The English word ‘virtue’ comes from the Latin word for ‘man’, vir. ‘By “virtus” the Romans meant any characteristic that is appropriate and becoming to a man (vir).’[i] Vir is ‘man’, not in the generic sense of a human being (that in Latin is homo), but man as male and as distinguished from woman. Given this root, ‘virtue’ tends in its original and Roman sense to suggest manliness, the qualities that distinguish men from women. Courage, bravery, magnanimity, martial valor, and boldness are ‘virtues’ in this sense that we might call the Roman or Latin definition. Virtue in the Latin sense is the prized and traditional qualities of the manliness of men.
‘Virtue’ has a somewhat different and more technical sense in the philosophical and ethical tradition that stretches from Aristotle through Saint Thomas Aquinas and many of the medieval Scholastic theologians down into later philosophy and theology. ‘Virtue’ in this sense certainly embraces the manly virtues of the root sense of the word, but has a technical sense that is both more generic and also more developed. ‘Virtue’ in this tradition may be defined in general as a habit that enables a person easily to do something well. This generic definition can be applied to many different kinds of virtues, such as practical virtue, artistic virtue, intellectual virtue, moral virtue, and Christian virtue.
This second basic approach to virtue is dominant in Christian philosophers and theologians. In writers after the pre-Christian Romans the Latin sense of ‘virtue’ is rare, but is notably present in Machiavelli, who waged a not very subtle war against the influence of Christianity on societies and men. For Machiavelli ‘virtue’ is efficiency, vigor, boldness, and that which leads to fame and glory. That said, this essay on virtue will now concentrate on the Christian tradition and its definition.
To illustrate the general definition of virtue as a habit enabling the easy performance of something good, consider the practical virtue of a carpenter. A carpenter’s practical or mechanical virtue brings the ability to do easily and well something related to the carpenter’s distinctive craft, such as hammering a nail. A person who has hammered many nails into various kinds of objects, such as wooden boards or plaster walls, learns to do so easily so that the nails go in straight and end up flush with the nailed surface and without unduly damaging the surface. The carpenter’s previous experience and manual dexterity produce a practical virtue, an habitual and acquired ability to nail nails easily and well.
Likewise a student of piano through some combination of aptitude and practice develops the ability to play a musical piece easily and with facility. Such a person has a ‘virtue’, using the term in the broad sense, in the art of playing the piano. So too a person who does hundreds of arithmetic problems of subtraction and addition will tend to develop an intellectual virtue, which makes it easier to solve such problems accurately.
The ‘habit’ that leads to the possession of a virtue, whether mechanical or artistic or moral or intellectual, usually is the result of practice or repetition. Such virtues are said to be acquired. A child’s first attempt to nail in a nail probably will produce a bent nail or a bruised finger. A person’s first attempt to play a tune usually produces fumbling and wrong notes and hesitations. But practice tends to make perfect, or at least more perfect, through the formation of an acquired virtue in the broad sense of the word.[ii]
In some cases, of course, a person may have a seemingly innate ability or aptitude. For example, Mendelssohn and Mozart at amazingly young ages were able to play and compose complex musical pieces. Some people seem naturally endowed with mechanical facility, musical talent, and the capacity to do mathematical problems quickly and in the head. In such cases we still might say that the person has a ‘habit’ of virtue in whatever area is in question, but the habit is the result of a quality that has to be explained at least in part in terms of natural disposition, innate talent, or the like, rather than mainly in terms of prior practice and carefully developed and acquired skills. Or to put this another way, virtues are harder or easier for different people to acquire for reasons that do not only include practice or repetition.
These points concern a very broad and general definition of virtue which covers many different kinds of acquired abilities in many different fields of activity. Usually, however, when people now speak of ‘virtue’ they do not mean this very general sense of the word. ‘Virtue’ commonly now does not refer in general to a habit that enables one to do something easily and well, but to a moral habit. Since moral virtues are a specific kind within the general category of virtues, the common use of ‘virtue’ to mean ‘moral virtue’ is a narrowing of definition. What follows will assume this narrower definition and will concern moral virtues in particular, unless otherwise explicitly noted.
A moral virtue is a quality of a person’s soul or of his interior make-up that enables him to perform morally good acts well with relative ease. A moral virtue enables its possessor to do the right thing with relative ease when faced with moral decisions. The faculties of the soul, such as will, intellect, reason, and conscience, are involved in moral acts, and the moral virtues often involve a complex of these various faculties.
