Notes on Moral Virtue

Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist.

1 Virtue in general

1.1 Etymologies

Like so many words in English, “virtue” is derived from the Latin. This Latin derivation has the disadvantage of obscuring the original experience from which the concept signified is abstracted. Moreover, the cultural history of 19th century Britain has given “virtue” a sort of missish ring, whereas it and similar words in other languages originally had martial connotations. Unfortunately, there is no good Anglo-Saxon equivalent still in use. The closest would be “dought” or, in the more common adjective form, “doughty,” derived from Old English dohtig, which now has an almost comically archaic ring to it: “Yet many doughty warriours often tride / In greater perils to be stout and bold.”[1] Doughty now means “brave,” and that was probably its oldest meaning as well, but in the 11th century it was used in an extended sense to mean “competent” and “good” as well. Thus Bosworth-Toller cites the following line from a charter of Earl Godwin from sometime around the year 1016: Ðyssa þinga is gecnǽwe ǽlc dohtig man on Kænt and on Súþ-Sexan. (“Of these things is cognizant every good [doughty] man in Kent and Sussex”).[2] Dohtig is related to dyhtig (strong) and dugan (to be fit, able, strong). It is thus etymologically equivalent to the Modern German word for virtue Tugend from taugen (power, ability, efficiency).

In any case, the Latin virtus, from which the Modern English “virtue” is derived, has a similar history to dohtig. Virtus is derived from vir, man, and originally meant manliness, bravery, or valour. It was thus the equivalent to the Greek ἀνδρεία (andreia)(courage). It was, however, used as a translation of the Greek ἀρετή (arete), which is probably related to the name of Ares, the God of war. Arete too originally meant bravery, valour, etc. Arete is the word used for virtue in Greek philosophy and in the Septuagint and the New Testament. It is therefore worth examining more closely.

1.2 The General Meaning of Arete From Homer to Aristotle

In Homer arete means in the first place the qualities that make a good warrior, namely, those qualities that allow a warrior to be effective in battle. But it is also extended to mean the qualities that allow men, women, and children to do well the actions their respective station in life requires, whatever that station might be: “In the Homeric poems a virtue is a quality the manifestation of which enables someone to do exactly what their well-defined social role requires.”[3] This is then extended beyond human beings to animals and even inanimate objects: “the arete of a horse consists in its swiftness of foot, the arete of soil in its fertility, the arete of a woman in her being a good housewife, the arete of a slave in his or her loyalty to a master.”[4]

It is basically the Homeric idea of virtue that Meno gives in his first attempt at defining virtue in The Meno:

First of all, if you take the virtue of a man, it is easily stated that a man’s virtue is this—that he be competent to manage the affairs of his city, and to manage them so as to benefit his friends and harm his enemies, and to take care to avoid suffering harm himself. Or take a woman’s virtue: there is no difficulty in describing it as the duty of ordering the house well, looking after the property indoors, and obeying her husband. And the child has another virtue—one for the female, and one for the male; and there is another for elderly men—one, if you like, for freemen, and yet another for slaves. And there are very many other virtues besides, so that one cannot be at a loss to explain what virtue is; for it is according to each activity and age that every one of us, in whatever we do, has his virtue; and the same, I take it, Socrates, will hold also of vice.[5]

Meno merely lists the various kinds of virtue, without making the implicit account explicit. Aristotle, in the Ethics, will, however follow this line of reasoning to come to a general definition:

We must explain, therefore, that virtue perfects everything of which it, is the virtue, rendering both the possessor good and his work (ἔργον αὐτοῦ) good. Thus the virtue or power of the eye makes good both the eye and its operation, for it is by the power of the eye that we see well. Likewise the virtue or excellence of a horse makes the horse good and also makes him good for running, riding, and awaiting the enemy. If this be true in all other things, then human virtue will be a habit making man good and rendering his work good.[6]

The key term here “his work,” ergon autou. This is what is often translated as a thing’s “own act” or “proper act.” As Duane Berquist puts it, “A thing’s own act is the act which that thing alone can do or, at least, do better than other things.”[7] From this he derives Aristotle’s entirely general definition of virtue: “Virtue is the disposition of a thing which makes it good and its own act good.”[8]

