Virtue is a musty word. It has a whiff of anachronism about it. It immediately conjures up a picture of the virtuous virgin, saving herself for marriage, or perhaps a wooden, impossibly noble hero whose ideals are out of step with the world as we actually find it. We in the modern West are much more comfortable using a word like "goodness" or "decency" in place of "virtue", with all the associations of this idea being fundamentally incompatible with evil; a virtuous character just is a good character, and an "evil virtue" is fast approaching a contradiction in terms. With few exceptions, our ordinary language commits us to thinking of the notion of virtue in this way.
However, this is not the way the term virtue has always been understood, even in the West. The Latin virtus, from which our own word is derived, is itself derived from the root vir, meaning "man" (see also: "virile"), and was seen as a particularly masculine quality among Roman gentry. Further qualifications attached to the notion of virtus to where it also excluded children and slaves, and to a great extent foreigners; this was a quality possessed almost exclusively by adult male citizens of Rome. Moreover, these qualifications extend to what sort of actions could be considered virtuous. These men could exercise virtus only in public affairs, when discharging their political duties, and in some cases in battle. As such, virtue in the strict sense was for a Roman available only to the few, and only in performing some feat that had political implications.
Moving back toward the Axial Age, virtue changes once again. First, a note about the Axial Age; this is a term coined by Karl Jaspers to cover a momentous period in human history from about 800 BCE to 200 BCE. During this time the ancient world produced significant technical achievements, and most of the great religious and philosophical movements which continue to this day took shape and were set down in writing. Many of the philosophical and etymological roots of ideas in modern cultures trace back to this time, and this is no less the case for virtue.
In comparison with modern times, cultures in the Axial Age were far more insular, as would be expected given the difference between then and now in terms of technology. Whereas one can now fly from Athens to Beijing in a single day, making such a journey in Homer's day would likely take the better part of a lifetime, and so the cultural exchange between distant civilizations was, as one might expect, virtually nil. It is all the more striking then, that notions of virtue in both classical China and classical Greece have a great deal more in common with each other than they do with our own notions of virtue. What characterizes the modern conception of virtue is above all something eminently moral, whereas the moral dimension of virtue was at best secondary for these earlier civilizations, and as you go back earlier in time in these cultures, the less morality figures in what makes a person or action "virtuous".
Achilles killing the Amazon Queen Penthesilea, 540-530 B.C.E.
Ancient Greece is of course, more familiar to us in the West than is ancient China. We are their intellectual heirs, our worldview is coloured by their philosophical, scientific and to some extent even religious considerations, and our political system is a direct descendant of the one which arose in Athens in the late 6th century BCE. It therefore makes sense to start with Greece in explaining the roots of what we now call "virtue". The Greek word for this idea is arete, from whence the term "aristocracy" takes its root, and it is a much broader notion than either the manly virtus of Roman times or the moralistic virtue of our contemporary world. The most general rendering that one can give arete is as something like "excellence". Anything can conceivably have arete; a sword, a horse, a human being, a god; all these things can or do possess excellence of some kind. It is noteworthy that what counts as arete changes depending on the object to which it is applied, and this brings in two related concepts without which we cannot fully understand what virtue meant to a classical and especially an archaic Greek.
The first of these concepts is telos, which is a notion that has been largely stripped of its universal significance in the modern world. This word can be rendered as "purpose" or "goal"; it is the end toward which things are impelled. Up until relatively recent times, most cultures and especially the Greeks thought of all things as having some sort of purpose built in to them. This makes quite a bit of sense in light of things which human beings have themselves brought about; a vehicle has the purpose of transporting something, a knife has the purpose of cutting something, and so on. However this idea to the Greek mind extended much further, in fact to everything in existence. Not only would a sword or a chariot have a purpose, but so too would a horse, a man, even a god. All these things contain a telos; the thing at which it is aiming, the purpose which it either succeeds or fails to achieve. The idea of teleology (an account of what things are ultimately for) has mostly fallen out of favour in naturalistic explanations now, particularly since the time of Darwin, but to the ancient Greek the idea that all things, whether living or non-living, have a unified and objective purpose, would have seemed quite obvious.
