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What is virtue?

Published on 08 March 2016
Updated on 05 April 2024

(My readings tend to be peripatetic, whimsical, and the prey of serendipity. I had started exploring the concept of virtue, which had come across my path,[1] when another book[2] – published in 1987, bought in 1996, and never read, fell on the floor as I was rifling through the library. Here is a makeshift reflection based on it and other texts that were drawn into my mental gyre)

I became interested in virtue.

Virtue has a long and distinguished pedigree. Confucius’ teachings (551-479 BC) could be said to center on virtue.[3] We find virtue first in Plato (Republic) – but surprisingly, it was a virtue of the state (though embedded in its “guardians” and not in the οἱ πολλοί). Virtue was central to Aristotle as well – though he ended up preaching teleology. Virtue was fundamental in stoicism. Christian philosophy (Augustine, Ambrose, Thomas Aquinas) enlarged the concept, but then the subject matter somehow petered out – it became “soft” – as compared to “categorical” – philosophy.[4] I wondered why. Today, only neo-Aristotelians write about virtue (but mean something else).[5]

Reading in my disorganized fashion, I came to realize that virtue is not a categorical imperative or a transcendental value that I could define in words or place in a philosophical system. Virtue is a practice, a process to which we arrive through experience – Socrates called the process an “examined” life. Like all practices, virtue defies definition.

There is nothing to do that is not singular.

One meal, one letter, one memory roaring inside the head.


I will use the example of an 800-year old bonsai to give a feel for what virtue entails.


(To Ryu no mai (ascending dragon) – by Masahiko Kimura, Saitama City, Japan)

“In 1983, Masahiko Kimura obtained an about 800 years-old collected Sargent juniper (it was 173 cm high and had one long heavy root extending approximately 122 cm). After studying the tree for two years, Kimura began work by coiling the long root so it would fit into a container. After the tree recovered from the drastic reduction technique, he carved and formed the dead wood, which comprised 80% of the tree, into a sculpture, before wiring and shaping the live branches. Three years later, Masahiko Kimura completed and exhibited it. He commented: everything unneeded is eliminated, the essence of the masterpiece is extracted, and its beauty and feeling are condensed.” [6]

One could go on for pages in describing the six-year process leading to the “ascending dragon.” I shall limit myself to elements I consider central, well aware, of course, that I am missing most of the process as it developed in the mind and senses of Masahiko Kimura.

The first element is harmony. Contrary to many a Western artist, who subdues brute matter to his imagination,[7] Kimura approaches a living being – an 800-year old tree – with which he aims to create an enduring harmony. His approach is very respectful of the “other,” whom he considers an equal partner (if not more). While Kimura has the initiative, he has to give the best of himself in the situation. He starts with a three-year long action-less phase where inquisitiveness and deliberation prevail. Only then does he begin to shape and transform the bonsai over another period of three years.

Unique initial conditions and a multi-causal process lead to a complex, unique, and unforeseeable outcome, which is this exquisite bonsai. The complexity is multi-layered. First is the even-handed encounter between the tree and its curator: just as in chaotic processes, the outcome critically depends on these initial conditions.[8] Furthermore, deliberations include many causes, some then rooted in unconscious mental processes.[9] This process flows in time: as it evolves, choices are made, options closed: the sequencing of these choices creates a distinctive path. Finally, one observes a relentless creative process, where Kimura does not simply apply “bonsai rules,” but adapts and develops them creatively.

I would like to linger for a moment on this last point. The ability to alter the environment and create suitable niches for survival is one of life’s fundamental characteristics.[10] It is also probably one major reason for social behavior among living beings. Mankind’s specialty is that this process has become fully conscious and reflective, hence vaguely directed toward the imagination rather than being the result of adaptation. The “sapiens” in homo sapiens of rights should be “inquisitive and innovative.” Being human – is acting out phronesis: (φρόνησις)[11] – wisdom or virtue. It is a paradigm of reasoning and interpretation of texts. (p. 18)

The example of the bonsai was not educative – to show how a rule is applied – but analytical: I wanted to show constituents of the process of coming to judgment. There are as many judgments as there are situations and people in them. But these judgments are not random (or Brownian). Since they result from chaotic processes, the judgments tend to cluster toward patterns of complexity (Larmore). Heuristics, not rules, epitomize such patterns.


