Psychological and spiritual maturity, cultivating humanity

Building a good and happy personal life 

By Iván López Casanova

There is a certain idea gaining currency that, in one’s personal life and especially in the education of children, the achievement of virtue - the ‘good operating habits’ described by classical philosophy - is essential. 

We each have to construct our own identity and values, our personality; that construction, however, can result in a dilapidated house or in a solid and welcoming home, depending, to a great extent, on the materials used: it is my contention that “the virtues” form the solid foundations of a sound personality.

In the past, creativity was explained as a kind of gift possessed by a few fortunate people. However, it is now understood that to be creative, one needs to acquire certain habits. This clearly has importance for the training of children in encouraging them through family education to make continual effort towards virtue. José Antonio Marina explains this with an attractive example: "[the elite tennis player] Nadal plays such a creative game because he has generated a series of muscular habits that allow him to respond very quickly to problems on the court". Well, those inner habits are another word for the virtues.

Aristotle laid the foundations for this idea twenty-five centuries ago in his Nicomachean Ethics. The morally turbulent times of the last several decades have caused us to understand more and more the importance of acquiring a fully-rounded and self-aware personality, that is the result of the exercise of certain moral practices and the overcoming of struggles. Seen in this light, individual virtues constitute the character of a person and are his/her greatest personal treasure.

Professor Marina explains its growing role in education, specifically, and in the development of a full and rewarding life, generally: "In the Anglo-Saxon world, virtues are in vogue. Known now as “strengths” (which underlines their energy), the virtues have formed an area of special study by Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and founder of the relatively new domain of Positive Psychology. Seligman and his colleagues have undertaken a comprehensive study of universal virtues. His work, entitled Character Strengths and Virtues, identifies six salient virtues necessary for personal flourishing: wisdom, courage, humanity, moderation, justice and the search for meaning or transcendence.

In a 1960 essay (later expanded to book length) entitled The Little Virtues, Natalia Ginzburg states, "As far as the education of children is concerned, I believe that they should not be taught the little virtues, but the big ones. Not thrift, but generosity and indifference to money; not cunning, but frankness and love of truth; not diplomacy, but love of neighbour and self-sacrifice; not the desire to succeed, but the desire to be and to know".

Children must be helped to resist their tendency to seek comfort over effort. Essential to this is the necessity for parents to exercise their rightful authority in making certain formational demands of their children, remembering that children also have a right to such parenting. Nothing less than a continual education in virtue is required of parents in forming their children, primarily because it is the surest sign of parental love and affection. While it is understandably more comfortable not to correct, parents who aspire to raise children possessed of personal excellence will not shirk their responsibility in this regard.

Virtue in one's own life and in the education of children centres on key attributes: sincerity, generosity, resilience, the ability to sacrifice for others, cheerfulness, helpfulness, responsibility, gratitude, honesty, kindness, proper detachment, delicacy, tolerance and concern for the poverty of and injustice to others. These qualities are the educational treasures that parents bequeath to their children, which far outweigh any material ones.

Adding to the list, one could also mention a forgotten virtue: elegance. This, suggests Enrique Rojas, can be thought of as the "intelligent and considerate tone that characterizes human behaviour, bodily and otherwise: in one’s way of walking, in one’s posture, speech, dress, eating and even sneezing!"

Interior training is thus clearly more important than any external training because it involves the struggle to acquire virtue. This is the gym one needs to attend daily in order to build a strong personality. The other kind of gym, although it may seem important, is still optional. Professor Marina reminds us, "Nobody likes to train, but that's life; and to pretend to make everything sweet is to lie to the children". There is much wisdom in that counsel.