In the notes to her translation of Lao-tzu, Ursula LeGuin explains why she uses the word “power” for the Chinese character te, which is usually rendered as “virtue.” The old Latin sense of virtus rightly means the inner strength and quality of a thing, the inner character that makes it do well what it does and is.
Today, however, virtue has a different connotation. “Applied obsessively to the virginity or monogamy of women, the word lost its virtue,” says LeGuin. “When used of persons it now almost always has a smirk or a sneer in it. This is a shame.”
Today, the word virtue, and the word integrity, are words with a layer of musty, moralistic dust on them. But a significant amount of meaning is lost in dismissing them and refusing to use and apply them. In the first place, it is impossible to identify morality without some allusion to behavior, after all. Morality can be right up-to-date: war, globalization, environment, state, society — all of these applications beg for strong moral interpretation, a search for the source of strength or quality supposed to lie in a culture. At the personal and individual level, too, where virtue and integrity are usually most applied, morality again is right up-to-date: complicity, consumption, accountability.
Without a speck of antiquarian dust, we ought to pursue the full implications of what life — and our lives — signify. We ought to press ourselves on what we think is our virtue. If we fail to do this, then, as LeGuin says, “it is a shame.”