Category Archives: Vir – Be a Man (Be Virtuous)

Nicomachean Ethics – Books VI & VII

Book VI: Intellectual Virtues (most especially prudence)

 

In book VI, Aristotle takes up the question of the intellectual virtues, having already treated the virtues that pertain to the sensitive part of the soul directly (but as informed by reason). We now proposes to treat the intellectual virtues in a way similar to that of the previously discussed virtues: ‘consequently, we should divide right reason, an intellectual virtue that is rectitude of the reason, into its species, as in a similar fashion we have already divided the moral virtues.’ (Aquinas Commentary, 1109)

The intellectual virtues seem to be five: art, science, understanding, wisdom, and prudence. This enumeration is given, and Aristotle goes on to show that, although similar to other intellectual virtues, prudence cannot be reduced to one of the other four. The key distinction I take to be the difference between art, where the ‘product’ is external (the operation passes into external matter, such as the resulting sculpture or music) and action, where the act is intrinsic (the act may effect another. Where art is productive through reason, prudence is active through reason.

Aristotle makes it clear that prudence is not to be equated to science, which demonstrates from necessary things. Prudence, rather, takes its principles from necessary things, but applies them to contingent things, and in this way it might rightly be related to dialectics. There can be, then, a syllogism reasoning from principles to what must be done in the here and now, but the syllogism will include contingent matter, and therefore not be demonstrative. In simpler terms, prudence cannot be reduced to simply applying principles and deducing the right action in the same way principles can be used in geometry, for example.

‘Prudence then will be neither a science nor an art. It is not a science because the thing to be done is contingent; it is not an art because the genus of action and making differ.’ (EN 1165)

An important point is the simultaneous necessity of the moral virtues and the virtue of prudence. ‘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.’ (CCC 1803) As St. Thomas comments, ‘But moral virtue, for instance, justice, causes a craftsman rightly to use his art. On the other hand, in the use of prudence an additional moral virtue is not required, for it was said (1170, where the example of the mutual influence of temperance and prudence were discussed) that the principles of prudence are ends in regard to which rectitude of judgment is preserved by the moral virtues. Hence prudence, which is concerned with things good for man, necessarily has joined with it the moral virtues preserving its principles.’ (Commentary, 1172)

Book VII: Continence and Incontinence

There is not only vice and virtue, but there are two other ‘degrees’ of moral dispositions that must be understood. The rarest, and yet worst and best degrees possible, are what may be deemed the beast-like and the god-like. Men may be brutish (beast-like) when they are either through extreme corruption by culture or physical/mental handicap more like irrational animals than like human. Likewise, an extreme sort of virtue could be deemed god-like or divine, as perhaps some of the great saints may have seemed at times, or the martyrs (with the help of grace) acted at their final tribulation.

But much more common are those who are not virtuous, but yet are not vicious, but (metaphorically, at least) somewhere in between. The virtuous, remember, do the good with joy and are not even tempted to the evil, for the good is habitual to them. The vicious, on the contrary, conclude that, for example, every pleasure is right for them to partake (the intemperate).

But between these two are those who, with right reason, would avoid the excess in pleasure but, at times and because of the passion arising in them, fail to adhere to right reason. A key indication of this is their sorrow and repentance when the passion has cooled and they regret their actions (something the vicious do not do, i.e., feel remorse). Likewise, the continent person succeeds in not giving into the temptation to enjoy and excess pleasure, but does so with sorrow, for although he obeys right reason, he is not so habitually exposed as to take his joy in doing the right, but often feels pained to do so. Nevertheless, he is on the right path and may in time build the habit and do later with joy and ease what he only does now through battling with his passions.

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Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book V – Justice

After Aristotle has discussed the virtues that pertain to the passions as they relate to reason, he discusses the virtue of justice, which will be about relation between the agent and another. The question of justice to oneself is discussed at points throughout the Book, and is definitively answered in the last section.

