Where Virtue is the Goal

Where Virtue is the Goal

“And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3, RSV2CE)

In Jesus’ High Priestly prayer, He reveals for all time the true nature of life. It is to know God, in all his Triune glory. Centuries later, Thomas Aquinas would comment on this verse:

Our Lord said: This is eternal life: that they may know Thee, the only true God. Now eternal life is the last end, as stated above. Therefore man’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God, which is an act of the intellect.[1]

In saying this, the Angelic Doctor showed that not only life, but happiness, is inextricably linked to the knowledge of God. The Westminster Catechism continues in this tradition, speaking not of life and happiness, but of purpose:

The Westminster Confession states that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Before the mission of the church can be fully realized, there must be an appreciation and understanding of the importance of worship. The mission of the church flows out of the believers’ love for the Lord of the church.[2]

In 1905, theologian Francis Hall ties the threads together in a single statement about the unmatched importance of knowing God:

God is the Summum Bonum, the devout contemplation and enjoyment of which is the true and chief end of man; for, as the infinitely Perfect One, and the source of all good, He comprehends in His own essence all that is needed for our eternal blessedness.[3]

But is this knowledge just an intellectual knowledge? Is it just a mental contemplation? Or does knowing “the only true God” also involve an element of relationship? Charlotte Mason asserts that it does, and used the startling word “intimacy” to describe that relationship. In the context, she describes not only the chief end of man, but also the chief end of education:

… the culmination of all education (which may, at the same time, be reached by a little child) is that personal knowledge of and intimacy with the Supreme, in which our being finds its fullest perfection.[4]

In contrast to this model of education advanced by Mason, another school of thought argues that the chief end of education is the cultivation of virtue. This concept is not rooted in the Gospels; rather, it is rooted in the classical tradition which began in Ancient Greece. David Hicks explains:

Aristotle is our best introduction to the idea of a classical education.[5]

Hicks summarizes Aristotle’s view of the purpose of education as follows:

The purpose of education is … the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows.[6]

Hicks provides a few synonyms for this culmination of education. One is the “theoretic life.” Hicks writes:

Aristotle defends the theoretic life as the true end of education and the source of happiness.[7]

And what is the theoretic life?

… the theoretic life is the life of virtue[8]

The link between classical education and virtue is so tight that one classical educator says that classical education is equivalent to “virtue education.”[9] In fact, virtue is the unchanging hallmark of a classical education even today. Hicks thus refers to:

… the unchanging validity of classical education’s preoccupation with forming the virtuous man.[10]

Another word closely linked to the classical concept of virtue is character. For example, Aristotle writes:

… moral virtue is a state of character concerned with choice…[11]

So classical education’s preoccupation “with forming the virtuous man” may also be seen as a preoccupation with the formation of character.

Against this classical tradition, Charlotte Mason writes:

We may not make character our conscious objective. Provide a child with what he needs in the way of instruction, opportunity, and wholesome occupation, and his character will take care of itself: for normal children are persons of good will, with honest desires toward right thinking and right living.[12]

And yet despite Mason’s continued insistence that the knowledge of God is the chief end of education, some well-meaning people attempt to fit Mason’s ideas into the classical tradition. They say that Mason’s emphasis on the formation of habit (one of her three instruments of education) is indistinguishable from “virtue education.” But closer examination shows that the oil and water do not mix. In their influential book The Liberal Arts Tradition, Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain explain the classical view of habit:

Aristotle writes in Book II, Chapter 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics, “moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit).” He goes on, “It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.”[13]

When Mason’s writings are read through classical lenses one may make the seemingly obvious connection: habit training leads to “moral virtue” (according to Aristotle), and since Mason advocates habit training, she too promotes “virtue education.” But when the interpretive paradigm is removed, we can understand Mason’s true perspective:

All we can do further is to help a child to get rid of some hindrance – a bad temper, for example – likely to spoil his life. In our attempts to do this, our action should, I think, be most guarded. We may not interfere with his psychological development, because we recognise that children are persons, and personality should be far more inviolable in our eyes than property. We may use direct teaching and command, but not indirect suggestion, or even the old-fashioned ‘influence.’ Influence will act, of course, but it must not be consciously brought to bear.

But we may make use of certain physiological laws without encroaching on personality, because, in so doing, we should affect the instrument and not the agent. The laws of habit and, again, the tendency of will-power to rhythmic operation should be of use to us, because these are affected by brain-conditions and belong to the outworks of personality. The little studies in Part I. indicate ways of helping a child to cure himself of tiresome faults.