The second of these related concepts is eudaimonia. This is a difficult word to translate in to English, but is perhaps best rendered as "flourishing" (literally "good spirit"). Sometimes it is translated as "happiness", but this seems rather banal and fails to capture the element of telos which resides in it; eudaimonia is the state that a thing, in particular a sentient or at least a living thing, achieves when it has fulfilled its telos. A thing has achieved eudaimonia when it fulfills its telos, and it does this by way of its arete. A horse that runs quickly, a commanding officer who commands effectively, or a deity who has ultimate power over his or her domain, has achieved this blessed state of flourishing where their actions and existence instantiate their objective purpose.
Eudaimonia may be objectively the same for all human beings qua human beings, but different human beings can have different arete. Homer is the intellectual father-figure of Greece, and his notions of virtue echo all the way down through the centuries; his ideas of what is "good" or "right" eventually take shape as Aristotelian virtue ethics. We can see in Homer's poetry very different characters who all exhibit different kinds of virtue. Achilles' virtue is as the warrior; his speed and physical strength are unmatched by any other mortal man. By contrast, Odysseus' virtue is as the clever man; though he is also a formidable warrior, he is unmatched in his cunning and guile. While there may be one goal or purpose toward which human life is directed, there are many paths. Yet, to the archaic Greek in any case and to a lesser extent to his classical-era intellectual heir, all of these paths involve to some great extent the ability to discharge power; there is no virtue in out-and-out weakness. Whether it is the arete of mind in Socrates, the arete of body in Achilles, or an arete poised somewhere between them in Odysseus, in each case, mental and/or physical power is fundamental to the notion of virtue. While hubris and arrogance would not be considered virtuous, for the ancient Greek, the idea that virtue could consist simply in being meek or humble would make no sense at all. Even when one supplicates the gods, one does so to some instrumental purpose, and not merely because it is the right thing to do, full stop.
The Chinese character De
We now move to ancient China, a culture with which most Westerners are much less familiar. China's culture differed significantly from that of Greece, particularly in that it was the only civilization other than that of Egypt which maintained anything like the degree of continuity it enjoyed for as long as it did. Up until 1911 CE, the dynastic history of China extended almost continuously back to some time in the second millenium BCE, and while its intellectual life underwent significant change and advancement in that time, the conservatism latent within that intellectual life can hardly be overstated. The Chinese notion of virtue is contained with the concept de, which is a subtle and complex idea. The word itself has dozens of synonyms and connotations within ancient Chinese alone, but perhaps the best place to start in understanding de is by rendering it as "inherent character". A thing's de is, among other things, its basic character, the natural qualities, characteristics, or attributes that make it what it is. It is often translated in to English as "virtue", however this can be misleading in light of the moral connotations that attach to the word virtue; a thing's de is not necessarily good. The idea of a "good virtue" is somewhat redundant and "bad virtue" somewhat contradictory, so this rendering is not totally satisfactory in modern terms, however this is the closest that the Chinese philosophical tradition comes to our modern notion of virtue. To get a fuller understanding of the notion of de, it will be necessary to introduce the more fundamental idea of dao.
One could spend an entire lifetime explaining dao and never fully articulate it; the reason for this is that the dao isn't merely a thing, it is also the substratum out of which things proceed, as well as the direction in which things tend. The dao, in short, is the ultimate metaphysical principle which exhausts all of reality. The dao is at once the way-that-things-are, the things themselves, and the destiny of those things. It is the unity that underlies the duality of yin and yang. This is all very abstract, but can be made more concrete with an example. Imagine the scenario of a stone dropped in a pool of water; when the stone is dropped, there is a splash. The calm water which precedes the splash is what we might call "dormancy in the abstract", and the splash is analogous to what we might call "polarity in the abstract". The waves which the splash generates are analogous to polar opposites yin and yang, where the crest of the wave is yin and the trough of the wave is yang—the splash is simply the wave at its highest extent (and thus "the ultimate" or "abstracted" polarity). What is dao, then? Dao is the whole scene taken together. Dao is the things themselves, the qualities and attributes of those things, and the manner in which those things behave.
The relationship between dao and de is roughly this: de is dao in action on a microcosmic level. What "virtue" is, just is the natural qualities of a thing as manifested in the context of a greater whole. From Daodejing, ch. 21:
It lies in the nature of Grand Virtue
To follow the Tao and the Tao alone.
