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Virtue is "a habitual and firm disposition to do good" (CCC #1833). A proverb of unknown origin says, "Sow a thought and reap an act; sow an act and reap a habit; sow a habit and reap a character; sow a character and reap a destiny."

Virtues are habits. Practice makes progress.

Buddha (~500 BC in India), Confucius (~500 BC in China), Aristotle (~350 BC in Greece), and the classic Christian tradition all hold that "Virtue is the mean between extremes."

"But not every action...admits of a mean; for some have names that already imply badness...adultery, theft, murder; for all of these are themselves bad, and not the excess or deficiencies of them. It is not possible then ever to be right with regard to them; one must always be wrong. ... However they are done they are wrong" (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics). Catholic philosophy calls such actions "intrinsically evil." The evil of the action cannot be remedied by good intentions nor justified by circumstances. The prohibition of such evildoing is absolute: Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not lie, do not steal.

Cardinal Virtues

Plato developed the theory that there are four cardinal ("hinge") virtues (powers developed by habitual practice) necessary for the good life. The four cardinal virtues interact with each other and support each other.

"And if a man love justice, her labors have great virtues. For she teacheth temperance and prudence and justice and fortitude, which are such things as men can have nothing more profitable in life" (Wisdom 8:7).


Prudence is wisdom about practical matters. The virtue of prudence enables us to apply general rules to particular situations in which there is no universal negative prohibition to guide us. In such cases, "let your conscience be your guide." Do what you think is best in the circumstances, trusting in God's compassion, mercy, and providence.


Give to each what each deserves. Treat equals equally; treat unequals unequally.

Fortitude (patience, endurance)

"A few moments of patience now will spare me a hundred days of regret."

Patience is not just a virtue. Patience is the backbone of all other virtues, both natural and supernatural. If we are not patient, we will not be prudent, just, temperate, faithful, hopeful, or loving for very long.

"Beware the persistent man." Without wisdom and justice, fortitude is bull-headed, bigoted, arrogant, and rude (e.g., cranks in science and trolls in Usenet newsgroups).

There are no shortcuts to patience. The only way to get patience is to be patient. Patience is like a muscle: use it or lose it.

General Kutuzov, War and Peace
"The strongest of all warriors are these two: time and patience."
St. Teresa of Avila
Let nothing disturb you, nothing frighten you; all things are passing; God never changes. Patient endurance obtains all things. He who has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.

"Faith is hard work."

Because we don't see the act of faith, it seems to be next to nothing.

We know spiritual things spiritually.

Not by looking at things outside of us but by recognizing what is happening within us.

Not by "empty-headed looking-at" (derived from Lonergan).

Faith is one of those 10,000-hour things.

For angels, it is otherwise. Their entire being is committed in one decision. Not so with us!

Faith is a relationship.

A committed personal relationship.

And we have all the difficulties of relationships in our relationship with God.

Moderation (temperance)

"Moderation in all things" (except sin!).

"Virtue is the mean between extremes."

Too Little Four Cardinal Virtues Too Much
Imprudence Prudence
practical wisdom
Immorality Justice
equal rights, due process
Self-indulgence Temperance
Cowardice Fortitude
courage, endurance
Presumption, arrogance, rage

Seven Deadly Sins

Flip Side Positive Value Seven Deadly Sins
Depression, Despair, Suicide Self-esteem Pride
Dissolution Productivity Greed
Apathy, Frigidity, Impotence Intimacy Lust
Victim Mentality, Passive Aggression Self-defense, Assertiveness Anger
Anorexia Survival, Pleasure Gluttony
Antipathy, Isolation Admiration Envy
Obsessive-compulsion Rest Sloth

Supernatural Virtues

The Theological virtues of faith, hope, and love build on the natural virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. "Grace co-operates with nature."

Deficiency Virtue Excess
Hardness of heart Faith

unbalanced enthusiasm

Despair Hope Presumption


Love Co-dependence,

imprudent, self-destructive giving


"Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Phil 4:8).
A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.
The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.[1]
Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good.
The moral virtues are acquired by human effort. They are the fruit and seed of morally good acts; they dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love.

No shortcuts

In Eye for an Eye, a study of post-war mistreatment of Nazis in prison camps, John Sack wrote, "It seemed as though hate were a muscle and the longer he used it, the bigger it got." This, for me, is the great lesson of the book: both hate and love are inexhaustible because they grow with use. The more we love, the more loving we become; the more we hate, the more hateful we become.

Sack's insight applies to all vices and virtues, because all are matters of habit. All other things being equal, the more we practice patience, the more patient we become; the more we exercise wisdom in practical matters, the wiser we become.

There is no other way to develop the virtues than to practice being virtuous. Temptations are "Free Growth Opportunities."[2] This is why St. Philip Neri taught that "When God intends to grant a man any particular virtue, it is His way to let him be tempted to the opposite vice."[3] Our muscles don't gain strength when the path is easy and we are traveling with a light load. To grow in strength, we must be tested a little beyond what we have already learned to endure.

The way to improve our muscle tone is to exercise. That is the proper means to the end we seek. Bodily health cannot be purchased or stored up by any other means. The way to grow in virtue is to defeat temptation. Virtue cannot be acquired by any other means.

Zechariah 4:10
"Do not despise the day of small beginnings."

We learn how to walk by walking poorly at first.

We learn how to speak by speaking poorly at first.

We learn how to be patient by being patient poorly at first.

And so on with all of the other virtues, even the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, love.

Forgiveness is not the only 70 times 7 reality in the spiritual life! "Suntne angeli?" No, we are not angels. Angels do not have virtuous habits. They decide the whole of their life in one supreme act in which they choose to love God or love themselves. After that decisive act, they are in full possession of their angelic powers to carry out that decision. They do not pass from one stage of actualization of potential to another as we do. They are what they are.


  1. St. Gregory of Nyssa, De beatitudinibus, 1:PG 44,1200D.
  2. Please note that in the original saying, heard from time to time in various Twelve Step programs, a different word is used instead of "Free." Some reduce the phrase, "another f[ree] growth opportunity" to the acronym, "AFGO." The spirituality of learning by doing is sound; the vulgarity doesn't belong on a family-friendly wiki.
  3. "Maxims and Sayings of St. Philip Neri," August 31; emphasis added.