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Virtue – An Inspirational Etymology

December 13, 2014




  1. the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.

“the decline of etymology as a linguistic discipline”

  • the origin of a word and the historical development of its meaning.

plural noun: etymologies

“the etymology of the word ‘devil’”

synonyms: derivation, word history, developmentoriginsource

Virtue – Moral Excellence; behaviour showing high moral standards.

Antonym: Vice


Today, I wish to share with you the great tale of the word virtue. And what a tale it is! Virtue, little do most know, has an etymology that with profound consequences for the world we live in, and the world we should create.

The tale of this single word can completely redefine gender debates. It completely shifts the focus on the process of growing up. It guides us as to what it means to be an adult. It brings out thousands of years of history. It shows us the preoccupations of today’s world.

Yes, one word’s great history tells us all this, and more. Don’t believe me? Then let us begin our tale.

The History of ‘Virtue’

The word ‘virtue’ has a simple history.

Virtue derives from the Latin word Virtus, which in turn derives from Vir. Vir was the Roman word for man, but it was strongly associated with martial courage and the honour associated with that. But, as the Roman empire expanded the word vir began to include other qualities – industry, fortitude, dutifulness. Thus it is from the Latin vir that we get the  modern word ‘virtue’.

That’s a simple history, isn’t it? Now, stop. Think. The Romans defined ‘man’ in terms of virtue. Not biology.

This has far reaching implications.

How we view Men has an impact

Let me expand on the 2000 year old history of ‘manliness’ and ‘virtue’ a little.

Aristotle said for the Magnanimous Man “Virtues of characters result from following the right habits and the virtues of thinking need teaching, experience and time.” That is, boys can only become men through work. Then came a different man – the Renaissance Man. His title also derived from hard work – he was not born with all those talent. Note that we do not speak of Renaissance Boys; for they did not exist. They grew into men. Then came the Victorian Gentleman. He was not a gentleman by birth, but by virtue. His self-control, discipline, modesty, industry… his virtues. And this persisted into the early 20th century. We see articles like Robert Littell’s “What Should the Young Man Know” from Harper Magazine in 1933. His question is simply “What are those abilities, skills, or accomplishments… that every man should have to be well rounded and self sufficient… and how can he acquire them?” His answer, as a father was, ‘It is up to me’ to make him grow up well.

In short, for 2000 years being a man was fundamentally about growing up. Being a man wasn’t about not being a woman. It was about not being a boy. It was about developing skills and virtues. Thats why so many rituals and rites of passage developed for boys turning to men. To validate their status as a man being a product of their skills and virtue.

And that’s why most males want to be seen as men, by their peers. To be a man is associated with honour, respect, capability. Young men will go to great lengths to conform to the norms their culture and society set for earning the honourable title of ‘man’. So when we set norms like virtues for boys to achieve, they will try hard to attain those virtues. They will become virtuous.

I should note that this applies exactly the same to the notions of girl and woman. Being a woman is not the same as being ‘female’ (I’ll discuss this later) . Being a woman is about not being a girl, about having grown up. The defining characteristic of being a man or woman is the acquiring of virtue. So it was for 2000 years. And in those 2000 years you could only be seen as a man or a woman if you were virtuous. So virtue developed, to meet these social norms.

For 2000 years man and woman were not thought of as binary opposites. Rather, man and woman were pitted against boy and girl.

Today, thats different.

Male and Man, Female and Woman

This idea of defining man and woman as terms of virtue rather than biology may sound all like semantics and sheer nonsense. Its not.

Justa few months ago, this issue was at the heart of a legal case before the High Court of Australia. To summarise – a person called Norrie, born a man, changed gender and became female. Norrie, however, did not associate with the female gender either. She wanted a third category of gender to be registered on her birth certificate. The case made its way to the High Court of Australia. And the judges concluded on April 2nd this year that “a person may be other than male or female and therefore may be taken to permit the registration sought, as ‘non-specific’ .Now stop and think for a moment. The High Court of Australia is saying that Norrie’s female biology does not make Norrie female. That is, there is something else besides biology that makes a man or woman be a man or woman.

This is critical.

Think of the term ‘male’. He’s a male. He’s a man. Not the same. That’s because male is a strictly biological term. The Oxford Dictionary gives the definition of male as ‘of the sex that reproduces by fertilising egg cells produced by the female.’

This is, as I just said, critical. For when we define people by biology we gift them a title. When we define people by virtues, we make them work for a title, in turn improving themselves. And that’s the difference between male and man.

It is this process that we, as a society must stress to men and women. Growing up. Becoming better. That you are a man or woman only if you are virtuous.

Unfortunately, some current trends go against this.

