Part One: The nature of vice and virtue
Holy Scripture shows us that there are two basic orientations to how we live our lives: to choose a life of vice and foolish living (bad character traits and dispositions which lead to moral weakness and evil practices) or to choose a life of virtue and wisdom (good character traits and dispositions which strengthen sound thinking (sound mind) and upright living. When these character traits become habitual they dispose us to do either evil (vice) or good (virtue).
Psalm 1, which serves as an introduction to the Book of Psalms, contrasts the way of those who choose to do good with the way of those who choose to do evil. The first way leads to Godly wisdom and mature fruitfulness versus the opposite way which produces bad fruit and spiritual decay.
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so, but are like chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore, the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”Psalm 1
Habits of the heart
Virtues and vices are settled dispositions or inclinations to act in particular ways.16 They are good or bad character traits. They are acquired through repeated acts of deliberate decision, and as such become “habits of the heart”.17 A chief characteristic of both vice and virtue is an established tendency to act from deliberate decision. Thus, vice is a bad character trait or habit of the heart which leads one into sin. It is a settled disposition or inclination to do what is morally wrong or sinful. It is usually a habit of character acquired through repeated acts of deliberate decision.
The word virtue comes from the Latin word “vir” for man. It denotes “strength of character leading to courageous deeds”. It signifies manliness or courage. Augustine says that “virtue is a good habit consonant with our nature”. The virtues are dispositions or habits of character that lead us to do good. Virtues are good character traits or habits of the heart. Augustine further defined virtue as “a good quality of the mind by which we live righteously, of which no one can make bad use.”18 The virtues dispose us to an orientation of life opposite that of the vices.19
Modem people tend to call vice and sin behavioral problems; guilt is labeled as emotional distress. The language of sin has been replaced by the language of symptoms'” People rarely talk about vice or virtue anymore. We need the virtues today to counter the vices as much as Christians have needed them in the past.
In summary, virtues and vices are acquired habits of character, by which we are either perfected (i.e. mature and complete, attaining moral vision and good character) or degraded (i.e. immoral vision and bad character).
The Source of virtue and vice
Christian virtue has its origin in God. It is the work of the Holy Spirit which transforms us into the likeness of Christ. In 2 Corinthians 3:18 Paul states that
“We are being changed into his (God’s) likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit”2 Corinthians 3:18
Christian virtue consists in a living relationship with God, in conformity with his words, in obedience to his will, and in a profound and lasting turning towards him. Faithfulness in following the Lord’s way is the fundamental virtue for walking with God. It’s also a condition for keeping God’s Covenant (Exodus 19:5). On the other hand, the fundamental vice is to follow some god other than the true God and to be unfaithful to the Covenant by departing from God’s way. The virtuous person takes pleasure in God’s ways (Psalm 1).
“You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”Psalm 15:11
Jesus describes the perfect disciple in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5/Luke 6). His heart is free from every evil desire and full of merciful love extending even to his enemies.
The vices have their source in sinful attitudes. They become dispositional and thus relatively permament features of one’s orientation to life. The vices and the sins they breed are forms of behavior resulting from sinful intent or neglect. It is behavior dictated by wrong attitudes, in habits of the heart, that make the heart hard, cold, and evil.
“What comes out of a man is what makes him unclean. For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.”Mark 7:20-22
When we separate ourselves through sin from God we become incapable of controlling our evil desires and of remaining master of ourselves (I John 2:16). In such a condition we cannot find in ourselves the strength to resist the weight of our passions and to become clean and whole again. When we are united with God we discover the strength or capacity to live virtuous lives. It is the strength of the Lord that is our strength. Without it we remain fainthearted and listless.
God calls us to live virtuous lives (2 Peter 1:3-11). We need the virtues to counter the vices.
“For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these things are yours and abound, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”1 Peter 5-8
Part two: Countering the “deadly” vices with “Godly” virtues
“Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”Ephesians 6:13
We need to see the deadly vices in the context of the spiritual warfare we are engaged in as Christians. We are in mortal combat with an enemy, Satan and his host of evil spirits, who seek to destroy us and to take from us the reward of heaven – an inseparable union with an all-loving and all-wise Creator. While the encounter with vices may be inevitable, we need not counter them unarmed. The virtues are like a warrior’s armor and weaponry. At worst they blunt the blows of the deadly vices; but at their best they enable us to defeat the enemy decisively. The Apostle Paul exhorts us to “put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature” (Colossians 3:5). He goes on to list a number of deadly vices: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed, anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language, and lies (Colossians 3:5,8,9). He instructs us to “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10). This new self is characterized by virtue: compassion, kindness. humility, gentleness, patience, and love (Colossians 3:12,14).