Mason’s theory of habit is based on physiological laws that had been articulated by William Carpenter (1813-1885) and other pioneering neurobiologists. Mason draws strong boundaries around the personhood of the child, justified by what she regards as the inherent rights of the child. Mason holds her ground on her first principle, “Children are born persons.” Virtue is an expression of personality, and the teacher is not allowed to interfere with personality. The physiology of habit does not form virtue; rather, it cures the child “of tiresome faults.”

If virtue does not come from habit, contra Aristotle, then how is virtue formed? The question I would ask is, why would one look to the ancient Greeks to find the key to virtue? St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) is known for her extended allegory called “The Bridge.” In this allegory she describes the ancient path of virtue:

[God said,] “This bridge has walls of stone so that travelers will not be hindered when it rains. Do you know what stones these are? They are the stones of true solid virtue. These stones were not, however, built into walls before my Son’s passion. So no one could get to the final destination, even though they walked along the pathway of virtue. For heaven had not yet been unlocked with the key of my Son’s blood, and the rain of justice kept anyone from crossing over.”[14]

According to St. Catherine, before Christ’s advent, virtue did not lead to the destination. Because according to St. Catherine, virtue draws life from Christ:

[God said,] “By my power the stones of virtue were built into walls on no less a foundation than himself, for all virtue draws life from him, nor is there any virtue that has not been tested in him.”[15]

The ancients had but a distorted view of virtue because its life is found in Christ. Tom Holland shows us just how distorted that ancient view was. In his article “Why I was wrong about Christianity,” he writes:

The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value.[16]

With the advent of Christ, the true nature of the virtues were revealed, and “the stones of virtue were built into walls on no less a foundation than himself.” Holland writes:

“We preach Christ crucified,” St Paul declared, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” He was right. Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.[17]

Christ turned the classical notion of virtue up-side-down. In parable after shocking parable, he confronted the classical virtue of pride and showed us humility:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14, RSV2CE)

Who was justified? The sinner. If we look to Aristotle as the compass for “virtue education,” this parable must give us pause. Do we want our student to go “down to his house justified”? Then let us think about what kind of bridge Christ built.

At the 2006 Charlotte Mason Institute conference, Lisa Cadora told a story about her son:

I remember even one time, … when he was probably first, second grade, going past his Vacation Bible School room, and kind of stopping at the door to listen in, and the lesson was about Cain and Abel, and the teacher was saying, “Now who wants to be like Cain? And who wants to be like Abel?” And, “Everybody who wants to be like Cain, come over on this side. Everybody who wants to be like Abel…” …

I peeked in to see what would happen, and my son ran on the side of the room for being like Cain… It was a very shameful thing to go on the Cain side.

Was the boy being disrespectful? Virtue would say that he should be like Abel. But against this aspiration rests the truth of Adam in our hearts. We know that we are Cain. Like the tax collector, we stand in line behind Cain, acknowledge what we are, and beat our breast. That is the bridge that Christ made for us to reach our final destination.

I’ve gone to churches my whole life. I’ve attended mainline, Bible-based, evangelical, and charismatic churches, and now I attend an Anglican church. Across all of my experiences, I’ve never once been to a church where the stated goal was the cultivation of virtue. Imagine what such a church would be like. Imagine a tag line like, “Canton Community Church, where we cultivate virtue.” Imagine every sermon tying back in some way to virtue. Imagine board meetings where the elders discuss, “How can we instill more virtue in our young people and adults?” What kinds of things would be celebrated at a church like that? Who would be esteemed, and what would be frowned upon?

Of course every church I’ve ever attended cared about virtue. But it was never the chief end. The chief end has always been to know Christ and to make him known. I worship, I adore, and I serve the Lord Jesus Christ. If there is anything in me that resembles virtue, it came from Him. But virtue or no, I will seek Christ, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10, RSV2CE).

Why would my homeschool be any different from my church? Mason urges us to “put Education in her true place as the handmaid of Religion.”[18] So the handmaid should be like her mistress. If knowing Christ is the aim of my church, then let it be the aim of my homeschool as well. Let me know the Cain in me, and let my children know the same. So St. Catherine heard from the Father: “You cannot arrive at virtue except through knowing yourself and knowing me.”[19]

Near the end of Cadora’s 2006 lecture, she contemplated the end result of contemporary Sunday school curricula focused primarily on how to live like a Christian:

I wonder how much work we’re creating for ourselves in persisting in this kind of approach to Sunday school. We’re training them to be little legalists, and we have such a hard time later convincing people to live by grace. Grace is such a hard concept!

