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What is a virtue?

Published: August 15, 2020   

The ancients gave a great deal of thought to virtue. They recognized that the goodness of mankind lies not in having a good body, but in having a good soul. What, however, makes a soul good? Their consistent answer was: virtue.

What then is a virtue? St. Augustine clarified that a virtue is a habit to do good. A vice is a habit to do evil. For this reason and by nature of what it is, a virtue is something that can never be misused. This was in fact another way that St. Augustine defined a virtue: a habit that cannot be misused. You can never have too much of what the Church’s tradition calls the cardinal virtues: prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice.

To understand how this is the case, consider fortitude. Fortitude is a virtue of the will by which we choose what is good in the face of difficulty. Fortitude is a strength of the will to do good in the face of opposition. It is true that someone’s zeal to do good might be misguided and we might be tempted to think that this would be an obvious example where the “virtue” of fortitude might be misused or excessive. The problem with this suggestion is that an excess of zeal or a misguided zeal is not the virtue of fortitude, but is rather a vice that simulates the virtue of fortitude. That vice is called foolhardiness.

This is where the wisdom of the ancients and ultimately the wisdom of the Church is extremely important. We can learn from the centuries of reflection of minds who are greater than ours and whose holiness exceeds our own and use that wisdom to apply to our lives and to grow in virtue. That growth in virtue begins with understanding what virtue is and what it is not so that we do not make the mistake of being foolhardy and thinking that we are exercising fortitude.

This distinction between fortitude and foolhardiness shows that the exercise of virtue always involves reflection. Foolhardiness entails carelessness regarding the goods involved in a decision and what goods should be risked to attain other goods. Fortitude can involve sacrifice and even great sacrifice. For example, it takes fortitude to give your life for the sake of another person or for a noble cause to defend some great good. The work of police officers requires this virtue in great measure. However, these sacrifices always follow on correct reflection on the nature of goods and which good are worth sacrificing other goods for. What good cause is worth giving up sleep and comfort and tranquility and reputation? What goods are worth sacrificing even our own lives?

This need for reflection and distinctions show us why the Church Fathers and later doctors of the Church regarded the virtue of prudence as a governing virtue. It is what St. Ambrose called “the charioteer of the virtues” (as noted in the USCCB document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizens”). The other three cardinal virtues apply to acts of the will, but prudence concerns acts of the intellect. Prudence is a virtue by which we judge correctly what good needs to be done. We must be sure that what we are doing is good in order for our actions to be good and this involves prudence. Also, we must be sure that we are doing the good in the right way. This also involves prudence. There is an insightful quote from Aristotle that reflects the value to prudence in governing the passion of anger. Anger can be justified and is needed in the face of injustice. However, anger can also be wrongheaded or excessive. As Aristotle wrote, “Anyone can become angry…That is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not easy. Nicomachean Ethics bk. 2, 1108b”

If I am going to act with justice, I must first have the prudence to recognize what justice is and what it is not. If I mischaracterize justice, I will inevitably act in a manner inconsistent with justice and think that I am doing good. If I am going to act with temperance, I must first have the prudence to understand the mean between too much and too little. This requires prudence. If I am going to exercise fortitude, I must first have the prudence to distinguish this virtue from the vice of being foolhardy.

This also helps us to distinguish a virtue from a value. I can value things that are good. I can value my family, my country, and my Church. I can value my work and my hobbies. However, I can value things too much. I can value lesser goods more than higher goods. I can value things more than I value God. I can even value things that are inherently evil. All of this is sinful and reflects that values are not inherently good whereas virtues are inherently good. I can value the wrong things. But a virtue can never be wrong.

The reason that there is a focus on “values clarification” in a modern setting rather than a focus on virtue development is because most moderns no longer recognize the universal goodness of virtue. They believe that only values exist. I value heterosexual unions. You value homosexual unions. I value the gift of a child through child bearing and rearing. You value the gift of your independence through contraception or abortion. No right or wrong. Just different values. This is what Pope Benedict called “the tyranny of relativism”. If we are to overcome it, we must develop virtue including the intellectual virtue of prudence which is “the charioteer of the virtues.”

Michael Copas writes from North Little Rock.

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