Virtue and vice

How to Understand the Classical Vices and Virtues – Virtue Theory, Moral Philosophy, and Chivalry as Understood Throughout the Ages

On this page, we present a list of vices and virtues and look at vices and virtues as understood by philosophers like Aristotle and Aquinas.[1][2][3][4]

Below we’ll also look at other concepts related to vice and virtue such as the Christian virtues and vices, the chivalric virtues of the Code of Chivalry, Montesquieu’s “springs” [the virtues as they relate to different types of governments] from his Spirit of the Laws, and other longstanding theories pertaining to vices and virtues.

By examining different “virtue theories” we’ll be better understand why past cultures and thinkers considered these metaphysical moral aspects of the human condition important enough to include in their major works.

TIP: There are three general types of “normative ethics theories“. In simple terms, virtue ethics emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, deontology emphasizes duties or rules, and consequentialism emphasizes the consequences of actions. Although virtue ethics is the theory that specifically emphasizes virtue, more broadly all these normative ethics theories can be understood in terms of virtue and vice and all these theories were essentially touched on by greats like Aristotle.[5][6]

The Foundation of Virtue Theory: Aristotle’s and Thomas Aquinas’ Vice’s and Virtues

While many philosophers and thinkers clearly defined vices and virtues over the years, Aristotle began the tradition by adding in a nuanced, yet often forgotten, mechanic that I would argue forms the basis of virtue theory. That mechanic is the idea of deficiency, mean, and excess within a “sphere of action”.

Aristotle defined vice and virtue as: vice is an excess or deficiency of virtue, and virtue is the mean between two accompanying vices that exists within a “sphere”.[7]

For example, in the sphere of “getting and spending”, “charity” is the virtuous mean (the balance) between “greed” and “wasteful extravagance”. If we inherit a fortune, this simple theory tells us that virtue isn’t found in hoarding or wasteful spending, but in a charitable moderation. Thus, if we can define a sphere of action, vice, or virtue we can use this model to fill in the blanks and detect the correct moral behavior. Likewise, we can apply this method to spheres outside of morality (such as governments; see an essay on the types of governments for examples).

Meanwhile, another famous virtue theorist, Thomas Aquinas, added in another useful mechanic from his Christian perspective.

Aquinas separated virtue into cardinal virtues (natural virtues that can be known through the senses and reason or ethics) and theological virtues (divine virtues that can be partially rationalized and intuited but never fully known or roughly morals). Aquinas then stated that complete virtues are virtues that combine the two.[8][9]

For example, we can combine the virtues of courage (cardinal) and charity (theological) by chasing down a thief who stole a woman’s purse. We courageously chase down the thief, a selfless and charitable action.

Simply, although they may not present prefect lists or theories, Aristotle and Aquinas give us the tools we need to lay a foundation.

Putting the theories together in chart, using the vices and virtues given in the examples above, looks like this (see full charts and lists below):

Fear and confidence Not enough of a natural virtue Ex. Cowardice Natural Virtue (ethical) Ex. Courage Too much of a natural virtue Ex. Rashness
Getting and spending Not enough of a divine virtue Ex. Greed Divine Virtue (moral)  Ex. Charity Too much of a divine virtue Ex. Wasteful extravagance

: Aristotle defines his virtue theory over more than one of his works. In his Rhetoric he says, “The forms of Virtue are justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, wisdom.”

TIP: For Greeks like Aristotle they had a concept called Arete. Arete is the chief good, the aristocracy of virtues. It is a single word that stands as a placeholder for the ends of virtue. Or rather, it is a word that lacks an English equivalent. See an essay on Arete.

Aristotle & Virtue Theory: Crash Course Philosophy #38. See also the utilitarian virtue theory, social contract theory, Kant’s categorical imperative, and other virtue theories on Crash Course Philosophy.

TIP: Most concepts related to virtue and vice are metaphysical. That doesn’t mean they aren’t practical and don’t have some degree of empirical and rational application. If one has no sense of right and wrong or good and evil, no sense of what causes happiness and unhappiness, then they will struggle to apply many of the theories of moral philosophy, from Plato’s and Aristotle’s to Bentham’s and Mill’s. If we don’t understand happiness as it relates to virtue, how can we have a greater happiness theory? If we don’t understand unhappiness as it relates to vice, how can we make moral judgements for society? If Titus Livy could not convey the virtues of the Roman state, how could he instill the necessary sense of national pride in Rome? Etc.