Moral virtues flow from ‘habits of virtue’: habitual moral actions that, one might say, develop channels or tendencies of good behavior. Aristotle calls these tendencies ‘states of character’.[iii] The virtue is acquired by habits that may begin even before conscious moral decisions are made or even possible. For example, if little children are regularly taught to share their toys, with the teaching regularly enforced and reinforced by rewards for sharing and punishments for failures to share, then over time those children will find that sharing become habitual or even automatic. The habit of sharing can develop even before the child is capable of serious moral deliberation. Habituation and practice will make sharing easy or, at least, easier. The habit or practice of actually sharing produces a person with a generous character, inclined towards the virtues of giving and sharing. In the case of most of the moral virtues, the virtue itself is not innate, even if there are innate inclinations towards it, but rather has to be built up and developed through practice and habitual behavior. Such practice and habit, however, often are pre-moral and inculcated by teaching before the person is morally conscious and responsible. Habits of virtue lead to the virtue itself. Eventually the habit of telling the truth leads to truthfulness, habits of behaving well even in dangerous situations lead to courage, habits of kind and generous behavior lead to magnanimity and kindness. Likewise bad habits, such as lying, over time make the bad behavior habitual, so that the person in question tends to become not just a person who happens to tell lies but also, and more and worse, who tends to become a liar, a person with the character of a liar, whose soul is disfigured into a deceptive nature, inclined towards untruthfulness. Habits tend to become ‘second nature’.
In the classical tradition concerning virtue there are four cardinal or chief moral virtues, to which most moral virtues relate or from which most other virtues flow. These four cardinal virtues are fortitude, justice, moderation, and prudence.
Fortitude or courage is the virtue that enables a person to do what is right and appropriate despite difficulties or opposition. Aristotle, who tends to see the virtues as means between two opposing extremes,[iv] sees fortitude as lying between the extreme of foolhardiness, on the one hand, and cowardice or pusillanimity, on the other. (We will see that another virtue, namely prudence, enables the moral agent to judge where the appropriate mean between extremes lies in particular circumstances.) Fortitude is a cardinal and chief virtue because without a strong degree of this virtue a person, even if he correctly judges what is right and would prefer to do it, will not in fact do it in the face of difficulty, adversity, or opposition.
Before considering the other cardinal virtues, it might be particularly useful to illustrate an additional important point by considering fortitude. This additional point flows from Saint Thomas Aquinas’s assertion that charity is the form of all virtue[v]. That is, charity, the supernatural or Christian virtue of love, is that which makes all true virtues, including the natural virtues known to the pagans such as fortitude, most truly virtuous and good. Charity directs and orients all of our actions towards God as our supreme goal and as the ultimate purpose of all our actions. This orientation of particular actions towards God through love infuses all particular actions with a virtuous character. Consider an act of bravery. If the bravery is that of a burglar breaking into a house despite the danger of arrest or is that of a murderer killing his enemy despite possible violent resistance, then the bravery in question is not ‘formally’ virtuous, because it is directed towards wrong, not right. The material and apparent bravery of the bold criminal plows through obstacles that in truth stand in the way of evil, not good. Fortitude enables its possessor to do good despite difficulties, not to do evil or to do anything whatsoever despite difficulties. It makes no sense to speak of ‘virtue’ when the virtue is directed towards evil rather than toward the good and, ultimately, toward God. This consideration does not mean that there is no virtue outside of an explicitly Christian agent, because the love of God, however obscure, often is present elsewhere: all that is good comes from the Holy Spirit. We do not need to assert that all pagan virtues are really merely splendid vices. But all of the virtues will tend to flourish where the love of God flourishes, and when cut from the root of love of God all virtues will tend to wither or to turn into evil.
The virtue of fortitude helps us do right despite difficulties, which is to say it helps us do right despite a negative thing, namely foreseen and feared problems and obstacles. But right action also can be hindered by positive things, by a positive desire or taste or passion for such bodily goods as food, drink, sexual pleasure, and ease and for such higher goods as admiration, position, and power. Temperance or moderation is the virtue that enables us to do good by controlling unreasonable or inordinate desire. Moderation does not seek to prevent the natural and appropriate desire for, say, nutrition. Rather moderation puts such appropriate goods in their place and prevents us from pursuing such goods in excess (for example, by sloth or gluttony) or to the detriment of other goods (for example, by having my lunch rather than helping a dying neighbor).
Justice is the virtue that enables one to give to each person his due. Justice is the habit of giving to equal people equal rewards, to unequal people unequal rewards, and to all that which is owed to them. Justice has a social dimension and assumes that the agent is dealing with someone else who has some right. For example, justice assumes that an employer has an employee who has performed some hours of work for which a particular remuneration is due. The just employer gives to employees the remuneration for which they have contracted or which is due for the work performed. In general the just employer will give to employees who are the same equal pay for equal work.
Justice does not, of course, constitute the sole and greatest social good. Works of free and unearned generosity, such as charitable giving, are not mandated by the virtue of justice and often are not earned or deserved by the recipient, yet are highly commendable. Justice seems to establish a kind of floor or initial starting point for a good society. If people think that evil is not punished or that good is not rewarded, that there is no due proportion between work and reward, then the incentives for good deeds are lessened. The habit of acting in accordance with fairness, equity, and deserving is a bedrock requirement for good societies. While justice may not be the last word, as Christians and others seek to reach beyond justice to show free and loving forgiveness and generosity, it is nonetheless a natural starting point. If justice is regularly flouted and its proportions ignored, then natural incentives for good people and the natural judgements of deserving on which tolerable social life depends will tend to dissolve.
