The Connection of the Virtues

According to St. Thomas Aquinas

March 10, 2004

Joseph Bolin

Can an intemperate man be a just man? Can one acquire some of the virtues without the others, or must one acquire them all at the same time? On the level of experience, it is clear that men are usually more disposed to some virtues than to others. And as they grow towards virtue, this difference remains. Thus it seems that when they have just barely acquired the virtue to which they are least disposed, they will have already for some time acquired the virtue to which they are most disposed. But St. Thomas, following Aristotle, says that one cannot have any virtue in the most proper sense without all of the virtues. Why is this? In this paper we will consider the connection among the acquired virtues, and try to answer this question. (Virtue will be used here in the general sense of excellence, or perfection of a power.)

We can define human virtue as a stable disposition by which a man does well as a man. And since reason is most formal in man, this means that virtue is a disposition by which a man does well in accordance with reason. The proper act of reason is to order, and so to do well in accordance with reason implies either ordering well, or being well ordered. The virtue of ordering well is intellectual virtue, while the virtue of being well ordered, or acting in accordance with good order, is moral or practical virtue. Intellectual virtue itself is distinguished according to the two ways in which the reason is related to order: reason may merely contemplate order, or it may cause order. From this distinction in the act of reason we have the division of intellectual virtue into speculative and practical virtues. Again the order caused by reason may be the order of things to do, or of things to make or bring about. This distinction divides the practical intellectual virtues into prudence (together with the understanding of the first practical principles, or synderesis), and art. The order in things to make may be either the order of reason itself, or the order in external things. The virtue of bringing about order in the reason itself is the art of logic, while the virtue of bringing about order in other things may be termed an art, skill, or craft, depending on its specific object.

The virtues of those powers that participate in reason are necessarily practical virtues rather than virtues of knowing. For since virtue pertains to perfect action, virtue belongs to the power in which action is completed. But the knowing that belongs to the sensitive powers is completed in the knowing of reason. Thus the habits that perfect the sensitive knowing powers are not virtues, but prepare and dispose one for intellectual virtue. Only among the habits of the sensitive appetites, then, are virtues properly to be found.

Those practical virtues that share in reason can be divided in a way corresponding to the distinction among the practical intellectual virtues; some virtues are about doing, namely the moral virtues such as justice and temperance1; others are about making or bringing about, e.g., the physical habits involved in the skills of carpentry, piano-playing, gymnastics, and the like.2

Since virtue is defined as that by which a man does well, those virtues are most properly called virtues by which a man actually does well, while those virtues by which a man is merely capable of doing well are only virtues in a certain respect. Thus the speculative virtues and the arts, and likewise the habits by which art is executed, are not virtues in the strict sense.

Now some of these habits are connected with others in such a way that neither is really virtue without the other. For example, the knowledge of how to play the piano does not make someone a good piano player unless he also has the manual habit necessary, and conversely the manual habit is no good without the knowledge.

Similarly the habit of reason producing order in things to be done, i.e., the disposition to reason well about how to achieve one’s end, is not strictly a virtue unless by this disposition one actually acts well, which means that one must not only be acting so as to achieve one’s end, but must be acting for a good end.

Human Action

So much for the general account of human virtue. What does this mean concretely? What is necessary in order for one properly to possess virtue? To answer this question, we must consider how man acts. One cannot understand how man may act well unless one understands how man acts in general.

Briefly, when a man acts as a man, he acts from a rational desire, that is, a desire for good as apprehended by reason. However, there are several steps in this process. One begins with the apprehension and desire of good as such, and the last end or absolute good, which is good in every respect. Then one determines and chooses means to attain the end. Now in many cases the means are also to some extent desirable in themselves, having something of the character of an end, insofar as they share in and have a likeness to the last end. Thus there are three primary elements in the determination of one’s actions: the apprehension and desire of the last end; the judgment of the means to attain the end; and the apprehension and desire of secondary ends.

Perfect Human Action and the Habits necessary for it

Perfect action in relation to the last end

In order to act well without qualification, it is necessary for all three of these steps to be performed well. Now the first step, the apprehension and desire of the last end, cannot be performed badly. For this apprehension and desire of the last end is natural. We don’t have to, and indeed can’t do anything of ourselves to acquire it. St. Thomas says that a habit is necessary for the apprehension of the last end; but this habit is a natural habit, not one which is acquired by our action. This habit is presupposed not only to acting well, but to acting humanly in the first place. Thus no acquired habit, whether intellectual or moral, can be without this habit of first principles.

