The Development of Virtue

Plato, Seneca, & Aristotle: Forerunners to Christian Virtue depicted in a 14th c. Book of Hours.

Last week we looked at how The Catholic Tradition looks at virtue according to The Catechism. But what sort of developments got us to that point?

The Israelites & Virtue

Though what was meant by "virtue" is largely a Greek phenomenon, one can find texts in the Biblical Canon which were seeds of the virtues, particularly what will be known as "The Four Cardinal Virtues:"

And if any one loves righteousness, her labors are virtues; for she teaches temperance and prudence, justice and courage;

--Wisdom of Solomon 8:7

No Israelite would have understood these to be virtues as we understand the word today, but eventually the meaning of these terms would be revealed. Ancient cultures did, however, understand good qualities in humans.

(Would you like to learn more? Read The Book of Wisdom, The Book of Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus)

The Greeks & Virtue

"Arete" is Virtue in Greek, and it was especially used by Homer to describe Achille's prowess, Ajax's power, or Odysseus' cunning. Virtue here usually meant "Manliness," especially on the battlefield and in oration.

(Would you like to learn more? Read The Iliad & The Odyssey.)

The self-same "arete" was used by Socrates and Plato, who identified "arete" as a general "human excellence," though usually attributable only to males, like Homer. Plato identifies the four "Cardinal Virtues" of Prudence, Justice, Courage, & Temperance. He also makes an argument that all the virtues are united, that is, they are ultimately one Virtue.

(Would you like to learn more? Read The Republic, Protagoras)

Aristotle says:

Virtue is 'a golden mean between extremes of excess and defect' and 'if there be more than one virtue, the best and most complete.'

This is still the usual sense of virtue today. The best and most complete virtue would be the ultimate virtue that held them all together. To be courageous, one would need to know the difference between courage and cowardice or rashness, thus Prudence seemed to be the uniting and "crowning" virtue. (Would you like to learn more? Read Nicomachean Ethics.)

The Romans & Virtue

"Arete" later gets identified with the Latin, "vir" meaning man, and thus "arete" and "virtus" (Manliness or excellence) come to be synonymous.

Romans, including Cicero and Seneca, were famous for writings on the virtues. Much of these works are simply bringing in Greek notions, with extra categorization of the virtues into their proper headings. For instance, "patience" might be a kind of longsuffering or endurance, which would be categorized under the broader "Courage." What of mercy, kindness, strength, agility, etc.? The list of virtues became so long one began to ponder how they were all united. They also tended to see virtue for women as "transcending" gender, i.e. declaring femininity as incompatible with virtue. Women had to become "spiritually neuter" to be virtuous. Remember women's shoulder pads in business suits in the 1990's? or boyish haircuts as an expression of identity and power? This is essentially a pagan Roman conception of virtue.

(Would you like to learn more? Read De republica)

The Apostles amidst the Virtues

It's during the Roman era that Christianity rises. St. Paul in the 1st c. AD writes his epistles frequently appealing to the Greco-Roman sense of "excellence" which today we call "virtue." Indeed, all of our Apostles and many of our Church Fathers are writing in a Latin & Byzantine context. So we'd expect to find virtus in their works! For example:

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence (virtus), if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

-Philippians 4:8

The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses this excerpt to begin its section on Man's Dignity & Vocation. But if Vocation for Man includes both male and female, then virtus would have to come to mean more "human excellence" than "manliness."

Indeed it did. Christians opened up who can be "virtuous" to include women. Stoics had done this in a way that ignored femininity. Christians did it in a way that preserved the feminine as part of excellence. This functionally cuts off the understanding of arete/virtus/virtue as "manliness" and clearly defines it as "human excellence." Thus Sts. Mary, Mary Magdalene, Martha, Macrina, Mary of Egypt, et al. are included as virtuous exemplars. "Virtue" thus took on a broader sense for all humans.

It's also at this time that St. Paul makes a huge development to the virtues, adding on three new ones:

So faith, hope, charity abide, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

-1 Corinthians 13:13

Here came a radical new claim: not only were there three new virtues, but one virtue had supplanted Prudence as the "best and most complete," -- Charity!

What's more, St. Paul even told the Christians at Colossus that Charity was to cover all other virtues. The image is of a cloak which surrounds and enfolds all others:

And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. -Colossians 3:14

(Would you like to learn more? Read The Epistles of the New Testament!)

A Church Father & a Medieval Theologian among the Virtues

St. Ambrose of Milan (300's) was a bishop and mentor of St. Augustine (300's-400's). He is the first to label Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude as the "Four Cardinal Virtues." Likewise he is the first, I can find, to discuss Charity as "the form of the virtues." That is, it is the best and most complete as Aristotle might say, which gives shape to all other virtues. We see his disciple St. Augustine of Hippo agreeing Charity is the best and most complete virtue, and with it being the form of the virtues.

St. Aelred (1000's) continues Sts. Ambrose & Augustine's thought in his work The Mirror of Charity. There he articulates Charity as the form of the virtues as follows:

But charity, which permits other virtues to be virtues, must exist in all the virtues. It is most particularly rest for the weary, an inn for the traveller, full light at journey's end, and the perfect crown for the victor...Temperance fights against lusts, prudence against errors, fortitude against adversities, and justice against inequities. Yet in charity, chastity is perfect and so there is no lust for temperance to fight. In charity, knowledge is perfect and so there is no error for prudence to fight. In charity, there is true happiness and so no adversity exists for fortitude to conquer. In charity, everything is at peace and so there is no inequity against which justice must remain vigilant. But faith is not a virtue, if it does not act through love, nor hope a virtue, if what is hoped for is not loved. If you look into this more closely, what is temperance but love which no sensual pleasure entices? What is prudence, but love which no error seduces? What is fortitude but love bravely enduring adversity? What is justice, but love righting with due moderation the iniquities of this life. Charity, then, begins in faith, is exercised in the other virtues, and is perfected in itself.

My brethren, remember these words as you prepare for Lent. God love all of y'all.

Saint Aelred Catholic Church

4951 Macon Highway
Bishop, GA 30621
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