Jacques Maritain Center : Elements of Moral Theology


§ 1. On habits.

Since virtues and vices are habits of a human agent, we need to take a brief view of what habits in general are.

A habit is a (fixed) quality or disposition of our soul, whereby we are well or ill regulated, either in ourself or relatively to something else. (Arist. Met. v. 25.) Habits stand between our active powers and their operations. For, by their definition, they have a two-fold relation: on one side to the subject of them; on the other side, to the end of that subject, which is its activity, its operation, as either the end, or leading to the end.

We may speak of bodily habits, when we mean, not the natural operations which require no habit, but that which the body does in the direct service of the soul. The body may be well or ill disposed as the servant of the soul. Such dispositions of the body we call habits.

But habits are specially in the powers of the soul.

Some are found in the sensitive soul, not as it operates from natural instinct, but as it acts under the dominion of reason.

Since a habit is something which we can rationally use or not use, we cannot properly say that the brutes have habits.

There are habits of the intellect and of the will, which will be treated of when we consider particular virtues.

Some habits are implanted in us by nature, whether distinctive of human nature in general, or peculiar to the individual. Thus some men may have a natural habit of temperance or chastity.

But many habits are caused in our faculties, so far as they are naturally passive, by repeated acts. Thus the habits of the desires are rendered virtues, by repeated acts according as they are moved by reason.

Some habits are infused by God.

For, first, there are some habits by which man is well constituted with reference to an end exceeding the powers of human nature (in itself). Such habits must be proportioned to their end. Therefore they cannot be naturally in man, but need to be supernaturally given; sc., the supernatural virtues and gifts. Secondly, God may show His power by supernaturally giving habits which might have been (slowly) produced by natural powers. Thus He gave to the apostles the habit of speaking in languages which they had not acquired by study.

Habits are increased by acts if the intensity of the act is proportioned to the strength of the habit. If the intensity of the act is deficient in this respect, such a negligent act tends to weaken the habit.

As habits are generated and increased by acts, so ceasing from action diminishes them and sometimes totally destroys them.

For it removes those acts which keep off causes that corrupt or diminish those habits. Habits are per se corrupted or diminished by contrary agents. And where those contraries increase with lapse of time, such habits may at last be totally destroyed by long-continued cessation from their operation, as is manifest in habits of virtue and knowledge. For when any one does not use his habit of virtue to moderate his passions or inward operations, it is necessary that they advance beyond the limits of virtue, owing to the (natural) inclination of sense appetite and other powers which are directed to outward objects. So it is with those intellectual habits whereby one judges rightly concerning the objects presented in the imagination. When a man ceases from the use of his intellectual habits, extraneous images arise and sometimes distract the mind; so that, unless by frequent use of the intellectual habit they be cut off or repressed, a man is rendered less apt to judge rightly, and sometimes is totally disposed to the contrary. And so, by cessation from action, the intellectual habit is diminished a destroyed.

§ 2. The essence and subject of virtue.

Human virtue is a habit.

The word virtue denotes a certain perfection of a power or "faculty of the soul." But the perfection of each thing is specially viewed with reference to its end. Now the end of a power is action, and hence a power is said to be perfect as it is determined to its act. But there are some powers which in themselves are determined to their acts, as the natural active powers. These are sometimes called virtues (in a loose or wider sense of the word). But the rational powers which are peculiar to man are not determined in any one direction, but are indeterminate towards many directions. They are determined to acts through habits, and therefore human virtues are habits. Virtue is a good habit of action, and productive of good.

S. Augustine's definition is, Virtue is a good quality or habit of the soul, by which one lives rightly, and which no one uses badly, and which God as the sole efficient cause produces in us. Aristotle says that "virtue is that which renders him that has it good, and his work good." (Nic. Eth., ii. 6.)