Perfect action in relation to the means

In the second step, the determination of means with regard to the end, there are two things to consider: the act of reason considering the means in relation to the end, and the act of will consenting to and choosing the means for the sake of the end. An intellectual habit is necessary in order to reason well about the means, but a habit in the will is not in itself necessary in order for it to be inclined to the means.

An intellectual habit is necessary in order to reason well about the means to the end, because the means to the end may stand in many and various ways to the end. But man, in contrast to the other animals, being ordered to the good as such, is provided with universal principles of action, which are not determined by nature, but must be determined by habit. Thus man is provided with hands, by means of which he can provide various kinds of clothing and tools for himself, according as the various situations in which he may be demand diverse kinds of protection and activity. Similarly man has by nature3 universal principles of thought by which he can determine with his reason what he should do in various situations. And as the hands are not determined by nature to one sort of activity, but are capable of many activities, so these principles of thought are not determined by nature to specific conclusions, but are capable of leading to many conclusions. Thus as one needs to acquire, in addition to the natural power and control over the hands, habits by which one determines the hands to bring about useful effects or to produce useful things, so one needs a habit by which one determines the reason to reach correct conclusions in regard to what one should do.

It is necessary not only to think rightly about the means to the end, but also to desire the means rightly in regard to the end. However, according St. Thomas’ account, the will does not need a habit in order to be inclined to the means for the sake of the end, just as it does not need a habit in order to be inclined to the last end. These inclinations belong to it according to its nature. (This is presupposing no impediments. As we will see in the third step, some habit in the will may be necessary insofar as the will is not sufficiently inclined to ends outside its most immediate object, namely the good proportioned to the self.)

Perfect action in relation to secondary ends

In the third step, one is inclined or disinclined to the means insofar as one sees them as good or bad in themselves. This additional inclination or disinclination may affect the final judgment of the intellect and choice of the will. For example, one might determine that one should refrain from cheese in order to attain health, but because of one’s desire for cheese as a pleasurable food, not actually judge this means to be simply good, or have only a weak inclination which may not lead to the choice of this means. Similarly the immediate desire for something may lead one to choose it in spite of its being an inappropriate means to the end. St. James gives the example of intemperance leading to injustice: “You desire and do not have; so you kill.”4 Thus if our choice is to be consistently good, all the appetitive powers have to be appropriately inclined to their objects, lest the final judgment of reason and inclination of will to the concrete good be impeded. This appropriate inclination of the appetitive powers is not had by nature for the sensitive appetites, nor for the will with respect to a good above the human good or outside one’s individual good. Thus one needs habits such as temperance and fortitude in the sensitive appetites, and justice in the will, if one is to consistently act well in concrete situations.

So there are three primary sorts of habits which are necessary in order to act well: the understanding of the principles of action, or synderesis; the habit of applying these principles correctly to practical conclusions, or prudence; and the habits of correctly loving and desiring various particular sorts of goods, such as justice, temperance, and fortitude.

Related Habits

There are also various other habits which are necessary for the functioning or for the well-functioning of these habits. Certain interior sensitive powers such as memory and imagination are necessary in order to think and to reason. Similarly reasonably well-disposed exterior senses are necessary in order to know the circumstances in which one is to act. Thus it is necessary for these powers to be properly disposed to their acts, and this disposition is through habits. But again, although these habits are essentially in the sensitive powers, with respect to human good these habits are considered as preparatory or disposing to the reason, in which knowing is most properly found.

Similarly various intellectual habits are necessary for the well-functioning of prudence. For prudence cannot be perfect unless one can judge exterior events well. E.g., one who has no idea of the signs of rain, or who does not know that walking in cold rain is bad for a sick man, may act imprudently in taking a long walk when rain is likely. Similarly, one who lacks the art of making fair exchanges cannot choose the correct means for attaining justice, and therefore cannot be prudent in this matter. In general, presupposed for prudence are whatever habits of knowledge or art concern those matters about which practical judgments have to be made. However, it does not seem necessary for this knowledge or art to be possessed so perfectly as to itself be termed virtue. With regard to knowledge, in order to act well one does not need to know the cause, but only the fact of relationships, and so this knowledge need not have the perfection of virtue. E.g., one need not know why dark clouds are a sign of rain, merely the fact. Similarly one need not possess an art to perfection in order to act well. E.g., one does not need a perfect knowledge of the doctor’s art in order to act prudently in regard to health, but only so much knowledge as men in general might reasonably be expected to have. Thus other intellectual habits are necessary for prudence, but not other intellectual virtues, except for the habit of first principles.