How can we learn to be virtuous? As Aristotle correctly stated [paraphrasing], virtue is learned by experience. One’s character must be cultivated. We learn charity by being charitable, learn honor by being honorable, learn humility by being humble, learn to take joy in healing rather than vice seeking by experiencing the pains and pleasures of life. Etc. One can teach the theory, but one can’t instill virtue in another person.

Defining Vice and Virtue

Given the above, we can define vice and virtue like this.

  • Virtue: Virtue is that which is moral, ethical, and just. It is the avoiding of vices of deficiency or excess, and adhering to the natural, civil, divine, and enteral law. Virtue may be defined as possessing and utilizing “good” traits in a balanced way with these traits sometimes being understood as the Christian virtues, or as Aquinas’, or as Aristotle’s, although they aren’t limited to any one interpretation.
  • Vice: Vice is simply a deficiency or excess of virtue.

Thomas Aquinas’ Cardinal Virtues and Theological Virtues

Now for an example of dividing these into cardinal and theological using Aquinas’ model:[10]

TIP: While I can’t sign off on the idea that we can perfectly define the virtues, the concept of dividing them into empirical and rational categories is either right or on the right track in my opinion.

Complete and Incomplete Virtues

Aquinas also describes the virtues as imperfect (incomplete) and perfect (complete).

A perfect virtue is any virtue with charity; charity completes a cardinal virtue. Acts that are ethical and have natural goodness are virtuous, but real virtue requires embracing a type of morality which can’t be clearly defined.[11]

Ex. Giving to charity to lower your taxes is ethical, giving a homeless person your last $5 and skipping dinner shows a different aspect of character.

TIPKierkegaard’s Three Stages of Life is a concept from his masterwork Either/or which separates human experience into the physical (aesthetic), mental (ethical), and religious (moral). Using this theory as a metaphor, the natural cardinal virtues are the ethical limiting of pure aestheticism, and the theological divine virtues are the moral attempt at embracing the unknowable. Perhaps virtue and ethics are not “either/or.” Perhaps, like Aquinas, they elude “both A and B.”

Political Virtues Embodied in the Spirit of the Laws: Virtues that Motivate a Citizen’s Behavior According to Montesquieu

Montesquie related certain virtues to certain government types, showing that some virtues were so important that they were “the spring” of that government (the thing that made the government work).[12][13]

  • For democratic republics (and to a somewhat lesser extent for aristocratic republics), this spring is the love of virtue—the willingness to put the interests of the community ahead of private interests. A love of equality for democracy and a love of minor inequality for republics.
  • For monarchies, the spring is the love of honor—the desire to attain greater rank and privilege. A love of honor and manners.
  • Finally, for despotisms, the spring is the fear of the ruler. A love of the vice of fear.

FACT: Machiavelli favored virtuous leaders and a free-Republic, but he knew it took vice to win at politics. Thus, his Prince is a book that teaches vice to the virtuous.

Political Virtues as a Metaphor Related to the Separations of Powers

Playing on Montesquie’s theory, using my own metaphor pulled from the ideas on this page and classical element theory to illustrate the virtues as understood by western astrology, the four “elements” (or “powers”) that form the foundation of government can roughly be expressed as: citizens, executive, legislative, and judicial.

Here we can say each power within the state has a virtuous “spring”. We can roughly define this as:

  • FIRE: In the Sphere of Power (the virtues are honor, valor, manners, and courage). Entities in this sphere include: the executive including leaders, the military, and police.
  • EARTH: In the Sphere of Economy [of capital and labor] (the virtues are all the physical empirical virtues, including charity): The citizens, politicians, and barons.
  • AIR: In the Sphere of Reason and Ethics (the virtues are mental, like wisdom): The legislative, scholars, scientists, lawyers, and general intelligence.
  • WATER: In the Sphere of Spirituality and Morality (the virtues are ones of spirit and emotion like faith and compassion; the metaphysical): The judicial, judges, and the church.

Code of Chivalry as Described by Charlemagne and the Duke of Burgundy

At the end of the eight century Charlemagne’s Code of Chivalry is said to have been presented:[14]

  • To fear God and maintain His Church
  • To serve the liege lord in valour and faith
  • To protect the weak and defenceless
  • To give succour to widows and orphans
  • To refrain from the wanton giving of offence
  • To live by honour and for glory
  • To despise pecuniary reward
  • To fight for the welfare of all
  • To obey those placed in authority
  • To guard the honour of fellow knights
  • To eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit
  • To keep faith
  • At all times to speak the truth
  • To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun
  • To respect the honour of women
  • Never to refuse a challenge from an equal
  • Never to turn the back upon a foe.

