Virtue: A Catholic View
According to its etymology the word virtue (Latin virtus) signifies manliness or courage. “Appelata est enim a viro virtus: viri autem propria maxime est fortitudo” (“The term virtue is from the word that signifies man; a man’s chief quality is fortitude”; Cicero, “Tuscul.”, I, xi, 18). Taken in its widest sense virtue means the excellence of perfection of a thing, just as vice, its contrary, denotes a defect or absence of perfection due to a thing. In its strictest meaning, however, as used by moral philosophers and theologians, it signifies a habit superadded to a faculty of the soul, disposing it to elicit with readiness acts conformable to our rational nature. “Virtue”, says Augustine, “is a good habit consonant with our nature.” From Saint Thomas’s entire Question on the essence of virtue may be gathered his brief but complete definition of virtue: “habitus operativus bonus”, an operative habit essentially good, as distinguished from vice, an operative habit essentially evil. Now a habit is a quality in itself difficult of change, disposing well or ill the subject in which it resides, either directly in itself or in relation to its operation. An operative habit is a quality residing in a power or faculty in itself indifferent to this or that line of action, but determined by the habit to this rather than to that kind of acts. (See HABIT.) Virtue then has this in common with vice, that it disposes a potency to a certain determined activity; but it differs specifically from it in that it disposes it to good acts, i.e. acts in consonance with right reason. Thus, temperance inclines the sensuous appetite to acts of moderation conformably to right reason just as intemperance impels the same appetite to acts of excess contrary to the dictates of our rational nature.
Subjects of virtue
Before determining the subjects or potencies in which the different virtues reside, it will be necessary to distinguish two kinds of virtues: those which are virtues absolutely (simpliciter) and those which are virtues only in a restricted sense (secundum quid). The later confer only a faculty for well-doing, and render the possessor good only in a restricted sense, e.g. a good logician. The former, in addition to the facility for well-doing, cause one to use the facility rightly, and render the possessor unqualifiedly good. Now the intellect may be the subject of those habits which are called virtues in a restricted sense, such as science and art. But the will only, or any other faculty only in so far as it is moved by the will, can be the subject of habits, which are called virtues in the absolute sense. For it is the proper function of the will to move to their respective acts all the other powers which are in any way rational. Thus the intellect and sensuous appetite as moved by the will are the subjects of prudence and temperance, while the will itself is the subject of justice, a virtue in the absolute sense.
Divisions of virtue
Virtues may be divided into intellectual, moral, and theological.
Intellectual virtue may be defined as a habit perfecting the intellect to elicit with readiness acts that are good in reference to their proper object, namely, truth. As the intellect is called speculative or practical according as it confines itself to the sole contemplation of truth or considers truth in reference to action, the intellectual virtues may be classified according to this twofold function of the mental faculty. The speculative intellectual virtues are wisdom, science, and understanding. Wisdom is the knowledgeof conclusions through their highest causes. Thus philosophy, and particularly metaphysics, is properly designated as wisdom, since it considers truth of the natural order according to its highest principles. Science is the knowledge of conclusions acquired by demonstration through causes or principles which are final in one class or other. Thus there are different sciences, mathematics, physics, etc., but only one wisdom, the supreme judge of all. Understanding is defined as the habit of first principles; as habit or virtue it is to be distinguished, at least logically, from the faculty of intelligence. It is also called intuition, as it has for its object truths that are self-evident, the perception of which requires no discursive process. It is to be observed that these virtues differ from the gifts of the Holy Ghost, designated by the same name, inasmuch as they are qualities of the natural order, while the gifts are intrinsically supernatural. The practical intellectual virtues are two, namely, art and prudence.
Art, according to the Schoolmen, signifies the right method with regard to external productions (recta ratio factibilium). Just as science perfects and directs the intellect to reason correctly with regard to its proper object in view of the attainment of truth, so also art perfects and directs the intellect in the application of certain rules in view of the production of external works, whether these be of a useful or æsthetic character. Hence the division into useful and fine arts. Art has this in common with the three speculative intellectual habits, that they are all virtues only in a restricted sense. Hence they constitute a man good only in a qualified sense, e.g. a good geometrician or a good sculptor. For the proper function of science as art, as such, is not to confer moral goodness, but to direct the intellect in its scientific or artistic processes.