The seven deadly vices/sins can be traced back to the early church period. The Didache, an early 2nd century church document, contains a list of five. Origen produced a sevenfold list. At the end of the 4th century Cassian amended the sevenfold list. This list was almost exactly followed by Gregory the Great, two hundred years later, in his Moralia in Job (a commentary on the Book of Job). In chapter 35 Gregory gives the list of seven vices which has become the classic exposition of the subject: pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, lust. Gregory likens the capital vices to captains laying waste a conquered city and leading after them a band of following vices. Gregory writes:
“An army in truth follows those captains because there spring up from them importunate hosts of sins. – These several sins have each their army against us. – Seven principal vices produce from themselves so great a multitude of vices that when they reach the heart they bring, as it were, the bands of an army after them.”
The necessity of countering the vices with virtues was long recognized by Christians. Francis of Assisi, a 13th century reformer, describes the power of the virtues in destroying vices in his poetic discourse on The Praises of the Virtues (Salutatio Virtutum) 26
O most holy Virtues, may the Lord protect all of you, from Whom you come and proceed. There is surely no one in the entire world who can possess any one of you unless he dies first. Whoever possesses one (of you) and does not offend the others, possesses all. And whoever offends one (of you) does not possess any and offends all. And each one destroys vices and sins. Holy Wisdom destroys Satan and all his subtlety. …Holy Charity destroys every temptation of the devil and of the flesh and every carnal fear.
Geoffrey Chaucer, a 14th century English writer, included a treatise on repentance and the nature of the seven deadly sins or vices in his book The Canterbury Tales (last chapter, “The Parson’s Tale”). Chaucer used the image of a tree in describing the deadly vices as “principle sins because they are the chief sins and the trunk from which branch all others. And the root of these seven sins is pride, which is the general root of all evils; for from this root spring certain branches, as anger, envy, acedia or sloth, avarice (or coveteousness, for vulgar understanding), gluttony, and lechery. And each of these principal sins has its branches and its twigs…” Chaucer remarked that the visible acts of sin are indications of what is within a man’s heart, just as the sign outside the tavern is a sign of the wine that is within the cellar. Chaucer identified a virtue for countering each of the deadly vices:
|Seven Deadly Vices||Seven Godly Virtues|
|Greed, (avarice, coveteousness)||Liberality, mercy|
|Gluttony||Temperance, abstinence, self-control|
|Envy||Love of God, love of neighbor, love of enemy|
|Sloth (apathy, spiritual lazyness)||Fortitude, courage|
1. Pride versus humility
Pride is the root of all vice/sin and the strongest influence propelling us to sin. Gregory the Great characterizes it as the sovereign of vices:
“Pride, the sovereign of vices, when it has captured and vanquished the heart, forthwith delivers it into the hands of its lieutenants, the seven capital vices, that they may despoil it and produce vices of all kinds.”
Pride is rebellion – the rejection of God’s authority and the refusal to submit to God and accept his truth. In this sense pride is the root of all sin.
As a particular vice pride is an inordinate desire or love of one’s own excellence. Through pride a person either thinks of oneself better than one is, or thinks one can do things beyond one’s capability. Pride springs from an exaggerated self-centeredness. In pride a person makes self absolute and central, isolating self from God and others, or using others for the achievement of selfish purposes. Pride leads one to sin in the pursuit of one’s own good. Excessive pride may move a person to steal in order to keep up one’s appearance, or to lie or cheat to better one’s own reputation. Pride can lead to all sorts of vices, notably presumption, ambition, vainglory, boasting, hypocrisy, strife, and disobedience. The proud person rebels against God and resists God’s efforts to lead one back to virtue.
Humility, which is the recognition of one’s dependence on God and of one’s absolute need for submitting oneself to God, is the only remedy for pride. Humility is true self-knowledge – regarding oneself as God sees us. It is truth in self-understanding and truth in action. The humble person does not trust in one’s own strength alone, but in the power and love of God. True humility is a servant-like quality which enables each of us to place our lives at the service of God and the good of others. The modem notion of humility as feeling inadequate, inferior, incompetent, or bad about oneself, is unscriptural. True humility involves the readiness to place oneself at the disposal of others, to be a servant who seeks the good of others.
