FAUSTO GOMEZ OP
In life, virtues are necessary and attractive sources of goodness and happiness. In classical ethics, in moral and spiritual theology, the study of virtue constitutes a fundamental significant chapter. Hereafter I wish to reflect on virtue and virtues from the perspective of reason and faith.
The natural longing for true happiness is directed and strengthened by a virtuous life. After all, happiness consists in the practice of virtue that entails the good use of freedom (St. Thomas Aquinas). Truly, the purpose of ethics is “to make people good, that is, virtuous” (P. Kreeft).
Why is virtue important in ethics and in life? Because virtue is a kind of excellence of the soul, a basic trait of character, and a positive moral attitude. In traditional ethics and theology, virtue is defined as a good operative habit. Virtue is a habit, that is, a human quality that disposes the person’s potencies towards good. Virtue is an operative habit, that is, it inclines a person to act in a manner that is pleasant, prompt and easy. Virtue is, specifically, a good operative habit: this quality of goodness distinguishes virtues (good attitudes) from vices (evil attitudes).
While virtue enhances vision, vice darkens and finally blinds (G. Meilaender). Virtues are intrinsic principles of good deeds. They are embedded in the potencies of the person (intellect, will, sense appetite) who possesses them. Virtues are “successes in self-realization” (C. van der Poel), qualities that make persons “flourishing human beings.” Indeed, virtue attracts and fascinates (Spinoza).
In every virtue, the human person says “yes to all that is good” (B. Haring). Every virtue is a mediation of love, which is the foundation, the form and the goal of all virtues. Virtues are rooted in and perfected by love. Vivified by love, virtues incline us to deeper love and communion with God, neighbor and creation.
Lao Tzu writes:
I am kind to the kind, / I am also kind to the unkind, / for virtue is kind. / I am faithful to the faithful, / I am also faithful to the unfaithful, / For virtue is faithful.
According to origin, virtues are distinguished into acquired virtues (by personal effort, by repetition of similar acts) and infused virtues (by God). While acquired virtues perfect the human person in such a way that he/she may walk properly according to the natural light of reason, infused virtues perfect the human person in such a way that he/she may walk properly according to the light of grace (St. Thomas Aquinas). Grounded on grace, infused or supernatural virtues orient human potencies and human or natural virtues towards divine life – towards God. Among the infused habits, we have the following: the theological virtues, the moral virtues (elevated by divine grace), and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. The theological virtues (faith, hope and charity) are the supernatural habits that, infused by God, relate us directly to him (cf. CCC 1812-1828).
Human virtues, which are perfected and elevated by divine grace and the infused moral virtues, put order in our personal and social life. The intellectual virtues (understanding, science, wisdom and prudence) incline us to know and understand and judge well, but not necessarily to be good persons. On the other hand, moral virtues (the cardinal virtues and many others) make human actions good and also the persons who perform them. The moral virtues rectify the whole ethical life of the person who possesses them by putting order in the intellect (prudence), in the will (justice) and in the sense appetite (courage and temperance). Since the time of Aristotle, the most important human virtues are the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage and temperance. It has been said that the moral life of the human person pivots upon these four virtues as the door upon its hinge. Virtues are connected among themselves: there can be no true prudence without the other three moral virtues, and, vice versa: no moral virtues without prudence. Prudence is the main rational and ethical guide of human life (cf. CCC 1805-1809).
From the perspective of human ethics, what are the most important virtues today? A good life, an accomplished life, a happy life is a life lived in justice and love. Justice and love continue to be the most significant virtues today. In a world of injustice, there is a continuing need of justice, which inclines us to give to each person his/her due, that is, fundamentally his/her rights. Justice, in turn, needs the virtue of love to become even a just justice. In a world of selfishness, pride and hatred, there is a great need of love. Love means to give to another person not only what is his or hers, but also of what is “ours.” The greatest virtue in human and Christian ethics is love or charity: as philia (“I am happy that you exist”), as agape (“I am ready to give my life for you”). Love is expressed, in particular, in solidarity with the poor, the sick, the abandoned, the unhappy and the disadvantaged in our families, communities and societies.
For Christians, as St. Ambrose says: “To speak of virtue is to speak of Christ,” who is the Virtuous One. And to speak of Christ is to speak, above all, of charity as love of God and neighbor – as agape -, which is the “form” of all virtues: “Over all these virtues (mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness) put on love, which binds the rest together and makes them perfect” (Col 3:14).
Is it really hard to be virtuous? It is important to note before trying to answer this question that one who longs to be virtuous has to love virtue and to love his or her vocation. Vocation and virtue fortify each other, for genuine vocation is a call to passionate love, to virtuous life.
I had a medical student who was really fascinated by the teaching on virtues: “It is so attractive. It is easy to have virtues: virtues are like a garden where one can pick the virtues she likes.” To love virtues is easy, but to practice them takes a little longer! Ethically speaking, the truly virtuous person is not born, but made! A person is made virtuous by performing over and over good acts, which form good habits, that is, virtues that form a good character. One acquires the virtue of compassion by performing compassionate acts.
Is it hard to acquire and practice virtues then? Yes and no: Yes very hard, if one wants to acquire and practice them by himself or herself alone. Not so hard, if the person is guided by significant others, and cooperates with God’s grace, which is available to all. Let me add that usually God does not grant dole-outs but seeds to be watered and nurtured.
William James suggests four steps to acquire human virtues: First, make a strong resolution; second, make no exceptions; third, actualize resolution often, and fourth, make daily and generous exercise of resolution.
May virtue be taught? In a way, yes! How may it be taught? By teaching verbally and practically the qualities that make a person “good.” In truth, only the just man or woman knows what justice is; only the Good Samaritan knows what genuine merciful love of neighbor is. Philosophers and theologians have repeated that the best way to define virtue is by pointing to a virtuous person. The authentic path to describe the virtuous person is by pointing to a person who is honest, kind, compassionate, humble and prayerful – a good person.
Do we really, really want to be happy? Socrates says: The person who knows what is right will do right. Because why would anybody choose to be unhappy? For the great Greek philosopher and ethicist Socrates, knowing what is good implies doing it. For ordinary mortals, however, it is not that easy: we know what is right and often we don’t do it! Happiness, however is found in practicing what is good, which is best way of knowing virtue: “To know and not to do is not yet to know” (Buddhist Proverb).
In a well-known poem, Samuel Smiles tells us simply and beautifully that to be virtuous is not that difficult:
Sow a thought and you will reap an act.
Sow an act and you will reap a habit.
Sow a habit and you will reap a character.
Sow a character and you will reap a destiny.
(Published in O Clarim, November 25, 2017)