More on “virtue”

On the subject of using the word “virtue” (which, Ursula LeGuin notes, has a narrow connotation today; see entry for July 10), a friend of Hermitary suggests the Greek word arete. The word has exactly the same meaning without the negative connotation. We can add that by its very lack of use, arete has retained its clarity of meaning.

The American Heritage Dictionary gives for the second definition of virtue “chastity, especially in a woman” — that was LeGuin’s original objection. The sixth definition is the obsolete “manly courage; valor.” Only definition four captures the sense of arete: “effective force or power.”

The word “moral” (as in the AHD‘s first definition of virtue as “moral excellence and righteousness”) is also problematic, as another friend of Hermitary notes. Ethics is more precise than morals. “Morality” has a religious connotation that many today will want to distinguish from ethics, disdain, or avoid, although the issues involved are just as pressing. Ethics, it may be added, can also have its own connotation of being cerebral or abstract, as in tautologies like “business ethics” or “military ethics.”

Perhaps the only way to deal with “good” and “bad” is to take the advice of the sages to live in such a way that one no longer thinks of one’s actions as good or bad, having transcended the world’s ways. The advice works especially well for solitaries because of the desired disengagement from the world in the first place.

Granted that the complex web of life and society makes us all complicitous in many ethical and moral ways. But the sages nevertheless distinguish the world from themselves and potentially ourselves who listen to them. The world is mired in “good and bad” and will not acknowledge that the words — let alone the meanings — are relevant.