There’s an old saying, virtus in medio stat (“virtue lies in the middle”). 

In ethics and morality, there’s a golden mean between excess on one side and defect on the other. That is where virtue may be found. Aristotle taught this, and so did St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae, adding the light of Christian revelation to the natural philosophy of Aristotle.  

For Aquinas, virtue is the perfection of human activity — that is to say, virtue is human activity at its best. Virtue describes the best traits of human action. The word itself comes from the Latin word for strength or power, vis. As with any human strength, it is built up through repetition. Do something good repeatedly and it becomes a good habit; do it long enough and it becomes a virtue.  

Virtue is developed by positive action, so merely avoiding evil or sin is not virtuous. Virtue consists in acting in a positive way to bring about good things such as justice, mercy or charity. The choices we make every day determine the habits we build up, whether good or evil, and virtue consists in developing habits that lead us to the perfection of the gifts God has given us. 

St. Thomas taught that the human person is created by God with both an intellect and a will, as well as a soul. As a result, there are three corresponding kinds of virtue: intellectual, moral and theological. Let’s take a look at these three broad categories of virtue, then at some of the singular virtues that fall within them. 

Intellectual Virtues

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Intellectual virtues are good habits or disciplines of the mind which aid our understanding and ability to discern what is true, and our recognition of God’s wisdom in things that are true. By God’s goodness, the human mind is equipped naturally to recognize and learn about the world around us. The intellectual virtues allow us to do more than simply make discoveries and gather knowledge, and more than just apply our learning to the problems of the day. Rather, they equip us to follow human discoveries to the next level and to their ultimate causes: to realize that all learning points to the truths of God. Knowledge comes from learning truths; virtue comes from understanding truths as part of God’s creation.  

Moral virtues are the virtues most familiar to us. They affect the will. Whereas the intellect searches for and is ultimately fulfilled by understanding what is true, the will searches for and is fulfilled by choosing what is good. Repeatedly choosing what is good — that is, the habit of choosing the good — leads to moral virtue. Although there are many lists of moral virtues, we most commonly speak of the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. They are called cardinal virtues from the Latin word for a hinge (cardo), since all of the other moral virtues really flow from, or are hinged upon, these four. 

Theological virtues are virtues of the soul. St. Thomas teaches that they are infused by God’s grace, poured by God upon a soul open to these gifts. Like any other virtue, they have to be practiced to be effective. The theological virtues are faith, hope and charity. These virtues connect us with God. 

Cardinal Virtues

What are meant by the four cardinal virtues? 

Prudence is sometimes called practical wisdom. It refers to the habit of making good choices for the right reason. Prudence comes into play in developing right habits for all the other virtues. 

Justice means the habit of giving others their due, treating them fairly, listening to them attentively. For a person of faith, justice also means giving God His due, by prudently using all of the gifts and resources He has provided us. Justice allows us to recognize that God generously provides for all and empowers us to act in accord with the richness and abundance of His gifts. Through the virtue of justice we recognize that we are but one of many of God’s children, each loved uniquely yet equally, and in justice we choose to act in a way that will not deny any other person what God has offered to her or him — whether material things of this world or the blessings and riches of God. 

Temperance means that we find the right balance in our desires or appetites, and we choose what is good based on proper values. Classical Catholic philosophy speaks of temperance as the capacity to find the pleasure in any created thing (including food, drink and even sexual thoughts and acts) according to God’s plan, without going to excess or defect. Temperance means that we see the order in God’s creation and in God’s providence, and do not become inordinately attached to any one thing or person or desire. We see each person and thing in relationship with all of God’s gifts, and seek to live a balanced lifestyle that depends on God, with gratitude, but without unhealthy attachments. 

Fortitude is the practice of acting confidently in the face of danger, and being constant in choosing what is good even in difficult circumstances. We practice fortitude when we act and respond to things in appropriate measure, using our God-given talents. For the follower of Christ, fortitude includes the desire and willingness to defend the Gospel, the Church and religious values in the face of persecution or intolerance. The virtue of fortitude means that we accept the strength God gives in a difficult moment, then act in the proper way — being neither timid nor overly aggressive.  

Theological Virtues

St. Thomas taught that a human being may attain happiness from the practice of the moral virtues, but that perfect happiness is possible only by adding the theological virtues: faith, hope and charity. They are also called “infused” virtues, because they are purely gifts from God and are not the result of human action.  

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Faith enables the intellect to take the knowledge gained through the physical senses and then to view it with a divine light. Human knowledge can bring us just so far in understanding the truth of things, but faith allows us to understand more: the higher, nobler presence and wisdom of God. It is the virtue of faith, according to St. Thomas, which allows our intellect to assent to things that are not apparent to the senses, as he writes in his Eucharistic hymn Tantum Ergo: “What our senses fail to fathom let us grasp through faith’s consent.” Faith perfects the human intellect by allowing us to see God’s hand in all things. Merely human knowledge is imperfect without the element added by faith: the recognition of the Divine, the hand of the Creator.  

Hope perfects the human will, which is the faculty or ability to choose good. By faith we begin to see God’s wisdom behind all knowledge, and by hope we can discern God’s love behind all that is truly good for the soul. Hope allows us to recognize that the holy and wonderful things of God are the true desires of our heart, and the virtue of hope does not allow us to settle for anything less. The human will longs for what is naturally good; the virtue of hope allows us to long for and to choose what is spiritually good. 

Charity or love perfects our actions, bringing them into conformity with the loving will of God. We practice charity when we see and treat ourselves and others as God would. God has created each of us out of love alone; Our Lord suffered for our redemption out of love alone; the Holy Spirit offers us the inner life of grace through love alone. The practice of charity brings us to act toward ourselves and others out of love alone, precisely because each person has the dignity of a beloved child of God. St. Thomas called charity the “mother and form of all the virtues,” since without charity the practice of any other virtue fails. It is also the virtue that allows us to be most like God.  

In sum, faith perfects our knowledge. Hope perfects our choices. Charity perfects our actions. 

There are many virtues beyond these. St. Francis de Sales mentioned the “little virtues” that reinforce the others, including patience, humility and gentleness. If we recognize that our every human ability is a gift from God, we can aim for the virtue that brings each of them to perfection. We can practice good thoughts, choices and actions, and implement them wisely, each one leading to another and another. Repetition builds the good habits from which virtue is born one choice at a time.

Msgr. William King holds a licentiate in canon law from The Catholic University of America and a doctorate in canon law from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.