 

I use here the division according to the lectures in the commentary by St. Thomas Aquinas:

 

Properly (885-1090)

 

Justice (885-1077)

 

Aquinas points out first that “concerning justice [Aristotle] proposes for consideration three differences existing between justice an the previously mentioned virtues”…the previous “are concerned with the passions…we took the mean and not the thing…Each of the afore-mentioned virtues is a mean between two vices, but justice is not a mean between two vices.”

 

Will, and not the senses more directly, is the proper subject of justice; justice is defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.” So justice is a mean in one way, in that it gives what is do, and not more or less (when we are speaking of strict justice). But true justice is found first in the will, and only then in the object, to which the will is conforming and striving. Therefore, an event can occur that is objectively unjust, but it may not be an unjust act on the part of the agent, who wills to be just, but mistakenly, and thus commits an objective unjustice.

 

Legal justice (885-926)

 

He says first that justice itself is a certain perfect virtue not in terms of itself but in relation to another. Legal justice is justice as relates to the community at large, that is, primarily, the polis or state.

 

Partic. Justice

Absolutely (927-999)

 

Aristotle then discusses distributive justice and commutative justice. The first of these deals with what the state or community owes the individual, and this in a proportionate manner, meaning it is based on what the individual contributes to society and perhaps to his rank or position. So a general may deserve more honor and a bigger house from the state. However, when it comes to communitive justice, this is not necessarily so. The general and the peasant will generally pay the same price for a new set of Reeboks.  Because of this more strict equality of communitive justice, economic issues get discussed by Aristotle, to include the coming into being and use of money as a standard of trade.

 

Relatively (1000-1077)

 

We are reminded, frequently throughout Aristotle’s account of the virtues, but seemingly more often during his treatment of justice, that it is reason and not man that should truly govern man. In legal justice especially, but in all three aspects of justice, man is the reasoner, but it is reason that is law, and not man arbitrarily.

 

 

Epikeia (1078-1090)

 

Its object (1078-1088)

 

St. Thomas clearly states the overall topic of this part of the treatise: ‘In Greek epiiches is understood as what is reasonable or becoming; it is derived from epi meaning “above” and ikos meaning “obedient,” because by equity a person is obedient in a higher way when he follows the intention of the legislator where the words of the law differ from it.’

 

Today, we often discuss keeping the intention of the law versus the letter, and often find that there arise cases where keeping the letter of the law is in direct opposition to the intention of the creator of the law in its original and universal conception.

 

Its subject (1089) and habit (1090)

 

The virtuous man is not a zealous enforcer of the law for vengeance’ sake, but rather, to make the offender better and safeguard the community. The habit, then, of equity is not a virtue distinct from justice, but a species thereof.

 

Metaphorically (1091-1108)

 

Aristotle lastly revisits a topic he has touched upon several times throughout the treatise on justice, once again affirming that, despite the arguments that appear to the contrary, a man cannot really do injustice to himself, and this because to do injustice requires it be against one’s will, and one so to commit injustice against oneself implies a contradiction.

 

Personal Reflection

 

Justice and Equity

 

The difference in justice and equity is certainly a debated point in Christian theology, and no more is it a more pressing and divisive topic than when concerning election. The main point seems to be this: that God, in justice, could let us all remain unsaved (not justified) and yet, He, by mercy, wills to save some. This salvation of only some is, then, certainly just, but most certainly not equitable.

 

St. Thomas states in his commentary that “The reason why not everything can be determined according to the law is that the law cannot possibly be framed to meet some rare particular incidents, since all cases of this kind cannot be foreseen by man. On account of this, after the enactment of the law, a decision of the judges is required by which the universal statement of the law is applied to a particular matter. Because the material of human acts is indeterminate, it follows that their norm, which is the law, must be indeterminate in the sense that it is not absolutely rigid.”

 

While I certainly do not have the space here to propose how this may give insight into the justice/mercy question and the will of God “that all be saved” is also in conformity with the fact that “few enter” and are saved (combined with God as universal first mover but creatures as true causes), I think that the above comment can indeed be a point of reflection on the mystery of God’s justice and election.

