Of Virtues and Semantics

I am only one third of the way through the Virtue essays yet there is already a theme running through them.  Before I continue with these essays I feel it necessary to pause and discuss this theme.

I’m going to start right now by saying that I believe that Ár nDraíocht Féin should stop using the term “Virtue”.  Let me explain.

The Oxford English Dictionary has two basic definitions for virtue:

1) behaviour showing high moral standards,

2) a good or useful quality of a thing.

Let’s look at these two definitions in a bit more detail.

So to begin, both definitions can be seen as measurements:

diagram of virtue

The first definition applies to one’s actions, and the second definition applies to attributes that one possesses.   Let’s explore some analogies to try to make this clearer.

some virtues provide a moral compass

A virtue according to the first definition, I am going to suggest, should provide individuals with a moral compass.  That is, it should provide a basis for determining whether a particular course of action would be moral or immoral.  The most famous example of this would be the seven heavenly virtues and opposing deadly sins of Aurelius Clemens Prudentius.  If you hold charity as a virtue, for instance, it is relatively easy to gauge whether any particular action would be charitable versus greedy.  By consistently acting in accordance with a particular set of such virtues, one is deemed to be moral or ethical by those who share the same set of virtues.  It is important to note of course that morality is entirely relative; if I believe that greed is a virtue then I will look at your acts of charity as being immoral.

others provide a yardstick of usefulness

The second definition, instead of a moral compass, gives us a usefulness yardstick.  This allows us to judge certain virtues as something that is useful to possess.  Importantly, possessing such virtues does not generally say anything about whether the possessor has high moral standards or not.  Such virtues may gain you respect and loathing at the same time from the same person.  To reuse my previous example, if I believe that greed is a virtue then I may see your acts of charity as being immoral — while at the same time respecting you for having the fortitude to act according to your convictions.

The point of all of this is that I believe that the term “virtue” is too vague to be of much use.  I like precision in words.  Therefore, I am no longer going to discuss virtues.  Instead, I will discuss morals (virtues which provide a moral compass) and character strengths (virtues which are useful to possess).  Both are vitally important. Morals tell you whether an action is right or wrong.  Character strengths are what makes your actions effective.  To have morals without strength of character is to be impotent.   To have strength of character without morals is to be a monster.

Having arrived at this point, it is an interesting exercise to re-frame the ADF’s “9 Virtues” in this light.  Here is my take on it.


Character Strengths

Piety Wisdom
Hospitality Vision


As you can see, most of the “9 Virtues” are really character strengths, as opposed to morals.

At first glance, I found this uneven weighting towards character strengths over morals somewhat surprising.  After some consideration I do think it is understandable given ADF’s pan-Indo-European focus, since societal mores varied widely from culture to culture.   ADF is clearly more interested in giving its members the tools to act rather than trying to guide those actions.

However, I do think that Our Druidry may be improved by starting to differentiate between morals and character strengths, and encouraging dedicants to research and consider whether or not to adopt some of the morals of their hearth culture.  This will go a long way to providing what I see as much needed balance.

There, now that I have gotten that out of my system I can hopefully continue on with the Virtue essays requirement!

4 thoughts on “Of Virtues and Semantics

  1. Been reading your blog for a while. Thank you for the great work and the pictures. This posting though I feel you and I differ a good bit, and I felt compeled to comment.

    You make a good argument as to why the 9 virtues of ADF aren’t Virtues. However what struck me was that I feel, and think, they are. By your very defenition, to me they fit just fine. I do see them as a moral compass. I ask myself “what is the wise choice?” “Am I being hospitible?” “what is the coragous act?, is it wise?” ect. These nine things are a moral compass… a PAGAN moral compass. I get the sense that you, unintentionaly and/or unaware, are looking at them through a Christian cultural filter. Even your example to prove your point is pulled from Christian belief. I see this filter often in neo-pagans as most of us are raised in a christian dominant culture. Most of us had christian parents. It’s natural that we have this christian filter in our brains, and it can take a LOT of work to be free of it.

    I get the sense you read a lot, and if you haven’t, I highly recomend reading Brandon Meyers “The other side of Virtue” to get a solid understanding what the pre-christian Heroic virtues are and why they were that way.

    • Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply.

      Trust me when I say that I am far too Nietzschean to ever look at an issue such as morals from the Christian perspective. My point here is not that Courage, for instance, isn’t a virtue. My point is that the term “virtue” is ambiguous and that we should be looking at these concepts as either morals or character strengths rather than as virtues.

      For example, do you believe that a courageous action must also be moral action by virtue of being courageous? To take a fairly extreme case, let’s consider a suicide bomber in a subway. I think we can both agree that knowingly agreeing to become a suicide bomber takes courage. Does that make the act moral?

  2. When we adopted the term ‘virtue’ for these qualities we had in mind the more archaic definition of “Inherent power or quality”, as in the ‘virtue’ of an herb. The implication is that these things should be made intrinsic to the personal self. They are ‘powers’ that can be applied to a better life. Incidentally, I agree entirely on ‘integrity’, and voted against it in the original framing of the virtues, preferring ‘honor’. In the newest DP book, see my essay for my own preferred list.

    • Hi Ian. Thanks for stopping by and replying; I appreciate the ‘insider’ perspective. I do think I understand, having given it plenty of thought now, what ADF generally means when you say ‘virtue’. My hair-splitting is just that the DP and supporting documentation will often use it, as you say, meaning the ‘virtue’ of an herb and then shortly thereafter use it in the meaning of ‘leading a virtuous life’.

      I’m a philosophy buff, so this is just the kind of thing that gets me all geared up. I’m sure nobody else has any issues with the dualistic meanings.

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