• Amy MacKinnon

How Do Good Stories Teach Virtue?

If you’re going to teach anyone about virtue, or what virtue is, teach them the definitions of the virtues and what they are, as well as the vices that are opposed to each of them.


You can certainly talk about how they can put the virtues into practice, and how to avoid the vices, but will they?


If you want your students to internalize the virtues so that they become part of who they are, have them read good stories.


Vigen Guroian, an Orthodox theologian, found that the students in his ethics classes didn't put them into practice, even if they did very well on their exams. It wasn't until he had them reading classic fairy tales that he saw a change in their behavior. They didn't simply know what virtuous behavior was (from their class), they also began to live out the virtues in their daily lives.

Good stories help us to internalize the virtues, whether we recognize it or not, because of the way that stories affect us. Bad stories can play a role in that as well if we read a lot of stories from different genres, at different levels, and for different ages, because we also learn through contrasting what things are with what they are not.


How Do Good Stories Teach Virtue?
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So which stories are good stories?


If you start with fairy tales and classic stories, you’re usually on solid ground. It’s not that new stories can’t be good—because of course they can, and many of them are!—but the classic stories have stood the test of time.


That means that several generations have read them and found goodness in them, despite differences in language, culture, and time.


Since they're from different cultures, they also challenge us to understand how others think and why they behave in different ways than we do.


It's because of this that they also challenge us to stretch our minds in a way that allows us to understand what it really means to be human.


Examples of Virtue


Humility


The virtue of humility is at the heart of all of Jane Austen’s stories, even though it’s not specifically mentioned and she doesn’t call it by name or even directly point that out to the audience. Instead, she shows that virtue through actions of the characters.


The characters who embrace virtue do well in the end, while those who don’t are outside of society. Her stories aren’t fairy tales, but they do have the “happily ever after” for those who embrace that virtue, while those who reject it end up outside of the circle of happiness of the community in the story. It’s similar to the endings of fairy tales but fairy tales are much more obvious about the joys and sufferings of the characters in the end.


The virtues aren’t necessarily mentioned specifically, but if you pay close attention, you can see them in the behavior of the characters.


Some characters are virtuous from the beginning, like Cinderella, and others become virtuous through trial and suffering, like Bella in Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens, and Mr. Darcy and Lizzie in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.


How Does That Teach Virtue?


Many of the modern versions of Cinderella and other classic tales make the mistake of trying to make the story relevant by changing the foundations of the story to match what people of the day already think.


But good stories should challenge us to discover what is truly good, instead of presuming that if I like something, then it’s automatically good simply because I like it.


One of the reasons that the classic versions of Cinderella are so harshly criticized by modern commentators is because we’ve lost the sense of what virtue is and how important it is, particularly the virtues of humility and meekness, which are both part of the virtue of temperance.


Humility is the virtue that tells the truth, so it mitigates between the extremes for all virtues. It’s sometimes distorted in the way it's used today because it’s confused with humiliation and an unhealthy sense of shame, but neither of those are true humility. It can be very hard to embrace this virtue when it means that we realized that our thoughts or actions are definitely not good and that we need to change them. If we're deeply attached to the ideas or behaviors that need to change but know that they're wrong, that's when we might feel a sense of humiliation (especially if others know about this). The emotional response of humiliation is not the same thing as the virtue of humility.


Virtues are not emotions. They are choices that we make when we try to become better people by pursuing and embracing truth and goodness.

Meekness is the virtue that tempers anger; it is definitely not weakness. Tempering our thoughts and actions when we're angry takes a lot of internal strength!


A good story doesn’t give a lecture or an explicit set of directions to follow—that’s part of the role of teaching. Stories can be used to teach, or can be the subject of a class where the students learn how to read and understand stories, but that’s different from having an author give a lecture or homily under the guise of telling a story.


Vigen Guroian’s wonderful book, Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination, shows how stories—especially the classic versions of fairy tales—help readers of any age to internalize the virtues.


When you read, listen to, or watch a story, you get caught up in that story and align yourself with the main character. That doesn’t mean that the main character is your favorite character though. It does mean that whatever that character experiences in the story—for good or for ill—is what you experience along with that character.


That is how you grow in virtue—at least potentially.


If the story is a truly good story, then the author will have the main character have one of two outcomes in the end:

  • Succeed

  • Fail

The main character is never neutral in the end of the tale.


The protagonist (main character) succeeds in a story with a happy ending because that character has overcome difficulties and obstacles and chooses what is good in the end.


The protagonist fails in a tragedy because of a failure to choose what is true or good by the end of the story. That’s what a cautionary tale is. Part of the value of cautionary tales is that you as a reader you don’t have to suffer the same consequences in the end that the character does.


In both types of stories, you feel as though you’ve gone through the same journey as the protagonist because you’ve identified with him or her. You’ve internalized the character's actions and their consequences without having to experience them in real life. This is what allows stories to have such a powerful effect on us.


It’s also why we need to reflect on the story afterwards.


Even though simply watching or reading a story can have an effect on us, it’s when we reflect on what happened, and how and the reasons why that we can deepen the impact the story has on us. That amplifies the story’s ability to help us grow in virtue.


For example, take the character of Cinderella in the story by Charles Perrault (Mother Goose) and compare her to Gerda in Hans Christian Anderson's story, The Snow Queen.


Both stories have a female protagonist who succeeds in the end because both characters continually persevere in virtue despite the obstacles thrown in their path. They’re both fairy tales, so the character development is going to be very simplistic—it’s always very clear who the good and evil characters are in fairy tales.


Both characters also have a female character who continually chooses evil: Cinderella has a wicked step-mother, and Gerda has to save her friend Kay from the Snow Queen. Having characters of opposite extremes helps you to see the good and evil more clearly in the characters and their actions.


That type of reflection requires two things:

  1. Reading lots of stories

  2. Understanding how to compare and contrast


Reading lots of stories, especially a wide variety of stories from different genres, authors, and times, broadens our understanding of how to become virtuous and what it means to become fully human.



Image of Temperance by Raphael: by Nicola Quirico - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64389194



Image of Humility by Tadeusz Gorecki - https://art-in-eastern-europe.blogspot.com/2017/07/tadeusz-gorecki-humility.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70094706










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