Summary of Nicomachean Ethics Book II

In Book II, Aristotle discusses virtue in general, to include its essence, and that it is a mean between extremes, which will be vices of excess or defect. He will then examine the major virtues individually, although not thoroughly (that will come later) and completes Book II by asking how one attains these virtues.

 

He begins by discussing whether it is an action, a nature, or a habit. Looking at the first two options, it is shown that it cannot be the case that virtue is an action, nor is in our nature (although it is not contrary to nature). It must be, therefore, a habit. It is not contrary to nature, however, in that our natures have virtue in potency, but it is through [repeated] actions that these habits are actualized. Virtues are habits that dispose toward certain action. Virtues, then, are principles of action.

 

Now, man becomes virtuous by repeated acts, and these actions occur more easily by the possession of the virtues. It takes work, then, to form them, but when formed, they make similar work easier. This can be compared to the athlete, who must run to become a good runner, and yet, once a good runner, his running comes easier. It is reciprocal.

 

Operations producing the habit of virtue take place according to right reason, and so the virtues cannot be passions, which of themselves are morally neutral. In this way, Aristotle differs strongly from the Stoics, for example.  In commenting on Aristotle’s work, St. Thomas says that “He says first that to establish the definition of virtue we have to take for granted three principles in ‘the soul: passions, powers, and habits. Virtue must come under one of these, for he just said that virtue is a principle of certain operations of the soul.” The passions are not blameworthy or praiseworthy as such, but as we use them, in accord with right reason. Therefore, “A man is not praised or blamed because he is simply afraid or angry but only because he is afraid or angry in a particular way, that is, according to reason or contrary to reason. The same must be understood of the other passions of the soul. The passions of the soul, therefore, are neither virtues nor vices.”

 

Pleasure or sorrow is said to be a sign of virtue already produced. A man who does not steal, for example, but is saddened by the ‘loss’ of money or goods, does in fact do the right thing, according to reason, but he does not do it in the way a virtuous man would, for a virtuous man would not be saddened in the act, but rather joyous in having acted rightly.

 

We must consider not only that virtue is a habit but also what kind of habit, says Aristotle. The virtues will render good both the man and his work. Accordingly, Aquinas comments “The reason is that the virtue or power of a thing is judged by the best it can do… Now the utmost or best to which the power of anything extends is called its excellent performance. It belongs to the virtue of every thing, therefore, to render an excellent performance. Because a perfect operation proceeds only from a perfect agent, it follows that everything is both good and operates well according to its own virtue.”

 

The chief characteristic of virtue is the mean, and this mean is not simply the arithmetical average between the vices of excess and defect, but a mean according to the one possessing the virtue. In other words, there is no simple universal formula for determining the ‘exact’ measure of fortitude as opposed to cowardice or rashness, but rather, it must be in accord with reason, with the person so acting, and the circumstances of his action.

 

Now, virtue can be an extreme in the measure of goodness, and this is not contrary to virtue. This is easy to see in the intellectual virtues, for example, and in the theological virtues, where there is no ‘mean’ of faith, hope, or love. But the cardinal virtues are an extreme towards the recognition of the good and in being in accord with right reason. This is not contrary to their being a mean between excess and defect . Aquinas states it clearly: “precisely as it possesses the character of the best and as it acts or guides well in a determined genus it is an extreme. For an understanding of this, we must consider that the entire goodness of moral virtue depends on the rectitude of the reason. Hence good is in harmony with moral virtue according as it follows right reason, but evil has a reference to each vice, viz.: excess and defect inasmuch as both depart from right reason. Therefore, according to the nature of goodness and evil both vices are in one extreme that is, in evil which is thus shown to be a deviation from reason. Virtue however is in the other extreme, that is, in good which is characterized as a following of reason.”