Can the intellect be the subject of virtue? Virtue, according to our definition, is a habit which one uses well. But a habit is ordained for good action in two ways: (1) Inasmuch as by a habit of this kind is acquired a faculty of good action. Thus man may acquire the faculty of speaking correctly, through what may be called the grammatical habit, although he does not always actually so speak. (2) In another way habit gives not only facility in acting well, but also brings it about that one rightly uses his faculty, as justice not only makes a man's will prompt to do just things, but also causes him actually to do them. But we call good not what is merely potential, but what is actual. Therefore from habits of this latter kind a man is said to do good, and to be a good man. And since "virtue is what makes a man good, and his work good," habits of the second class are properly and specially called virtues. But habits of the first class are not simply called virtues, because they do not make the work good except as one faculty is concerned, neither do they make the agent good. A man may be a good grammarian or a good artisan without being a good man. He is good secundum quid, and so there are intellectual virtues which are virtues secundum quid. But the subject of virtue proper is the will or some other human power as it is moved by the will. The will moves the powers of a man, as they are rational, to their respective acts. And therefore when a man actually does well, this results from his having a good will.

The intellect may be moved by the will, when one considers anything because he wills to do so. And so, as the intellect is related to the will, it may become the subject of virtue, properly speaking. In this way the reason is the subject of faith, for it is moved to assent to the objects of faith by the dominion of the will. For no one unwillingly believes. This belongs to the speculative intellect.

But the practical intellect is the subject of the virtue prudence. For since prudence is "right ideas concerning things to be done," it requires that a man be well disposed with reference to the principles of those things, i.e., to the ends for which they are the means, which right disposition comes from rectitude of will.

All proper virtues depend in a certain way on love, which is the virtue of the will; therefore they depend on a good will. It is true that intellectual virtues do not make a good can; but since the end of each thing is its good, and since he true is the end of the mental powers, to know the true a good act of those powers. Hence, such a habit may be alled an intellectual virtue.

Are the passions the subject of virtue? We may consider the irascible and the coneupiscible pasions as they are in themselves, belonging to the sensitive ature of a man. So viewed, they cannot be the subject of virtue. In another way they may be considered as they are naturally made to obey reason, and so participate in reason. So viewed they can be the subject of human virtue. For the act which proceeds from one power as that power is moved by another, cannot be perfect unless both powers are well disposed with reference to their respective activities. So the act of the artificer cannot be perfect in ts kind, unless he, as artificer, is in good condition, and is instrument also. In those things, therefore, which are one through the passions as moved by reason, there must be some habit perfecting to good action, not only in the reason, but also in the irascible or concupiscible nature. The latter virtue is nothing else than a certain habitual conformity to reason in those powers.

Brutes cannot have such virtues, though they have such passions, because their passions are not subject to the emire of reason.

(1) 5. Paul, indeed, said (Rom. vii. 18), "I know that my flesh (i.e., sense-appetite) dwells no good thing." But this is doubtless spoken of it as it is in itself.

(2) It might be objected, again, that since virtue is entirely in the soul, all that virtue belongs to the rational art which governs the rest; as virtue is not in the body, but in the soul which governs the body. But very different is the government of the passions from the government of the body. It is a very suggestive observation of Aristotle (Polit. i. 5), that "the soul rules the body with a despotical rule, whereas the intellect rules the appetites with a constitutional and royal rule." Therefore there is no virtue in the body, but only in the soul. But the passions do not obey like a slave, and they have their own proper motions, by which they sometimes oppose reason. Therefore there must be in the passions some virtues by which they may be well disposed for (good) action.

(3) Another objection. The principal act of moral virtue is choice. But the passions do not choose, but only the reason chooses; therefore virtue is found in reason only. I answer that in choice are found two things; sc., aiming at the end, which pertains to moral virtue, and selecting of means to that end, which pertains to prudence. But right intention as respects the end is (partly) due to a good disposition of the passions. Therefore there are moral virtues of the passions, while prudence belongs to reason.

There are virtues of the will.

Any power of the soul needs a habit perfecting it for good action, i.e., a virtue, when the proper nature of that power does not (by itself) suffice for that purpose. So far, then, as the object of the will is a good of reason proportioned to the will, so far no perfecting virtue of the will is needed. But if any good ought to be willed by man which exceeds the natural limits of the one who wills, whether it be a good transcending the natural limits of human nature, or a good which exceeds the natural proportions of the individual (as the good of his neighbour); therein the will needs a virtue. And therefore virtues of this kind, which order the affections of man towards God and towards his neighbour, have the will for their subject, as charity, justice, and the like. Each thing, it is true, naturally seeks its own good, and so does the will naturally tend to rational good. But this is the good of the one who wills, manifested in the virtues of the passions, as temperance, fortitude, and the like.{1}

The virtue of the will (which is rational by its participating in reason) is either moral or theological.

