Lesson 8: On Virtues in General

In the fifth video/audio lecture we discussed Thomas on the cardinal virtues with particular reference to a text in the Summa theologiae, IaIIae, q. 61, 2. You should either listen again to that lecture or at least consult the notes on which it was based, available on the ICU website. The present lesson points you toward the Disputed Question on the Cardinal Virtues which can be found in Disputed Questions on Virtue, St. Augustine's Press, 1998. This volume contains my translations of both the Disputed Question on the Virtues in General and the Disputed Question on the Cardinal Virtues.

In Thomas Aquinas Selected Writings, Penguin, 1998, you will find Questions 56-58 of the Summa theologiae, IaIIae.

The present lesson will deal with a number of general questions about virtue; the following lesson will speak of the cardinal virtues as such.

The Current Vogue of "Virtue Ethics"

In the past ten or fifteen years, a great deal has been written about "virtue ethics," a phrase which conveys a criticism of the way in which ethics has been done in Anglo-American philosophy throughout much of this century. Modernity in the arts is often discernible by the fact that the art-work becomes its own subject. The novel is about a novel about a novel, etc., the painting turns out to have the brushstrokes which create it as its subject, and so on. Similarly, for a very long stretch, philosophers occupied themselves not so much with ethics as with metaethics.

There were many books written on the language of morals, the vocabulary of ethics, the logic of moral discourse. The suggestion implicit in all this was that if only we could achieve clarity about how moral language works, the moral problem would be solved.

The general philosophical background for this was the so-called linguistic turn. Modern philosophy begins with the critical turn, that is, the notion that hitherto philosophy had been hopelessly naive, assuming that it was knowledge of the things that are. After Descartes, the center of gravity became knowledge itself and questions began to arise as to whether we could ever know things in themselves, that is, apart from the way we know them. Of course it seems redundant to say that we know things as we know them, but the phrase took on the force of a denial -- we cannot know them as they are in themselves.

Knowledge thus becomes the human construal of reality, what we make of whatever there is, rather than knowledge of that reality itself. With Kant things-in-themselves are merely a point of reference beyond thinking, not something we can know. In order for there to be things as we know them, Kant needed to contrast them with the things that are, not again as if the latter could be known: they amount to a negative reference.

The linguistic turn is taken when philosophers want to get out of the various mental topographies and epistemologies that succeed one another with such profusion. The rational animal is one who speaks, and language becomes the new focus of philsophical analysis. Indeed, Analytic Philosophy becomes all but equated with Linguistic Philosophy. The question of meaning becomes paramount and the thought occurs that we do not need reference to thought in order to explain language. In the Philosophy of Logical Atomism, Bertrand Russell united the formal logic that he and Alfred North Whitehead had developed in their Principia Mathematica with a view of language which analysed complex sentences into atomic sentences and maintained a one to one correspondence between the elements of such simple sentences and the elements of the corresponding fact. Philosophical problems were to be handled by such linguistic analysis.

A theory of meaning of a particularly rambunctious kind arose from this and may be seen in its most sophomoric spiritedness in A. J. Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic. Words have meaning if they play a role in sentences which can be verified. There are two kinds of proposition: tautologies -- A is A is logically true -- and empirical propositions. If an empirical proposition is complex it must first be broken down into its atomic constituents, so we end with propositions of the form Fx (which might stand for x is red, the values of x being sense data). Empirical propositions are meaningful only if they can be thus verified; that is, if its constituents refer to sense data. Ayer blithely concluded that all metaphysical, religious and moral statements turn out to be meaningless on this criterion, and so be it.

This opened the way for any number of accounts as to why moral language actually does work, with some form of emotivism emerging. That is, the "moral" words, good and bad, ought and ought not, were interpreted as pointing to some subjective state or feeling of the speaker and not to any feature of the things called good or bad. Discussions of ethics became progressively more arid and of course bore less and less relation to the history of the discipline.

So-called virtue ethics is a revolt against this. The ethical task, we are reminded, is not so much a matter of knowing as it is of being in a certain way. What we seek to acquire is not some kind of abstract knowlege about ethical language, but a moral character. In the words of The Imitation of Christ, the aim is "to feel compunction, not define it."

Knowledge and Virtue

This opens a question to which we shall be devoting the next several lessons, that of the relation between knowledge and virtue, knowledge and action. Virtue ethics sometimes seems to be a quarrel with the relevance of general knowledge for the moral life. A theory which enjoyed a brief vogue in moral philosophy and perhaps still thrives in many minds, was called Situation Ethics. Of what good are general reflections on action or general rules for acting when each and every act is unique. Rules may seem to cover the singular action, but the fact is that singular actions escape any effort to tie them down to general characteristics. This came to seem almost definitionally true: the singular is not the general nor vice versa. Insofar as virtue ethics partook of the spirit of Situation Ethics it would be antinomian and inimical to general reflections on action where such general reflections were thought to end in guidelines binding on all.

These are issues to which we shall be devoting much time a few lessons from now.

Acquired and Infused Virtues

Earlier we discussed Thomas's views on imperfect and perfect happiness. The happiness achievable in this life -- which consists in virtuous activity -- always falls short of the ideal of the human good that seems implicit in any action. If self-sufficiency and permanence are marks of the ultimate end, they do not seem to characterize in any strong way the good that we can achieve. By revelation however we learn of an ultimate condition that will perfectly fulfill the notion of ultimate end. Thus Thomas distinguished our condition in via -- in this life -- and in patria -- in the next.

