VIRTUES: THE AIM OF STRUCTURES

We must always keep in mind that structures are for the sake of the virtues. Otherwise, we risk misusing structures. What, then, is a virtue?

 

We must always keep in mind that structures are for the sake of the virtues. Otherwise, we risk misusing structures. What, then, is a virtue? 

 

In good Thomistic-Aristotelian fashion, we start with what we are trying to do. We are trying to attain true human fulfillment, which is found in God and which is also called “salvation.” So, we need to do the kinds of acts that contribute to this fulfillment. Call them fulfillment-fostering acts. A virtue is a steadily ready ability to do a kind of fulfillment-fostering act. Let us break down this description of a virtue. 

 

First, there are two ways in which a person is able to do something, as may be seen by considering the example of Jill training to run a marathon. She would not have begun training for this, if she did not think that she could run a marathon. So, when Jill first decided to run a marathon, she determined that she was able to do so. But her ability to run a marathon when she first decided to train for one is different from her ability to run the marathon after she has trained for one. At first, she has a remote ability to run a marathon and, after training, she has what might be called a ready ability. A virtue is this latter kind of ability, a ready ability. In other words, your ability to do an act that contributes to fulfillment is heightened, or perfected. You have a facility for doing the fulfillment-fostering act.

 

Second, a person may be readily able to do something only at certain moments. Jack, for example, is in a generous mood because he had a good day at work. Therefore, when he comes home from work, he is very generous in offering help to his family members. But usually, Jack is not helpful. His ready ability to be generous is only momentary, arising from him having had a good day at work. A virtue, on the other hand, is a steadily ready ability. You are able to do the good act consistently and even when it is difficult to do. So, a virtue is not only a ready ability, but a steadily ready ability to do a kind of fulfillment-fostering act.

 

In order to identify examples of virtues, let us start by identifying a kind of fulfillment-fostering act and, then, trace this back to the virtue that is the steadily ready ability to do that kind of act. For example, the act of believing what God has revealed to us is a fulfillment-fostering act, for by believing this we allow ourselves to be led by God to true fulfillment. The steadily ready ability to do this act is called the virtue of faith. Another fulfillment-fostering act is the act of making good moral decisions in concrete situations. Knowing and then executing the right thing to do in the here and now is crucial if we are to live in a way that leads to genuine fulfillment. The steadily ready ability to do this kind of act is called the virtue of prudence (or sometimes, it is called discretion). 

 

As indicated above, true fulfillment is realized in God. So, in helping us on to fulfillment, the virtues are bringing us closer to God. Consider two ways in which the virtues bring us closer to God. One way is by enabling us to do the fulfillment-fostering acts that lead to God. As St. Benedict says, “If we want to dwell in the tent of His kingdom, then unless we run to it by good actions, we will simply not reach it.” (Rule prologue, v. 22) We need to do good actions, in order to attain our dwelling place with God, and the virtues make us steadily ready to do those actions.

 

The second way that the virtues bring us closer to God is through good interior dispositions. That is, by being steadily ready abilities to do what is good, the virtues are dispositions toward what is good. Therefore, when we have these dispositions, our minds and hearts are lined up with what God wants, since God of course also wants what is good. So, even when we are not carrying out the fulfillment-fostering acts to which the virtues dispose us, the virtues are still causing us to be in alignment with God, and thus closer to God, by being good interior dispositions.

 

All this happens through Christ. As a human being, Jesus has the virtues; indeed, He has them most perfectly. So, His interior dispositions as a human being are most perfectly aligned with God’s will. Now, the grace of Christ conforms us to His humanity by making us virtuous as He is. But since His humanity is perfectly aligned with God, it follows that when we are conformed to Christ’s humanity in virtue, we are also conformed to—that is, more perfectly aligned with—Christ in His divinity. The virtues, then, conform us to Christ in His humanity and thereby conform us to Christ in His divinity. 

 

In sum:

  • When employing structures, the intent must be on cultivating the virtues.

  • A virtue is a steadily ready ability to do a kind of act that contributes to human fulfillment.

  • The virtues bring us closer to God by enabling us to do fulfillment-fostering acts, which lead to God, and by being dispositions that bring us into alignment with God.

  • Growing in the virtues means being conformed to Christ in His humanity and, in that way, also to Christ in His divinity.