§ 3. Intellectual virtues.

Every virtue is ordained for the good; but any habit is called virtue for one or both of two reasons : first, that it gives the power to act well; secondly, that with the power is also a good use of the power. Speculative intellectual habits do not perfect the will, but only the intellect. Therefore they may be called virtues in the first sense of the word, since they give a power of good action as regards truth, which is the good of reason; but they are not virtues in the second sense, since they do not secure a good use of the power or habit. But a virtue which perfects the will, as charity or justice, causes one to use well these speculative habits.

There are three intellectual virtues. This will appear if we consider that the perfection of the speculative intelligence has reference to the consideration of the true, which is its proper good. Now the true may be contemplated in two ways: first, as self-evident; in another way, as known through some other truth. Self-evident truth, seen immediately when presented to the mind, implies a virtue of the mind perfecting the intelligence to such contemplation. This virtue may be called spiritual reason ("intellectus").

But the true which is known indirectly -- i.e., through the medium of something else, through rational search -- may be either the ultimate in our special subject of inquiry, or the ultimate in all human thought. For the first, there is a virtue, science ("scientia"), which perfects intelligence. For the second, there is a habit, a virtue, by which one assents promptly to those necessary truths which are first in the order of truth, but last to be discovered by us. This is wisdom ("sapientia").

Art may be called a fourth intellectual virtue, operative (not speculative), since it gives the power of producing good work, though not, as art, of making a good use of the work.

Prudence is distinguished, as an intellectual operative virtue, from art by the consideration of the things to be done by each. Art concerns things to be made; prudence, things to be done. The latter not only gives the power of doing good work, but also of making a good use of the thing which is done; for it presupposes rectitude of desire. It is related to human actions, as art is related to things which are made. We see that prudence requires that man be well disposed towards the ends which he aims at, which is by right desire; and therefore this virtue requires moral virtue, which is not presupposed by art. The artificer who intentionally errs is more praised than the one who goes wrong unwillingly. But the man who sins willingly errs more against prudence than he who goes wrong unintentionally.

Prudence is a virtue peculiarly necessary for human life. For living well consists in acting well. And for this, it is demanded not only that the action be good in itself, but that the manner of doing be good also; sc., that it be done according to a right choice, and not merely from the impulse of passion. But since choice is of means to the end sought for, rectitude of choice requires both a due end, and suitable means for that due end. For the latter, man is disposed by the virtue which perfects the appetitive soul. But for the choice of suitable means he must be perfected by a habit of reason; for taking counsel and choosing are actions of reason. This virtuous habit is prudence. It is therefore peculiarly necessary for a good life.

On the distinctions between intellectual and moral virtues.

Reason is the primal constituent of all human operations; and whatever other constituents are found, obey reason, some without contradiction, as the members of the body; but others may oppose reason or impede its operation. In order, then, that man may act well, not only must reason be well disposed by a habit of intellectual virtue, but also the will and desires must be well disposed by a habit of moral virtue. As, then, the will and desires are distinguished from reason, so are the one kind of virtues distinguished from the other kind. And as the appetitive soul is a principle of human action participating in reason (after a certain manner), so a moral habit, so far as it is conformed to reason, is hunman virtue.

Can moral virtue exist without intellectual virtue?

Wisdom, science, art, are not necessary for moral virtue, but spiritual understanding ("intellectus") and prudence are indispensable. For moral virtue is a habit by which a good choice is made; and this requires (as we have already seen) not only that the will seek a good which accords with reason, which is its due end, but also that man rightly take the means for attaining that end; and this can only be through reason's rightly considering, judging, and commanding, which pertain to prudence and the virtues adjoined to it. hence moral virtue cannot exist without prudence; and, for the same reason, not without spiritual understanding; for by this are known natural principles both for speculation and for action; and prudence presupposes these principles, which are naturally known.

Something more than a natural inclination is needed, for inclination in moral virtue is accompanied by a free exercise of choice.

It is not necessary that every exercise of reason be perfect in order that a man be virtuous, but only as respects what things are to be virtuously done. In those, the virtuous man is the rational man.

