Virtues, Vices, and Passions

St Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas discusses the various virtues and vices in his Treatise on Habits in Particular (Summa Theologica I-II, 55-89). Here are some highlights of Father Thomas Pegues’ summary of that treatise:

Virtues are “good habits which make man act well.” They are “dispositions or inclinations which are seated in divers faculties, and which render good the acts of these faculties. . . . At times they come, in part, from nature herself; sometimes they come from the person who acts for virtue’s sake; and sometimes they come directly from God, who produces them in the soul supernaturally.”

In the human intellect there are five virtues: intuition or insight, science, wisdom, art, and prudence. The intellectual virtues incline us to seek the truth only. “Intuition or insight gives a knowledge of principles (self-evident truths); science a knowledge of conclusions; wisdom a knowledge of the highest causes; art gives directions for the execution of external works; and prudence directions for the whole of the moral life.”

There are four moral virtues: justice, fortitude, temperance, and prudence. These are called “cardinal” virtues because “they are virtues of particular importance, which are as it were the hinges (in Latin cardo, cardinis) upon which, setting aside the theological virtues, turn all the other virtues.”

Virtues of the natural order, which are acquired, have corresponding virtues of the supernatural order, which are infused by God in order that a person may be perfected in every act of his moral life.

Vice is “the state of man who lives in sin.” And sin is “an act or a voluntary omission which is contrary to the good of God, or of our neighbour, or of man himself.” The sinner neglects these true goods, choosing instead an apparent good that “gratifies his senses, or his ambition, or his pride.” It is possible for this to happen because “the senses can be borne towards what is agreeable to them by forestalling or by enticing the reason and the will which do not oppose this movement of the senses when they might and when they should.”

Father Pegues refers to St. Thomas’ Treatise on the Passions (Summa Theologica I-II, 22-48) to explain that passions are affective movements of the sensitive part of an animal. Only in man do these movements have moral value “because it is in man only that they are related with the higher acts of the free will.” There are eleven passions in man: love, desire, delight or joy, hate, abhorrence, sadness, hope, courage, fear, despair, and anger. The passions “can contribute towards the reward of his life,” but are detrimental “when they are not in accord with the rulings of right reason.” Seeking after sensible and temporal goods in an unlawful manner is “the beginning and, in some sort, the reason of all his sins.” The inclination in man to seek unlawfully sensible and temporal goods is called concupiscence.

Quotations from Thomas Pegues, Catechism of the “Summa Theologica” of Saint Thomas Aquinas, trans. Aelred Whitacre (New York: Benziger, 1922).

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