Most New Year goals are focused on diets, exercise, and losing weight. Some cite learning a new hobby or focusing afresh on “personal well-being” as primary goals in January. But in all these resolutions, we primarily fixate on self-improvement and curation.
Today’s resolution makers might consider looking less to the mirror and more to the soul in determining their goals for the new year. After all, while it’s important that we care for our bodies and learn new skills, it’s just as important that we grow our characters in the months that follow.
In his classic work After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argues that we’ve lost a holistic understanding of what it means to be virtuous. We live in a fragmented age and lack a governing set of ethics (or even a common understanding of what ethics are) by which we can set our moral compasses. Our virtues have been shorn of a teleology or chief end or purpose, and so we are stranded, searching for a proper mode of action in a world that increasingly shrugs its shoulders and encourages us to do whatever “feels good.”
It makes sense that in such a world we would turn to the quantitative, the material, and the personal to make New Year’s resolutions: if we want to lose 10 pounds, we can figure out pretty easily how to achieve that goal (and we know what the end result will be). A search for inner peace or personal well-being appeals to the emotivism of our culture and requires no outside compass or standard by which to measure ourselves.
But the cultivation and nurturing of our souls is a more complex, qualitative, and difficult thing. It requires, first, an understanding of teleology. “Human beings, like the members of all other species, have a specific nature,” writes MacIntyre, “and that nature is such that they have certain aims and goals, such that they move by nature towards a specific telos.”
Meaning, or telos, is often the missing puzzle piece in our quest for self-improvement or reawakening in the New Year. Because we focus on the outer trappings of success and transformation, we often ignore the larger, essential question of what we as humans ought to be. We don’t consider what we’re journeying toward in our goal-making.
The Greek word for virtue is arête and was used in Homeric poems to describe “excellence of any kind.” A runner, explains MacIntyre, displays the arête of his feet. The concept of virtue for the Greeks was thus inexplicably tied up in the specifics of the person, as well as in his societal and communal roles. “Identity in heroic society involves particularity and accountability,” MacIntyre writes. Our community often helps provide or inform our telos in important ways: we are not (though our culture encourages us to act to the contrary) solipsistic and atomistic people. We live in community, in conjunction with a whole symphony of people. To at least some degree, our telos lies in seeking harmony and union with this symphony: striking the right notes, complementing the chorus, harmonizing with the lead players. This is an ancient idea, as MacIntyre points out—but that doesn’t mean it’s outdated. “There is no way to possess the virtues except as part of a tradition in which we inherit them and our understanding of them from a series of predecessors,” he argues.
It is also true, I would argue, that specific times and places call for the careful exercise of specific virtues: Homer’s ancient society demanded a set of warrior virtues that emphasized the courage and cunning of Odysseus, for instance. But today the failures and fractures of our time and place call for a different set of virtues.
True “excellence” is a practice, according to Aristotle: it is a habit that must be learned, a sculpting of soul and mind that comes only through repetitive practice and intention. Just as we cannot play piano unless we practice our scales, or run a marathon unless we train daily, we cannot be virtuous people if we are not intentional about the virtues we’re striving toward.
So it seems important that—even as we discuss the importance of weight loss, healthy eating, and self-improvement—we also turn our eyes to the sorts of virtues that will help us better achieve our telos in 2018 and beyond.
Prudence might be the most underrated and misunderstood virtue. We’ve lost a full understanding of the word. Being called a “prude” is usually an insult, targeting a person’s attitude toward sexual mores only.
But prudence is derived from the Greek word phronesis and describes the most central and vital of the virtues. According to Aristotle, virtues come with two corresponding vices: one of excess and one of defect. The virtue of courage, for instance, avoids the vice of cowardice on the one hand, and the vice of brazenness or foolishness on the other. It lies within two extremes.
The virtuous person must know how to navigate and avoid these vices of extremity. Thus we need prudence: a person with phronesis is “someone who knows how to exercise judgment in particular cases. Phronesis is an intellectual virtue; but it is that intellectual virtue without which none of the virtues of character can be exercised.”
Jane Austen’s Anne Elliott, the star of Persuasion, is perhaps one of the first literary protagonists who comes to mind when I think of prudence. She knows what to do in unexpected, uncertain circumstances—and usually serves as the sustaining backbone in every community or company she finds herself in. After her nephew dislocates his collar bone following a fall, for instance, Anne is the first to act: “It was an afternoon of distress,” writes Austen, “and Anne had every thing to do at once; the apothecary to send for, the father to have pursued and informed, the mother to support and keep from hysterics, the servants to control, the youngest child to banish, and the poor suffering one to attend and soothe.”
Throughout Persuasion, characters look to Anne for leadership, wisdom, and cool thinking. She helps guide important actions throughout the narrative, via both her own personal action and her advice, thus serving to prevent harm and encourage good.
In this sense, too, Anne demonstrates the important particularity of virtue: she exercises her prudence within community, for the good and happiness of that community’s members. Hers isn’t (and couldn’t be) a displaced or isolated virtue. It’s contingent upon her place and the actions that happen within that place.
Speaking of unpopular virtues, here’s gratitude: perhaps one of our culture’s least-favored character qualities. The American experience is usually about upward trajectory and striving. In the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville described us as a people always discontent and eager for more—more wealth, opportunity, or success. Little has changed in the past couple hundred years: we crave newer clothes, nicer houses, better cars, higher-paying jobs. Rarely do we look at the life around us and say, “This is enough. I don’t want anything more, or anything else.”