2. Human Virtue

If virtue is what enables a thing to do its own act or work well, then human virtue is what enables a human being to do the proper act of a human being well. But what is the proper act of a human being? Aristotle raises this question in determining the end of human life in Ethics I:

For just as the fluteplayer and the sculptor and every artist and generally everyone for whom there is something to do (ἔργον) and some act (πρᾶξις), the good and well-being seems to be in doing this, so also it would seem for man if there is something he does (ἔργον). Are there then some doings and acts of the carpenter and the shoemaker, but of man there is none, and he is by nature without anything to do? Or just as there seems to be something done by the eye and the hand and the foot and generally by each of the parts, should one also lay down something that man does besides all these? What then will this be? To live seems to be common even to the plants, but what is man’s own is sought. The nourishing and growing life therefore should be set aside. Following this, there would be something sensing. But this also seems to be common to the horse and the ox and every animal. There remains the doing of what has reason. But of this, the one as obeying or persuaded by reason and the other as having reason and thinking.[9]

What is proper to human beings, what distinguishes them from other bodily, living things is reason. The absolutely final end of human beings is an act of reason that completely transcends human nature: Beatific Vision. In the natural order, the highest act is the contemplation of God through His effects in philosophical wisdom. Wisdom is the highest intellectual virtue— the others are understanding (knowing the first principles of reasoning), science (knowing the conclusions of reasoning), and (in a qualified way) art and prudence.

But, Aristotle points out that there are parts of the human souls beside reason itself that have acts proper to human nature: namely the parts that obey or are persuaded by reason. These are the parts of the soul that have to do with desire in all its forms. “For the vegetative element in no way shares in reason, but the appetitive and in general the desiring element in a sense shares in it, in so far as it listens to and obeys it.” (1102b) Taken together, we might call these desiring parts “the heart.” The virtues of these parts of the soul are called “moral virtues.” Because, as Aristotle points out, when we speak of someone’s morals (ἤθους), we mention temperance and good-temper rather than wisdom (1103a). There seems to be a puzzle here. The highest activity of a human being is found in the acts of the intellect, and yet when we say that persons are “good,” without qualification, we mean that they have the virtues of the heart, rather than those of the intellect.

St. Thomas explains the reason for this. Virtue is what makes both a thing and its proper act good without qualification. Now, what moves a person toward an end as good is the heart (any one of the desiring faculties). Thus, in order to do one’s own act well, and thus be oneself good, one’s heart must be rightly directed toward the good. If I do not desire the good, I will not do the actions which lead to it or in which it consists, and therefore I will not myself be good. Thus St. Thomas writes:

When we speak simply of virtue, we are understood to be speaking of human virtue. But as was explained above (q. 56, a. 3), a human virtue, in the most perfect sense of virtue, is a virtue that requires rectitude of appetite [i.e. the heart], since a virtue not only bestows a facility for acting well but is also a cause of the very use of a good work (usum boni operis causat). Still, in a less perfect sense of virtue, a virtue does not require rectitude of appetite, since it only bestows a facility for acting well but is not a cause of the use of a good work.[10]

Moral virtue causes the right use of the intellectual virtues. It will be desire for the good that moves me to use the intellectual virtues to actually contemplate some truth. And therefore, the virtues which rectify the desires are necessary for the proper use of intellectual virtues. As Henri Grenier puts it:

The intellectual virtues give man the power of performing good acts, but do not give him the right use of this power, i.e., do not make him use this power in a right manner. Hence they render good the operation of a particular faculty, but do not make man good in an absolute sense; v.g., as a result of intellectual Virtue, a person can be a good philosopher, but yet not a man who is good in every respect, for he can knowingly, and without sinning against intellectual virtue, be the author of sophistries. The moral virtues not only give man the power of performing good act[s], but make him use this power rightly, for the moral virtues perfect the appetite, whose function consists in moving the other powers to act. Hence the moral virtues make man good in an absolute sense.[11]

The moral virtues not only immediately enable persons to do the acts of the faculties of the heart well, they are also necessary to use the other faculties— even the higher faculties of the intellect— well. A person who has the virtue of science can use that virtue to lead his students astray, and the habit of science does not prevent this. Indeed, it is because he has science that he will be good at inventing sophistries. But if such a person also has the virtue of justice, this will mean not only that he will do acts of the will well, but also that he will do the acts of reason perfected by science well— leading his students to the truth.