(tr. John C.H. Wu)
"Grand Virtue", or de, follows "the way things are", or dao. In other words, a thing's inherent character is an outgrowth and an outcome of the way that reality is. Antelope run quickly because of what they are; prey animals. Cheetahs have sharp claws and teeth because of what they are; predators. The inherent character of these creatures follows and is circumscribed by the conditions they face in reality. A toothless cheetah lacks de, as does a slow antelope. We can see a significant parallel in this understanding of "virtue" with that of the Greeks; a thing-of-a-particular-kind is virtuous (or perhaps "excellent") just as a result of fulfilling its purpose, or being a great thing-of-its-kind. Horses that run slowly are non-virtuous qua horses, swords than cannot cut are non-virtuous qua swords. A further parallel is illustrated by the other common rendering in English for de, namely as "power". A thing's virtue is its power, as in the "healing power of a plant". The plant has natural properties that make it suitable for use as a healing agent, and these properties, qualities, characteristics or what have you, are its de. Now, the Daoist sages give us the idea of the virtue of the small, which appears to be in conflict with the Greek idea of virtue being the attribute of the strong. However this conflict is only apparent; the Daoist idea is simply the recognition that power often consists in yielding and allowing others to undermine themselves—working smart as opposed to hard, so to speak.
This understanding of virtue as being bound up with power allows us to understand why Aristotle counts of all things, luck—something at best problematic for morality—as being among the virtues. It also helps us to understand the Chinese idea that there can be such a thing as "bad virtue". Indeed, this idea of bad virtue is exemplified in the Chinese proverb "the great man is a public misfortune", and in the very nearly parallel idea found in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics that "it is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen". It would seem that counting someone as "great" in the sense of moral virtue, would preclude them from being anything like a public misfortune. Only when we understand "great" in something other than moral terms can we make sense of this idea; only when "great" is seen as being interchangeable with "powerful", does the proverb seem to refer to anything within the realm of our experience.
One last correspondence that I will point out between Greek and Chinese conceptions of virtue, is how one acquires it. In modern times we can understand to a great extent virtue as being bound up with character—this at least, we share with these two ancient intellectual traditions. However while we in modern times do not generally accept that character is utterly fixed, we do find it difficult to countenance the idea that one can change one's own character, or virtue. Certainly one can strive for self-improvement, but we tend to think that sea-changes in terms of character happen as a result of external, rather than internal factors. Ebenezer Scrooge does not become a warm and charitable individual as a result of deep introspection and long practice, he changes in a single night as a result of being shown his future. The proverbial leopard, simply cannot change his own spots. This is, however, not a view shared by classical-era Greeks (archaic Greeks would likely have understood it much better) and the classical Chinese philosophers. In both philosophical traditions, practical reason, ethics, or virtue, can and in fact must, be cultivated. Scrooge notwithstanding, one does not simply wake up tomorrow and find oneself as either virtuous or non-virtuous; this sort of thing happens over time. In the case of accumulating virtue, one acquires it through practice, by imitating the example of the virtuous. In the case of diminishing virtue, this only happens as a result of disuse; one's idleness allows one's own natural virtues to atrophy until they are virtually non-existent.
3rd edition cover of Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue
In modern times, words like virtue, honour, and glory, ring hollow. These are words which have little to refer to, and in some cases no referent at all. A concept like "honour" is a cheque written to an account which has now been closed; one can write the cheque and give it to another, but the value which it is meant to convey is ultimately lost. This is essentially the thesis of the work After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre, in which he sets forth the idea that when concepts like telos and arete have lost their currency, our very own moral language fails us and places us under the weight of our own linguistic confusions. Perhaps to think of the word virtue as more or less a synonym for "excellence" fails to grasp the ethical dimensions that this word has come to possess; then again, perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, and the fact that virtue is essentially a synonym for "morality" makes it difficult to understand some fundamental truths about the degree to which we can all be virtuous. When we say things like "it would be an honour" but have nothing substantial to which that latter word refers, or when we say that "patience is a virtue" such that this particular virtue is entirely divested of power, we are simply echoing empty sentiments. When virtue is something less than an aristocratic notion, something well within the grasp of everyone and not only the exceptional, when we debase it and make it common or even accessible in common, its proper function is compromised. In this way it is just like any other thing which has been debased by inflation; its value approaching zero from being copied too many times over, without a corresponding increase in that which stands behind it.