On Virtue

I was reading in the Wycliffe New Testament today, and I came across a rather unexpected bit of word use.
Is seems that in Wycliffe's time, virtue meant far more than an idealized form of ethical orientation; in these passages virtue seems to have a very active dimension.
According to the online etymology dictionary, the same word is translated as "power" in the King James authorized version--which came two hundred years later (~1610.)

Now, it would be easy at this point to say that "in our individualistic and intellectually dualistic understanding of ethics and morality, virtue has lost the sense of embodiment it once carried." I don't want to say that, because I think there's more to it than that. The English society which produced the KJV was certainly more "modern" than the 14th century evangelicalism that Wycliffe preached, but there have got to be further dimensions to this whole thing.
I haven't come up with anything better, though.
What was it that Socrates said? The most important thing to know is that you don't know anything?


Anonymous said...

The meaning of "virtue" as power is still used somewhat archaically in a statement such as "the virtues of this particular drug..." The term comes from Alchemy which attributed mystical properties to vatious substances, as well as physical ones. In contemporary general use, few prople are aware of the "power" connotation, although when one comments on the "virtue" of a certain plan of action, one usually means more than simply its goodness.
The word has pejorated (declined in meaning) but I don't think I am ready to create a cause and effect between modern and medieval ethics!
Prof. E

Anonymous said...

Oops. The typos above are a good argument for the virtues of proofreading comments!!
Prof. E.