Vol I No. 7
Daily Thought

Thomas Aquinas Virtue Operative Power

by William J. Martin



Article 2. Whether human virtue is an operative habit?


Objection 1. It would seem that it is not essential to human virtue to be an operative habit or a principle of activity. For Tully says (Tuscul. iv) that as health and beauty belong to the body, so virtue belongs to the soul. But health and beauty are not operative habits. Therefore neither is virtue.

An operative habit is a principle of activity. A principle of activity brings about an effect. But, as Cicero writes, as health and beauty belong to the body by nature, so does virtue belong to the soul by nature. By reason of its nature or essence the soul is virtuous because of an innate and natural disposition.   

 Objection 2. Further, in natural things we find virtue not only in reference to act, but also in reference to being: as is clear from the Philosopher (De Coelo i), since some have a virtue to be always, while some have a virtue to be not always, but at some definite time. Now as natural virtue is in natural things, so is human virtue in rational beings. Therefore also human virtue is referred not only to act, but also to being.

It would seem that virtue is natural to man or that virtue is characteristic of man’s being. So man is good by nature or has the propensity to be good by nature. So human virtue does not refer to activity but to the being of man. Thus it would seem that virtue is what naturally moves and defines a man. For example, all men desire to know and to be happy. So virtue seems to describe man’s nature or character than to be related to any action or movement.

 Objection 3. Further, the Philosopher says (Phys. vii, text. 17) that virtue is the disposition of a perfect thing to that which is best. Now the best thing to which man needs to be disposed by virtue is God Himself, as Augustine proves (De Moribus Eccl. 3,6, 14) to Whom the soul is disposed by being made like to Him. Therefore it seems that virtue is a quality of soul in reference to God, likening it, as it were, to Him; and not in reference to operation. It is not, therefore, an operative habit.

By nature man is made in the image and likeness of God. By reason of his created nature man is not only virtuous in relation to nature or other men but also in relation to God. Virtue is a quality of soul that reveals man’s similarity and nearness to the nature of God. So virtue is not an operative habit or principle of activity but a created good that reveals man’s created integrity. Man’s being reveals his proximity to God. 

 On the contrary, The Philosopher says that virtue of a thing is that which makes its work good. (Ethics ii. 6)

 Virtue is an activity which generates goodness. Virtue is thus an operative habit that actualizes truth and brings it into being.

 I answer that, virtue, from the very nature of the word, implies some perfection of power, as we have said above (Article i). Wherefore, since power [The one Latin word potentia is rendered potentiality in the first case, and power in the second] is of two kinds, namely, power in reference to being, and power in reference to act, the perfection of each of these is called virtue. But power in reference to being is on the part of matter, which is potential being, whereas power in reference to act, is on the part of the form, which is the principle of action, since everything acts in so far as it is in act.

So virtue relates to power in two ways. First, virtue refers to an innate or natural potency that comes with created being. So a man is man with the capacity to be virtuous. In his nature is the potentiality to embrace virtue and then to be moved and defined by it. Second, virtue relates to actuality or to act. So virtue is also the activity of being good. The perfection of both potency and act is called virtue. So there is potential virtue in being, there is actual virtue in becoming, and there is the virtue that brings the two together in one man.  

Now man is so constituted that the body holds the place of matter, the soul that of form. The body, indeed, man has in common with other animals; and the same is to be said of the forces which are common to the soul and body: and only those forces which are proper to the soul, namely, the rational forces, belong to man alone. And therefore, human virtue, of which we are speaking now, cannot belong to the body, but belongs only to that which is proper to the soul. Wherefore human virtue does not imply reference to being, but rather to act. Consequently it is essential to human virtue to be an operative habit.

However, human virtue belongs not to matter or the body but to the soul. But when we say ‘soul’, we mean the ‘rational soul’, or the soul that thinks and wills the good. So human virtue belongs not to being but to becoming. Human virtue does not refer to matter or the body, for man shares matter and the body with other animals. Human virtue refers to the operative habit whereby a man thinks and wills the good into his life. So human virtue refers to an activity that is both contemplated and then willed. Once it is actualized by the mind and the will in the first instance, it must be repeated so as to become a habit that characterizes man’s life as virtue. So there is the virtue of thought, will, and then habituation.

 Reply to Objection 1. Mode of action follows on the disposition of the agent: for such as a thing is, such is its act. And therefore, since virtue is the principle of some kind of operation, there must needs pre-exist in the operator in respect of virtue some corresponding disposition. Now virtue causes an ordered operation. Therefore virtue itself is an ordered disposition of the soul, in so far as, to wit, the powers of the soul are in some way ordered to one another, and to that which is outside. Hence virtue inasmuch as it is a suitable disposition of the soul, is like health and beauty, which are suitable dispositions of the body. But this does not hinder virtue from being a principle of operation.

 Reply to Objection 2. Virtue which is referred to being is not proper to man; but only that virtue which is referred to works of reason, which are proper to man.

 Reply to Objection 3. As God’s substance is His act, the highest likeness of man to God is in respect of some operation. Wherefore, happiness or bliss by which man is made most perfectly conformed to God, and which is the end of human life, consists in an operation.