MEANING OF VIRTUE IN THOMAS AQUINAS
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Until modern times the relationship of morals to religion was taken
for granted, and writers as far different in philosophy as Plato and
Avicenna, or in theology as Aquinas and Luther, never questioned the
basic truth expressed on Mt. Sinai when Yahweh gave the Jews the
decalogue whose first precepts were to honor God as a foundation for
the secondary precepts of the moral law.
But something new has entered the stream of human thought, the
concept of man's autonomy that wishes to dispense with religion in
its bearing on morals, on the grounds that the very notion of
religious values is only a mental construct. Whatever bearing they
may have on ethical principles, it is not as though the concept of
God was a necessary conation for being moral in the current, accepted
sense of the term.
Where the fifth century monk Pelagius denied the existence of grace
because he felt this encouraged lazy dependence on supernatural aid,
latter day critics of religion would remove the existence of God for
the same reason except that their Pelagianism is more complete,
perhaps because their confidence in Man is so extreme.
Aristotle and Aquinas
To illustrate and examine the relation of religion and morality, I
have chosen Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth century theologian whose
principles were the standard of ethical teaching up to the
Reformation and since then have become fundamental in Christian moral
theology. Since Aquinas depended so heavily on Aristotle, it will pay
to review the Aristotelian position on ethics, see its religious
dimension, and then study Aquinas somewhat in depth - by way of
contrast with Aristotle as the mainstay of an ethical system which
believes that God and religious values are primary, and that true
goodness is to be measured in terms of an ultimate finality, reasoned
by man's natural intellect but fully possessed only on the basis of
the Christian faith.
The broad outline of Aristotle's teaching is found in the
and , where he writes at great length
of the human good. The good for man, according to Aristotle, is an
active use or exercise of those faculties which are distinctively
human, that is, the powers of mind and will, as distinct from the
lower faculties of feeling, nutrition and growth.
Human excellence thus defined shows itself in two forms: the habitual
subordination of the senses and lower tendencies to rational rule and
principle, and in the exercise of reason in the search for the
contemplation of truth. The former kind of excellence is described as
moral, the latter is intellectual virtue.
A well-known feature of Aristotle's ethics which deeply influenced
Aquinas is the theory that each of the moral virtues is a mean
between excess and defect; thus courage is a mean between cowardice
and rashness, and liberality is a mean between stinginess and
In the , Aristotle sets forth the importance of the
political community as the source and sustainer of the typically
human life. But for Aristotle the highest good for man is found not
in the political life, nor even in the performance of the moral
virtues as such. The highest good consists in the theoretical inquiry
and contemplation of truth. This alone, he says, brings continuous
and complete happiness because it is the activity of the highest part
of man's complete nature, and of that part which is least dependent
on externals, namely the intellect of intuitive reason. Therefore,
contemplation of the first principles of knowledge and being man
participates in that activity of pure thought which constitutes the
eternal perfection of the divine nature, which is God.
In Thomas Aquinas, much of the structure of Aristotle and a great
deal of his insight are retained, to the point that a superficial
reader might suspect that Aquinas merely baptized the Stagirite or
put Aristotelian concepts into a Christian mold. Actually the change
from one to the other was radical and a correct understanding of
Christian morality must take this mutation into account.
Aquinas believed what Aristotle never dreamed: that man is more than
a composite of body and soul, that his is nothing less than elevated
to a supernatural order which participates, as far as a creature can,
in the' very nature of God. Accordingly a person in the state of
grace, or divine friendship, possesses certain enduring powers, the
infused virtues and gifts, that raise him to an orbit of existence as
far above nature as heaven is above earth, and that give him
abilities of thought and operation that are literally born, not of
the will of flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. Nowhere else
does the true character of the supernatural appear more evident than
in the endowments of infused virtue which some people possess and
others do not, and that make some capable of spiritual actions which
others cannot perform.
In the Thomistic system, the soul is the substantial form of the
body, which gives man all that is properly human and places him
essentially into the natural order; sanctifying grace or
justification, by analogy, is the accidental form of the soul, which
gives the same man all that is properly divine and puts him
habitually into the family of God. Comparing the two with each
other, the soul is the foundation of natural existence, as
sanctifying grace is the principle of supernatural life.
