On the Virtues

Human beings need the best possible help to be as flourishing as possible. All the means that can be gathered to help them strive toward their excellence must be welcomed and promoted. Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas understood that almost better than everyone else. As a result, they developed an anthropological system centered on the human person enabling them to grow in excellence in order to reach their ultimate goal, God. In this post, I will portray their understanding of virtue, namely the moral or cardinal virtues and the intellectual virtues, and show that for them these virtues are indispensable in the cultivation of a flourishing life.
For both Aristotle and Aquinas, human beings are teleological beings. They live and move and act for the sake of a telos (goal/end/purpose). They believes that every person act in search of an ultimate end. Aquinas, agreeing with Saint Augustine, says that it is universally accepted that everybody desires happiness. Happiness is the ultimate end of every human being though they disagree on the means that must be employed to reach that ultimate end. Aquinas takes the ultimate end to mean the desire to be complete. It means happiness, which is the goal and fulfillment of every human life and nature. The ultimate end means the happy life, which is the life of activity expressing reason well. It is the ultimate expression of our rational powers, which consists in our cognition of God, our ultimate end, and our appropriate reaction to that ultimate end. Since we are being created by God, our ultimate end is ultimate union with God. Our ultimate end, which is happiness, consists in contemplating the vision of the divine essence. That is possible through developing the virtues. Virtues are very good means to reach our ultimate end, which is God though many refuse to admit it.
Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, defines the supreme good – the summum bonum– as an activity of the rational soul in accordance with virtue. In fact, virtue for all Greeks is equivalent to excellence. A man has virtue as a professor, for instance, if he explains things in a manner enabling his/her students to understand well. A virtuous person is someone who performs the distinctive activity of being human well, meaning he/she lets himself be developed into the best kind of human being he/she can possible be.
The moral or cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. The intellectual virtues are science, art, prudence, understanding, and wisdom. Aristotle defines moral virtue as a disposition to behave in the right manner and as a mean between extremes of deficiency and excess, which are seen as vices. The moral virtues are learned primarily through habit/repetition and practice rather than through reasoning and instruction. Aquinas does not have any inconveniences against this view. However, he considers them insufficient to live a moral and genuine life. They are good enough to live a civic life, but lack the depths to help us live the spiritual life. Therefore, we need the theological virtues or the infused virtues—faith, hope and charity. In order to live the life of contemplation or the beatific life to which we are called, the moral virtues, which are acquired through habits, are necessary. They enable us to be decent citizens, but the infused virtues give us what we need to live as children of God. They allow us to live the life of grace expressing the moral virtues well.
Prudence is the kind of intelligence that helps us reason properly about practical matters so we can choose what is good for us and determine the proper mean to achieve them. It permeates all the other virtues. Without it, we would not be able to maintain the perfect mean between the virtues. Justice aims to perfect our will in order to seek what is genuinely good for us and our neighbors. It is seeking to attribute to each person his/her due. Fortitude is the willingness to pursue truths in the face of dangers and obstacles, or the ability to act rightly despite popular opposition, shame, scandal, or discouragement. Temperance is the ability to self-control ourselves in action. It is the curbing of our desires and attractions to do the good things of this world that are pleasurable to our senses. For Aristotle, there is no virtue outside of actions. To be prudent, just, courageous, or tempered, one must act that way. Otherwise, it is all empty talk. Furthermore, one must act virtuously in order to be happy. A virtuous person who does not exercise virtue is like an athlete who sits on the sideline and watches. Aristotle has a proactive conception of the good life: happiness waits only for those who go out and seize it. So clearly, happiness is not a state of mind. It is a way of being.
Acting morally requires not only that we have all the moral virtues but also that we have the intellectual virtue of prudence, or practical reason. The intellectual virtues are like spices in the food of the moral virtues. Without them, a person would not act wisely. Prudence, which I already defined it above, is the capacity to choose the right course of action in situations. Science is knowledge about the weather, biology, history etc. Understanding is the ability to properly comprehend something as it is to be comprehended. Wisdom is the ability to know when to apply our understanding of things rightly, and art is technical skill.
Aquinas never dwells on what Aristotle defines. Remaining faithful to his Christian understanding of human nature in relation to God, he maintains that the virtues obtain their original exemplar in the being of God. As St Augustine says, “the soul must follow something so that virtue can be born in it”; that something is God for Aquinas. That’s the reason the theological virtues are so important. They enable us to be partakers of the divine nature and elevate us to the promise of being sons and daughters of Christ for Aquinas.


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