Theological Virtues

Brandon has a thoughtful piece on the virtue of hope which I enjoyed very much and yet with which I find myself in several points of disagreement.  Much as I typically agree with Brandon, that I might disagree on a few points here is no surprise: the nature of the theological virtues and their relation to the other virtues is notoriously problematic.  Perhaps putting down my own thoughts on the matter can mark a return to active blogging!

Caution: what follows is my idiosyncratic attempt to re-invent the wheel.  It is not really a proper response to Brandon either, more of a set of counter-thoughts inspired by him (much like his original post with respect to the article, I think).  Caveat lector.

Fitting the Virtues Together: Athens and Jerusalem

The Catholic tradition has typically distinguished two kinds of virtues: acquired and infused.  In discussing acquired virtue we mostly build directly on Greco-Roman philosophy, whereas infused virtues are a distinctively Catholic, revelation-based affair.

An acquired virtue is the perfection of a power we have by nature.  This perfection is acquired (hence the name) through practice in ways that are familiar to anyone who has played a sport or received training in something or gotten good at a video game.  “Getting good” at something depends on repetition, intensity of repetition, frequency of repetition, volume of repetition, the reward or pleasure associated with the task, and the like.

When it comes to the moral life, as opposed to just being good at doing something, the Greco-Roman tradition eventually settled on what we call the cardinal virtues: four master virtues which organize and direct a life well.  These four virtues are taken up into the Catholic tradition as prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.  In each case we acquire a stable disposition to act in accord with reason in some essential sphere of human activity: with regard to reasoning about how to act (prudence), with regard to dealing with others (justice), with regard to regulating our appetites and emotional responses to things (fortitude and temperance).  All humans have the powers perfected by these four and all humans can and should acquire these four virtues.  To do so is to live well; to fail to do so is to make a shipwreck of one’s life.

Infused virtues are different and they don’t fit into this framework very neatly.  The moral life as revealed in the Gospel is not about being a successful Athenian aristocrat or a well-mannered Epicurean or a long-suffering Stoic or even a Platonist lost in deep contemplation of wisdom.  The perfection of human life is to transcend the universe and become a partaker in the divine nature by knowing and loving God.  The signal virtues of this life, most famously summed up in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, are faith, hope, and charity.

The problem for fitting these three into the pre-existing doctrine of virtue is that we cannot acquire these through exercise of our natural powers because we have no natural powers capable of knowing and loving God.  God surpasses the scope of all our powers; they are not proportioned to Him.  Quite famously we say in the Catholic tradition that “we cannot know what God is; we can only know what He is not.”  This via negativa brings us to a real kind of knowledge, but not the kind of knowledge that grounds love of God–at least not in the relevant sense.

And so the Good News of the Gospel is that God gives us–infuses in us–virtues which we can then exercise, by His grace, to know Him and love Him.  They are still perfecting our powers and so rightly bear the name virtue, but we could never acquire them through the exercise of those powers.  They are a kind of participation in His own self-knowledge and self-love.  These are the real master virtues that direct and order our life well toward our Last End, the Beatific Vision.  To have them and exercise them is to really live well; to fail to do so is to make a real, final shipwreck of one’s life.

Well we can’t have two sets of master virtues which direct all the others, so we need some kind of ordering between the theological and the cardinal virtues.  How do we take the cardinal virtues, meant to be architectonic in the Greco-Roman system, and subordinate them to the real architectonic virtues?

Prudence and Practical Reason

I take prudence as my starting point because it is the most important of the four cardinal virtues but also because it is the virtue most directly and obviously transformed by subordination to the theological virtues.  It also most clearly relates to the heart of ethics: an account of practical reason.

Prudence is the virtue of reasoning well about how to act.  It is a perfection of practical reasoning: given that I have such and such a goal, how do I best go about achieving it?  In perhaps more familiar terms, this is reasoning about means to an end.

St. Thomas spends a fair amount of time going over practical reason at the heart of his ethics in ST I-II Q8-19, as well as all the ways it continues to show up throughout the rest of I-II and II-II.  Narrowly speaking prudence perfects the internal act of command as discussed in I-II Q17, but we could broadly say that it perfects the entire means-side of practical reason: counsel, consent, choice, and use, all culminating in command.  When St. Thomas goes into the parts of prudence in ST II-II Q49, he is looking more closely at all the kinds of things we need to be good at to reason well about means to an end.

Now we can speak of “end” in terms of any goal whatsoever, regardless of how good or bad that goal is, but in the Catholic tradition we don’t apply the word prudence to such reasoning.  Instead we reserve prudence for when we are reasoning well about how to attain a real good, and most properly only when we are reasoning well about how to attain the True Good, the Last and Universal Good, participation in the divine life of God.

And now we come to a serious problem as far as the Catholic tradition is concerned.  To reason about means we must first have knowledge of some end and will that end.  The process of practical reason always works “backward” from an end to what we are able to do right now.  But it is a fundamental belief of the Church that we cannot know what God is, only what God is not.  Human reason alone is not proportioned to God as its object; He infinitely exceeds the scope of all our powers.  And a thing is only willed to the extent that it is known.  We are stuck in the uncomfortable valley of knowing that we have an end beyond our powers, not knowing what it really is, therefore not being able to really will it, and yet wanting to subordinate our power of reasoning about action to that unknown-in-itself end.