Yet we know that the soul is not all we have in the body, that the
soul itself has powers through which it operates and by which it
gives expression to its rational nature. Even so, by a divine
consistency, the "soul of the soul," as sanctifying grace has been
called, must have channels for the deiform life that God confers on
the just. They are the virtues, theological and moral, according to
their respective purposes; not unlike the native abilities through
which mind and will come into contact with us.
Etymologically, Aquinas derived "virtue" from the same root as the
Latin [man] and [power], suggesting that in its primitive
sense virtue implied the possession of such masculine qualities as
strength and courage and, in the moral order, of goodness and human
In the patristic period, theological virtues were the subject of
frequent writing and, in Pelagian times, of controversy. The
commentaries of the Fathers on St. Paul offer a complete treatise on
every phase of faith, hope and charity; and St. Augustine's
or was always
referred to by him as "a book on Faith, Hope, and Charity." For
Augustine, therefore, a summary of these virtues was an epitome of
the essentials of Christianity.
However a scientific study was not made until the Middle Ages, in the
great Summa of Peter Lombard, Peter of Poitiers, William of Auxerre
and Alexander of Hales, terminating in the definitive work of St.
Thomas. His analysis of theological virtue remains standard, and
figures extensively in all his major writings, especially the .
St. Thomas defines virtue as "a good habit bearing on activity," or a
good faculty-habit . Generic to the
concept of virtue, then, is the element of habit, which stands in a
special relation to the soul, whether in the natural order or
elevated to the divine life by grace.
The soul is the remote principle or source of all our activities;
faculties are the proximate sources built into the soul by nature;
habits are still more immediate principles added to the faculties
either by personal endeavor or by supernatural infusion from God.
Consequently the soul helps the man, faculties help the soul, and
habits help the faculties.
Habits reside in the faculties as stable dispositions or "hard to
eradicate" qualities that dispose the faculties to act in a certain
way, depending on the type of habit. If the habit is acquired it
gives the faculty power to act with ease and facility; if it is
infused, it procures not readiness in supernatural activity, but the
very activity itself. Natural or acquired habits result from repeated
acts of some one kind; they give not the power to act, but the power
to act readily and with dexterity. Thus in the natural order, the
faculty without the habit is simple power to act, the faculty with
the habit is power to act with perfection. Since custom is parent to
habit, it is called second nature. Faculty is like first nature, and
habit the second.
Not every habit is a virtue, but only one that so improves and
perfects a rational faculty as to incline it towards good -- good for
the faculty, for the will and for the whole man in terms of his
There is a broad sense in which we can speak of the natural
dispositions of any of our powers as innate virtues, but this is a
loose rendering and leads to confusion. More properly the infused
virtues should be contrasted with the acquired habits, in which the
autonomous will of the individual plays the dominant role. My
consistent effort to concentrate on a given course of action,
repeating the process over a long period of time and in spite of
obstacles, gradually develops a tendency to perform the action
spontaneously and almost without reflection, yet to a degree of
perfection that someone else without the virtue cannot duplicate.
The infused virtues are independent of the process. They are directly
produced by God in the operative faculties of a man, and differ
mainly from the acquired because they do not imply the human effort
which determines the faculty to a particular kind of activity, namely
facility induced by repetition. God Himself pours in 
the infused virtues, not by compulsion or overriding the free will of
man, but without dependence on us, which Augustine says, "are
produced in us by God without our assistance." They are supernatural
gifts, freely conferred through the merits of Christ, and raise the
activity of those who possess them to the divine level in the same
way that sanctifying grace elevates their nature to a share in the
life of God. They are supernatural precisely because they transcend
the natural capacities of mind and will either to acquire or operate.
Among the infused virtues, however, some are concerned directly with
God and operate in a field in which the unaided reason cannot work;
they are called theological. Others have as their object not God
Himself, the final end of all things, but human activities that are
penultimate and subordinate to the final end; they are called moral
and, because four of them [prudence, fortitude, temperance, and
justice] are primary, said to be cardinal  in human
Aquinas argued of the necessity for theological virtues from a simple
analysis of man's elevation to the supernatural order. Our final
happiness may be considered in two ways. One is commensurate with our
human nature, and therefore a happiness obtainable by the use of our
native powers of mind and will. The other is immeasurably higher,
surpassing nature, and secured only from God by the merciful
communication of His own divinity. To make it possible to attain this
higher destiny in the beatific vision, we must have new principles of
activity, which are called theological virtues because their object
is God and not, as in moral virtues, merely things that lead to God;
because they are infused in the mind and will by God alone, as
opposed to the habits acquired by personal exercise; and because they
would never be known to us, except through divine revelation.