Yet Cicero had this to say about gratitude: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”
“I was brought up in times when one was not ashamed to be happy,” wrote Scottish author John Buchan, “and I have never learned the art of discontent.” He added, “It seems to me that those who loudly proclaim their disenchantment with life have never been really enchanted by it. Their complaints about the low levels they dwell in ring hollow, for they have not known the uplands.”
What happens when our lives are characterized by a discontented striving? We become entitled amnesiacs—focused more on what we’re owed than on what we’ve been given. We may become depressed: fixated on loss, unable to see the good for the bad. There is some wisdom to the person who looks at a glass and chooses to see it as half full instead of as half empty. As Harvard Health noted in November, studies have regularly found that gratitude is deeply tied to our overall health and happiness. But the point isn’t that gratitude makes us happy or that we should pursue it with our own happiness in mind. Gratitude is not a utilitarian virtue. It’s a proper orientation of the soul and mind—a right awareness of the gifts we’ve received from tradition, family, community, and God.
One of my favorite expressions of gratitude comes from a small passage in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In it he shares the story of an ill young boy who’s given a deeper understanding of the world—and through that understanding, falls into gratitude and wonder:
The windows of his room overlooked the garden, and our garden was a shady one, with old trees on which the springtime buds were forming, and where the early birds came to rest, twittering and singing through his windows. And suddenly, as he looked at them, lost in wonder at them, he began to ask them for forgiveness: “Birds of God, birds of joy, you must forgive me, for against you too I have sinned.”
No one was able to understand this at the time, but he wept with joy: “Yes,” he said, “all around me there has been such divine glory: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone have lived in disgrace, I alone have dishonoured it all, completely ignoring its beauty and glory.”
“You take too many sins upon yourself,” dear mother would say, weeping.
“But dear mother, joy of my life, I am crying from joy, and not from grief; why, I myself want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you, for I do not know how to love them [enough].”
This passage helps describe the way in which gratitude serves as both love and clear vision: when we see the gifts surrounding us for what they truly are, we will give thanks for them, and begin to demonstrate the love they’re owed.
The last virtue I want to consider is mindfulness (though I’ve been trying to think up a better name for it). The word as it is most often used suggests an inward gaze, not an outward one: it’s understood more as a therapeutic technique or form of meditation than as a virtue.
But I suggest that mindfulness—or perhaps, “attentiveness”—might be a much-needed modern application of the cardinal virtue of temperance.
We’re more distracted than ever before. The internet, virtual and augmented reality, and social media beckon to us everywhere. We face a constant temptation toward mental exodus: a desertion of the real world for other realms. This abandonment may be a form of escape, a succumbing to addiction, or the result of a deep craving for community. Regardless, our increasing abstention from the real, physical world presents grave problems for community and even character.
In her insightful work Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle notes that the mere presence of a smartphone can impede conversation: it subtly biases people toward mental absence and distractibility. In a world absolutely overflowing with devices, how can we intentionally focus on each other once more?
Temperance might urge a prudent use of technology, refusing to fall into excess or defect—but mindfulness, more specifically, should guide and inform the relationships and responsibilities most affected by these devices. Mindful or attentive people know how to put away the phone and fully focus on whoever is in front of them. They are able to dwell fully in the present moment and ignore the constant temptations to curate their Facebook profile, post self-congratulatory statuses, check email for the millionth time, tweet a clever joke, or read news headlines (again). Scrolling through the internet’s eternal feeds of information can become an addictive tic, one that’s difficult to ignore. Being present—mindful of the people and things surrounding us—is a virtue we must practice, not a mere accident of existence.
This is perhaps one of the most time- and society-specific virtues we’re uncovering in our day. Before the internet, novels and fairy tales might tempt readers to escapism and discontent—but always we were forced back into reality. This is no longer the case: hosts of people, young and old, spend the entirety of their days online. In South Korea, “users started dropping dead from exhaustion after playing online games for days on end,” Martin Fackler recently reported for the New York Times. “Up to 30 percent of South Koreans under 18, or about 2.4 million people, are at risk of Internet addiction.” In 2005, according to the Independent, “the BBC reported that a South Korean man died after playing an online video game for 50 hours without a break. Police said he hadn’t slept nor eaten properly.”
The vices we see in our society call for a particular and an intentional growth of virtue. Each of us faces the trial and temptation of internet addiction in a different way—but we can each, through prudence and temperance, exercise mindfulness in our everyday lives. The health of our communities, families, and even countries increasingly demand it.
There are countless other virtues worth considering and cultivating in the new year. These are perhaps three of the most underrated, under-discussed, and under-practiced in our own time—and thus worth considering and practicing in 2018.
To study virtue theory and particular virtues in more depth, I’d highly recommend Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, as well as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics; the cardinal and theological virtues are also worth considering.
The cultivation of virtue is a lifelong practice. We aren’t who we ought to be: we’re still striving for our telos, our purpose, in a broken and sinful world. While some virtues may be more natural and easy for us to grow in, the cultivation of others will require years of prayer, discipline, and intentionality.
But in 2018, despite the challenges, hopefully we can all advance a little further in our practice—striving for inward excellence and not just outward fitness and health.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She's written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.