 

As mentioned at the beginning of this summary, a discussion of individual virtues and vices follows. But as it is brief and will be expounded upon in detail in later books of the EN, we will forego any analysis here. Also, the mean and extreme in virtues relating to honors is discussed, and again, these will be discussed more thoroughly later.

 

Aristotle tells us of the opposition among the virtues and vices, and that this opposition of vices among themselves is greater than of the vices to the virtues. He also states that, generally, one extreme is more opposed to virtue than the other. For example, men are more inclined to excess in temperance than to defect, and likewise, we recognize cowardice as further than rashness from courage.

 

While all the above is certainly important, Aristotle never ceases to remind the reader of the practical nature of ethics. Therefore, the manner of acquiring virtues must be learned, but moreso, followed. The three  primary ways of acquiring virtues, according to the philosopher, are to avoid extremes, consider one’s natural inclinations, and beware of pleasures.

 

Reflection:

 

A virtuous man, a magnanimous man, cannot necessarily be known by his actions alone, for 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.

We may be judged by men on what we accomplish in their eyes, and we should 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.

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.

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.

Summary of Nicomachean Ethics Book III

Part I: Voluntary Action

Spontaneous and Involuntary

Compulsory action is said to be that that originates outside of the agent. A rock, for instance, never acts from an internal principle to move away from the center of gravity of the earth, but must be thrown, for example, to move upward. This principle of movement obviously comes from outside the agent. Such action is said to be involuntary. Action that begins from within the agent, however, is in the power of that agent (at least to some extent) and, in an intellectual subject, is said to be voluntary. It is voluntary action which is our subject in ethics.

Voluntary Action and Merit

Returning to the example of the rock, we do not blame a rock when it hits us in the head, but rather the person who threw the rock at us. This is in keeping with the principle of voluntary action, and it is voluntary action that deserves praise or condemnation. Even when, say, a snake bites us, we may attribute (in a way) voluntary action to the creature, and be upset at the snake for biting us, we still do not see the snake as having acted in an immoral manner, but rather recognize its action as in keeping with its [determined] nature. Not so, the human that bites us, for being an intellectual creature, the latter has true voluntarity to its action.

Involuntary and Ignorance

Of course, ignorance can change the voluntary character of an action. If the same human bit my finger, but thought he had grabbed his chicken fingers, then I may be upset (and my finger may throb), but I also recognize that his action was not morally evil in the way I would claim if he bit my finger on purpose. However, if the same person often bit peoples’ fingers, repeatedly making a similar mistake, we could certainly say that he has a moral duty to check what he is eating before biting into it. His ignorance may not be completely without personal fault. Not all ignorance cancels out moral responsibility, but only ignorance that cannot be (at east reasonably) helped.

Definition of Voluntary

So the definition of the voluntary seems to be ‘that which the agent himself originates in such a way that the agent knows the individual circumstances that concur with the action.’

Choice

Choice and voluntary are not identical, but choice seems to be a species of the voluntary. Choice means that the decision between alternative options (and simply ‘not to act’ is a viable option) are known and considered. Choice always has to do with the means toward and end, and we choose by pondering and then deciding to achieve our intended end in one way or another.

Counsel

We take council so as to make sure our choice aligns properly with it being voluntary, for as we said, we want to know the individual circumstances that concur with the action, and to know the truly best (that is, ‘good,’ in keeping with our true nature and true end) option to take. We take counsel especially in the practical arts, and in ethics most specifically, because there are no simple formulas, but as ethics is much like an art, many options in almost infinite different circumstances will exist in which we must apply the objective principles of moral science.

Object of Willing

The object of willing is the good. But, in each circumstance, and for the particular individual willing some action, the apparent good is the object of willing. It is necessary, for this reason, to seek counsel (whether from others or at least in personal reflection) so that the true good and the apparent good rightly align. This is what Aristotle says that ‘the virtuous person correctly passes judgment on each individual thing and in each case what appears to him is truly good.’