Human virtues in the strict sense are therefore the moral virtues, which perfect the heart, the desiring and appetitive parts of the soul. But, as we shall see, the greatest of the moral virtues is prudence, which in terms of its subject is an intellectual virtue.

3 The Powers and Passions of the Soul

3.1 The Powers of the Soul

Human beings are rational animals. They are distinguished from the other animals by having the spiritual power of reason. They are distinguished from the angels by having senses, dependent on material organs. Human knowledge begins with sensation. The world is sensed through the five external senses, and the sense-impressions are received into the interior senses (the common sense, memory, imagination…). And then these sense experiences are illuminated by the intellect, and the intellect abstracts universal truths from them.

The intellect can be considered in two ways: as theoretical, and as practical. The theoretical (or “speculative,” i.e. “looking”) intellect simply looks at and contemplates the truth. The practical intellect looks at the truth of reality insofar as it contains attainable goods and orders this knowledge to action.

The knowledge of the good causes a desire for the good, or a striving after the good. This takes place already at the level of the sensible soul. The sensible good (the pleasant) is “known” by the external and internal senses, and this causes the sensible appetites to desire that good or the overcoming of what threatens the good. There are two desiring powers at the sensible level: the concupiscible appetite, and the irascible appetite. The first and more fundamental is the concupiscible appetite, or concupiscence. This is what is usually meant when we say the “desiring part of the soul.” It answers to epithymia (ἐπιθυμία) in Plato’s tripartite division of the soul. This power strives after the pleasurable and flees the painful. The second is the irascible appetite. This appetite depends on concupiscence, and it is concerned with overcoming difficulties and repelling threats to the goods desired by concupiscence. It answers to thymos (θυμός) in the Platonic division.

Desire for the good as good, and not merely as pleasant, belongs to the practical intellect, which can understand the good and the end. Intellectual knowledge of the good leads to a spiritual desire of the good in the “rational appetite” known as the will. The two levels, the sensible and the rational, mutually influence one another. Sensible appetite has an influence on our knowledge of the good, and therefore our will. But on the other hand, sensible appetite can also be directed by reason and will.

3.2 The Passions

Passions are movements of the sensitive desiring faculties, resulting from the sense-knowledge of good or evil, accompanied by bodily changes. The fundamental passion is sensual love which arises in the concupiscible appetite. Love is a conformity of the concupiscence to some desirable object. From love arise desire (when the loved object is not yet possessed) and joy (when it is possessed). From love also arises the opposite sensible passion, hatred, which is the lack of conformity that the appetite has with some sensible evil. To love something implies hating its opposite (to love pleasure is to hate pain). From hatred arise flight (when the evil has not yet come to pass) and sorrow (when it has come to pass).

In the irascible appetite, the passions of hope and despair arise with respect to goods apprehended as difficult to attain, whether possible (hope) or impossible (despair). With respect to evils, the irascible appetite brings forth fear (aversion from an evil considered unconquerable), daring (turning toward an evil considered conquerable), and anger (the inclination to inflict evil for evil). The following diagram gives a rough sketch of the passions. (A deeper consideration would show that more distinctions are necessary.)

4. The Cardinal Virtues

Thus, there are four powers of the soul that are immediately concerned with the good to be attained through human action: practical intellect, will, concupiscence, and the irascible appetite. There are therefore four principle virtues, dispositions of the soul that allow human beings to do the actions arising from these four powers well:

  1. A virtue of the practical intellect that allows persons to know their good easily and direct their actions to the good: prudence, or practical wisdom.
  2. A virtue of the will that enables persons to easily will not only the goods closest and most known to them, but also the good of other persons and the more universal and common goods to which they are ordered: justice.
  3. A virtue of the irascible appetite that renders it, and the passions arising from it, subject to reason: courage.
  4. A virtue that perfects the concupiscible appetite and renders it, and the passions arising from it, subject to reason: temperance.

These four virtues are called cardinal virtues, from the Latin cardo, meaning hinge, because all the other virtues hinge on them.

