Is discipline a virtue?


I am uncertain if it is accurate to classify discipline as a virtue along more widely recognized virtues, such as courage, truth, justice, or reverence. However, I am certain that discipline is a necessary character trait when one is pursuing courage, truth, justice, or reverence in their lives.

Both modern and ancient writers and leaders have spoken and encouraged their followers to use discipline as a means of achieving their goals. An Olympic athlete, whether competing in Ancient Greece or preparing for the next modern competition in Brazil, must consistently train, control their diet, and mentally prepare for the stress and vigorous of the upcoming competition. This concept is consistent with the dictionary definition of discipline: “to train by instruction and practice, as in following rules or developing self-control”.

Using this definition discipline comprises two primary activities: instruction and practice. First, one must be instructed in the correct techniques in their desired field. Second, one must practice these correct or desired techniques on a consistent basis. Further, this definition implies standards in the activity: rules to follow.

For example, each Olympic sport has a set of rules by which the athletes must compete. Most of these rules deal with the event itself (such as what equipment is allowed in the competition); others deal with how an athlete can train prior to the event (such as rules concerning performance enhancing drugs or blood doping). Even with immense natural talent, each athlete must use discipline in order to successfully compete in their sport.

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.  – Hebrews 12:11

Likewise, discipline must be utilized in the pursuit of virtue. A soldier may possess high level of courage, but still must demonstrate discipline to train for his military role and in the exercise of military power. A scientist must use discipline in his experiments in the pursuit of scientific truth if his conclusions are to be valid. A judge must carefully measure and evaluate all the testimony and evidence to rule on a legal case in order for justice to be best served.

Reverence is slightly different. As Paul Woodruff defines, “reverence is the well-developed capacity to have the feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have.” With the understanding that reverence primarily deals with feelings, discipline can help foster reverence. A child learns reverence and respect from his parents. The parent disciplines the child to help build the child’s skills and character towards maturity. Woodruff’s definition of reverence is primarily in the “feelings” realm not so much an “ideal” as justice or courage. Thus, the discipline of emotions – applying them at the appropriate time and measure is key.

This brings us to the last phrase of the dictionary definition of discipline: “self-control”. Emotions work best just that way – through self-control. Emotions and feelings are not wrong, in fact, I believe that are a unique gift from God the Creator to mankind. However, without discipline and self-control, emotions and feelings can be quite destructive. This is where reverence comes in. It is an important character trait at the individual level, and collectively in society. If an individual or community has a mature sense of reverence, then it has the ability to have feelings at the appropriate time and place.

What do you think about the relationship between discipline and reverence? Do they both hold a place as virtues? Should society hold them dearly to foster a better future?


About John Forrest