The virtues, which are dispositions to do what is good, have recently enjoyed a remarkable revival as a topic of academic interest, if not necessarily in practice.
This revival has been a response, in part, to a renewed sense that ethics involves more than simply the determination of right actions. We also assess persons ethically in terms of their characteristic dispositions such as being “truthful”, “untrustworthy”, “just”, “unjust”, “generous”, “mean”, “honest”, “dishonest”, and so on. Indeed, knowing a person well is often expressed in terms of knowing that person’s dispositions. We also value ways to form those dispositions – called virtues – and to diminish their opposing vices.
The father of virtue ethics as well as biology in Western culture is the pre-Christian philosopher Aristotle (d 322 BC). Aristotle emphasised our need to apply wisdom to cultivate virtue and argued that at least some virtues can be acquired by repeating good actions until they become second nature. At about the time of the Catholic foundation of the University of Oxford, the great Dominican theologian St Thomas Aquinas (d 1274) transfigured Aristotelian virtue ethics into an account of the Christian life of grace.
Unlike Aristotle, who held that God exists but only remotely, Aquinas gives us an account of virtue founded on Christian revelation, involving new theological and cardinal virtues, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, beatitudes, and fruits of the Spirit. These attributes enable and express an alignment of our lives with the Holy Spirit, the “Paraclete” (meaning “the one called alongside”).
In this relationship, the virtues and gifts dispose us to love with God what God loves, seeing all living human persons, for example, as His potential or actual children. On this account, the path of virtue is one of increasing harmonisation with God, leading to the divine friendship enjoyed by the saints.
Fr Andrew Pinsent is the author of two booklets on the theological virtues and the cardinal virtues, available from CTS