or stated as moderation) is everything in its correct proportion. A modern day example of temperance might be getting a handle on your iphone or social media habits. Moderation- smartphones and social media in its correct proportion. Correct proportion does not automatically mean balanced. It would be unwise to assume that one’s social media habits should always balance equally with their work habits. 8 hours in the work day, 8 hours of social media usage? That’s balance. That is not everything in its correct proportion. 


Justice is giving to each person their due, not just fairness. Sometimes that means giving an A to someone who does better work and a C to someone who does less quality work. We give each other what we are due, for example, respect and love. Paying taxes is a form of justice. Moderating punishment to crime and moderating rewards to the performance. That is justice. Justice is a reflection of reality. 


There are two types of courage: active courage and passive courage. Active courage is rushing into battle. Running into the chaos. It’s saying, “I may be scared, but I’m going to do it anyway.” Passive courage is standing your ground. Passive courage says, “I’m not leaving my post. I’m going to stand guard and do the good. I am going to stay where I am and say no. I am not going to run.” In a nutshell, C.S. Lewis says courage is every virtue at its pressing point. It takes courage to be temperant when you don’t want to be.


(Practical Wisdom) Prudence is the virtue needed to balance all of the other virtues. It is misunderstood as not being a prude or not being easily deceived. But that is not prudence. Prudence is practical wisdom, and it is the master virtue. It distinguishes humans from animals. We don’t just act. We reflect on our actions. Like courage, there are two forms of prudence: passive prudence and active prudence. Passive prudence is the practical wisdom needed to know what to do with the stimuli that come one’s way. A job opportunity presents itself, what should one do? Work life, family life, church life is pressing in on every side, asking for your commitments and your time. What should one do? How does one decide what to say no to and what to say yes to? Active prudence is proactively making plans, planning your life. It’s planning and goal setting, and charting a course, with wisdom. It’s knowing what to do and making a plan to do it, rather than just sitting by and letting life happen to you.


So when we talk about virtues at school and in the home, what are aiming for? Virtue is about ourselves, others, and our orientation towards Gods and the universe. It’s comprehensive. We are aiming for a deep, long-term disposition, a typical reaction of a person’s heart and mind. It starts with small actions, that build to a habit, and then a character trait.

We are aiming to model and pursue virtue so that our students and children do so as well. We are forming into them habits, loves, affections, and orientations that simply just become a part of who they are. These things don’t shift and change like value behaviors, they simply become a part of who our students are.

What does this practically look like in the school and the family?


The worst questions you can ask your students after they jump in the car after a school day is, “Did you have a fun? Did you have a good time? What grade did you get on your math test?” These kinds of questions subconsciously tell our students that in order for school to be good, right, and beautiful, it must be “fun.” That if something isn’t fun, or over the top exciting that it must not be worthwhile. It also tells our students that learning is about grades and outward measures, rather than cultivating a love of learning and a growing ability to process how to learn things. What we value, we celebrate. Ask questions that show what you celebrate.

Instead, ask your child virtue questions: How were you courageous today? Maybe they were nervous about sharing their writing paper with the class, but they did it anyway. Maybe they saw another student being unkind to someone, and they displayed active courage. They ran INTO the chaos, defending the weak, and stood up for what was right. How were you temperant today? How did you show everything in its proper proportion? Maybe your student took the teacher’s 10 minutes of free time and spent some of it hanging out and chatting with friends, but then took the last few minutes to get started on their math homework.


As a family, at dinner, driving in the car, etc., make virtue dialogue a normal part of your family life. Maybe you see that your family has some big issues with moderation- everything in its correct proportion. Maybe you start conversations about where a lack of moderation might be seen in your family. Give them easy examples to understand the virtue. Balance means an equal amount. Do you think it would be wise or healthy to eat as much candy as you do vegetables and protein? Do you think it’s wise or healthy to watch as much television as you do reading or completing schoolwork? Of course not. But is it bad to eat candy, or completely terrible to watch television? No. Everything in its correct proportion. Many adults have never been directly taught these things as children and were left trying to navigate the virtue of temperance as young adults and failed miserably.

What about prudence? Practical wisdom. Do you and your spouse sit down and plan out your week, or your next few months? Do your children see you practicing this? Do you make it a priority to plan a date night every week? Do you talk to your kids about why you chose the educational path you did? That in all these things you are planning your life. You are injecting practical wisdom into life. You are planning for life, instead of just simply letting it happen to you.

When a person develops into a person of virtue, it goes much deeper than value words- than behavior driven actions of “sharing toys,” and “being obedient.” It becomes a deep part of their character, of their disposition, of who they are, and how they typically react and respond to life.

What we shine a light on will grow. When we keep putting virtue in front our students and children, we begin to see more of it. They become actions, then habits, and then a character trait.