The Freedom of Virtue

by on 1st May 2019
The Freedom of Virtue

"Come on a journey with two travellers — not virtuous, just trying to be. Virtue is not for everyone, and many people find their happiness in the green valleys of life. But for those of us with a little chutzpah, a summit looms high above and time is of the essence … "

So this Christian psychologist and a sceptical physicist walk into a coffee shop…

Okay, so it’s not actually the start of a joke but instead the remarkable real-life beginning to an absorbing and challenging new book, The Freedom of Virtue: Navigating excellence in the art of living amongst a world of instant gratification. Tom Edwards and Cosimo Chiera are good friends and experienced academics and educators who sat down one day at their favourite cafe and asked themselves the question: "What makes a person, no matter their background, intelligence, or resilience, stand out from the crowd, to display excellence in the art of living?”

As they began discussing that question they soon realised that the standard answers were not enough. For example, society places great emphasis on intelligence whether it is in school or the workforce. But smart people are not immune from failure, nor even stupidity, from time to time. They also thought about ‘family of origin’ as the classic psychological cause of so many personal struggles. But stand-out people seem to overcome their background, however deprived or traumatic. Even looking at structural inequality within society (the ‘haves’ vs the ‘have-nots’) some people rise above their class to achieve great things.

A good set of genes, a stable family life, or a few brains could not be the whole story.

That led them to spend the next few years on a journey of discovery, first through the psychological literature of positive psychology, resilience and beyond. Then they ventured wider in their scope. They read biographies, engaged with some of the world’s great writings, thought about anthropology as the study of people, touched on religious ideas, delved into biology, and came to terms with aspects of philosophy.

The answer they found is called virtue.

Virtue sits in the background of daily life, yet influences everything we say and do. It is about a person’s style and substance in spite of their physical strength or intellect. Virtue is for us all, not only for the strong and the smart.

So how do we attain a life of excellence in a world awash with instant gratification yet marred by anxiety and depression?

The authors argue our need to always feel comfortable, if not happy, has robbed us of achieving excellence in our own lives. Taking an evidence-based approach, they examine research findings across a broad range of disciplines to identify six virtues which are foundational to our humanity and which orientate each of us to our ‘best-lived’ life. These foundational virtues are Courage, Diligence, Wisdom, Honour, Justice, and Kindness. To stimulate and challenge their audience they provide numerous suggested activities and questions throughout the book, ensuring its value as a learning experience as well as an entertaining read.

Cutting across cultural and religious barriers this unique book provides practical tools in the daily art of living. Not only will mental health professionals, parents and teachers find this book of value but so will all those who seek to empower others.

As the authors say: "Herein lies a clear path to a life of excellence through virtue.” That sounds like a worthy goal, even if some of those hills look a bit steep.