Aristotle wraps up the first half of this book by making clear that virtue and vice are within our power. He then goes on to refute other errors, such as the thought that no one is voluntarily evil (which overly emphasizes the intellect and disregards the will in moral education) and that we have no faculty of the cognoscitive good (but the true good and apparent good for each man does not mean that the true good is subjective).

Part II: Moral Virtues

Fortitude

‘A man is called brave principally because he is not afraid of death for a good cause nor of all emergencies that involve death.’

False Fortitude

True fortitude does not involve the actions of the daredevil or the uncontrolled actions that stem from wrath, because fortitude, like all virtues, must be in keeping the truly good and undertaken voluntarily and with right reason.

Temperance

Temperance is a mean dealing with pleasures, and this virtue pertains primarily to the sense of taste and touch, inasmuch as these same senses are those that least set us apart from all other animals (remember, our concern is ultimately that we are intellectual creatures, and our end as man is in keeping with this). ‘Temperance and intemperance then have to do with such pleasures as the other animals have in common with man. Hence gratifications of touch and taste seem to be servile and brutish.’

Part III: Personal Reflection

I spoke the least on fortitude above, but want to reflect on it briefly here. When we read Josef Pieper on fortitude, he emphasizes the fact that this virtue really does pertain primarily to a willingness to die in battle, and he also emphasizes the patient suffering of the martyr as the way we most clearly see (graced) fortitude.

I think of fortitude in its relation to the Christian life, and its special relation to the sacrament of Confirmation. Confirmation makes us soldiers of God.  It has been variously designated a making fast or sure, a perfecting or completing, as it expresses its relation to baptism. It is, after baptism, the next Sacrament of Initiation.  But what does it do?

“Now it has been said above (1; 65, 1) that, just as Baptism is a spiritual regeneration unto Christian life, so also is Confirmation a certain spiritual growth bringing man to perfect spiritual age. But it is evident, from a comparison with the life of the body, that the action which is proper to man immediately after birth, is different from the action which is proper to him when he has come to perfect age. And therefore by the sacrament of Confirmation man is given a spiritual power in respect of sacred actions other than those in respect of which he receives power in Baptism. For in Baptism he receives power to do those things which pertain to his own salvation, forasmuch as he lives to himself: whereas in Confirmation he receives power to do those things which pertain to the spiritual combat with the enemies of the Faith.” (Aquinas, ST III, Q.72)

Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics Bk I Ch. 1

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”

Thus starts Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, his best known work on morals. “The good is that at which all things aim” or “good is what all desire.” Granted, Aristotle has some explaining to do, if good is what all actions are aimed towards. One would be confused, at first, in contemplating why a murderer is so obviously to Aristotle merely seeking the good.

The murderer, the thief, the prostitute,…the aspiring saint: all aim at the good. G.K. Chesterton once said, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” We cannot help but desire good. We do what we think will be for some good. We steal because we want bread or a stereo system. We pay a prostitute because we desire the pleasure of the body or companionship. We do these things for the same reason we act polite and quiet in the library or teach our kids the Ten Commandments: it seems good.

It is not the place of ethics to teach one that it is good to be good. Nature does that. The place of ethics helps establish what is truly the good. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics says little about values, because he sees ethics as a practical science that should lead to behavior in practice. Values do not accomplish this. Very few thieves think their activity is morally right, thus, they share the same values as he who does not steal.

Aristotle’s ethics aim, rather, at virtues, and these only after studying man’s ultimate end, which he rightly deems to be “happiness.” Yes, happiness is the very reason for morality.

Aristotle continues, “But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity — as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others — in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.

Why do I go to work? To make money. Why do I desire money? To feed myself. Why do I feed myself? To not be hungry? Why do I want to not be hungry? The list could go on. But when we ask ourselves, why we want to be happy, it is hard to say “I want to be happy so that…” To be happy is a true end. Other things are ordered to this end. Ultimately, happiness is that end that is not a means to something else. Work is a means to money. Money is a means to food, and that a means to curing hunger.