As art is the right method of production, so prudence, as defined by St. Thomas, is the right method of conduct (recta ratio agibilium). It differs from all the other intellectual virtues in this, that it is a virtue in the absolute sense, not only conferring a readiness for well-doing, but causing one to use that readiness rightly. Considered more specifically, it is that virtue which directs on in the choice of means most apt, under existing circumstances, for the attainment of a due end. It differs from the moral virtues as it resides not in the appetitive powers but in the intellect, its proper act being, not the choice of apt means, but the direction of that choice. But although prudence is essentially an intellectual virtue, nevertheless, under a certain respect (materialiter) it may be considered a moral virtue, since it has as its subject matter the acts of the moral virtues. For if the end be vicious, though a certain astuteness be manifested in the discernment of means, such astuteness is not real prudence, but the semblance of prudence. (See PRUDENCE.)
Moral virtues are those which perfect the appetitive faculties of the soul, namely, the will and the sensuous appetite. Moral virtue is so called from the word mos, which signifies a certain natural or quasi-natural inclination to do a thing. But the inclination to act is properly attributed to the appetitive faculty, whose function it is to move the other powers to action. Consequently that virtue is called moral which perfects the appetitive faculty. For as appetite and reason have distinct activities, it is necessary that not only reason be well disposed by the habit of intellectual virtue, but that the appetitive powers also be well disposed by the habit of moral virtue. From this necessity of the moral virtues we see the falsity of the theory of Socrates, who held that all virtue was knowledge, as he held that all vice was ignorance. Moreover, the moral virtues excel the intellectual, prudence excepted, in this, that they give not only the facility, but also the right use of the facility, for well- doing. Hence moral virtues are virtues absolutely; and when we say without qualification that a man is good, we mean morally good. As the proper function of the moral virtues is to rectify the appetitive powers, i.e. to dispose them to act in accordance with right reason, there are principally three moral virtues: justice, which perfects the rational appetite or will; fortitude and temperance, which moderate the lower or sensuous appetite. Prudence, as we have observed, is called a moral virtue, not indeed essentially, but by reason of its subject matter, inasmuch as it is directive of the acts of the moral virtues.
Justice, an essentially moral virtue, regulates man in relations with his fellow-men. It disposes us to respect the rights of others, to give each man his due. (See JUSTICE.) Among the virtues annexed to justice are:
- religion, which regulates man in his relations to God, disposing him to pay due worship to his Creator;
- piety, which disposes to the fulfillment of duties which one owes to parents and country (patriotism);
- gratitude, which inclines one to recognition of benefits received;
- liberality, which restrains the immoderate affection for wealth from withholding seasonable gifts or expenses;
- affability, by which one is suitably adapted to his fellow-men in social intercourse so as to behave toward each appropriately.
All these moral virtues, as well as justice itself, regulate man in his dealings with others. But besides these there are moral virtues which regulate man with regard to his own inner passions. Now there are passions which impel man to desire that which reason impels him forward; hence there are principally two moral virtues, namely, temperance and fortitude, whose function it is to regulate those lower appetites.
Temperance it is which restrains the undue impulse of concupiscence for sensible pleasure, while fortitude causes man to be brave when he would otherwise shrink, contrary to reason, from dangers or difficulties. Temperance, then, to consider it more particularly, is that moral virtue which moderates in accordance with reason the desires and pleasures of the sensuous appetite attendant on those acts by which human nature is preserved in the individual or propagated in the species. The subordinate species of temperance are:
- abstinence, which disposes to moderation in the use of food;
- sobriety, which inclines to moderation in the use of spirituous liquors;
- chastity, which regulates the appetite in regard to sexual pleasures; to chastity may be reduced modesty, which is concerned with acts subordinate to the act of reproduction.
