Preface to the English Edition

The Twelve Virtues of a Good Teacher (Les Douze Vertus d’un bon Maitre), by Brother Agathon, the fifth Superior General (1777–95) of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, is, in my view, after the monumental text we know as The Conduct of the Christian Schools, the most significant work in education in the Lasallian heritage. Some one hundred years after the first schools, it affords a kind of benchmark by which to judge the fidelity of the Institute to the founding vision. This significance is primarily because of the inherent value of the text itself but also because of its wide diffusion outside the Institute. Translated from the original French into Italian in 1797 and into English, Spanish, Dutch, and German during the nineteenth century, the work was a major text in many Catholic colleges of teacher education until the 1930s.

Addressed to the Brothers

The Twelve Virtues of a Good Teacher was addressed to the Brothers in 1785 as the first printed circular letter at a time when, novices included, there were close to 1,000 members in the Institute. It was, according to Brother Agathon’s original preface, a complement to an earlier letter in which he had reflected on the religious duties of the Brothers. The writer takes the twelve virtues that Saint John Baptist de La Salle listed in both the manuscript of The Conduct of the Christian Schools (1706) and Collection of Short Treatises (1711) but without any further development. The fact that Brother Agathon was working in the 1780s on an updated version of The Conduct (the manuscript of which we possess) to meet the diversified needs of the Institute one hundred years after the first school in Reims may have been the spur that led to his launching this new work.

In the same preface, Brother Agathon insists on following "the plan given us by M. de La Salle" and "in accordance with his principles and maxims." After discussing the possibility of a different sequence for the twelve virtues, Brother Agathon explains, "We felt that we should follow the order that M. de La Salle himself considered proper to indicate to us." He does, however, add to the text a postscript, "a short explanation of the conditions that M. de La Salle requires for correction to be of benefit both to the one who inflicts it and to the one who receives it."

If the text is redolent in so many ways of "the principles and maxims" of De La Salle, it is enriched by what Brother Agathon has drawn from his own experience and "from the most reliable authors." In fact, the principal "other" source is Traite¨ des E┘tudes, by Rollin (†1743), from whom, a century or so later, the Institute was to adapt the Prayer of the Teacher Before School.

Brother Agathon himself

Brother Agathon—"le grand Supe¨rieur," as the historian Georges Rigault called him—tried vainly to save the Institute from extermination in the suppression of all religious communities in 1792 during the French Revolution. Incarcerated in three different prisons, he was released and died alone in 1798. In the meantime, his text had reached the Brothers’ community in Rome, where an Italian translation was made in 1797. A subsequent edition—that of Marietti in 1835—became a favorite book of Saint John Bosco during his time as chaplain of the Brothers’ school of Santa Barbara in Turin. The Irish Christian Brothers produced the first English translation, in Dublin in the 1840s. The text was translated and introduced into Spain some twenty-five years before the Institute opened its first communities there. The incorporation of this work as a kind of appendix to editions of The Conduct of the Christian Schools may have contributed to its never attaining the same independent importance in France as it did in other countries, although it should be noted that it was included in at least seventeen separate editions during the nineteenth century.

Readers of the text, besides noting the vigorous direct style of the author, soon realize that they are reading the work of a man with broad experience of the classroom who has reflected at length on the heritage received from De La Salle and the first generation of Brothers.

Indeed, Brother Agathon as a teacher is known to us as the author of a treatise on arithmetic and one on double-entry accounting. He had taught mathematics and navigation in the program of specialized courses that the Brothers offered to French naval officers at Vannes and Brest. His reputation for good judgment and his ability at synthesis had brought him as secretary to the General Chapter of 1777, where, to his great surprise, he found himself proposed as Superior General.

A traditional Christian understanding of virtue

Virtue has been defined as "conformity of life and conduct with the principles of morality." Virtues, therefore, are the practices and habits that are followed out in accord with these principles. Four natural, or cardinal, virtues—prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance—are seen as the "hinges" on which other virtues can be cultivated. This concept of virtue was discussed by Socrates, found in Plato and Aristotle, adopted by Roman writers, and taken over by such distinguished Christian writers as Saints Ambrose, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. Christian authors add the so-called theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, giving preference to the greatest of the three-charity, or love.

While Greek thinkers see the virtues as somehow innate to the nature of humanity, Christian writers attribute them to God’s revelation through Jesus Christ. Virtue is always the just balance between excess and defect: virtus in medio stat. Virtue can be acquired by the cultivation of regular actions that build up to a habit (habitus). While modern psychology may have certain reservations about too mechanistic an approach to the cultivation of virtue, certain kinds of learning experiences—for example, acquiring another language—are based on such an approach.

Some editorial notes

I have been able to make use of two different translations of this text, one done by the late Brother Oswald Murdoch (District of Australia) and the other by Brother Richard Arnandez (District of New Orleans-Santa Fe), but I have allowed myself some latitude in modifying certain expressions, and sometimes entire sections, so that they may be better understood by contemporary readers.

The basic French structure of the text has been maintained, especially in the use of the semicolon to indicate the subordination of ideas. While this is not the same way as the semicolon is used in English, the logic and force of the original text are better preserved than by breaking up the text into short sentences ending with periods.

Secondly, although the French makes regular use of the word enfants for children and e¨le°ves for pupils to describe the young people in the classrooms that Brother Agathon and the Brothers knew in the late years of the eighteenth century, I have settled for the word students so as to make the most appropriate connection with the young people in Lasallian schools today. By the 1780s, the Brothers had eight boarding and correctional schools on the Saint Yon model. Their students were no longer simply children who remained only for two years to learn the elements of reading, religion, writing, and arithmetic; they were adolescents, young men who may have had six or seven years of prior schooling.

Thirdly, since this is a translation of an original work that Brother Agathon wrote for the Brothers of his day, who taught boys only, there has been no attempt to change his own way of speaking about boys and young men or of addressing only teachers who were male. I think all Lasallian teachers, nevertheless, will make the necessary adjustments as they come to appreciate the wisdom and practical importance of this great Lasallian text.

Brother Gerard Rummery
12 February 1998