But happiness is not a means at all. Once we understand that to be happy is our goal, which goes without saying (once it is said; philosophers are those fools who say the obvious, except that most other people never think enough about the obvious), we must find out what in what consists true happiness.

Still in Book I, Aristotle will discuss happiness itself, and what it is for man. The rest of the Ethics is devoted primarily to virtues (and hardly a mention of values, for Aristotle doesn’t believe in such vague and meaningless concepts), before returning, in the final Book to  Happiness.

Happy, yes happy, would we be to return to the ancient wisdom of Aristotle, who does not think ethics is about “following rules” and “learning vague values” but rather about virtuous living which is the means to happiness.

A return to the wisdom of the ancients, who knew no difference between virtue and manliness and power, would strengthen us all…and make us truly happy.

Friendship and Virtue

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Today, in the Catholic Church, we celebrate Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen. In today’s Office of Readings, we read from a sermon by St Gregory Nazianzen, speaking of himself and St. Basil :

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We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit…

Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it. With this end in view we ordered our lives and all our actions. We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue. If it is not too boastful to say, we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong.

Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians.

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According to Aristotle, there are three kinds of friendship.

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The first is a friendship of utility, and it is is a friendship based on the benefit two people derive from each other. As long as we are semi-sociable creatures, we form these friendships with those around us in business, for example. My company buys paper and printers from your company, and, both being decent human beings that can carry a conversation, you and I can be called friends, and we may believe we are. But once my company no longer uses your company’s services, without any animosity, our friendship seems to disappear. It was based on mutual benefit, and once that mutual benefit is gone, so, in truth, is our friendship.

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The second kind of friendship is that of pleasant friendship. We may enjoy playing cards together, or going to the football game or the rock concert. We even develop a sincere care for each other’s well being, etc. But the friendship is based on pleasure and enjoyment.

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Now, both these friendships are truly to be called friendship, but they are analogous to the fullness of friendship, only found in the third type: a virtuous friendship. Virtuous friends are concerned with a common goal of living the good life, and that good life consists in a good moral life of virtue. Virtuous friendships are based on a common pursuit of the good.

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Human beings are persons, not things, and thus, they are ends in themselves and not means to some other end. Before he was Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla published a work called Love and Responsibility. In its opening chapter, he examined the meaning of “to use” in great depth. In fact, only in the third type of friendship, as understood above, is the friendship truly free of using the other as a means.

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In a virtuous friendship, it is not the benefit or pleasure that one derives from the relationship that establishes and maintains the friendship. It is the common goal pursued, and the common goal pursued is the very purpose of human life; to know and live the good.

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All ancient and medieval concepts of morality were the concepts of the happy life. To be happy meant to be virtuous. Ethics was not the science of making you gloomily fulfill your obligations and limit your freedom. Ethics, morality, was the practical science of achieving true and not false human happiness.

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(It is well known that Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” It needs to be well known that we are rarely very good at examining our own lives objectively. Others often know us better than we know ourselves, and friends established in virtue will help one another to truly pursue the good.)

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There is no evil in having friendships of the first and second kind (beneficial and pleasurable), but ultimately, we must find true friendships based on a common pursuit of the good, the moral, the virtuous…the truly happy life.

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Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, pray for us.

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Strength for the Kingdom

Check out the new Strength for the Kingdom blog.

Strength for the Kingdom is a men’s ministry within Balanced Families Ministries

Mission of Strength for the Kingdom: Promoting men’s growth in virtue, knowledge of the Catholic faith, and the understanding of authentic masculinity through physical endeavors. We hope to help fathers and sons take up their crosses and strive for perfection in mind, body, and soul.

Right now Strength for the Kingdom is offering monthly meetings in which men come together for prayer, fellowship, theology, and a workout. (near Denton, TX)
Jared Zimmerer is an intelligent, faithful man and a good friend as well. You can learn a little about him from the interview HERE, conducted after he released his first book, The Ten Commandments of Lifting Weights.

