Augustine on Virtue
In his book On the Morals of the Catholic Church, Augustine re-intreptreted the classical virtues through the distinctly Christian lens of love:
I hold that virtue is nothing other than the perfect love of God. Now, when it is said that virtue has a fourfold division, as I understand it, this is said according to the various movements of love…We may, therefore, define these virtues as follows: temperance is love preserving itself entire and incorrupt for God; courage is love readily bearing all things for the sake of God; justice is love serving only God, and therefore ruling well everything else that is subject to the human person; prudence is love discerning well between what helps it toward God and what hinders it.
Augustine of Hippo, On the Morals of the Catholic Church
Goodness Stamped Into Us
In his thoughtful book, Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes, Jonathan K. Dodson provides a wonderful analogy of what happens when we cultivate the virtues in our lives:
When goodness becomes who we are, not just what we occasionally do, we become virtuous. When I was a kid, I ate sticks of rock candy that had the word Brighton stamped on the end. No matter how much I licked, the word didn’t disappear. The letters seeped all the way through. Virtue is like that. No matter how far down you go, goodness still shows up.
Taken from Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes by Jonathan K. Dodson Copyright (c) 2020 by Jonathan K. Dodson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The Importance of Practice in Developing Virtue
Very simply, a virtue (or vice) is acquired through practice— repeated activity that increases our proficiency at the activity and repeated activity that increases our proficiency at the activity and gradually forms our character. Alasdair MacIntyre describes a child learning to play chess to illustrate the process of habit formation. Imagine, writes MacIntyre, that in hopes of teaching an uninterested seven-year-old to play chess, you offer the child candy—one piece to play, and another piece if the child wins the game. Motivated by his sweet tooth, the child agrees.
At first, he plays for the candy alone. (And he will cheat to win, in order to get more candy.) But the more the child plays, the better at chess he gets. And the better at chess he gets, the more he enjoys the game, eventually coming to enjoy the game for itself. At this point in the process, he is no longer playing for the candy; now the child is playing because he enjoys chess and wants to play well. And he understands both the intrinsic value of the game and the way cheating will now rob him of that value. He has become a chess player. Moral formation in virtue works much the same way.
We often need external incentives and sanctions to get us through the initial stages of the process, when our old, entrenched desires still pull us toward the opposite behavior. But with encouragement, discipline, and often a role model or mentor, practice can make things feel more natural and enjoyable as we gradually develop the internal values and desires corresponding to our outward behavior. Virtue often develops. That is, from the outside in. This is why, when we want to re-form our character from vice to virtue, we often need to practice and persevere in regular spiritual disciplines and formational practices for a lengthy period of time. There is no quick and easy substitute for daily repetition over the long haul. First we have to pull the sled out of the old rut, and then gradually build up a new track.
As with most human endeavors, we usually do not do this alone. Our parents, most obviously and deeply, contribute to our character formation, but so do friends, mentors, historical figures, and the community of saints past and present. If we marry, our spouse will shape our character, as will our teachers, and the fictional characters we read about and find inspiring. Our coworkers influence our habit formation. And so do the friends with whom we spend the most time—which is why good parents care so much about their children’s friends. When we make a new resolution or try to cultivate a new habit, having a community back us, or even a single partner with whom to practice or from whom to learn, can make all the difference.
Values Vs. Virtues
There are real and very important differences between what we now call values and the virtues as they had traditionally been understood. Let me put it this way. A value is like a smoke ring. Its shape is initially determined by the smoker, but once it is released there is no telling what shapes it will take. One thing is certain, however. Once a smoke ring has left the smoker’s lips it has already begun to evaporate into thin air.
Volition and volatility are characteristics of both smoke rings and values. By contrast, a virtue might be compared to a stone whose nature is permanence. We might throw a stone into a pond where it will lie at the bottom with other stones. But if, at some later date, we should want to retrieve that stone from the bottom of the pond, we can be sure that the shape of the stone has not changed and that we will be able to distinguish it from the rest of the stones.
The virtues define the character of a person, his enduring relationship to the world, and what will be his end. Whereas values, according to their common usage, are the instruments or components of moral living that the self chooses for itself and that the self may disregard without necessarily jeopardizing its identity.
Virtues: Acquired Moral Qualities
How are vices and virtues distinguished? How is a vice different from sin?…Although most references to the lists of seven use “vice” and “sin” in a roughly synonymous way, distinguishing the two turns out to be important. A vice (or its counterpart, a virtue), first of all, is a habit or a character trait.
Unlike something we are born with—such as—such as an outgoing personality or a predisposition to have high cholesterol levels—virtues and vices are acquired moral qualities. We can cultivate habits or break them down over time through our repeated actions. And thus we are ultimately responsible for our character.
Virtues and Vices Can Offer Fresh Perspective
Reaching back to the tradition of virtues and vices can also give us fresh eyes and expose new layers of meaning in our reading of scripture. Before I read Aquinas on sloth, I would have associated it with only a few proverbs about sluggards and perhaps the parable of the talents with this vice. A closer study of sloth helped me to see it in the Israelites’ resistance to embracing their new home in the promised land, and in Lot’s wife turning back to the familiarity of Sodom while angels attempted to rescue her.
Similarly, understanding the distinction between wrath and righteous anger helps us understand how Jesus integrated justice and love—how he could burn with anger against Pharisees who would deny a man healing on the Sabbath and then forgive those who crucify him. Studying avarice leads us to see connections between the story of the widow of Zarephath and the prodigal son. Once we grasp the envy-charity link, we gain new insight into the depths of the brothers’ antipathy toward Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son.