The chivalric virtues of the Code of Chivalry were also described in the 14th Century by the Duke of Burgundy as:[15]

  • Faith
  • Charity
  • Justice
  • Sagacity
  • Prudence
  • Temperance
  • Resolution
  • Truth
  • Liberality
  • Diligence
  • Hope
  • Valour

TIP: These aren’t the only virtue theories laid out over the years, but these examples should make one thing clear, what is considered vice and virtue has fluctuated very little in the west since 300’s BC.

Table of Virtues: Aristotle’s Virtues and the Christian Virtues

Now that we have examined different theories, let’s return to Aristotle’s virtue theory.

TIP: Because moderation is the key to the table, we can say moderation is both a virtue itself (temperance) and an overarching part of moral virtue. Moral virtue (which the Greeks called Arete) is a term that encapsulates all other virtues (Arete roughly translates to “the aristocracy of virtues”).

TIP: I don’t fully agree with Aristotle’s specifics, but his concept of a virtuous mean is very in line with how things work (dualities are an abstraction of a single concept).

Aristotle’s Table of Virtues (source 1, source 2):

To Aristotle, moral virtues are to be understood as existing as a “mean” in a sphere and falling at the mean between two accompanying vices. His list may be represented by the following table [necessarily translated from Greek]:[16][17]

Fear and confidence Cowardice Courage Rashness
Pleasure and pain Insensibility Temperance Intemperance
Getting and spending (minor) Illiberality Liberality Prodigality
Getting and spending (major) Pettiness Munificence Vulgarity
Honor and dishonor (major) Humble-mindedness High-mindedness Vainglorious
Honor and dishonor (minor) Want of Ambition Right Ambition Over-ambition
Anger Spiritlessness Good Temper Irascibility
Social conduct Surliness Friendly Civility Obsequiousness
Self-expression Ironical Depreciation Sincerity Boastfulness
Conversation Boorishness Wittiness Buffoonery
Shame Shamelessness Modesty Bashfulness
Indignation Callousness Just Resentment Spitefulness

Seven Heavenly Virtues and Seven Deadly Sins (source)

Below is a list of the seven heavenly virtues and seven deadly sins for comparison. You’ll note that the concept is the same, but attaches only vices of excess to the virtues.[18]


One of the main principles of liberalism, the philosophy on which all Western society is based, is the concept of freedom of (and from) religion.

Freedom of religion is not freedom from spirituality, and it does not free us from morality, ethics, virtue, or vice. It only ensures our religious liberty and right and frees us from an authoritarian shoving their faith down our throat or using it as a form of control.

In the modern era, we have to come to grips with the fact that science and reason don’t replace our spirituality, they sit beside it. Spirituality is simply not the same as religion, and anyway, vice and virtue aren’t just spiritual, they are very real aspects of the natural, civil, ethical, and moral law (even when only considered empirically).

Vice and virtue are not either/or choices. They are part of a continuum, a dance of ups and downs, and an end goal. The concept isn’t just limited to ourselves; it is an individual, interpersonal, social, and collective quality. It’s not just a comment on how we treat others here and now, but how we treat all living things, and those beings who come next. It’s a statement on the eternal struggle between light and dark in the human condition. The concept of vice and virtue is  also an interesting segment of metaphysics.

TIP: See also “happiness as the point of life“, “classical element theory as a metaphor“, and our “separation of powers metaphor” to better understand how to apply virtue theory to other aspects of life.


  1. VIRTUES &VICES: Countering the Deadly Vices with Godly Virtue
  2. VIRTUES &VICES: Countering the Deadly Vices with Godly Virtues IV COUNTERING THE “DEADLY” VICES WITH VIRTUES
  3. The Master List of Virtues
  5. Virtue ethics
  6. Normative ethics
  7. Nicomachean Ethics
  8. The Summa Theologica
  9. Thomas Aquinas: Moral Philosophy
  10. Thomas Aquinas
  11. Second Part of the Second Part (Secunda Secundæ Partis)
  12. Book III. Of the Principles of the Three Kinds of Government
  13. The Spirit of the Laws
  14. The Origins of Chivalry
  15. Code of Chivalry
  16. Aristotle
  17. Nicomachean Ethics: Books I to IV
  18.  seven heavenly virtues

"Vices and Virtues Explained" is tagged with: Aristotle, Elements, Happiness, Morality

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