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True Virtue vs. False Virtue

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Virtue, by definition, is moral excellence, goodness, and righteousness. Virtue pertains to the conformity of moral and ethical conduct in one’s life. Every person expresses virtue constantly in their day to day lives. Although the meaning of virtue seems simple enough, Socrates, in his first argument in the Phaedo, breaks it down into two different categories: false virtue and true virtue. The distinctions between these two different types of virtue can be identified purely by looking at the motives and practices of the person carrying out the virtuous action.

The first part of Socrates’ argument suggests that philosophers practice separating soul from body. Those who practice separating soul from body aren’t greedy for material things and therefore they aren’t dependent on them. Material things can be described as not only concrete objects, but also as praise or judgment from others. Socrates suggests that those who are involved in the separation of their physical bodies from their spiritual souls base their actions purely on non-cowardice motives. He proposes that the separation of soul from body is the basis for all authentic virtue. The material world fades away a little bit in the separation process, and eventually goodness will be the only desire and motive for every action. To take this thought even further, Socrates presents the idea that separation of soul from body, which is true virtue and goodly living, is death. He quotes, “those occupied correctly in philosophy really do practice dying, and death is less frightening for them than for anyone else… what each of them desire is to have his soul alone by itself, [so] wouldn’t it be most unreasonable if they were afraid and upset about getting what they desired?” Philosophers who practice death also practice true virtue because they are not afraid of consequence; instead they stay virtuous only for goodness’ sake.

An example of true virtue can be seen in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. This is a story that Jesus told in the New Testament about a man who was injured and dying on the side of the road. Several people had walked by this man without helping him for whatever their various reasons. Eventually, a Samaritan man, who is thought to be the least likely person to help, came along and cared for the fallen man, took him to an inn, and paid for him to be taken care of.

Because the Samaritan did not have any terrible consequences whether he helped the man out or not, we can trace his motives back to pure good. The Samaritan had no other reasons behind his authentic virtuous act of kindness besides that of following his search for greater good. Finally, because this virtuous act can be contributed to goodly living, we can understand that the Good Samaritan was practicing death.

Goodly living and the disconnection from worldly things is true virtue, but what is false virtue? This can simply be described as doing the right things for the wrong reasons. You can be courageous, temperate, and faithful out of cowardice, but that is not authentic virtue.

Those who exercise false virtue have their hearts set on worldly, material things, whether it is concrete rewards or praises, or even the lack thereof, from others. They make judgment calls based on cowardice and fear.

In Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan, it is assumed that the injured man on the side of the road is a Jew. It is also understood that Jews and Samaritans do not get along and therefore refrain from interacting with one another. Although the Samaritan man was kind and helped out the presumably Jewish man on the road, that does not represent the actions of the rest of the Samaritans. As the parable goes, several people travel past the fallen man without helping him out. These people are all shown to exercise false virtue for one of two reasons. The first reason would be because they, too, are Samaritans but they are too prideful and afraid of judgment from others to help out the man. The second reason would be that those travelers are Jews, alike to the fallen man, and are too unwilling to help the man out for fear of touching “unclean” things and then reaping the consequences thereof. Either way, they would be practicing false virtue because they were acting out of cowardice and fear. Because they were acting for those reasons, they were not practicing death and were not separating their souls from their bodies.

The state of virtue can be determined by the motives behind the person’s actions. Virtue, meaning righteousness and morality, can be true or false. Those who are not true philosophers, who do not separate their souls from their bodies, are exercisers of false virtue. They do the things they do because they are timid and weak in their confidence. True virtue is acted upon by people who know death and therefore are not afraid of consequences or criticism. True philosophers practice authentic virtue.



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