The Greeks called it arete, the Romans virtus—we say “virtue” in English, but the simple word “excellence” might suffice: simply put, we love and seek to foster the fundamental habits and dispositions of human excellence, as understood in and defined by the perennial, classically-rooted tradition of Western moral philosophy (see especially Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for a fundamental, though not absolutely definitive, account of the virtues).

We love the moral virtues—we seek to cultivate the habits of justice, moderation, courage, piety, and prudence. We seek, above all, the virtue of magnanimity, greatness of soul, the virtue of the human person who possesses the virtues and yet exercises them without arrogance. We love and cultivate the intellectual virtues—the perfection of the powers of the human mind, including knowledge, understanding, art or skill, and wisdom. Knowing that the human person is not merely disembodied mind or soul, but fundamentally embodied, we also love the cultivation of physical strength and skill.

(Thinking about human excellence in terms of virtue is fundamental to Great Hearts—and it is a fundamentally different way of thinking about human excellence from two other traditions that predominate in contemporary Western culture, namely, 1) the managerialist or instrumentalist way of thinking about human excellence only in terms of “objective performance” or “delivering results,” which is to reduce all the virtues to mere technical skill; and 2) the emotivist-psychological way of thinking about human excellence only in terms of emotional adjustment or well-being, “authenticity,” personal fulfillment, and related (subjective) categories.)

Adapted from “Great Hearts: The Six Loves” by Andrew Ellison, Director of the St. Ambrose Center at the University of Dallas and former Executive Director of San Antonio Academies for Great Hearts Texas.

For more on the virtues and how they inform curriculum, instruction, and conversations around student discipline in the Lower School, visit

The Six Loves