Natural inclination to any moral good is a certain inchoate virtue, but it is not perfect virtue. For inclination of this kind can be more dangerous the stronger it is, unless right reason be adjoined to it, by which is made right choice of means for the due end. So a horse running away, if he is blind, strikes an obstacle the harder, and injures himself the more, the faster he runs.

Can intellectual virtue exist without moral virtue?

Every such virtue can so exist, prudence alone excepted. Prudence is right reason applied to things which are to be done, not only in certain general principles but also in such particulars as actions are. For right reason demands principles from which it may proceed. But when it is employed about particulars, it proceeds not only from general laws, but from principles which specially concern the special case before it. As regards the first, man is rightly guided by his natural understanding of primary principles, by which he knows that evil is not to be done, etc. But this does not suffice for right reasoning about particular cases. For a general principle of this kind may be corrupted in its particular application by some passion. When, e.g., concupiscence overcomes a man, that appears to be a good which he desires, although it may be against the general judgment of reason. And, therefore, as man is rightly disposed respecting general principles by his virtue of spiritual understanding, or by his (moral) "science," so in order that he may be rightly guided in the special principles of his action, he requires certain habits by which it may become natural, so to speak, for him to judge rightly respecting his ends; and this is brought about by moral virtue. For the virtuous rightly judges about the end of virtue. Therefore, for prudence it is requisite that man have moral virtue. Many may deliberate well, who lack prudence, which not only considers rightly, but also judges and orders well. This cannot be unless first be removed the impediment of passions which corrupt the judgment and the precepts of prudence.

§ 4. On moral virtues.

Can any moral virtue exist apart from the passions?

Understand here, as previously, by the word passion any motion of sense-appetite. So understood, it is evident that moral virtues which have the passions for their proper subject cannot exist without those passions. For, otherwise, moral virtues would render those passions wholly inoperative. But it does not pertain to virtue that those things which are subject to reason want their proper actions, but that they obey the command of reason while fulfilling their natural functions. Hence as virtue orders the members of the body with reference to their due outward acts, so it orders the sense-appetite for its proper and appointed acts. But moral virtues which do not directly order the passions, but concern operations, can exist without passions; e.g., justice, by which the will is applied to its due act, which is not passion. But yet on the act of justice follows joy, which, although it is not a passion, may by a certain "redundance" overflow into the sensitive nature (the feelings). And so, the more perfect the virtue, the more feeling it may excite.

Why have four virtues been distinguisked as cardinal?

We can consider the essence of virtue, its "formal principle," which is rational good. If we consider reason in itself, we find one principal virtue, which is prudence. Or we can again look at the objects to which the order of practical reason is applied. And these we find to he either operations, the virtue of which is justice; or passions, concerning which there are two virtues. For passions may impel to something which is contrary to reason, in which ease it is necessary that the passion be suppressed by the virtue of temperance. Or the passion may keep us back from what reason dictates, through fear of dangers of labours. And so it is necessary that we be strengthened in what is reasonable, and this virtue is fortitude.

In like manner we may look at the subjects of the virtues, which are four in number. And practical reason is perfected by prudence; the will by justice; the concupiscible nature by temperance; and the irascible, by courage or fortitude.

§ 5. On the theological virtues.

Are there any theological virtues?

Through virtue man is perfected for the acts by which he is prepared for beatitude. Now there is a two-fold beatitude or felicity of man. One is proportioned to human nature, which can he attained by natural principles. But there is another, exceeding human nature's powers, to which man can attain only by divine virtue, a certain participation of Divinity, of which S. Peter speaks (2 Ep. i. 4, "partakers of the Divine nature"). And because this blessedness exceeds the proportion of human nature, natural principles do not suffice to order men for this beatitude. It is accomplished by certain principles divinely superadded. And these are well named theological, both because they have God for their chief object, because they are infused by God only, and because our knowledge of them rests on revelation only, through the Holy Scriptures.

What man has not by nature, he may have by participation with the Divine. Note, also, that these virtues are called Divine, not because they are imputed (as such) to God, but because by them we are Divinely made virtuous, virtuous towards God. Will and reason are naturally ordained for God, as their beginning and their end, but still according to the proportions of nature. But for God, as object of supernatural beatitude, they are not by nature sufficiently ordained.