Example from Scripture: Genesis 3 records the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden. They disobeyed God out of pride. Jesus, the second Adam, undid the curse of sin and death through his obedience and his humility in laying down his life for our sake. Paul in Philippians 2:8 says that Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
2. Avarice/coveteousness versus liberality/mercy
“Take heed, and beware of all coveteousness; for a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions”.Luke 12:15
Avarice (or coveteousness) is an inordinate desire for wealth or possessions or for another’s possessions. The word greedy stresses lack of restraint or lack of discrimination in desire. Avarice implies obsessive acquisitiveness especially of money and strongly suggests stinginess. The covetcous person will violate all the laws of reason and justice to gain money or property. And when one has them one will either sin to retain them or will use them to commit other sins.
“One who contributes in liberality; one who gives aid, with zeal; one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness”.Romans 12:8
The direct opposite of avarice is liberality (giving freely and generously). Liberality is a balanced attitude towards wealth and material possessions, and the control or moderation of one’s desires. It is an attitude of generosity in the use of money and possessions for charitable works. The liberal person knows how to use money and possessions well for the benefit of others. Such a person takes pleasure in giving things to others. The virtue of liberality helps one guard against the danger of becoming too attached to one’s possessions.
Examples from Scripture: In the Book of Joshua, chapter 7, Achan confessed that he coveted the spoils of war which had been devoted to the Lord. Achan was stoned for taking what belonged to the Lord. An example of liberality can be seen in Acts 2:44-47. The early Christians in Jerusalem “sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.”
3. Lust versus chastity/continence
“For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world”.1 John 2:15
Lust is defined as the disordered or unrestrained seeking of sexual/genital pleasure. Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes in marriage. The lustful person pursues excessively the good of sex which is intended for the common good since human life comes from it. Lust pursues sexual pleasure for its own sake without weighing the consequences, and focuses so much on one’s own satisfaction that other moral instincts for what is right and good are pushed aside. Lust is an offence against oneself, against other persons, and against the good of society. Lust is a capital vice because it leads to other vices/sins – blindness and loss of a clear mind, perversion of heart, rashness, inconstancy, inordinate self-love, masturbation, pornography, fornication (pre-marital sex), adultery, deviant and criminal behaviour, etc. Lust becomes blind to all else as one seeks to gratify more and more one’s base desires.
“Therefore honor God with your body”.1 Corinthians. 6:20
Since we are by nature sexual beings endowed with sexual desires, some regulation of our sexual appetite is required (2 Timothy 2:22, Titus 2:6). The virtue of chastity moderates and regulates the sexual appetite or genital pleasure according to the principles of right reason and the law of God. Chastity is not simply a restrictive virtue.
It consists in the right attitude towards sex. It also enables us to reach self-control or self-mastery and it liberates us from the bondage of self-centered, aggressive, manipulative sexual activity. Continence is a virtue of the will by which a person checks the strong impulses of desire for pleasures of touch – such as the immoderate or excessive pleasures of food, drink and sex. Virginity is a virtue by which a person abstains entirely from sexual pleasure.
Examples from Scripture: In Genesis 39:7-21, we read the account of Potiphar’s wife who attempts to seduce Joseph into adultery. Joseph’s immediate instinct was to flee from the temptation. Joseph was chaste in his relations with women and remained faithful to God’s moral law. David committed adultery (2 Samuel 11) and Solomon had many wives (1 Kings 11). Both were spiritually and morally weakened and were punished by God for their unchaste living.
4. Anger versus patience/meekness
“A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control”.Proverbs 29:11
Anger in the good sense is a natural human reaction to obstacles. It is meant to mobilize us for accomplishing things that demand effort and to equip us to fight through obstacles to what is right and good. Anger can lead to good or evil. Anger is morally good or righteous if it is directed against wrongdoing and is expressed under the control of reason and will. Gregory the Great says: “Reason opposes the evil more effectively when anger ministers at her side.”