 

 

The Creed of Virtue

I believe this is worthy of becoming almost a Creed to be professed and lived by all who would call themselves men:

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A virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.

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.

Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; “the prudent man looks where he is going.

Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. (Justice toward God is called the “virtue of religion.”)

Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.

Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods.

Human virtues acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts are purified and elevated by divine grace. With God’s help, they forge character and give facility in the practice of the good. The virtuous man is happy to practice them.

The human virtues are rooted in the theological virtues, which adapt man’s faculties for participation in the divine nature. The theological virtues have the One and Triune God for their origin, motive, and object. The theological virtues are the foundation of Christian moral activity;

Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself.

Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.

“To love is to will the good of another.” Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.

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An only somewhat shorter version would be the IN BRIEF part of the Catechism on virtues:

IN BRIEF-

1833 Virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do good.

1834 The human virtues are stable dispositions of the intellect and the will that govern our acts, order our passions, and guide our conduct in accordance with reason and faith. They can be grouped around the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

1835 Prudence disposes the practical reason to discern, in every circumstance, our true good and to choose the right means for achieving it.

1836 Justice consists in the firm and constant will to give God and neighbor their due.

1837 Fortitude ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.

1838 Temperance moderates the attraction of the pleasures of the senses and provides balance in the use of created goods.

1839 The moral virtues grow through education, deliberate acts, and perseverance in struggle. Divine grace purifies and elevates them.

1840 The theological virtues dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity. They have God for their origin, their motive, and their object – God known by faith, God hoped in and loved for his own sake.

1841 There are three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. They inform all the moral virtues and give life to them.

1842 By faith, we believe in God and believe all that he has revealed to us and that Holy Church proposes for our belief.

1843 By hope we desire, and with steadfast trust await from God, eternal life and the graces to merit it.

1844 By charity, we love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves for love of God. Charity, the form of all the virtues, “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:14).

1845 The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon Christians are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.

 

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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Nobility

Nobility

 

What, then, of nobility? The term derives from Latin nobilis (well-known, famous), indicating those who were “well-known” or “notable” in society, and was applied to the highest social class in pre-modern societies.[1] We previously defined magnanimity in several ways, to include “the expansion of the spirit towards great things; one who expects great things of himself and makes himself worthy of it.”[2] Granted, there is often a great separation between those of high social class and those of high moral class. This may be the case, but it is certainly not a necessity.  In fact, the point of our discussion is to seek the remedy to this state.

 

What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.[3] Sin, however, has done just that.  It has separated great virtue and great fame.  It has separated the marital act and the marital bond.  It has separated courage and morality. In a quote often attributed to Thucydides, we read that “That [state] which separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.”

 

The magnanimous man will be known for his wisdom and his courage, if he is known at all.  He will be known for the great love with which he does things, and the great cause that is the foundation of his task. In a world of such great confusion, we have somehow managed not to, at least yet, call the world of Hollywood noble, even though so much of our culture seeks to copy that of these “well-known, famous” people. If they are “well known and notable in society” and counted among the “highest social class,” something in us still recognizes that this is not what we would mean by the Latin nobilis.

 

Only the magnanimous can unite what sinful man has “put asunder.” Only the great deeds, done before men, and that “greatness of spirit that is derived not from a man’s estimation of his person, but rather from his confidence and esteem in God,” is deserving of the title of nobility, and our hearts still know this.

 

See, a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice. Each man will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land. Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those who hear will listen. The mind of the rash will know and understand, and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear. No longer will the fool be called noble nor the scoundrel be highly respected. For the fool speaks folly, his mind is busy with evil: He practices ungodliness and spreads error concerning the Lord; the hungry he leaves empty and from the thirsty he withholds water. The scoundrel’s methods are wicked, he makes up evil schemes to destroy the poor with lies, even when the plea of the needy is just. But the noble man makes noble plans, and by noble deeds he stands.[4]


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

[3] Mark 10:9

[4] Isaiah 32:1-8