Vol I No. 7
Daily Thought

Thomas Aquinas on Virtue

by William J. Martin


Easter Tide

Thomas Aquinas on Virtue

Article 1. Whether human virtue is a habit?

Objection 1. It would seem that human virtue is not a habit: For virtue is the limit of power” (De Coelo i, text. 116). But the limit of anything is reducible to the genus of that of which it is the limit; as a point is reducible to the genus of line. Therefore virtue is reducible to the genus of power, and not to the genus of habit.

The limit of virtue would seem to be power. What is meant here is that virtue is to be reduced to a power to act. So it would seem that virtue is a power and not a habit. When we say that a virtue is reducible to power, we seek to identify the origin or cause of its activity. In this case, it would seem that virtue is caused by power.

Objection 2. Further, Augustine says that virtue is good use of free-will. But use of free-will is an act. (De Lib. Arb. ii) [Retract. ix; cf. De Lib. Arb. ii, 19) Therefore virtue is not a habit, but an act.

It would seem that virtue is caused by free will, which is a voluntary act. So virtue is the effect of the mind’s free willing of the good. Virtue is thus an operation or movement that moves from contemplation into action.

Objection 3. Further, we do not merit by our habits, but by our actions: otherwise a man would merit continually, even while asleep. But we do merit by our virtues. Therefore virtues are not habits, but acts.

Habits seem to be more like forms or patterns that are present to and within us. But virtue must be willed continuously. If virtue is habit in the sense of a possession that resides within us, which is present to us merely by belief or knowledge, then we need not do anything with it to be saved. But virtue is the fruit of a believing heart that wills goodness into works.

Objection 4. Further, Augustine says that virtue is the order of love,” (De Moribus Eccl. xv)  and that the ordering which is called virtue consists in enjoying what we ought to enjoy, and using what we ought to use. (QQ. lxxxiii, qu. 30) Now order, or ordering, denominates either an action or a relation. Therefore virtue is not a habit, but an action or a relation.

Virtue seems to be the ordering of love to its objects. In other words, virtue seems to be the activity in which our loves are expressed by way of enjoyment or utility. When we order something we either act or we relate to it. So we choose to do something either in thought or deed.

Objection 5. Further, just as there are human virtues, so are there natural virtues. But natural virtues are not habits, but powers. Neither therefore are human virtues habits.

Natural virtues are powers present in the creature that ensure survival, endurance, and even the limited perfection of the creation. Human virtues are likewise powers that ensure the perfection of the same for the purposes of the good life that leads to Heaven.

On the contrary, The Philosopher says that science and virtue are habits. (Cat. Vi)

Aristotle teaches that science is study and virtue is both study and its application.

I answer that, virtue denotes a certain perfection of power. Now a thing’s perfection is considered chiefly in regard to its end. But the end of power is act. Wherefore power is said to be perfect, according as it is determinate to its act. Now there are some powers which of themselves are determinate to their acts; for instance, the active natural powers. And therefore these natural powers are in themselves called virtues. But the rational powers, which are proper to man, are not determinate to one particular act, but are inclined indifferently to many: and they are determinate to acts by means of habits, as is clear from what we have said above. Therefore human virtues are habits.

Virtue is a perfection of power in relation to its end. The end of power is an act. Now some powers are moved and defined by their ends. They are determined by the ends that perfect them as powers. So, for example, the living being is moved by the end of self-preservation to eat in order to perfect the virtue of living. Rational powers or human virtues are moved by different ends and require the perfection of wisdom and the will. By reason of acclimatization to their ends they perfect habits that ensure their well being. So the habits or powers of perfection are the virtues that ensure their ongoing possession of he good.

Reply to Objection 1. Sometimes we give the name of a virtue to that to which the virtue is directed, namely, either to its object, or to its act: for instance, we give the name Faith, to that which we believe, or to the act of believing, as also to the habit by which we believe. When therefore we say that virtue is the limit of power, virtue is taken for the object of virtue. For the furthest point to which a power can reach, is said to be its virtue; for instance, if a man can carry a hundredweight and not more, his virtue is his strength, which is the original signification of the Latin virtus, thus we speak of an engine being so many horse-power, to indicate its strength. But the objection takes virtue as being essentially the limit of power.

Virtue can refer to the object that is sought, to the activity of seeking, and also to the habit by which the virtue is obtained. If virtue is the limit of power, it is the extent to which the power is actualized. But virtue can also be the habit of actualizing it. Thus through the perfection of a power as a means to an end, virtue is habit.

Reply to Objection 2. Good use of free-will is said to be a virtue, in the same sense as above (ad 1); that is to say, because it is that to which virtue is directed as to its proper act.  For the act of virtue is nothing else than the good use of free will.

Good use of free will is virtue because this is proper activity or process by which virtue is perfected. So good use of free will is the activity that makes a man virtuous.

Reply to Objection 3. We are said to merit by something in two ways. First, as by merit itself, just as we are said to run by running; and thus we merit by act. Secondly, we are said to merit by something as by the principle whereby we merit, as we are said to run by the motive power; and thus are we said to merit by virtues and habits.

We merit the benefit of the virtue by practicing or actualizing it. So we become good by doing good things. Becoming good is the actualization of goodness. But we merit also by the virtues and habits that are coming alive in our lives. So the virtues and habits are both activities but also forms that are being perfecting as activities.

Reply to Objection 4. When we say that virtue is the order or ordering, we refer to the end to which virtue is ordered: because in us love is set in order by virtue.

So virtues are means to ends but are also the ends. They enable us to be made better, and yet the particular virtues must be actualized on a continuous basis if love is to be set in order. The highest love is the love of God and all other loves must be set in order so that we are pursuing the highest love always.

Reply to Objection 5. Natural powers are of themselves determinate to one act: not so the rational powers. And so there is no comparison, as we have said.

Natural powers aim towards the preservation of the creature’s natural existence. Rational powers are the virtues that aim towards various ends that then perfect our first love.