These principles sufficiently distinguish theological virtues from the intellectual and moral virtues.

The object of the first is God Himself, as He exceeds the natural cognition of our reason. The object of the second is something which can he comprehended by human reason; e.g., the intellectual virtue of wisdom considers divine things so far as they can be investigated by natural reason; theological virtue goes beyond that. The natural love or affection which may be found in the four cardinal virtues is not the supernatural gift and virtue of charity.

The three theological virtues are those which the apostle names (1 Cor. xiii. 13), viz., faith, hope, and charity.

For theological virtues prepare man for supernatural blessedness, as by natural inclination he is ordained for his natural end. But this comes about in two ways; first, as intellect contains the primal, universal principles known by us through the natural light of reason; secondly, through rectitude of will, which naturally tends towards rational good. But these two fall short of what is requisite supernatural beatitude, as the apostle says (1 Cor. ii. 9), "Eye hath not seen, and ear hath not heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him." Hence, it is necessary that in both respects something be supernaturally added to man which may prepare him for this superural end.

And first, indeed, are given to his intelligence certain supernatural yet fundamental truths which are received through divine light. These can be believed, and the virtue which receives them is (the theological virtue) faith. But, secondly, the will may tend towards that end as attainable by us, which pertains to the virtue of hope; and may reach a certain spiritual union with its object, which is gained by charity, a certain conformity of the will with its (supernatural) end.

In the natural order, indeed, faith and hope imply a certain imperfection; since faith is of things not seen, and hope of things not possessed. But to have faith and hope respecting things which exceed our natural faculties, is supernatural virtue.

§ 6. How are virtues, acquired?

Are any virtues naturally in us?

There is certainly in us by nature an aptitude, a certain imperfect foundation for virtue, in two ways, both as respects the constitution of human nature, and of the individual man. For the first, in man's reason are natural principles of things to be known and things to be done, the seed-plots, so to speak, of moral and intellectual virtues. In the will, also, is naturally a rational desire of good.

For the second, the nature of the individual, some men are (naturally) better or worse constituted with respect to certain virtues, through their bodily constitution, so far, namely, as their nervous system aids or impedes the actions of their sensitive soul (which depend on that nervous system), and, consequently, the operations of their rational powers which make use of the sensitive soul. One man, accordingly, has natural aptitude for science, another for courage, another for temperance.

But this natural aptitude for certain virtues is not the consummation of them. For nature is determined to one end alone, whereas perfected virtue is not directed in one channel only, but is varied according to the diverse matters and the diverse circumstances wherein the virtue operates. (Consider the natural operation of instinctive sympathy.)

As from bad acts habits of vice are produced, much rather him good acts are produced habits of virtue.

Man's good is measured by rule. That rule is two-fold; sc., human reason, and Divine law. And because Divine law is the superior rule and measure, its extent is wider; whatever is regulated by human reason is regulated also by it, but not conversely. The virtue which is regulated by human reason can be caused by human acts, inasmuch as acts of this kind proceed from reason, under whose power and regulation stands the good of man. But the virtue which ordains man for good, as reguated by Divine law, and not simply by human reason, cannot be caused by human acts, but only by Divine operation.

But is it not true that man needs the grace of God in order that he may avoid sin? And is not sin incompatible with the possession of virtue? I grant that the perfection of supernatural virtue is incompatible with any mortal sin; but this is not true of virtues acquired by human efforts. For the employment of our habit is subject to our will. But not by one act of sin is a habit destroyed; for act is not directly contrary to habit, but the contrary habit is. Therefore, although without grace man cannot live without committing some mortal sin, yet he is not hindered thereby from acquiring some habit of virtue by which he may in general abstain from evil deeds, especially those which are in the highest degree contrary to reason. There are, also, some mortal sins which man without grace cannot possibly avoid, those, namely, which are directly opposed to the theological virtues. Are any moral virtues infused by the Spirit of God? All virtues, intellectual and moral, which are acquired by human acts, proceed from certain natural principles preexisting in us. But for a supernatural destiny other virtues are needed which bear the same relation to the three theological virtues, as moral and intellectual virtues do to their seminal principles.