How do we learn to live by grace? Indeed it is a hard concept.

Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe there is an important place for a school where virtue is the goal. I think of the school that says it is devoted to “rigorous pursuit of the intellect facilitated and given purpose by the refinement of moral character.”[20] It certainly sounds noble. But I don’t think I would survive very long there. I would fail out of a House of Virtue. Thank God there is still room for me in the House of Mercy.


[1] Thomas Aquinas. (n.d.). Summa theologica. (Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Trans.). London: Burns Oates & Washbourne.

[2] Webber, R. (1994). The ministries of Christian worship (1st ed., Vol. 7, p. 29). Nashville, TN: Star Song Pub. Group.

[3] Hall, F. J. (1905). Theological Outlines: The Doctrine of God (Vol. 1, pp. 99–100). Milwaukee, WI: The Young Churchman Co.

[4] Parents’ Review, vol. 5, pp. 925-926

[5] Hicks, David. Norms & Nobility, p. 19

[6] Hicks, p. 20

[7] Hicks, p. 21

[8] Hicks, p. 21

[9] Beeson, Jonathan. “What is Classical Catholic Education?” (accessed 2/14/18)

[10] Hicks, p. 23

[11] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

[12] Formation of Character, Preface

[13] Clark, Kevin; Jain, Ravi (2013-06-24). The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education. Kindle Locations 2534-2537.

[14] Catherine of Siena. The Dialogue. (S. Noffke, Trans.) p. 66

[15] Catherine of Siena, p. 66

[16] Holland, Tom, “Why I was wrong about Christianity,” accessed 12/2/16.

[17]Why I was wrong about Christianity

[18] Volume 6, p. 46

[19] Catherine of Siena, p. 88

[20] Nova Classical Academy, accessed 7/4/18.

6 Replies to “Where Virtue is the Goal”

  1. Hello Art,
    Thank you for another excellent post. I must admit that when I first learned about the belief that Mason’s work fit into the “classical tradition,” I, reading Miss Mason through a biblical lense, simply thought that the idea was wrong (the primacy of The Gospel being clearly evident throughout), but I didn’t fully realize the importance of the argument. As I have done much more research on my own, I have come to believe that the idea is not only wrong, but harmful. However one may dress up or filter the ideas of the ancients, they are indeed from “poisoned springs.” Like the author you quoted, Tom Holland, the values of the ancients are not values I recognize or desire to emulate. I find it impossible to separate classical “virtues” from the context they come from. I fail to see what need the Church has for the wisdom of the Greeks or what need I may have as a parent and teacher of young children.

    The pursuit of biblical virtue seems to me like the pursuit of humility. Mason puts it beautifully,

    “Fret not thyself, but set thine heart on Me, –
    And thou goest garbed in My Humility.”

  2. Thank you, Art! I purchased a book that ties Charlotte Mason to the classical tradition because I assumed, since I have not read The Original Homeschooling Series, I had missed something in following so many amazing C.M. educators. I was trying to convince myself they could fit together because we have been praying about allowing our sons (8th and 10th) to attend the private classical school where they play sports. I would apply for a position at said school. We are homeschoolers, gradually implementing more CM methods over the years. After searching at length for a resource to tie the two approaches together, I found a book, and before it even arrived in the mail, I was introduced to your blog (coincidence?) via Sage Parnassus. I want to thank you for your posts. The Lord is using your words in a powerful way in our home as my husband and I discuss the future of our sons’ education. We are so thankful for the time you are putting into writing such clear, well-researched posts. May God bless you and your family!

    1. Thank you for reading my article and for sharing your story. As I have shown in my article on Maria Montessori (https://charlottemasonpoetry.org/maria-montessori-and-the-classical-tradition/), it is not difficult to “prove” that any Christian thinker is “classical.” But such is not really proof, because of course correlation does not prove causality. Calling Montessori “classical” does nothing to help us understand her very distinct ideas and approach, and actually it does the opposite: it obscures her method. The same is true of Charlotte Mason. Both women, who were contemporaries, sought to derive principles of education from the science of their day (physiology), their own extensive observations of children, and the unerring guiding light of the Holy Scriptures. I am glad that you are thinking carefully about Mason’s writings and respecting her distinct ideas and approach; she found “a code of education in the Gospels,” not in the Greeks. May God bless you too!

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