Virtues: One or Many?

by Peter Saint-Andre


In a post last week about the value of studying multiple philosophies, I observed that I have not read much Christian theology. As if on queue, I decided to read Augustine's Of the Morals of the Catholic Church, written in 388 CE. The impetus was a footnote on page 179 of Daniel C. Russell's book Practical Intelligence and the Virtues, where he said that he would not consider non-secular arguments for the unity of the virtues, such as Augustine's argument that there really is only one virtue, which is the love of God.

This triggered a connection in my mind to Aristotle's view that the virtuous person acts for the sake of what is beautifully right (τὸ καλόν). For Aristotle, this for-the-sake-of relation is true of every excellence of character (courage, temperance, justice, generosity, benevolence, etc.). Could Augustine's position be interestingly similar to Aristotle's? Let's take a look...

Augustine analyzes the four classical virtues as follows (Of the Morals of the Catholic Church, Chapter 15):

As to virtue leading us to a happy life, I hold virtue to be nothing else than perfect love of God. For the fourfold division of virtue I regard as taken from four forms of love. For these four virtues (would that all felt their influence in their minds as they have their names in their mouths!), I should have no hesitation in defining them: that temperance is love giving itself entirely to that which is loved; fortitude is love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object; justice is love serving only the loved object, and therefore ruling rightly; prudence is love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it. The object of this love is not anything, but only God, the chief good, the highest wisdom, the perfect harmony. So we may express the definition thus: that temperance is love keeping itself entire and incorrupt for God; fortitude is love bearing everything readily for the sake of God; justice is love serving God only, and therefore ruling well all else, as subject to man; prudence is love making a right distinction between what helps it towards God and what might hinder it.

Although we think of Aristotle as a secular (or at least pre-Christian) thinker, at the very end of the Eudemian Ethics his ethical reflections take a decidedly theological turn (something similar happens at the end of the Nicomachean Ethics). There he argues that whatever conduces to the cultivation (θεραπεία) and awareness (θεωρία) of god or the divine is best and is the most beautifully right standard for choice and action regarding natural goods such as health, wealth, power, reputation, even personal relationships. The reasons for this theological turn (or was it there all along?) are complex and not entirely clear to me, but I think they involve an ideal of emulating what Aristotle takes to be the divine: the pure activity (ἐνέργεια) of awareness (θεωρία). On this topic I wrote as follows in a blog post from 2019:

Beings are divine to the extent that they engage in the activity of awareness. Thus the highest and best being would, as a kind of limit case, be the one that is self-contained, independent, unchanging, well-ordered, fully aware, and fully engaged in the activity of awareness. Thus human beings are best to the extent that partake in these same qualities (indeed, we form our ideas of the divine from our experience of what is best in human life).

I freely grant that this is all quite speculative. Moreover, having read literally hundreds of scholarly books and articles on Aristotle, I can say definitively that very few modern philosophers are comfortable when Aristotle starts talking about the divine (and some of those few get it quite wrong, for instance when Richard Bodeus argues that Aristotle was defending the conventional, polytheistic religion of classical Greece). Yet Aristotle thought both that a conception of the divine is closely connected to beautifully right commitment and action, and that all excellent human activity is motivated by love and awareness of the highest good. Such ideas might have grounded the widely-accepted ancient doctrine (forms of which we find in Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Augustine) that the seemingly separate virtues are really all one thing. As to what the "cash value" of this doctrine might be, I'll explore that in a future post.

(Cross-posted at


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