University of New South Wales professors Barnaby J. Dixson and Rob C. Brooks recently wrote an article in the Evolution & Human Behaviour journal titled “The role of facial hair in women’s perceptions of men’s attractiveness, health, masculinity and parenting abilities”. The focus of the brightest minds of our time… is on how men are perceived by others…instead of how men conduct themselves – how they show traditional virtues. Oh and another study by Australian researchers looked into whether light or heavy stubble was more attractive to the ladies.

That’s research that could be studying far more important things, but because of our definitions of men based on biology, we’re researching facial hair. Or, as a recent advertisement showed, the road to manliness is apparently paved with hair gel.

And this has an effect today we see articles like ‘The End of Men’ by Hanna Rosin predicting the development of matriarchal society. “Its the end because men are failing in the workplace” Rosin thunders. And that’s because they are not told to cultivate industry and resolution. They are told to cultivate their facial hair instead. As Rosin says “Its the end of men because men are now obsessed with their body hair”. Think of all the waxed movie stars… men aren’t inspired by honour anymore; they’re inspired by appearance.

And if you tell men their identity is about their facial hair and not virtue, then virtue will fall by the wayside. The same is true with ladies and appearance. I’d argue that the ‘objectification of women’ (that should be ‘females’ !) is in part a focus of biology as the defining trait of gender identiy.

Virtue – The Guide to Growing Up

I’ve talked above about focusing on virtue as developing virtue. But there is another key role to a focus on virtue – it gives a clear goal and identity for people to strive for.

When one is defined by their biology, say, for men, their facial hair, deep voice, strength etc. then its no wonder than macho-figures and drinking serve as part of a male ‘gender identity’.

These things, however, are shallow. In our postmodern age, of cynicism, doubt and the rejection of meta-narratives, we’re often asking ourselves “what’s the meaning of it all? Why are we here?” etc. The modernists and existentialists were on a search for meaning. The nihilists rejected meaning. The postmodernists said there was no objective meaning.

All these people were critiquing titanic social norms and trends, for good purposes. Yet over time they eroded people’s set identity. It was up to the individual to find their own identity. And here, when the individual begins their search, they start with their physical self. Thats their identity as a man or woman… and truth be told, its not very fulfilling. There is no struggle, fight, or worth to the identity. No sticking power.

Contrast this to virtue. Hard to attain, except through years of toil. Valued by all because it is scarce. Recognised in ancient rites of passage. Connotative of greatness.

So here we come to the second great advantage of focusing on virtue – it provides an identity for us to strive for.

Isn’t All of this Just Archaic?

Some of you are probably thinking right now that this all this status seeking to be recognised, particularly by males, is stupid. Males shouldn’t care if they are manly. I think this view is misguided, for as Brett McKay argues:

“Many of you might think it’s stupidly archaic that men care about whether they’re manly or not, and they just shouldn’t give a rip. But I’m a pragmatist. Men have always cared about their status as men and probably always will. Even when men say they don’t care about manliness, they usually couch it in a way that shows that they’re actually more manly because they don’t care about being manly! They try to defeat gender normativity with… gender normativity. Hubba-wha?

I’d argue that instead of trying to convince men not to care (which is a losing battle), we’d be better served reviving the classical meaning of these manly descriptors to help inspire men to strive for virtue and excellence. If we want men to be morally courageous and honorable and compassionate, talk about these virtues as being manly courage, manly honor, and manly compassion. You get the idea.”

Does it matter so much that we call it “manly” or “womanly” if the result is the growth of virtue?


The word virtue once meant ‘man’, and was associated with great qualities like industry, courage, resilience, and diligence. The word ‘vir’ passed down the ages for 2000 years to mean that one was only a man if they acquired virtues – this was what boys had to learn. For 2000 years, because of this process, virtue was stressed. Today, we focus on biology, enflaming gender divides and robbing us of virtue and identity. People say that we should forget the notion of ‘manly’ or womanly, but this is naive dreaming. People have always cared about their gender status and probably always will. What is important here is to define that status in terms of virtue, not biology. In doing so, we encourage growth and development in young boys and girls. We develop a virtuous society.

Its time to stop viewing men against women, and start viewing men against boys and women against girls. In terms of virtue.




Many months ago, after an article touching on some ideas here, I posted a copy of a speech I made “What makes a man?” It was a good speech. But a speech is not a blog post, and my speech missed many points. Hence, this article.


From → Foundations

  1. Gary Martin permalink

    great read I really want to collaborate with the person who wrote this

    • Thanks Gary – I’m glad you enjoyed the read! I’d love to collaborate with you. Send me a message to with how you’d like to collaborate, and we’ll go from there.

      As an aside, I may not publish frequently here, but I am now the editor in chief of a journal.

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