Virtue and Power

Virtue as Power


It has already been clearly stated above that the thesis presented here is magnanimity as the key virtue in restoring the idea of nobility in men. Can women not be virtuous? Can they not be magnanimous? Is men being used here in the universal sense of humanity? It is not.  Women are certainly capable of virtue, and almost everything to be stated from here forward is applicable to them.  However, the topic is being expressed purposely with men in view.


According to its etymology the word virtue (Latin virtus) signifies manliness or courage.[1] For the ancients, to be manly was to be virtuous…Thus the virtues are habits that give us the power to act in a manly way…Without virtues we will neither be godly nor manly.[2] While almost everything said thenceforth, then, applies equally to men and to women, and while meaning no disrespect to the equal dignity of women, the following is directed most immediately at men.


A virtue is a 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.[3] Aristotle says “virtue is that which makes its possessor good, and his work good likewise.”[4]


Before we discuss virtue any further, we are well advised to reflect on power. Power can be seen as potential.  When we think of something as powerful, we rightly see it as something with great capability. If one is a powerful athlete, he possesses great speed or strength. If an army is powerful, it has the men, equipment, and training to defeat other armies. Rightly, then, we understand power as a potency, and not as an act.


In the Summa Theologica, Thomas speaks of virtue and power according the Aristotelian divisions of matter and form. “Virtue denotes a certain perfection of power. Now a thing’s perfection is considered chiefly in regard to its end. But the end of power is act. Wherefore power is said to be perfect, according as it is determinate to its act.”[5] “Power in reference to act is on the part of the form, which is the principle of action, since everything acts insofar as it is in act.”[6] Elsewhere, he speaks of properly placing virtues as habits and not as acts themselves:


The potency which only acts does not require, in order to be a principle of action, that anything be brought to bear on it; hence, the virtue of such a potency is nothing other than the potency itself. Such is the divine power, the agent intellect and natural powers; that is why the virtues of such powers are not habits but the potencies themselves as complete in themselves.[7]


It can be proved in three ways that virtue belongs to a power of the soul. First, from the notion of the very essence of virtue, which implies perfection of a power; for perfection is in that which it perfects. Secondly, from the fact that virtue is an operative habit, as we have said above (Question 55, Article 2): for all operation proceeds from the soul through a power. Thirdly, from the fact that virtue disposes to that which is best: for the best is the end, which is either a thing’s operation, or something acquired by an operation proceeding from the thing’s power. Therefore a power of the soul is the subject of virtue.[8]


Why is it important to go into depth on the subject of potency and act, habits versus actions, and the like when seeking to develop an understanding of magnanimity? It crucial because a virtuous man, a magnanimous man, cannot necessarily be known by his actions alone. One may have little virtue and yet seem to accomplish something great, while a more noble man does not accomplish a comparable outward task. While we fully seek to do great things for the glory of God, we do not know that He has called us to do great outward things.  However, we certainly know that He has called every individual to perfection.[9] And this perfection is interior.  It is the humble following of the will of God.


We may be judged by men on what we accomplish in their eyes, and we should repeat here that we ought to do everything we can with the intention of objective success in this world, declaring our successes to the glory of God and accepting full culpability for our failures.  But if outward success always followed from a right interior disposition, we may be tempted to pride. What good would it be to gain the whole world and lose our soul?[10]


We must know, then, that magnanimity, indeed all the virtues, are interior dispositions that are preparations for doing the good, whether these good things come to fruition or not.  Not understanding this can lead to two related dangers.  We may, despairing of ever accomplishing great things, not seek to do the things daily that would possibly lead to the “great deed.” Likewise, if we fail to accomplish a great task that seems to have been set before us, we may tend to despair, having worked so long for, what seems to us, nothing. Again, God asks us to be faithful, not necessarily successful.


A soldier will train day after day, year after year, and may or may not ever enter into battle.  If he trains and never fights, he should be glad for the peace that has allowed it.  But if he grows negligent in his training, the battle that is suddenly upon him may prove his end.  Years of arduous training are suddenly seen to be worth it in the mere minutes of close-quarters combat. Likewise, we must train ourselves in the virtues daily, not knowing in what ways we may or may not be tested.


Training in virtue is preparation to serve the will of God in whatever small or large way is asked of you. To quote Joseph Pieper again, “Magnanimity is the expansion of the spirit towards great things; one who expects great things of himself and makes himself worthy of it is magnanimous.”[11] To quote my earthly father, “Life is too long to do nothing and too short to do anything great.  But great things are done in a short time by those who have been long in preparing.” We therefore strive at each moment to create in ourselves the dispositions, the powers, to meet our calling.


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.[12]


There is much to be pondered in these rich passages from the Catechism, but for our purposes, two stand out here. First, virtues allow us to guide our conduct according to both faith and reason.  We live by faith, but we must not neglect that this is a lived faith.    “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge.”[13] Here we see faith, reason (knowledge) and virtue all expounded. Faith involves effort, physical, intellectual, and otherwise.


Secondly, the virtues involve joy and ease in living a morally good life.  This ease is not to be confused with a lack of effort in the forming of the virtues, of course. A powerful weightlifter can pick up objects that seem heavy to the rest of us with ease, but this is not because of the relaxed effort he has made throughout his life. It is rather because of the great effort in building his strength previously.  Likewise, a virtuous man finds it easy to do the right things, for he has long ago formed the disposition of doing the right thing, and this habit is natural to him now. Like the athlete, the virtuous man cannot, however, become slack, for what was tediously gained can be easily lost if we are not always seeking to remain strong.[14]

[1] Catholic Encyclopedia

[2] Tim Gray and Curtis Martin, Boys to Men, pp. 17

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church 1803

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics ii 6

[5] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I II Q.55, art. 1 Respondeo

[6] Ibid, art. 2

[7] Thomas Aquinas, Disputed Questions on the Virtues, Q. 1

[8] ST I II Q.56 Respondeo

[9] Matt 5:48

[10] Matt 16:26

[11] J. Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart, pp. 37

[12] CCC, 1804

[13] 2 Peter 1:5

[14] see Matt 12:44-45






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