But this contrast does not seem to be enough. The Christian in this life, living in a state of grace, already participates in the life that will be his permanently after this one. True, he can fall from grace. Nonetheless, it would seem that we must distinguish a perfect and imperfect possession of our true end. Isn't that what Thomas meant by the distinction between perfect and imperfect happiness.

Perhaps. But he also means something else. Imperfect happiness is constituted by the activity of virtues we acquire by our own powers. Such virtues characterize the human agent as such. But not all human agents are Christians. Therefore imperfect happiness does not necessarily mean an imperfect possession in this life of the happiness that will be ours in the next. The virtues which make possible in this life an imperfect participation in eternal life are called infused virtues, and they are contrasted with acquired virtues.

In Lesson 15 we will be discussing the notion of Christian Ethics. For now, let us consider a position which, while many have held some version of it, we will present as a logical possibility rather than as a criticism of others.

The human condition has been radically altered because of sin and even more because of Christ's salvific act. Augustine called Original Sin a felix culpa, a happy fault, because, however horrendous sin is, the remedy for Original Sin elevated us to a state that would not otherwise have been ours. Redemption does not merely restore the status quo ante, the state of original innocence enjoyed by Adam and Eve. Rather it lifts us to the supernatural realm and to an end which is beatific union with God, far exceeding anything even Adam could have dreamt of. The ultimate end of human beings is now the beatific vision. This being so, no discussion of the human good which prescinds from our true ultimate end can have significance for human agents. In practical matters, the end is the controlling consideration. Principles and rules will have import to the degree that they correctly relate to the end. Principles and rules which do not relate to man's true end, his supernatural end, are misleading and indeed false.

That is the position, abstractly put. Many have held some version of it. Many do so today. It amounts to a denial that there is such a thing as moral philosophy. It is a mistake.

Is the realizable ideal that we find in the Nicomachean Ethics still describable as imperfect human happiness? Yes.

Is it possible for a human being to acquire the virtues which will order him to the imperfect happiness there described? Yes.

Are considerations of this imperfect end and rules and advice about how to achieve it necessarily false? No.

Are acquired virtues sufficient to relate us to our supernatural end? Emphatically not.

Is the moral life easier within the dispensation of grace and extremely difficult without the help of grace? Yes.

Can one say that without supernatural help it is practically impossible for human beings to attain their natural end? Yes.

We will return to all this. I want now to draw attention to Thomas's teaching on the interaction of infused and acquired virtues, an interaction possible only in the Christian. What is meant by an infused virtue? An infused virtue is a state of character that relates us to the supernatural end. The supernatural end by definition exceeds the capacity of our nature. We are incapable by our own efforts to attain the supernatural end just as we are incapable of forgiving our own sins and restoring ourselves to lost innocence. The infused virtues, accordingly, are not acquisitions, but gifts of grace.

There is of course something paradoxical in speaking of infused virtue. Thomas approaches such theological discussions against the background of philosophical doctrine: this follows from the very notion of theology as the bringing to bear on what God has revealed all relevant natural knowledge. Now this means that for Thomas as for us the term 'virtue' means in the first place a state of character that has been achieved by way of habituation, that is, by repeated acts of a certain kind. One learns how to play the harp by playing the harp, Aristotle famously said. So too one becomes temperate by performing temperate acts, just by performing just acts, courageous by acting bravely, and so forth.

All that seems called into question by the notion of infused virtues. These are simply given, infused into the soul by God, gratuitous, gifts. This means that the soul in the state of grace has all the virtues.

That in turn seems implausible. Here is a baby just baptized. On the doctrine of infused virtues, the child has faith, hope and charity as well as all the moral virtues, most notably the cardinal virtues, and so on. It would seem that living the Christian life should be effortless. To have the virtues is to have the capacity and inclination to act in a certain way. How is it then that the Christian so obviously falters, that there is what Augustine called a spiritual combat to be engaged in. The Gospels and spiritual writers speak of the good life as one of effort and struggle. But how does that comport with the notion that we are simply given by infusion the virtues?

The infused virtues are actuated by acquired virtues. It is by repeated acts of a given kind that I become temperate, courageous, just, prudent. This seems to be as true of the infused cardinal virtues as it is of the acquired cardinal virtues. It is just here that a great danger arises.

If by acquired virtues here we mean simply our own natural efforts, independently of grace, we would be advancing the heretical position that grace is a natural acquisition, something we achieve on our own. But this is a denial of the very notion of grace. Any meritorious action -- any action that merits a supernatural reward -- is already a graced action. The interaction between acquired and infused virtues, therefore, is something that can only take place within the life of grace.

What then of acquired virtues considered apart from the realm of grace? It is possible for the human agent, even in the state of sin, to acquire virtues whose acts are constitutive of the imperfect happiness of which the philosophers speak.

It is also the case that the acquisition of such virtues may dispose a person for the supernatural order -- not merit it, of course -- but provide a setting in which the response to grace seems less surprising.

Reading Assignment

Disputed Questions on Virtue, pp. 45-84.

Writing Assignment

Describe the various kinds of virtue and how they are related.


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