Friday, December 14, 2007


“Virtues” (from the Latin, virtus, for “strength”) are “habits,” “firm dispositions” or “habitual inclinations” in an individual to do what is good in every situation. Every good act is potentially a virtue, i.e., if it becomes a habit. Conversely, every bad act is potentially a “vice”, a bad habit, the opposite of virtue.

To facilitate discussion, since there could be an infinite array of particular virtues, Christian philosophy identifies four “cardinal” moral virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. Prudence is the cardinal moral virtue which habitually disposes a person to make right judgments in every situation. Justice is the habitual inclination to give everyone his due. Fortitude disposes a person to do the good despite the difficulties involved. Temperance inclines a person to control his desires. These virtues are “cardinal” (from the Latin, cardo, “hinge”) in the sense that all the other virtues may be classified or “hung” under them. The virtue of “chastity”, for instance, which disposes a person to control his sexual desires (to the right use—or non-use—of the sexual capacity, i.e., within marriage and open to fruitfulness in offspring), may be classified under the cardinal virtue of Temperance. Likewise, the virtue of “religion” or “piety”, which disposes a person to give to God the worship which is due, falls under the cardinal virtue of Justice.

The cardinal virtues of Prudence and Justice correspond to our two spiritual powers (faculties), the intelligence and free will, respectively. The cardinal virtues of Fortitude and Temperance, on the other hand, correspond to the two sensual appetites: the “irascible appetite” (from the Latin, ira, “anger”)—which drives a man to avoid or reject what his senses perceive to be inimical to his well-being—and the “concupiscible appetite” (from concupiscere, “to desire”)—which drives a person to want (and go after) what is perceived to be necessary or beneficial to him. Fortitude is the cardinal human virtue that regulates the irascible appetite; Temperance, the concupiscible appetite.

Incidentally, Christian philosophy wisely points out that our “passions” (synonymous with “feelings” and “emotions”) are the “acts” (operations) of our sensual appetites. They belong to our pre-rational dimension (animals, too, have feelings); hence, should not be allowed to direct our human conduct. Our feelings should be subordinated to our higher faculties, the intelligence and free will.

The moral virtues make it easier to do what is morally right (in accordance with the objective norms of the natural moral law and the judgment of one’s conscience) in every situation. On the other hand, virtuous acts involve the exercise of even greater human freedom (i.e., intelligent and voluntary) than isolated, “spontaneous” or emotions-driven good deeds, because acquiring the virtue assumes prior, deliberate, and constant repetition (“practice”) of the good acts involved. Further, virtues are what define a person’s character: one may act honestly in a given instance but dishonestly in nine other instances; but a person is truthful or possesses the virtue of “honesty” because he is habitually disposed to stick to the truth in every situation. He is an “honest man” even while asleep. It is character—our virtuousness or viciousness, the “condition or disposition of the heart”— which, at the end of our earthly lives, will be decisive of our eternal happiness or misery.

In practice, a person’s struggle to live a morally upright life, i.e., a life that is truly human (neither animal-like nor disembodied or out-of-the-world), in accord with man’s “authentic” nature (as designed by God, and as opposed to the disordered tendencies of our “wounded” human nature), will consist in growing in the virtues, i.e., increasing in the firmness of the inclination to do what is right in every situation.

Even more directly related to our eternal happiness are the so-called “theological” virtues (because God is the direct goal) of Faith, Hope, and Charity. Faith is the virtue which disposes us “to believe all that God has revealed because it is God revealing them, Who can neither deceive nor be deceived”. Hope inclines us to trust in God, that He will bring us to His eternal happiness, which this virtue also inclines us to desire. Charity disposes us “to love God above all else for His own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God”.

Faith, Hope and Charity are “supernatural” virtues, i.e., beyond our natural capacity, acquired as gifts with “sanctifying grace” which we first received through Baptism. Sanctifying grace—and these supernatural virtues—may be lost through mortal sin but may be recovered through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession). These supernatural virtues increase with our cooperation, i.e., by our constant, deliberate effort to make acts of Faith, Hope and Charity; nor should we allow them to remain at the (seminal) level which we received at Baptism, most probably as infants.

We need to struggle to acquire all the virtues and to grow in them (as we mature humanly), i.e., to increase in the firmness of our inclination towards the good, so that at death, the moment we are to be judged, our interior dispositions shall be firmly oriented towards God, the fullness of Good, without any attachment to whatever is incompatible with God.

The vocation to holiness—union with God, sanctity, beatitude, eternal happiness—is also a call to perfection: “You must therefore be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). This is not attainable by human effort alone; but “with God, nothing is impossible” (Lk 1:37).