Anger is evil or unrighteous if it is directed against something good; or if it is allowed to get out of control or in control of us. The deadly vice of anger is an immoderate desire for revenge. Anger is sinful when it leads to vengeful actions that are disproportionate to the injury suffered. A man of anger will seek by any means to injure others because he considers their good a threat to himself. Josef Pieper describes the various facets of deadly anger:
“It is self-evident that the anger which breaks all bounds and disrupts the order of reason is evil and in sin. Blind wrath, bitterness of spirit, and revengeful resentment, the three basic forms of intemperate anger, are therefore evil and contrary to order. Blind wrath shuts the eyes of the spirit before they have been able to grasp the facts and to judge them; bitterness and resentment, with a grim joy in negation, close their hearts to the language of truth and love; they poison the heart like a festering ulcer. Also evil, of course, is all anger linked to unjust desire.”27
The virtue of meekness moderates anger and its disorderly effects. It does this by controlling the passion of anger and by not permitting one’s anger to be aroused over trivial things. It prevents a person from taking too much revenge on those who have injured him. It restrains inordinate movements of resentment at another’s character or behavior. It has nothing to do with weakness or timidity.
Patience, another form of meekness, enables one to endure present evils without sadness or resentment. It is a strong virtue because it inclines us to suffer and endure present evils without self-pity. It helps us to handle difficulties without giving into sadness or reacting with a growing sense of rage.
Example from Scripture: Cain killed his brother Abel out of anger (see Genesis 4:5-8). When Miriam and Aaron opposed Moses and spoke against him, Moses responded with meekness rather than unjust anger (see Numbers 12).
5. Gluttony versus temperance/self-control
“Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is their shame”.Philippians 3:19
Gluttony is the inordinate or excessive desire for the pleasure connected with food or drink. It may become sinful in various ways: by eating or drinking far more than is necessary for maintaining bodily strength; by glutting one’s tastes for foods with known detriment to health; by overindulgence in exquisite and luxurious food or drink; by eating or drinking too avidly; by consuming alcoholic beverages to the point of losing full control of one’s reasoning powers. The inordinate pursuit of the desirable and of food and drink can lead to other sins, such as theft and injustice. It can contribute or reflect a lack of faith in and love of God.
The virtue of temperance moderates the desire for pleasure. The temperate person exercises control over one’s appetites and desires and protects oneself from self-destructive and harmful behavior. A drunkard who cannot control his intemperate appetite debases his human nature by delivering his reason and will to the slavery of alcohol. The temperate person does not allow alcohol to enslave his reason and frustrate his will. The virtue of sobriety regulates a person’s desire for and use of intoxicating drink. Temperance in eating means to eat just enough to maintain good health. It follows a middle path between gluttony which would destroy health by an excess of food, and starvation, or extreme fasting, which would destroy health by excessive lack of food.
Examples from Scripture: There are many examples of drunkenness in the Old Testament. Lot got drunk and committed incest with his daughters (see Genesis 19:33,35). Nabal insulted David, later got drunk (see 1 Samuel 25:36-38) and was smitten by the Lord and died. In Luke 16:19-31 Jesus tells the story of a rich man named Dives, a gluttonous and greedy man, who refused to share his bread with the poor man Lazarus who sat at his gate begging for food.
6. Envy versus love
“Through love be servants of one another … Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another”.Galatians 5:13,26
Envy is sorrow over another’s good. It is sadness or discontent at the excellence, good fortune, or success of another person. It includes both sorrow at the prosperity of others and joy in their hurt. An envious person sorrows at the good fortune of others because he regards it as a hindrance to his own good.
Envy differs from jealousy in that jealousy implies the desire to exclusively possess something or somebody. Envy implies the hope that a good will be taken away from another, whether or not one gets possession of it for oneself. Jealousy is a fear of losing another’s exclusive or special love; it is resentment at being replaced by a rival. Jealousy says, “I want what you have.” Envy goes further and declares, “Not only do I want what you have, but I will do all in my power to take what you have away so neither of us can enjoy it.”
Envy is sorrow over or a desire to possess what another has; it is a kind of sadness over the good fortune of another because it somehow lessens our own stature. The reason we may grieve over another’s good is that somehow we see that good as lessening our own value or excellence. Somehow we see our neighbor’s possessions as not only surpassing ours but also as taking away some of our prestige. We are usually envious of those goods about which people like to be honored or esteemed. Envy forms when we believe that the other person’s advantage or possession diminishes or brings disgrace on us.