The final, and in many ways the greatest, of the natural virtues is prudence. Prudence is the habit of fitting means to ends in moral matters, and when it is habitually present the agent easily chooses his actions in particular circumstances so that they will achieve the good goals that he desires. From this definition it should be apparent that prudence is not merely a moral virtue, but also involves an element of wisdom or even cleverness. Prudence is in the broad sense an intellectual as well as a moral virtue. A very stupid person will not understand how to achieve the good end that he desires in a particular case. Prudence ‘in the wide sense…of the right choice of means and methods, is an intellectual virtue, and may be the quality of good and bad men alike.’[vi] A clever and effective criminal is in this sense prudent: he is well able to achieve his ends by workable means. While a clever bad person may have the intellectual virtue of prudence, he lacks the moral virtue of prudence because the ‘good’ which a moral virtue enables its possessor to perform well and easily is a moral good, which a bad person flouts. Insofar as prudence is a moral virtue, then, it assumes the presence of the other virtues, such as justice, to regulate and guide the prudent person. Prudence does not choose the end or goal: that is the work of justice and charity. Rather prudence, assuming a good goal, enables the agent to achieve that goal wisely and effectively.
This very brief summary of the cardinal virtues should suffice to show that each is in its way essential for the achievement of a good and morally admirable life. Without fortitude a person, even if inclined to do the right thing, will fail in the face of setbacks and obstacles. Fear will prevent a man without fortitude from acting well in fact. Likewise without temperance a man’s impulses toward the good will tend to be swamped by inordinate desires and his priorities will become disordered. Without justice the virtues will remain internal to the individual and he will fail to act well in relation to other people. And, finally, without prudence the moral agent, even if able to overcome inordinate fears and desires and even if he has a clear and just sense of what is the proper goal, will fail to achieve that goal due to an inability to match appropriate means to the chosen ends. Because of its heavy admixture of an intellectual element, an absence of prudence is often in moral terms the least culpable of failures in regard to the cardinal virtues. Nonetheless, practically speaking, an imprudent agent will be simply ineffective.
This traditional virtue theory has several great advantages. First, it helps to integrate pre-moral and even pre-human behavior and motives with moral and humane considerations. It does indeed recognize the strong influence of pre-moral considerations, such as physical desires for such goods as food, comfort, or sexual pleasure. But it also recognizes that human beings are not merely physical objects acted upon from without. Habitual action changes the actor within. People are not marbles which, if pushed in one direction go there and then stop. Rather people and their character are changed, developed, or stunted by their activity and by the influences that motivate that activity and by habitual choices. Giving a woman a meal does indeed feed the woman, with certain nutritional and physical effects. But giving a woman a meal and the circumstances in which the meal is given also change her inwardly, altering her expectations and motivations and future activity. Such a gift also alters the giver of the meal by, for example, helping to develop a habit of generosity and caring. In this regard virtue theory is deeply realistic and humane. It does not treat people as mechanical objects, but as complex moral agents or potential agents. Virtue theory treats human beings as persons who can indeed be acted upon but not without affecting and changing them and their own future activity. Virtue theory leads us to consider not only discrete moral actions and their apparent material consequences, but also their effects on character.
Christian teaching understands that God and grace add to virtue in general and to the cardinal virtues in particular. The theological or Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity add to the cardinal virtues an orientation of human being beyond nature. A divine and supernatural end or goal for human being does not destroy the human or the natural but fulfils it by reorienting it beyond itself. There is a natural orientation beyond nature. There is a ‘supernatural existential’ in human nature, so that the truly human and humane are always longing for that which is more than human, finite, and passing. In the words of Saint Thomas, gratia non tollit naturam sed perficit (‘grace does not destroy nature but perfects it’). This added factor already is implied in the assertion that charity is the form of all true virtue: love for our final end in God makes truly good all other human desire and human will and human action. But the theological virtues and their interactions with and differences from the natural virtues are subjects for another essay.
[i] Leslie J. Walker, S.J. In introduction to The Discources of Niccolò Machiavelli. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950. Volume 1, page 101.
[ii] In addition to acquired virtue it is possible that there are innate virtues or capacities or ‘habits’ in a technical sense of the word which do not require practice to gain. See next paragraph in the text. Likewise theologians speak of infused virtues which result from divine grace, of which the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love or charity are examples. Infused virtues can be reinforced or lost through human activity, but are in the first instance the result of a divine gift or infusion rather than human practice and acquisition.
[iii] Nicomachean Ethics, p. 1106a.
[iv] ‘Virtue…is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect…in both passions and actions.’ Nicomachean Ethics, p. 1107a.
[v] ‘Charity is the form, mover, mother, and root of all the virtues.’ Thomas Aquinas. ‘Disputations’, de Caritate, 3.
[vi] R.C. Mortimer. The Elements of Moral Theology. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1947. Page 224.