Enter the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.  These are perfections of our powers which we cannot acquire on our own but which God, in an act of mercy, infuses into us so that we can exercise them with His help.  With a divinely infused knowledge of the end (faith) and love of that end (charity), we become capable of reasoning about how to attain it (prudence, formed by faith and charity).  Now we can complete the process of practical reasoning about our universal Last End.

So I take the fundamental difference between theological virtues and cardinal virtues to follow from the structure of practical reason.  The “weirdness” of the former is due to the fact that they regard the end in itself which grounds the other virtues, while the cardinal virtues regard the end as the motive for the means/action.  The latter virtues are more known to us, indeed are our paradigm for virtues, because as means they are nearer to us as actions that flow from us as the agent.

All that is not to say that the divine origin of the theological virtues is incidental: the under-structure of practical reason gives the reason why they need to be infused in the first place.  There is no natural virtue to “super-augment” into the supernatural sphere precisely for the same reason that no useful good can be “super-augmented” to become an honest good.  The good-in-itself and the good-for differ in kind as one subordinated to the other.

Hope and Intention

So where does the theological virtue of hope fit into all this?  Hope is always the forgotten virtue, easily subsumed into faith or charity depending how one speaks of it.  I think this is because hope is best understood with reference to the odd element of practical reason: intention.

Intention as Aquinas means it in ST I-II Q12 does not perfectly accord with the way we use the word today.  By intention he means an act of the will which consists in an anticipatory enjoyment of a good we are moving toward.  This is an act of the will, not merely a passion of desire or excitement.  It is also not merely an intellective relation to an object, which would be nothing other than basic knowledge of the end or reasoning about how to reach it.  Rather, it is a volitional movement through the mid-space toward an object.

Because intention is movement through the mid-space, though, it has certain obvious affinities with all the means-side of practical reason: counsel, consent, choice, use, and command.  Aquinas even considers the possibility that intention is nothing other than choice, since both are an act of the will regarding the mid-space.  The key difference is that intention is principally of the end-as-yet-unpossessed, and only indirectly about the mid-space.  Counsel and the like are directly about that mid-space, and only about the end indirectly.  The distinction is subtle enough that one can see how easy it is to collapse intention into the counsel family, making it strictly a matter of the intellect charting the mid-space.

I think something similar is happening with the theological virtue of hope, which I take to be the infused virtue of anticipatory enjoyment of our Last End.  This is a bit of an odd take but I think it resolves some difficulties when it comes to thinking about hope as a virtue.

There is no obvious acquired virtue of intending well: what exactly would it mean to “enjoy well (or: “will well with regard to”) an end we are approaching?”  There is of course a passion of hope–feeling that a difficult good can still be obtained–and it is quite common to speak of the theological virtue of hope in these terms as well.  Our Last End is difficult to attain, not only because of the trials of life and the consequences of sin, but also and more fundamentally because (as already stated) it transcends anything that we can accomplish ourselves.  But we never say that the theological virtue is a feeling, and so we instead cash out this idea in terms of a kind of certainty that we will reach our Last End with God’s help.  Without it our Last End could only be a wish: willing an end we know to be impossible.

If hope stands near any acquired virtue, the affinity with the mid-space indicates a defective connection to prudence.  Some of the parts of prudence especially look to the future, and more notably two of them do so in a way that touches upon the difficult object found in the passion of hope: caution and circumspection.  Hope’s connection to prudence is defective since prudence is intellective and hope is volitional, but there seems to be some kind of unstable connection there.

That instability is heightened by the fact that faith arguably has a much closer affinity to prudence than hope does.  While faith’s primary object is God Himself as our Last End, faith extends also to all those things God has revealed about how to reach Him; i.e., it includes a knowledge of the means.  It is a kind of reasoning well–on the  basis of divine testimony–not only about our supernatural end in itself but also how to reach that end.  Most obviously the parts of prudence known as understanding and docility correspond with the theological virtue of faith.

This I think helps account for why we so easily confuse faith and hope: they both regard the mid-space of reaching the Last End, just in different ways.  Faith has the stronger association with prudence as they are both intellective, but hope shares that traversing the mid-space element and so also has an affinity with it.  And just to complete the triangle, when we try to emphasize the volitional aspect of hope it easily collapses into charity just as intention tends to do with enjoyment.

Ironically I think charity has, of the three, the most obvious connection to a moral virtue: justice.  Both involve willing well: charity with respect to God, justice with respect to other persons.  Both involve a giving: justice gives what is owed, whereas charity gives beyond what is owed or perhaps with no reference to what is owed at all.  Both stand apart from the other virtues as being fundamentally oriented toward another person.  This two-pole nature gives each of them some odd features not found in the other virtues, which fundamentally concern the self in some way.  Most significantly, one of the fundamental claims of the New Testament is that the love of God justifies us–that is, makes us just.  They have some kind of affinity!

Critically, the two have an unequal connection with friendship.  Justice is a kind of praeambulum amicitiae that finds itself superceded in the presence of true friendship; justice obtains where there is not yet friendship.  Charity, by contrast, just is the love that makes true friendship and that can never be superceded by it.  Even faith and hope are in some sense superceded in eternity; there is a reason St. Paul famously named charity “the greatest of these.”

Just don’t ask me how to fit justice into my practical reason account above.  That’s a whole other diagram of crazy.


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