Envy gives birth to detraction and slander (calumny). Detraction is the revealing of the faults of another. Slander (calumny) is speaking ill of another without factual basis. Slander (calumny) is lying. It entails making up bad things about another, or repeating unfavorable and unfounded rumors about them. It results in the ruining of another’s reputation by lies. Detraction is more subtle. It entails revealing or repeating unsavory facts about another, which, although true, are the business of neither the person communicating this information nor of his listeners. Both calumny and detraction damage another’s reputation.
“Love is not jealous … but rejoices in the right”.1 Corinthians13:4,6
Envy and jealousy, its counterpart, are sinful because they lead us to sorrow over what should make us rejoice – namely, our neighbor’s good. Envy is contrary to love. Both the object of love and the object of envy is our neighbor’s good, but by contrary movements, since love rejoices in our neighbor’s good, while envy grieves over it. We must strive to overcome envy with the virtue of love, since “love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right” (1 Corinthians 13:5-6).
Examples from Scripture: In Acts 7:9 it says, “the patriarchs, jealous (envious) of Joseph, sold him into Egypt.” Genesis 37 tells the story of Joseph’s brothers and their plot to eliminate him. Out of envy (see 37:11) they plotted to first kill him, then changed their minds and sold him into slavery to get rid of him. In contrast to his brothers’ envy and hatred, Joseph held no bitterness or resentment towards them. When he discovered his family’s plight during a great famine, he showed remarkable mercy and forgiveness. He kissed his brothers with great affection and tears (Genesis 45:15). Joseph is a type of Jesus who also was betrayed out of envy. Matthew 27:18 records that the Jewish leaders out of envy handed Jesus over to the Romans for crucifixion. Jesus treated his enemies with love and forgiveness: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
7. Sloth versus fortitude/courage
” .. so that you may not be sluggish (slothful), but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:12).
Sloth is sorrow for spiritual good. The Greek word for sloth, acedia, means “not caring” or “apathy.” Sloth is a kind of spiritual laziness or boredom in regard to the things of God. It is a lack of spirit in opposing the strong pull and pressure of earthly temporal matters and diversions in order to aspire to what is supremely good and eternal. It is indifference towards spiritual responsibilities and a listlessness in doing good for the sake of others and their welfare. It almost always brings with it a large dose of self-pity. It drives out joy of the human heart.
Sloth is commonly expressed in the phrase: “It’s too much trouble to be good.” Sloth is an oppressive sorrow which so weighs on a person’s mind that one lacks any zeal or motivation for things spiritual and eternal. Sloth can easily lead to the neglect of prayer and worship, disregard for works of mercy and helping those in need, or the spirit of sacrifice. A spiritually slothful person may be quite active and non-lazy in unspiritual matters. One may be engaged in frenetic work during the day (even a workaholic) and in mindless time-wasting activity in one’s free time (immoderate or excessive media use, etc.). The slothful person will neglect one’s own spiritual welfare because he is afraid of the effort necessary in pursuing the will of God and thus obtaining his own true happiness. Implicit in sloth is the unwillingness to exert oneself in the performance of duty because of the sacrifice and effort required. It is pre-eminently a sin of omission and neglect; we neglect what we ought to do.
“We are always of good courage”.2 Corinthians 5:6
The virtue of fortitude, or courage, enables us to overcome difficulty in the pursuit of doing what is good, just, and right. Fortitude gives a person the strength to endure pain and even death in opposing what is evil and wrong. Fortitude gives a person confidence and strength in overcoming obstacles, facing danger, and standing firm in opposition. Fortitude curbs the power of fear, anger, and reckless daring. Without fortitude a person either would not have tried at all, or would have tried badly and failed.
Example from Scripture: In the parable of the talents Jesus tells the story of a wicked and slothful servant who did not obey his master by investing the master’s money (see Matthew 25:26ff). The story has a spiritual lesson: Wise and faithful servants of the Lord are urged to make good use of their time, resources, and gifts to serve the Lord and his kingdom in the present time allotted to them. They guard against the spirit of sluggishness and sloth that tries to hold them back and distract them from doing the will of God.
This article is excerpted from Countering the Vices with Virtues: A study on the formation of Christian character in light of the Scriptures and Christian teaching, by Don Schwager, 1994.
- The terms “virtue” and “vice” were in common usuage among Greek philosophers. The Greek term for virtue, “arete”, means “strength” or “excellence”. It denotes whatever procures pre-eminent estimation for a person or thing; intrinsic eminence, moral goodness, virtue. The Greek term for vice, “kakon“, means “bad”. It indicates the lack in a person or thing of those qualities which should be possessed. It denotes bad character morally, by way of thinking, feeling, or acting.