The virtues annexed to temperance are:
- continence, which according to the Scholastics, restrains the will from consenting to violent movements or concupiscence;
- humility, which restrains inordinate desires of one’s own excellence;
- meekness, which checks inordinate movements of anger;
- modesty or decorum, which consists in duly ordering the external movements of anger; to the direction of reason.
To this virtue may be reduced to what Aristotle designated as eutrapelia, or good cheer, which disposes to moderation in sports, games, and jests, in accordance with the dictates of reason, taking into consideration the circumstance of person, season, and place.
As temperance and its annexed virtues remove from the will hindrances to rational good arising from sensuous pleasure, so fortitude removes from the will those obstacles arising from the difficulties of doing what reason requires. Hence fortitude, which implies a certain moral strength and courage, is the virtue by which one meets and sustains dangers and difficulties, even death itself, and in never through fear of these deterred from the pursuit of good which reason dictates. (See FORTITUDE.) The virtues annexed to fortitude are:
- Patience, which disposes us to bear present evils with equanimity; for as the brave man is one who represses those fears which make him shrink from meeting dangers which reason dictates he should encounter, so also the patient man is one who endures present evils in such a way as not to be inordinately cast down by them.
- Munificence, which disposes one to incur great expenses for the suitable doing of a great work. It differs from mere liberality, as it has reference not to ordinary expenses and donations, but to those that are great. Hence the munificent man is one who gives with royal generosity, who does things not on a cheap but magnificent scale, always, however, in accordance with right reason.
- Magnanimity, which implies a reaching out of the soul to great things, is the virtue which regulates man with regard to honours. The magnanimous man aims at great works in every line of virtue, making it his purpose to do things worthy of great honour. Nor is magnanimity incompatible with true humility. “Magnanimity”, says St. Thomas, “makes a man deem himself worthy of great honours in consideration of the Divine gifts he possesses; whilst humility makes him think little of himself in consideration of his own short-comings”.
- Perseverance, the virtue which disposes to continuance in the accomplishment of good works in spite of the difficulties attendant upon them. As a moral virtue it is not to be taken precisely for what is designated as final perseverance, that special gift of the predestined by which one is found in the state of grace at the moment of death. It is used here to designate that virtue which disposes one to continuance in any virtuous work whatsoever.
(For a more detailed treatment of the four principal moral virtues, see CARDINAL VIRTUES.)
All virtues have as their final scope to dispose man to acts conducive to his true happiness. The happiness, however, of which man is capable is twofold, namely, natural, which is attainable by man’s natural powers, and supernatural, which exceeds the capacity of unaided human nature. Since, therefore, merely natural principles of human action are inadequate to a supernatural end, it is necessary that man be endowed with supernatural powers to enable him to attain his final destiny. Now these supernatural principles are nothing else than the theological virtues. They are called theological
- because they have God for their immediate and proper object;
- because they are Divinely infused;
- because they are known only through Divine Revelation.
The theological virtues are three, viz. faith, hope, and charity.
Faith is an infused virtue, by which the intellect is perfected by a supernatural light, in virtue of which, under a supernatural movement of the will, it assents firmly to the supernatural truths of Revelation, not on the motive of intrinsic evidence, but on the sole ground of the infallible authority of God revealing. For as man is guided in the attainment of natural happiness by principles of knowledge known by the natural light of reason, so also in the attainment of his supernatural destiny his intellect must be illumined by certain supernatural principles, namely, Divinely revealed truths. (See FAITH.)
But not only man’s intellect must be perfected with regard to his supernatural end, his will also must tend to that end, as a good possible of attainment. Now the virtue, by which the will is so perfected, is the theological virtue of hope. It is commonly defined as a Divinely infused virtue, by which we trust, with an unshaken confidence grounded on the Divine assistance, to attain life everlasting.