Reflecting on the data of Scripture and tradition, Thomas finds a
striking reasonableness in the kind of virtues that God infuses in
the soul. They direct us to supernatural happiness in the same way
that our natural inclinations lead to our connatural end, i.e. in two
ways. First we must have light for the mind, both of principles and
practical knowledge, and then rectitude for the will to have it tend
naturally to the good as defined for us by reason.
Both of these, however, fall short of the order of supernatural
happiness, where "the eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it
entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those
who love Him." Consequently in both cases man had to receive
something additional to lead him to a supernatural end.
For his intellect he receives supernatural principles, held by means
of divine light, which are the articles of belief accepted on faith.
His will is directed to the same end in two ways: as an intentional
drive moving towards that destiny to attain it [which is hope], and
as a kind of spiritual union that somehow transforms the will into
the goal it is seeking [which is charity].
Theological virtues supply for the mind and will what neither faculty
has of itself, the salutary knowledge, desire and love of God and of
His will, without which there could be no supernatural order, which
means voluntary choice of suitable means to reach the heavenly goal
to which we are elevated. These virtues make us well adjusted to our
last end, which is God Himself; hence they are called theological,
because they not only go out to God -- as all virtue worthy of the
name must do -- but they also reach Him. To be well adjusted to our
destiny we must know and desire it; the desire demands that we are in
love with the object to which we are tending and are confident of
obtaining it. Faith makes us know the God to whom we are going, hope
makes us look forward to joining Him, and charity makes us love Him.
Unlike the virtues known to philosophy, faith, hope, and charity are
not applications of the golden mean between extremes. In Aristotle's
language, a moral virtue is a certain habit of the faculty of choice,
consisting of a mean  suitable to our nature and fixed by
reason in the manner in which a prudent man would fix it. It is a
habit which consists in a mean between excess and defect. Courage
keeps the balance between cowardice and reckless daring; sincerity
between ironical deprecation and boastfulness; and modesty between
shamelessness and bashfulness.
But a theological virtue can be measured by what the virtue demands
or by what our capacity allows. There is a valid sense in which even
the theological virtues observe a kind of mean, or better, a center
of gravity to which they tend. As far as God is concerned, He can
never be believed in, trusted or loved too much. But from our point
of view, we should exercise these virtues according to the measure of
our condition. Christian faith goes midway between heretical
extremes, for instance between Pelagianism which dispenses with
divine grace and Jansenism that denies a free will; Christian hope
must choose a path among the numerous prospective means of salvation;
and Christian charity must find a balance in the myriad opportunities
for loving God.
Infused Moral Virtues
Besides the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, St.
Thomas teaches that a person in divine friendship receives an
infusion of the moral virtues whose immediate object is not God
Himself but the practice of human actions conducive to man's final
end. Just as faith, hope and charity correspond in the supernatural
order to natural knowledge, hope and love, so there are other
divinely infused habits to supplement and match these theological
virtues; habits which are elevated counterparts of the acquired
virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice.
Aristotle was again the basic source on which St. Thomas built the
now familiar structure of the cardinal virtues which are reduced to
four because of the objective order of morality. The mind must first
discover this order and propose its commands to the will; prudence,
or the habit of doing the right thing at the right time, is reason's
helper. The will, in turn, must execute these commands in its own
field; justice, or the habit of giving everybody his due, is helper
to the will in its management of the appetite's aversions.
Just as there are four faculties which contribute to our moral acts,
intellect, will, appetite of desire and appetite of aversion, so
there must be four virtues to keep these faculties straight --
prudence for the mind, justice for the will, temperance for the urge
to what is pleasant, and fortitude for the instinct away from what is
painful. The Latins summarized their functions in the word,
[look around], [act], [keep away from]
and [bear up with].
All other virtues in the moral order can be referred to this tetrad
as their potential parts. In view of their practical value as
possessions of nature [also infused by grace], it is worth examining
in some detail.
The principal act of prudence is the practical executive command of
right reason, and the following virtues come within its orbit; good
counsel, sound judgment when the ordinary rules of conduct are
concerned, and a flair for dealing with exceptional cases.