5. The Mean

The goods and evils with which sensible appetites are concerned are destroyed by excess and defect. For example, it is good to eat food because this is necessary to conserve our substance, but it is bad to eat too much or too little food. It is good to face dangers in pursuing the good, and it is bad to face danger too little (cowardice) or too much (foolhardiness). Thus it is evident that the virtues of temperance and courage are concerned with a mean relative to the subject. The mean is not in this case mediocrity, but perfection, just as in Greek music, the tonic note was called the “mean note” because the scale moved both toward and away from it.

Justice is also concerned with a mean because it is concerned with giving to each his due. But this is an objective, rather than a subjective mean. It is the mean between giving someone more than he is objectively due (e.g., punishing a criminal more than he deserves) or less than he is objectively due (e.g., giving a store keeper less than the price of his wares).

In each case, the mean is determined by prudence: prudence rules the other moral virtues by laying down what the mean is for them. By analogy ad unum, therefore, we can say that prudence is also concerned with the mean.

6. Habit

The powers of the soul are not limited to one fixed activity but are capable of acting in various ways. It is therefore necessary that they be determined to good activity by stable dispositions or habits. Such dispositions are acquired by repeatedly acting in the right way, until it becomes easy. This ease of action allows the pleasure of good activity. Aristotle compares the acquisition of moral habits to the acquisition of skill in making things (art):

Again, it is from the same causes and by the same means that every virtue is both produced and destroyed, and similarly every art; for it is from playing the lyre that both good and bad lyre-players are produced. And the corresponding statement is true of builders and of all the rest; men will be good or bad builders as a result of building well or badly. For if this were not so, there would have been no need of a teacher, but all men would have been born good or bad at their craft. This, then, is the case with the virtues also; by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly. The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving in one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances. Thus, in one word, states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.[12]

In the case of the virtues of the sensitive part of the soul, habituation rectifies the appetites by training them to delight in the mean determined by reason. Since our knowledge begins with the senses, our desires begin with the senses as well, and the desires most obvious to us are the desires for sensual pleasure. It therefore requires training for the appetites to participate in reason. The habits resulting from such training are temperance, courage, and the other virtues that flow from them.

In the case of the will, training is necessary that the will can choose not only the closest and most immediate good (the proper good of the one willing), but also to love a more transcendent good (the good of the other). This is justice: willing the due good of the other.

In the case of the practical intellect, habituation is necessary simply because of the variety of circumstances in human affairs, and the quasi-infinite number of the means that can lead towards the end. The result of such habituation is prudence.

If virtue in general is the disposition of a thing which makes it good and its own act good, then we can now see that moral virtues are habits that make the powers of the human soul concerned with practical action good, and the actions proceeding from those powers good.

These notes have only considered natural or “acquired” virtue. There is a higher kind of virtue that is not acquired by training, but is “poured” directly into the soul by God. Such “infused” virtues are in reality a participation in a higher life, the Divine Life. Through the infused virtues, human beings have a foreshadowing and beginning of supernatural happiness.

[1] Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Book IV, Canto 10, Stanza 18.

[2] T. Northcote Toller (ed.), An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: Based on the Manuscript Collections of the Late Joseph Bosworth, vol. 1 (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1882), s.v. “dohtig;” cf. Benjamin Thorpe (ed.), Diplomatarium Anglicum Ævi Saxonici (London: MacMillan & Co., 1865) p. 313.

[3] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), pp. 183-184.

[4] Margalit Finkelberg (ed.), The Homer Encyclopedia (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), s.v. “aretê.”

[5] Meno, 71e-72a.

[6] Nocomachean Ethics, VI,2 1106a; trans. C.I. Litzinger, O.P.

[7] Duane Berquist, “Note on End or Purpose of Man,” p. 1.

[8] Duane Berquist, “Note on End or Purpose of Man,” p. 3.

[9]  Ethics I,7 1097b-1098a; trans. Duane Berquist.

[10] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia-IIae Q 61, A1, c. In the translation I follow Alfred Frodosso, except that I have translated usum as “use” rather than “execution.” This sounds clumsy in English, but is essential to the meaning.

[11] Henri Grenier, Thomistic Philosophy, vol. 4, Moral Philosophy, trans. J.P.E. O’Hanley (Charlottetown: St. Dunstan’s University, 1950), § 929.

[12] Nicomachean Ethics, 1103b.