In most areas of your life that you seek to improve, there’s an external metric you can look at in order to see if you’re getting better.
Your pants get looser as you lose weight.
Your kettlebells get heavier as you get stronger.
Your net worth increases as you get wealthier.
But how do you know if you’re becoming a better and more virtuous man? There isn’t really a hard metric that you can point to that shows that you’re becoming more virtuous. And without some sort of metric, it can be difficult to know whether or not you’re progressing.
Honing your character and making honorable decisions isn’t about outcomes: you do the right thing because it’s the right thing; you do Good because it is Good. But it is important to know if you’re actually improving or not. It’s important to know if the habits and practices you’ve implemented are really working, and whether you’re just fooling and flattering yourself as to how you’re showing up in the world and showing up for others.
So too, without being able to see your progress, it can be hard to stay motivated to live virtuously. You can end up wondering, “Is all my effort actually getting me anywhere?”
The Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch observed this conundrum 2,000 years ago. Most people know Plutarch for his Lives of Famous Greeks and Romans. But besides writing these epic, moral-education-imparting biographies, Plutarch also penned several short essays about different facets of living an upright life. Among these, there’s one that I keep coming back to: “How a Man May Become Aware of His Progress in Virtue.”
Plutarch begins the essay by noting that part of the reason it’s hard to gauge moral progress is that character improvement happens so gradually; there’s rarely a night and day transition from bad to good or good to better. Moral progress is a lot like the seasons: one day it’s winter and the landscape is nothing but bare branches; then, seemingly overnight, though the process has in fact been in motion for quite awhile, you notice that green foliage has sprouted on all the trees.
While recognizing progress in virtue can be difficult, Plutarch argues that it’s not impossible, and he proposes a set of signs that people can survey to gauge their moral improvement.
Below, using selections of Plutarch’s words, I delineate what I think are the most important signs the philosopher recommends looking for. If your interest is piqued, I highly recommend reading the essay in its entirety.
1. Your motivation and desire to become virtuous has increased.
“It is another very good argument to prove that by labor and exercise you have shaken off all stupidity and sluggishness, if for the future your resolutions be more firm and your application more intense than they were when you first set out.”
2. You notice, and grieve, when you’re less virtuous.
“In love, it is a sign the passion is predominant, if the lover be not only pleased in the enjoyment of the beloved object (for that is ordinary), but also troubled and grieved at the absence of it.”
3. You’ve gotten a handle on your jealousy and envy.
“you may collect this great truth, that whenever you . . . perceive that you have utterly expelled all emulation, jealousy, and every thing else that . . .