Pursue Virtue: What is Virtue and Why is it so Rare? (Part 1)
“In an age of ‘anything goes’, virtue is a revolutionary thing.”
- Peter Kreeft (Back to Virtue)
To modern man, vice and virtue are foreign concepts. We’ve come to accept that we don’t all hold identical ideas of right and wrong. This has led to a culture in which we can’t do “wrong” as long as we have a “passion” for it or did so with “good intentions.”
Yet our hearts are unsettled. Even if there’s no one to tell us what we’re doing isn’t good, something inside of us yearns for better. If freedom is what our culture truly offers us, then why are so many men unable to be the man they want to be?
In a single verse, written almost 2000 years ago, St. Paul summarizes the plight of all men who want to be better, “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” (Romans 7:15)
If we consider the men that we want to be remembered as, or the men in our lives that we look up to, or even the film and book characters we admire - we will quickly recognize that they all possess something that is the opposite of the cultures creed: “If it feels good, it is good.”
These men are unlike the others surrounding them because they are driven by something other than popular opinion or their personal gain. Though it can manifest itself differently in all men depending on their situation, we can summarize what draws us to them in a single word: Virtue.
The word virtue comes from the Latin word virtus which means valor, merit, or moral perfection. Now, the root word of virtus (another Latin word) is vir, which means man. To be virtuous isn’t solely for the super heroes or the moral elite. To be virtuous is the calling for all men, because to be virtuous is manly…literally!
Virtues are our internal dispositions towards good actions, they are not the actions themselves. We put our virtuous disposition to action in exercising good habits that bring about our own good and the good of those around us.
Man was created to be great and virtue is how we become great. That is why we are so drawn by authentic virtue when we see it.
On The Hinges
The first category of virtues are the four cardinal virtues. They originated from the Greek Philosopher Plato and they are: Justice, Wisdom, Courage, and Moderation.
These four are referred to as the “cardinal” virtues because they are fundamental to man and to the other virtues. The word cardinal comes from the Latin cardin which means “hinge.” All other virtues hinge on the cardinal virtues. We cannot become better men if our paths are not directed towards the pursuit of these four. As we strive for greater, we should strive to be perfected in all the cardinal virtues.
Justice - the virtue that promises the constant and firm will to give what’s due to God and neighbor.
Wisdom (also call Prudence) - the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.
Courage (also called Fortitude) - the virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.
Moderation (also called Temperance) - the virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods.
(All definitions taken from the CCC paragraphs 1806-1809)
By these definitions, it’s easy to see how a man who is not planted and perfected in the cardinal virtues would not be able to grow in the theological virtues.
A man without courage will not be able to meet the demands of faith and a man without temperance will not be able to meet the demands of love.
Even though the cardinal virtues were first articulated by Plato they are still useful for the Christian. The virtues don’t run contrary to the truth of the Gospel. As Peter Kreeft puts it, “Plato gives us virtues grammar, Jesus gives us virtues poetry.”
The next category of virtue is the Theological Virtues. These are directly related to God. Unlike the Cardinal virtues, God alone is the cause of the Theological Virtues in us. We cannot acquire the knowledge or practice of these virtues outside of God’s Divine intervention.
St. Thomas Aquinas refers to these as “infused” virtues because God alone is their cause. The three Theological virtues are:
Faith - the virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us.
Hope - the virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of grace.
Love (Charity) - the virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.
(All definitions taken from the CCC paragraphs 1814, 1817, 1822)
Our perfection in these virtues depends on our ability to accept them as gifts from God. We cannot work to get them, but what we can do is prepare ourselves to be able to receive them by pursuing the Cardinal Virtues. The Cardinal Virtues will prepare the soil of our souls to receive the Theological Virtues from God.
But Wait There’s More
St Thomas Aquinas actually used the term “annexed,” or, potential parts of a cardinal virtue. He goes on explain the difference between a cardinal virtue and the virtues annexed of a cardinal virtue:
“The first is that these [annexed] virtues have something in common with the principal [cardinal] virtue; and the second is that in some respect they fall short of the perfection of that [cardinal] virtue.”(ST II-II, Q 80)
The annexed virtues share something in common with a cardinal virtue, but they alone fall short of the cardinal virtue itself.
Each one of the annexed virtues shares a part or an aspect of the cardinal virtue, but it is not the same as the cardinal virtue itself.
Here’s a list:
Justice - Piety, Obedience, Gratitude, Truth, Friendliness/affability, Liberality, Epikeia
Courage - Magnanimity, Magnificence, Patience, Perseverance
Moderation - Shamedfaceness, Honesty, Abstinence, Sobriety, Chastity, Continence, Clemency, Meekness, Modesty, Humility
A man who is perfected in modesty could still drink too much and therefore not be perfected in moderation. Or a man who is perfected in patience can still struggle with other areas of his life where the annexed virtues would need to be exercised. If he was perfected in the cardinal virtue of courage he would be perfected in all situations related to courage.
Eye On The Prize
Man’s perfection is evident by the virtue that he possesses. We can’t pursue virtue alone, we need Jesus. “It is not easy for man, wounded by sin, to maintain moral balance. Christ's gift of salvation offers us the grace necessary to persevere in the pursuit of the virtues.” (CCC 1811)
Now that we know what we’re pursuing, we can shift our focus on what pitfalls await us in our pursuit, and practical steps on how we can overcome them.
Until next time - Esto Vir!
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