The connection of these habits as virtues

The necessity of these habits for acting well does not mean that there can be no good act without them, but that one will not consistently act well without them. If one could never act temperately without the habit of temperance, nor prudently without the habit of prudence, it would be impossible to acquire these habits. For habits are acquired by the repetition of like acts. So one can act well without the acquired habits, though not without the habit of first principles; but one will not consistently act well without them.

Since these three kinds of habits are all necessary in order to do well, they are not virtues in the strict sense unless they are possessed together. The understanding of the principles of action is not strictly a virtue except insofar as these principles can be actually applied to concrete actions, in which moral good and evil is properly found. This application in turn is not virtue without all5 the appetites being well ordered, since practical reasoning reaches its completion in the judgment and command of something to be done, which judgment and command may be impeded by disordered appetites. Again a habit of appetite is not strictly virtue except insofar as it is such as to be the principle of good action, which always takes place in concrete circumstances, and is determined by prudence.

From this it is clear that the understanding of principles is not a virtue without prudence and the moral virtues, nor is prudence a virtue without all the moral virtues. It might still seem, however, that one could possess a single moral virtue without the others. E.g., one might possess the habit of temperance together with the habit of prudence, and though the habit of prudence would not be a virtue since it would not in general lead to acting well, it would still lead to acting well in regard to temperance, and thus temperance would be a virtue. But this is insufficient. For the objects of the various moral virtues are distinct, but not always separate. In order to be perfect, one and the same act may need to be informed not only by temperance, but also by another virtue. For example, one may eat temperately, i.e., eat the right amount, at the right time, etc., as regards temperance, yet eat what belongs to another, which is contrary to justice. Such an act is not simply speaking a good act. So a man with the habit of temperance, but without the habit of justice, will not consistently act well with regard to the object of temperance, and therefore in him temperance is not a virtue. Thus all of the acquired virtues are intimately connected; none of them can exist as a virtue without all of the others.

The acquisition of virtue

But though none of the virtues may be possessed as virtue without all the others, various habits which are according to nature the same as the virtues may be had without the others. The habit of temperance is the same in nature whether or not it is together with justice and fortitude, but differs morally, according to the consideration of reason. And from this we can see the solution to the difficulty regarding the acquisition of virtue. Whether one has or does not have a virtue cannot be judged based simply on the strength of a habit. One man may have a habit of temperance more firmly than a second, and yet it may be a virtue in the second, while not in the first. Similarly in a single man, a relatively strong habit and a relatively weak habit may become virtues at the same moment. The change from possessing none of the virtues to possessing all of them is not a natural or metaphysical change, but a moral change accompanying such a change, though it is only a slight real change.

Nevertheless, it seems that if we really could make judgments about the exact moment when virtue is acquired, it would not be precisely at a single moment that one acquires all the virtues. For virtue (at least in the sense in which it is attainable by human action) does not imply being such as never to do badly; virtue implies being such as to do well for the most part. Thus a man has the virtue of temperance if he is such as to do well in regard to the object of temperance for the most part, or nearly always. Similarly a man has the virtue of fortitude if he is such as to do well in regard to the object of fortitude for the most part, or nearly always. So if a man just barely falls short with respect to the virtue of fortitude, this defect would not necessarily be enough to cause him to fall short with respect to the virtue of temperance. Humanly speaking, however, this difference may be so slight as to count as nothing. We should not seek the same exactitude in ethics as in mathematics, or even as in natural science. Also, St. Thomas may be speaking with respect to the complete perfection of virtue, as being the standard for humanly attainable virtue, even though such perfection is unattainable apart from a special grace of God. Complete perfection of a virtue does imply always doing well with respect to the object of that virtue, and in this way it is absolutely impossible to have one virtue without the others.

1 It is sometime said that justice is about operations, while temperance and fortitude are about passions. However, this does not mean that temperance is in no way about activity, but that it is about the inclination of passion in regards to activity or things attained in (not merely by) activity.

2 This distinction is to be understood formally rather than materially. Obviously the act of gymnastics is an activity. However, insofar as gymnastics is merely a skill, having no reference to appetite, it relates to this activity simply as something to be brought about.

3 Just as bodily parts are not all perfect from birth, so the principles of thought are not had by nature in the sense that one possesses them in actuality from birth, but in the sense that they are determined by nature, and are perfected in the ordinary course of nature.

4 James 4:2

5 “All” refers to those which bear upon the good or evil a man may ordinarily have to deal with. Just as it is not necessary for prudence that a man have knowledge of things outside ordinary experience and life, so it is not necessary for prudence that a man be well disposed in regard to extraordinary things, given that he does not have to deal with them. E.g., a man may be prudent without virtues related to the use of great wealth or great power.

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