But the will must not only tend to God, its ultimate end, it must also be united to Him by a certain conformity. This spiritual union or conformity, by which the soul is united to God, the sovereign Good, is effected by charity. Charity, then, is that theological virtue, by which God, our ultimate end, known by supernatural light, is loved by reason of His own intrinsic goodness or amiability, and our neighbour loved on account of God. It differs from faith, as it regards God not under the aspect of truth but of good. It differs from hope inasmuch as it regards God not as our good precisely (nobis bonum), but as good in Himself (in se bonum). But this love of God as good in Himself does not, as the Quietists maintained, exclude the love of God as He is our good (see QUIETISM). With regard to the love of our neighbor, it falls within the theological virtue of charity in so far as its motive is the supernatural love of God, and it is thus distinguished from mere natural affection. Of the three theological virtues, charity is the most excellent. Faith and hope, involving as they do a certain imperfection, namely, obscurity of light and absence of possession, will cease with this life, but charity involving no essential defect will last forever. Moreover, while charity excludes all mortal sin, faith and hope are compatible with grievous sin; but as such they are only imperfect virtues; it is only when informed and vivified by charity that their acts are meritorious of eternal life (see THEOLOGICAL VIRTUE OF LOVE).
Causes of virtue
To the human intellect the first principles of knowledge, both speculative and moral, are connatural; to the human will the tendency to rational good is connatural. Now these naturally knowable principles and these natural tendencies to good constitute the seeds or germs whence the intellectual and moral virtues spring. Moreover by reason of individual natural temperament, resulting from physiological conditions, particular individuals are better disposed than others to particular virtues. Thus certain persons have a natural aptitude with regard to science, others to temperance, and others to fortitude. Hence nature itself may be assigned as the radical cause of the intellectual and moral virtues, or the cause of those virtues viewed in their embryonic state. In their perfect and fully developed state, however, the aforesaid virtues are caused or acquired by frequently repeated acts. Thus by multiplied acts the moral virtues are generated in the appetitive faculties in so far as they are acted upon by reason, and the determination of first principles (see HABIT). The supernatural virtues are immediately caused or infused by God. But a virtue may be called infused in two ways: first, when by its very nature (per se) it can be effectively produced by God alone; secondly, accidentally (per accidens) when it may be acquired by our own acts, but by a Divine dispensation it is infused, as in the case of Adam and Christ. Now besides the theological virtues, according to the doctrine of St. Thomas, there are also moral and intellectual virtues of their very nature Divinely infused, as prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. These infused virtues differ from the acquired virtues
- as to their effective principle, being immediately caused by God, whilst the acquired virtues are caused by acts of a created vital power;
- by reason of their radical principle, for the infused virtues flow from sanctifying grace as their source, whereas the acquired virtues are not essentially connected with grace;
- by reason of the acts they elicit, those of the infused virtues being intrinsically supernatural, those of the acquired not exceeding the capacity of human nature;
- whilst one mortal sin destroys the infused virtues, with the acquired virtues acts of mortal sin are not necessarily incompatible, as contrary acts are not directly opposed to the corresponding contrary habit.
Properties of virtues
Mean of virtues
One of the properties of virtues is that they consist in the golden mean, that is to say, in what lies between excess and deficit. For as the perfection of things subject to rule consists in conformity with that rule, so also evil in those same things results from deviation from that rule either by excess or defect. Hence the perfection of the moral virtues consists in rendering the movements of the appetitive powers conformable to their proper rule, which is reason, neither going beyond nor falling short of it. Thus fortitude, which makes one brave to meet dangers, avoids on the one hand reckless daring and on the other undue timidity. This golden mean, which consists in conformity with right reason, sometimes coincides with the mean of the objective thing (medium rei), as in the case of the virtue of justice, which renders to every man his due, no more and no less. The golden mean, however, is sometimes taken in reference to ourselves, as in the case of the other moral virtues, viz. fortitude and temperance. For these virtues are concerned with the inner passions, in which the standard of right cannot be fixed invariably, as different individuals vary with regard to the passions. Thus what would be moderation in one would be excess in another. Here also it is to be observed that the mean and extremes in actions and passions must be determined according to circumstances, which may vary. Hence with regard to a certain virtue, what may be an extreme according to one circumstance may be a mean according to another. Thus perpetual chastity, which renounces all sexual pleasures, and voluntary poverty, which renounces all temporal possessions, are true virtues, when exercised for the motive of more surely securing life everlasting. With regard to the intellectual virtues, their golden mean is truth or conformity to reality, whilst excess consists in false affirmation, and defect in false negation. Theological virtues do not absolutely (per se) consist in a mean, as their object is something infinite. Thus we can never loveGod excessively. Accidentally (per accidens), however, what is extreme or mean in theological virtues may be considered relatively to ourselves. Thus although we can never love God as much as He deserves, still we can love Him according to our powers.