As regards justice, its classical type renders what is due between
equals, but other virtues come under the general heading of justice.
Some render what is owing to another, but not as to an equal. Others
deal with a situation where both parties are equal, yet the due or
debt, though demanded by decency, cannot be enforced by law, and so
is not an affair of strict justice. In the first category of these
phases of justice comes religion, which offers our service and
worship to God, then piety and patriotism, which render our duty to
parents and country, then observance, which shows reverence to
superiors, and obedience to their commands. In the second category
come gratitude for past favors, and vindication when injury has been
done; also truthfulness, without which social decency is impossible,
liberality in spending money, and friendliness or social good
The respective parts of fortitude, on the attacking side, are
confidence, carried out with magnificence, which reckons not the
cost, and magnanimity, which does not shrink from glory. On the
defensive side is patience, which keeps an unconquered spirit, and
can be protracted into perseverance.
Finally the subordinated kinds of temperance are continence, which
resists lustfulness and evil desires concerned with touch, clemency
which tempers punishment, meekness that tempers anger, modesty in our
deportment, including disciplined study, reasonable recreation and
good taste in clothes.
Aquinas concluded with the necessity of infused moral virtues from
the principle of consistency between the natural and supernatural. It
is obvious, he reasoned, that a person in the state of grace performs
actions of other virtues than just the theological, that is, of
justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude. These actions are
essentially supernatural, and therefore require, besides the state of
grace, moral habits that are equally supernatural. Otherwise we
should postulate an imbalance in the moral order, since God's
ordinary providence uses secondary causes of the same kind as the
effects produced. If we are to have truly supernatural acts of
justice and chastity, for example, we should have infused
supernatural virtues that proximately bring these actions about. In
the last analysis, there must be infused moral virtues, in addition
to the theological, because of faith in the person justified. A moral
virtue, by definition, avoids extremes. It does not offend against
right reason by excess or by defect. But once the faith is had, there
is not question of limiting the practice of moral virtue by reason
alone. Faith sublimates reason as the standard of moderation; and
just as prior to faith there are acquired virtues commensurate with
reason to assist the natural mind and will in the performance of
morally good acts, so with the advent of faith there should be
corresponding supernatural virtues commensurate with the light of
faith to assist the elevated human faculties in the performance of
supernaturally good actions in the moral order.
A slight problem arises from the fact that the infused virtues are
necessarily spiritual and the infusion must directly take place in
the mind and will, in spite of the fact that two of the virtues,
temperance and fortitude, involve the sense appetite. One explanation
is to have the virtues immediately enter the spiritual faculties, and
these in turn affect the less powers as called upon for moral action.
Here, if anywhere, the familiar dictum that "grace does not destroy
but builds upon nature" is eminently true. All that we say about
these virtues as naturally acquired qualities holds good for the
infused, but much more. With reason enlightened by faith, the scope
of virtuous operation is extended to immeasurably wider horizons. By
the same token faith furnishes motives of which reason would never
conceive, and theological charity offers inspiration that surpasses
anything found in nature.
Aquinas and Aristotle both recognize that virtue is not its own
reward and has little meaning apart from an ultimate goal. A man is
virtuous because his actions correspond to an objective norm, which
for Aristotle was knowable by reason and for Aquinas by reason and
But where Aristotle almost identified morally good conduct with an
aesthetic mean between opposite extremes, Aquinas saw the good man
with a vision that Aristotle never enjoyed. For Aristotle a man was
basically virtuous because he displayed a beautiful balance in his
moral actions, not unlike the harmony displayed in a work of art.
Hence the attractive aspect of virtue is often stressed by Aristotle
and his modern imitators, at the expense of morality proper. What was
missing were two dimensions of morality that only the Christian
religion brought into full light: that internal dispositions and
their consequent actions are virtuous not mainly because of an
aesthetic harmony of agent, conduct and environment, but because they
advance their possessor in the direction of his final destiny to
eternal life after death; and that virtue is more than a reasonable
balance between behavioristic extremes, since it postulates a primal
obligation to a divine Lawgiver, whose will is manifest in conscience
and faith, and to whom obedience is due as man's Creator and Lord.
Taken from the "Great Catholic Books Newsletter" Volume II, Number 1.