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Virtue (Greek αρετη; Latin virtus) is the habitual, well-established, readiness or disposition of man's powers directing them to some goodness of act. (1) Virtue is moral excellence of a man or a woman. The word is derived from the Greek arete (αρετη). As applied to humans, a virtue is a good character trait. The Latin word virtus literally means "manliness," from vir, "man" in the masculine sense; and referred originally to masculine, warlike virtues such as courage. In one of the many ironies of etymology, in English the word virtue is often used to refer to a woman's chastity.

In the Greek it is more properly called ηθικη αρετη. It is "habitual excellence". It is something practised at all times. The virtue of perseverance is needed for all and any virtue since it is a habit of character and must be used continuously in order for any person to maintain oneself in virtue.


The four virtues

The four classic Western "cardinal" virtues are:

The four classic Islamic "cardinal" virtues are:

Virtue in the Western philosophical tradition

The list of Western virtues goes back at least as far as Plato, in The Republic. A more comprehensive set of virtues is found in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. The notion of virtue was commonplace in ancient philosophy, and because of its adoption by Cicero, was widely accepted by Christian philosophers and became a staple of Catholic theology.

The unity of the virtues

Classically, some philosophers, most notably Aristotle, said that in order to pursue any of these virtues perfectly, one would have to master them all. For example, in order to be just, one must be wise. The thesis of the unity of the virtues is controversial. One might argue that humans can be courageous without being wise, or good tempered without being just.

In particular, Aristotle says these virtues are harmonized: dianoethic (built by rationality; νουσ των αρxων - understanding of substance, επιστημη - science, σοφια - wisdom, τεxνη - practical craft, φρονεσιs - practical mind) and ethic (built by custom; main: ανδρεια - courage, σoφρoσυνη - temperance; property-based: ελευεθεριoτηs - generosity, μεγαλoπρoπεια - goodwilling; honor-based: μεγαλoπσυxια - pride, φιλoτινια - assertivity, πραoτηs - control of anger; social: ευτραπελια - wittiness, αλεθεια - truthfulness, φιλια - friendliness; political: δικαιoσυνη - justice) virtues.

Nietzsche is one of the more notable philosophers who explicitly denies the unity of the virtues, claiming that they are mutually incompatible.

Prudence and virtue

Seneca, the Roman Stoic said that perfect prudence is indistinguishable from perfect virtue. His point was that if you take the longest view, and consider all the consequences, in the end, a perfectly prudent person would act in the same way as a perfectly virtuous person. Many people have found it valuable to determine how each of the virtues is prudent, as well as how they harmonize.

The Christian virtues

See also: Seven virtues

In Christianity, the theological virtues are faith, hope and charity, a list which comes from 1 Corinthians 13:13. These are said to perfect one's love of God and Man and therefore (since God is super-rational) to harmonize and partake of prudence.

Virtue and vice

The opposite of a virtue is a vice. One way of organizing the vices is as the corruption of the virtues. Thus the cardinal vices would be folly, venality, cowardice and lust. The Christian theological vices would be blasphemy, despair, and hatred.

However, as Aristotle noted, the virtues can have several opposites. Virtues can be considered the mean between two extremes. For instance, both cowardice and rashness are opposites of courage; contrary to prudence are both over-caution and insufficient caution. A more "modern" virtue, tolerance, can be considered the mean between the two extremes of narrow-mindedness on the one hand and soft-headedness on the other. Vices can therefore be identified as the opposites of virtues, but with the caveat that each virtue could have many different opposites, all distinct from each other.

Capital Vices and Virtues

The seven capital vices or seven deadly sins suggest a classification of vices and were enumerated by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. The Catechism of the Catholic Church mentions them as "capital sins which Christian experience has distinguished, following St. John Cassian and St. Gregory the Great."[1] "Capital" here means that these sins stand at the head (Latin caput) of the other sins which proceed from them, e.g., theft proceeding from avarice and adultery from lust.

These vices are pride, envy, avarice, anger, lust, gluttony, and sloth. The opposite of these vices are the following virtues: meekness, humility, generosity, tolerance, chastity, moderation, and zeal (meaning enthusiastic devotion to a good cause or an ideal). These virtues are not exactly equivalent to the Seven Cardinal or Theological Virtues mentioned above. Instead these capital vices and virtues can be considered the "building blocks" that rule human behaviour. Both are acquired and reinforced by practice and the exercise of one induces or facilitates the others.

Ranked in order of severity as per Dante's Divine Comedy (in the Purgatorio), the seven deadly vices are:

  1. Pride- Vanity — an excessive love of self (holding self out of proper position toward God or fellows; Dante's definition was "love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one's neighbor"). In the Latin lists of the Seven Deadly Sins, pride is referred to as superbia.
  2. Avarice (covetousness, greed) — a desire to possess more than one has need or use for (or, according to Dante, "excessive love of money and power"). In the Latin lists of the Seven Deadly Sins, avarice is referred to as avaritia.
  3. Lust — excessive sexual desire. Dante's criterion was "lust detracts from true love". In the Latin lists of the Seven Deadly Sins, lust is referred to as luxuria.
  4. Wrath (anger) — feelings of hatred, revenge or even denial, as well as punitive desires outside of justice (Dante's description was "love of justice perverted to revenge and spite"). In the Latin lists of the Seven Deadly Sins, wrath is referred to as ira.
  5. Gluttony — overindulgence in food, drink or intoxicants, or misplaced desire of food as a pleasure for its sensuality ("excessive love of pleasure" was Dante's rendering). In the Latin lists of the Seven Deadly Sins, gluttony is referred to as gula.
  6. Envy (jealousy); resentment of others for their possessions (Dante: "Love of one's own good perverted to a desire to deprive other men of theirs"). In the Latin lists of the Seven Deadly Sins, envy is referred to as invidia.
  7. Sloth (also accidie, acedia) — laziness; idleness and wastefulness of time allotted. Laziness is condemned because others have to work harder and useful work can not get done.

Several of these vices interlink, and various attempts at causal hierarchy have been made. For example, pride (love of self out of proportion) is implied in gluttony (the over-consumption or waste of food), as well as sloth, envy, and most of the others. Each sin is a particular way of failing to love God with all one's resources and to love fellows as much as self. The Scholastic theologians developed schema of attribute and substance of will to explain these sins.

The 4th century Egyptian monk Evagrius Ponticus defined the sins as deadly "passions," and in Eastern Orthodoxy, still these impulses are characterized as being "Deadly Passions" rather than sins. Instead, the sins are considered to invite or entertain these passions. In the official Catechism of the Catholic Church published in 1992 by Pope John Paul II, these seven vices are considered moral transgression for Christians and should complement the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes as the basis for any true Morality.

Virtue in Chinese philosophy

Virtue (translated as "de" 德) is also an important concept in Chinese philosophies such as Confucianism and Taoism. Chinese virtues include humanity, xiao usually translated as filial piety, and zhong meaning loyalty. One important normative value in much of Chinese thinking is that one's social status should be the result of the amount of virtue that one could demonstrate rather than by one's birth. In the Analects, Confucius stated that perfect virtue consists of the global practice of five things: gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness.

Occurrences of the word 'Virtue'

  • "For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue (arete) and virtue (arete) with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control (temperance) and self-control with steadfastness, etc." New Testament, II Peter 1.5-7.


  1. New Catholic Encyclopedia, Catholic University of America, 1967. pg 704.

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