Connection of virtues
Another property of virtues is their connection with one another. This mutual connection exists between the moral virtues in their perfect state. “The virtues”, says St. Gregory, “if separated, cannot be perfect in the nature of virtue; for that is no true prudence which is not just and temperate and brave”. The reason of this connection is that no moral virtue can be had without prudence; because it is the function of moral virtue, being an elective habit, to make a right choice, which rectitude of choice must be directed by prudence. On the other hand prudence cannot exist without the moral virtues; because prudence, being a right method of conduct, has as principles whence it proceeds the ends of conduct, to which ends one becomes duly affected through the moral virtues. Imperfect moral virtues, however, that is to say, those inclinations to virtue resulting from natural temperament, are not necessarily connected with one another. Thus we see a man from natural temperament prompt to acts of liberality and not prompt to acts of chastity. Nor are the natural or acquired moral virtues necessarily connected with charity, though they may be so occasionally. But the supernaturalmoral virtues are infused simultaneously with charity. For charity is the principle of all good works referable to man’s supernatural destiny. Hence it is necessary that there be infused at the same time with charity all the moral virtues by which one performs the different kinds of good works. Thus the infused moral virtues are not only connected on account of prudence, but also on account of charity. Hence he who loses charity by mortal sin looses all the infused but not the acquired moral virtues.
From the doctrine of nature and properties of virtues it is abundantly clear how important a role they play in man’s true and real perfection. In the economy of Divine Providence all creatures by the exercise of their proper activity must tend to that end destined for them by the wisdom of an infinite intelligence. But as Divine Wisdom governs creatures conformably to their nature, man must tend to his destined end, not by blind instance, but by the exercise of reason and free will. But as these faculties, as well as the faculties subject to them, may be exercised for the faculties subject to them, may be exercised for good or evil, the proper functions of the virtues is to dispose these various psychical activities to acts conductive to man’s true ultimate end, just as the part which vice plays in man’s rational life is to make him swerve from his final destiny. If, then, the excellence of a thing is to be measured by the end for which it is destined, without doubt among man’s highest principles of action which play so important a part in his rational, spiritual, supernatural life, and which in the truest sense of the word are justly called virtues.
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ARISTOTLE, Ethics; PETER LOMBARD, Sent., III, dist.xxv-xxxvi; SAINT THOMAS, Summa Theol. I-II., Q. lv-lxxxi, tr. RICKABY, Aquinas Ethicus; SUAREZ, De virtutibus; JOANNES A. S. THOMA, Cursus theologicus, Comment. in I-II; SALAMANTICENSES, Tractatus XII de virtutibus; BARRE, Tractatus de virtutibus; LEQUEUX, Man. Comp. doct. mor de virtut; BILLOT, De virtut, infusis; PESCH, De virtutibus theologicis et moralibus (Freiburg, 1900); JANVIER, Conf. de Notre Dame: La vertu (Paris, 1906); RICKABY, Moral phil. (London, 1910); CRONIN, Science of Ethics; ULLATHORNE, Groundwork of the Christian Virtues (London, 1888); MING, Data of Modern Ethics Examined.
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APA citation. (1912). Virtue. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved December 13, 2018 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15472a.htm
MLA citation. “Virtue.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 13 Dec. 2018<http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15472a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Barbara J. Barrett.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.