Aristotle, in his book The Nichomachean Ethics, his main work on ethics or morality, defines virtue as follows:
- “Virtue (arete) is the settled disposition (hexis) of the mind determining the choice of actions (praxeis) and emotions (pathe), consisting in the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by principle (logos), that is, as a prudent man would determine it.” (ll,vi,15)
- The expression “habits of the heart” was first used by the French social philospher Alexis de Tocqueville to describe the “mores” (the way of life) and character of the American people whom he observed and had wide conversation with in the 1830s. He published his analysis of the relationship between character and society in America in his book Democracy in America. See also James Q. Wilson’s book. On Character, Chapter 8, entitled, Character versus Intellect: Habits of the Heart, pgs. 107-112 (The AEI Press, Washington, D.C., 1991)
The term “habits of the heart” carries the biblical understanding of “heart” as the place of fundamental choice, will, and inner disposition. The scriptures speak of God writing his “law” or “way of life” on the hearts of his people (see Romans 2:15, Jeremiah 31:33, Deuteronomy 6:6).
I use the word “habit” here with caution since it is easy to fall into the erroneous view that growth in character or the virtues amounts simply to developing the proper routines of a Christian life. The modern connotation of habit is seen as an automatic, or rather mechanical response to some accustomed cue.
Ralph McInerny, in his book Ethica Thomistica: The Moral Philosphy of Thomas Aquinas (The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1982) describes a traditional understanding of character traits as habits, developed by Thomas Aquinas. In Chapter 6 of his book, entitled: Character and Decisions (see pgs. 91-92) he writes:
“Thomas, guided by Aristotle, considers such habitual dispositions – virtues and vices – as the sources of the actions we perform. A human life is a history, and we dispose ourselves, by the acts we perform, to do similar deeds in the future. Such a stable disposition to act well or badly is what Thomas means, respectively, by virtue and vice. There is, for better or worse, a predictability in our lives, a stability of choice, an ingrained disposition to act in one way rather than another. We are disposed, because of the actions we have already performed, to perform similar actions in the future. This is what is meant by habit: a disposition to perform acts of a certain kind. “A virtue is quality of mind thanks to which we live rightly, which can never be used badly.” This is, in part, Augustine’s definition of virtue, and it is with it that Thomas begins his discussion of the subject in the Summa Theologiae.”
Another helpful treatment on the relation of virtue (and vice) to habit or “habitus” its Latin cognate, can be found in The Moral Virtues and Theological Ethics, by Romanus Cessario, O.P. (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 1991). Here is an excerpt from Chapter 2. “Habitus”, Character, and Growth, pgs. 34-35:
- By definition, “habitus”, to use the more familiar Latin term, embodies a definite ability for growth through activity. The scholastic theologians understood the important function that “habitus” has in shaping human conduct. Accordingly, they described “habitus” as holding a middle position between potency – the capacity for action – and full actuality-actually doing something. Voluntary activity, then, always remains a realization of one or another “habitus”. A person without any “habitus” lacks what is required for sure comportment, and finds any kind of purposeful activity difficult and burdensome. Moreover, as long as our psychological capacities persist in this underdeveloped state, human potential goes unrealized.
- Aquinas’ definition of virtue, in his treatise The Summa Theologica, 1-II, “Habits and Virtues”, is built on the definition given by Augustine:
- Virtue is a good quality of the mind, by which we live righteously, of which no one can make bad use, which God brings about in us, without us. (1-11.55.4) …For since every virtue is a habit which is a principle of a good act, it is necessary that a virtue be defined through the good act concerning the proper matter of the virtue. (11-11.58.1)
- Both Protestant and Catholic authors since the Reformation period have written on the nature of virtue. Here are a few samples:
- From The Formula of Concord (1577), Solid Declaration, XI (a Lutheran work):
- “Next, since the Holy Spirit dwells in the elect who have come to faith as he dwells in his temple, and is not idle in them but urges them to obey the commandments of God, believers likewise should not be idle, still less oppose the urgings of the Spirit of God, but should exercise themselves in all Christian virtues, in all godliness, modesty, temperance, patience, and brotherly love…”
- William Ames, a noted 17th century English Puritan theologian, in his work The Marrow of Theology (1623), 11,11 (translated from the Latin by John Dykstra Eusden, Labyrinth Press, Durham, N.C., 1968), describes the nature of virtue.