§ 7. On the connection of virtues.

Can moral virtues exist without charity?

Since moral virtues, so far as operative of good with reference to an end which does not exceed our natural faculties, can be acquired by human efforts, it follows that they may be so acquired without charity. So it has been in the ease of many heathen. But as they are operative of good for a supernatural end, they are more truly and perfectly virtues; and such cannot be acquired by human acts, but are infused by God. Such moral virtues cannot exist without charity. This may be proved as follows: The other moral virtues require prudence as an essential condition of their existence. (See page 66.) And prudence cannot exist without moral virtues which are present in consequence of it; inasmuch as moral virtues cause one to be well related to certain ends, and this involves the idea of prudence. But much rather does true prudence demand that one shall be well related to the ultimate end, which is the work of charity. Hence it is manifest that neither can the infused prudence exist without charity, nor, consequently, the other moral virtues, which cannot exist without prudence.

Imperfect virtues, virtues of the lower order, may be found in evil men, but not in their perfection, since they make him good who has them.

Can charity exist without the other moral virtues?

God works as perfectly in grace as in nature. But in nature's works we see that where a faculty of any kind is found there are also found the means for its due operation. But it is manifest that charity, ordaining men for the ultimate end, is the principle of all good works which are related to that end. Accordingly, together with charity are infused all moral virtues needed in order that man may be able to perfect the various kinds of good works belonging to his supernatural life. He, then, who loses charity through mortal sin, loses also all infused moral virtues.

(1) These are not superfluous where charity exists. For in following the means by which the supernatural end is reached, man must not only have the virtue which concerns the end -- i.e., charity -- but also the virtues which concern the means. These, indeed, are subordinate to the other, but nevertheless they are also requisite. And S. Paul, in speaking of charity (1 Cor. xiii.), is pointing out the principle and the motive of the subordinate virtues, which principle and motive is charity alone.

(2) It may still farther be objected that one who has a virtuous habit finds pleasure in the exercise of that habit whereas many who have charity, and are free from mortal sin, nevertheless find difficulty in virtuous acts, and no pleasure except as the acts are referred to the motive of charity which produces them. But the answer is that the habits of infused moral virtues encounter difficulty of this kind through some contrary dispositions which are due to the effect of preceding acts. This difficulty does not appear in the acquired moral virtues, because, through the exercise of those acts by which they are acquired, the contrary dispositions are removed.

(3) All the true children of God have the grace of charity; but they may lack some virtues. "The saints are more humbled on account of the virtues which they do not possess, than exalted by the virtues which they have." But the truth is that they have the habits of all the (infused) virtues, but may find difficulty in the exercise of them.

Can faith and hope exist without charity?

We may consider faith and hope as existing, like moral virtues, in a certain inchoate state, which is very different from their perfection as virtues. Perfect virtue produces perfectly good work. Not only is that good which is done, but it is well done. Thus, if any one does just actions, he does good things, but they are not perfectly good, unless they are well done, i.e., through rectitude of choice, which is prudence. Therefore justice without prudence cannot be perfect virtue. In like manner, faith and hope may exist after a manner without charity, but they are not perfect virtues. For since it is faith's office to believe God, but to believe means to assent with one's will, if a man does not duly will, faith will not have its perfect work. But it is by charity that one wills in due manner, since charity perfects the will. The same thing is to be said of hope. For the act of hope is the expecting future beatitude from God. And this act is perfect if it is a well-grounded hope; and this requires charity. But if one expects the same things through merits which he has not as yet, but proposes to acquire, this imperfect act of hope can exist without charity.

Can charity exist without faith and hope?

Charity signifies more than loving God. It implies what we may call a fellowship of mutual love and communion. So S. John says (1 Ep. iv. 16), "He that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God and God in him." This converse with God begins in this life through grace, but it will be perfected in the future life. Now, no one can have such friendship with another if he disbelieve or despair of the possibility of having fellowship with him. So one cannot be truly called (as Abraham) the "friend of God," unless he have faith in this converse of man with God, and hope that he will attain to it. So charity cannot exist without faith and hope.

{1} All virtues, indeed, are voluntary but for these the nature of the will (so far as the will is concerned) suffices. But a special virtue of the will is needed where an extrinsic good is to be sought for.

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