Missing the Mark

There’s an old saying, “Virtus in medio stat” (“Virtue lies in the middle”). Vice, on the other hand, lives in the extremes. 

Virtue describes a balance between excess on one side and defect on the other — what Aristotle called “the golden mean.”  

Vice, on the other hand, lives on the sidelines: excess or defect. St. Thomas Aquinas described virtue as the perfection of human activity. Since vice is the opposite of virtue, we can think of vice as human activity at its worst, or perhaps as the distortion of virtue. 

Sinful Habits

The Greek word hamartia, which literally means to miss the mark, is the word used for sin in the New Testament. Like a golf shot or an arrow that falls to one side or the other of the target, sin misses the mark in a moral sense. If we keep missing the mark and don’t act to correct our aim, we can fall into the pattern of vice.  

One can imagine the moral battle of virtue and vice as a three-way tug of war. In the middle stands the champion — virtue — but at each end is an opponent pulling to one side. Excess pulls in one direction, and defect in the other. If successful, excess or defect will pull us into sin.  

Neither virtue nor vice arise from a single act: a single sinful act does not make a vice. One sin at a time, repeated often enough, builds a sinful habit, and that habit over time can form a vice.  

In practice, a sinful habit may arise in either direction: from excess, indulgence or overzealousness on one hand, or from insufficiency, defect or inaction on the other hand. In the context of grace, we can say that virtue leads us to be dependent on Divine Providence; vice leads us to depend on ourselves or to deny that God’s grace is sufficient. 

Vices and Virtues

St. Thomas taught in his Summa Theologiae that there are three types of virtue, corresponding to the intellect, will and soul of the human person. They are the intellectual, moral and theological virtues. 

The intellectual virtues are aids to the human mind, specifically guiding us to discern God’s wisdom in all our learning. Their corresponding vices distort the work of the human intellect.  

The moral virtues guide the human will to choose the good and the beautiful; the corresponding vices lead the will toward what is harmful.  

The theological virtues — faith, hope and charity — are divine gifts to the human soul; the vices that are their counterparts lead away from God. 

Vice can take the human mind away from virtue in one of two directions. In the direction of defect, vice tugs us toward mental sloth and a lack of inquisitiveness. Knowledge and discovery are greeted with disdain. We do not use our God-given innate curiosity. 

In the opposite direction of excess, the accumulation of knowledge is pursued without reference to the Creator, and learning and discovery become ends in themselves. This produces a false god. The intellectual vices compel us either to devalue the quest for knowledge of our universe, or to overvalue and enthrone knowledge as its own end. 

The moral virtues guide the human will in making right choices and putting them into action. Among the many moral virtues, the cardinal, or key, virtues are those from which all other virtues arise. They are traditionally named as prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. Each has its vices, standing at the ready to tug us toward the extremes. 

Prudence is practical wisdom, built up from weighing the factors and making good choices, then putting them into practice. Imprudence as a vice can take two forms. In the excess it is scrupulosity, or “paralysis by analysis.” The scrupulous person is paralyzed by overthinking and cannot make a decision, often out of fear of making the wrong decision. In the defect, the vice is liberality, licentiousness or decadence: acting without limits or without a moral guidepost.  

Justice means giving others their due. At its heart, it consists in acting fairly toward everyone, including oneself, and even toward God. It is pulled toward the side of defect by selfishness, which insists that one’s own needs must be met before giving to others from what is left over. The vice of selfishness comes from repeatedly seeing to one’s own satisfaction and pleasure before — or, in the worst case, instead of — anyone else who may need time, emotions, resources. To the other side, justice is pulled to the vice of excess by vindictiveness, which equally lacks compassion and empathy and denies God’s grace.  

Temperance indicates balance. God has given us desires or appetites; temperance affirms these gifts and makes choices based on proper values and relationships. The virtue of temperance leads to gratitude and pleasure in God’s gifts, but without a disordered or unhealthy attachment to any one of them. 

When pulled toward the vice of excess, temperance falls to the sin of gluttony, to overindulgence, or to unhealthy attachments and addictions. In the direction of defect, vice arises from self-denial that is not the spiritual discipline of asceticism but rather a disinterest, loathing or contempt for the things of this world.  

Fortitude is the practice of acting with confidence in situations of danger, including those occasions when we are called upon to defend our faith and Church. The twin vices of this virtue are, toward the excess, bravado and unwarranted aggressiveness, and toward the defect, cowardice and timidity.  

Doubt, Presumption, Dissipation

The theological virtues are gifts from God for the human soul: faith, hope and love. 

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Faith is the gift that allows us to view human learning and discovery with the added light of divine grace. In its defect, faith is supplanted by doubt, wherein the human intellect refuses to accede to the possibility of what cannot be scientifically proven or to any causation beyond the natural and observable order. On the other hand, in its excess, faith is overcome by an overzealous and irrational religiosity which stubbornly resists merely human or scientific discovery. 

Hope takes the longings of the human heart or will and perfects them by allowing us to see that behind all of our desires is a yearning for the things of God. When pulled toward the extreme, hope becomes presumption. The vice of presumption arises from an attitude of assurance of salvation unconnected from repentance and contrition for sins or lacks dependence on divine grace for true conversion. In its defect, faith falls to the influence of despair, denial of the power of God to forgive, justify or save the sinner who turns to Him. 

Charity or love perfects human actions, conforming them to God’s loving will. We might wonder how charity or love could be practiced in the excess. How can one love too much? How can charity become a vice? When charity leads to dissipation of our gifts and talents and resources — the inability to say no — we can fall prey to the distortion of an otherwise good and holy thing. Dissipation prevents us from living a life rooted in charity. It is a vice leading to the ineffective use of gifts and opportunities. In its defect, charity is pulled toward the vice of covetousness or greed, which equally blocks the grace-filled use of gifts and opportunities. 

In sum, virtue perfects our human activity in the intellect, the will and the soul. Vice distorts human activity, pulling it toward defect or excess: too much or too little of a good thing. Virtue is built up from the repeated use of our gifts according to the loving plan of God. Sin, however, tugs from both sides to pull us off course in following the plan of God, and repeated sin can build the habits from which vice is born one choice at a time. TCA 

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.