There are, then, also patterns of political or moral complexity. Charles E. Larmore has inspired me and given a scholarly justification for what I have written here (but the biological analogies are mine).

One of the distinctive traits of wisdom is the inability to separate means and goal – they are entangled. This observation should come as a relief to those who have labored over the “principal-agent problem.” The principal has tasked the agent with applying judgment in the “contingent situation.” Caught in the local situation, the agent will follow judgment rather than schematic instructions (and since he is part of the situation, also his personal agenda).

Humans are masters, but also prisoners of the local situation. That this is so, we perceive intimately and immediately. Being in the process – particularly the creative part – gives us deep satisfaction despite the hardships. All “practitioners of the situation” – the hunter after his catch, the farmer at harvest time, the artisan in his shop, the scientist in his lab – share this deep sense of fulfillment, which far outweighs any pecuniary consideration. To deny practitioners the pleasure of creative judgment (e.g. by prescribing “best practice”) is to deny what makes humans feel alive.

It is hubris, in my view, to think that one can dismiss the situation as “contingent” and make a beeline for the categorical and universal as in much of current moral philosophy. Though good as reference points, categories and universals are too schematic to become prescriptions for action. The approach also tends to foreground the intended at the expense of the unintended consequences. Categoricals and universals make us blind. As Adam SMITH, Frédéric BASTIAT or Max FRISCH point out, unintended consequences may be crucial in assessing the situation. While judgments may be flawed or short-sighted, they do not have such systemic deficiencies.


[1] Albert O. HIRSCHMAN (1978): The passions and the interests.

[2] Charles E. LARMORE (1987): Patterns of moral complexity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. References to pages in this blog refer to this work.

[3] “Confucian thought focuses on the cultivation of virtue and maintenance of ethics. Some of the basic Confucian ethical concepts and practices include rén, , and lǐ, and zhì. Ren (“humaneness”) is the essence of the human being which manifests as compassion, it is the virtue-form of Heaven.[15] Yi is the upholding of righteousness and the moral disposition to do good. Li is a system of ritual norms and propriety that determines how a person should properly act in everyday life according to the law of Heaven. Zhi is the ability to see what is right and fair, or the converse, in the behaviors exhibited by others.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confucianism

[4] Meanwhile we have a curriculum in “theoretical philosophy,” “practical philosophy,” and even “experimental philosophy” (X-phi). So much for “physics-envy.”

[5] See e.g. Alasdair MACINTYRE (1985): fater virtue. a study in moral theory. Duckworth, London.

[6] Jonathan M. SINGER (2012): Fine bonsai –- art and nature. Abbeville Press. New York. P. 320.

[7] Of course, this is not strictly true: The Western artist had to know his materials intimately in order to allow his vision to incarnate in it. Conceptual art has broken this last link. It is mind over matter. Contrast Kimura’s approach to that of Ai Weiwei, an international conceptual artist of Chinese origins. His installation Fragments 2005 consists of connected fragments of pillars and beams from hundreds-of-year-old dismantled Chinese temples. Here is how Ai described the development process; “I gave my assistants very vague instructions. I told them, ‘I need all those pieces reconnected.’ It was a rather blurry program, and eight of my carpenters worked independently for half a year to bring the installation to the present condition.” Kathleen BÜHLER (2016): Chinese Whispers. Recent art from the Sigg and M+ Sigg collections. Prestel, Munich (p. 138-139)

[8] The literature on this topic is immense. See e.g. M. Mitchell WALDROP (1992): Complexity. The emerging science at the edge of order and chaos. Simon & Schuster, New York; Melanie MITCHELL (2009): Complexity. A guided tour. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[9] I am referring to the fact that only a minute fraction of our mental processes are conscious and explicit.

[10] “Organisms play two roles in evolution. The first consists of carrying genes; (…) however, organisms also interact with the environment, take energy and resources from the environment, make micro- and macro-habitat choices with respect to environment, construct artifacts, emit detritus and die in the environments, and by doing all these things, modify at least some of the selection pressures present in their own, and in each other’s local environments.” E. John ODLING-SMEE et als. (2003): Niche construction. The neglected process in evolution. Princeton University Pree, Princeton.

[11] “A Greek word for a type of wisdom or intelligence. It is more specifically a type of wisdom relevant to practical things, requiring an ability to discern how or why to act virtuously and encourage practical virtue, excellence of character, in others.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phronesis

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