- “Virtue is a condition or habit (habitus) by which the will is inclined to do well. …It is called a habit not only because one possesses it but also because it makes the subject behave in a certain manner, i.e., it moves the faculty, which otherwise would not be so moved, toward good.”
- Joseph Butler, the 18th century British moralist, in his Third Sermon at the Rolls Chapel, (quote from Fifteen Sermons in The Works of Joseph Butler, ed. W.E. Gladstone, vol. 2 (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1896, p. 63) describes the relation between virtue and habit as follows:
- “…when virtue has become habitual, when the temper of it is acquired, what was before confinement ceases to be so, by becoming choice and delight”
- Yves R. Simon, in his book The Definition of Moral Virtue (Fordham University Press, New York, 1986, pg. 84) writes:
- “By a man’s disposition we mean precisely the unique arrangement of all his moral traits. And when this arrangement makes him totally reliable and dependable in human affairs, we call both the man and his disposition virtuous. This – has always been the common understanding of the meaning of virtue: dependability in matters pertaining to the good of man as man.'”
- From The Formula of Concord (1577), Solid Declaration, XI (a Lutheran work):
- In his book After Virtue, Alasdair Macintyre, (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 1981, 1984) describes the state of moral discourse in modern liberal society. He writes:
- “…in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the …state of grave disorder … What we possess … are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.”
- The classic lists of virtues in the scriptures are the following:
- Isaiah 11:2-5 (the seven gifts of the Spirit); Matthew 5:3-12 and Luke 6:20-26 (the beatitudes);1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (the hymn to love); Galatians 5:22 (the fruit of the Spirit); 2 Peter 1:5-7 (the virtues)
Some other key New Testament passages on virtues: Romans 5:1-5; 1 Timothy 6:11; Ephesians 4:1-3, 32; 2 Timothy 2:22-25; Colossians 3:12-15; Titus 2:1-5, 12; Philippians 4:8; Titus 3:1-2
- Isaiah 11:2-5 (the seven gifts of the Spirit); Matthew 5:3-12 and Luke 6:20-26 (the beatitudes);1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (the hymn to love); Galatians 5:22 (the fruit of the Spirit); 2 Peter 1:5-7 (the virtues)
- The seven deadly sins/vices can be traced back to the early church period. The Didache, an early 2nd century church document, contains a list of five. Origen produced a sevenfold list. At the end of the 4th century Cassian amended the sevenfold list. This list was almost exactly followed by Gregory the Great, two hundred years later, in his Moralia in Job (a commentary on the Book of Job). In chapter 35 Gregory gives the list of seven vices which has become the classic exposition of the subject: pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, lust. Gregory likens the capital vices to captains laying waste a conquered city and leading after them a band of following vices. Gregory writes:
- “An army in truth follows those captains because there spring up from them importunate hosts of sins. – These several sins have each their army against us. – Seven principal vices produce from themselves so great a multitude of vices that when they reach the heart they bring, as it were, the bands of an army after them.”
- For additional study on the “seven deadly vices” see:
- “Are the Seven Deadly Sins Still Deadly?”, by Mary Ellen Ashcroft, New Covenant, September, 1989, pp. 9-14, Ann Arbor, MI.
- “The Seven Deadly Sins”, by George Devine, (Twin Circle Publishing Co.. Nathalie Catholic Register, LosAngeles, CA, 1988).
- “Choosing Virtue in a Changing World: A New Look At the Seven Deadly Sins”, (published by Liguori Publications, St. Louis, MO., 1990).
- These definitions are adapted from a course on Christian Character given in 1994 by Steve Clark, a noted author and leader in Christian renewal.
- Josef Pieper has written an excellent book on the cardinal virtues: The Four Cardinal Virtues (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 1966).
- The full text of The Praises of the Virtues or Salute to the Virtues (Salutatio Virtutum), written by Francis of Assisi, can be found in St. Francis ofAssisi, Writings and Early Biographies: English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis, pgs. 132-134, edited by Marion A. Habig (Franciscan Herald Press. Chicago, ILL., 1973).
- Quote from The Four Cardinal Virtues, by Josef Pieper, p. 195, (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 1966).