How to Understand the Classical Vices and Virtues
Virtue Theory, Moral Philosophy, and Chivalry as Understood Throughout the Ages
That means we will discuss a range of “virtue theories” pertaining to both “moral virtues” and other types of virtues (such as virtues related to specific “spheres of life,” such as statesmanship in the political sphere, health in the physical sphere, friendship in the social sphere, etc).
That also means we will discuss virtue theories like Aristotle’s Theory of “Golden” Means, Plato’s Theory of Forms, Smith’s Moral Sentiments, Kant’s metaphysics of Morals, Hume empirical theories on morals, the Greek concept of arete, the Christian virtues and vices, the chivalric virtues of the Code of Chivalry, Plato and Aristotle’s ideal city state (and the related “virtues of the state“), Montesquieu’s “springs” (the virtues as they relate to different types of laws under different types of governments; the “virtues of the laws“) from his Spirit of the Laws, and other longstanding virtue theories pertaining to vices and virtues of all sorts.
What are Vice and Virtues?
Although we can, we shouldn’t just understand “virtue” as some floating metaphysical form. Instead, virtue should be understood as any positive sentiment that leads to the happiness of ourselves and others (the “good” qualities a person can possess so to speak).
Likewise, “vice” is simply the absence of virtue, that which does not lead to happiness (that which we generally consider “bad” qualities).
For Aristotle a virtue was a mean between two vices, for Smith and Hume virtue was just the aspect of our emotion/sentiments/feelings that compelled us to act positively, to Aquinas it was an attribute bestowed upon us by God.
Are virtue and vice physic or metaphysic? Are they natural or divine? That isn’t the question to answer here. Instead we’ll explore what different thinkers have thought (leaving the final call up to you).
There are countless ways to discuss this, but all theories lead back to the same concept. Virtues are those honorable qualities that we respect in ourselves and others, the ones with positive ends (and Vices are the absence of these qualities).
With that said, by examining different virtue theories and virtue theorists like we do below, we’ll be better understand why past cultures and thinkers considered these somewhat metaphysical aspects of the human condition important enough to include in their major works.
Understanding the Basics of Vices and Virtue
The basics of vices and virtue (like so many things) were perhaps best expressed by Plato and Aristotle.
Here is the anatomy of vice and virtue (which can essentially be gleaned from the Greeks):
- There are different orders of virtues (some higher, some lower) that apply to different areas of life.
- For each virtue, there is generally two vices (one of excess and one of deficiency). We can use this truism to create tables like we do below.
- These aren’t just metaphysical concepts, but are names given to those feelings we all find common that lead to both happiness or a lack there of.
- There is no one perfect list of virtues and vices, but most lists point toward the same basic group.
- Many theorize that the “ends” of all virtue is “happiness.”
“Now goods are of two kinds: there are human and there are divine goods…
“For wisdom is chief and leader of the divine class of goods, and next follows temperance; and from the union of these two with courage springs justice, and fourth in the scale of virtue is courage. All these naturally take precedence of the other goods…
…Of the lesser [human] goods the first [the highest] is health, the second beauty, the third strength, including swiftness in running and bodily agility generally, and the fourth is wealth…”
– Plato’s Laws Book I
With that quote in mind, here is Plato’s virtues from his Laws in the style of Aristotle’s golden mean chart (which we will discuss in detail below). TIP: This isn’t the only way to express this, this is just an example.
|SPHERE OF ACTION||Vice of Deficiency||Virtue||Vice of Excess|
|Fear and Confidence||Cowardice||Courage||Rashness|
|Well Being||Unhealthy||Health||Overly Health Conscious|
|Physical and Mental Shape||Weakness/Fear||Strength||Over Compensation|
Virtues and Their Relation to Morals and Ethics: Morals and virtues are nearly synonyms. They are the sentiments and values behind our ethical actions and rule-sets (they are the principles behind our codes of conduct). We can understand these as human emotions, and treat them empirically, or we can understand them as something more. Either way they are moral properties that cause us to act ethically, they aren’t themselves ethics and actions. So to be clear, while concepts like Kantian ethics and Utilitarianism relate to a moral theory of vices and virtues, those empirically and logically gleaned “ethical rule-sets” aren’t themselves a comment on vice and virtue directly. Rather, “ethics” is action based on the moral principles we call virtues (ethics are like rule-sets for avoiding vice and ensuring virtues; virtues and morals are the metaphysical concepts underneath the ethics). Ok, think that point has been made. Onto our first list of virtues.
Expressing the Virtues and Vices of Different “Spheres of Life”
Above we offered an example of Aristotle’s Golden mean chart and a few vices and virtues. Below we’ll show you how to abstract vices from these virtues to find these “golden means” (consider each “thesis,” each concept, in this case each “virtue,” below has by its nature generally has an “anti-thesis” of deficiency and antithesis of excess; using this sort of logic we can derive vices from virtues and virtues from vices; as you’ll see further down the page).
Before we get to that, let’s discuss another important and fundamental concept, that is how virtues apply to different “Spheres of life.” Plato tells us there are only two spheres (the human and divine), but in reality he eludes to more (such as the sphere that governs the warrior/timocrat/guardian where honor and duty are high virtues).
Below is an example list of key virtues from different areas (AKA “spheres”) of life. The ends of each type of virtue category is noted. This list is not exhaustive, and it is not a perfect list (in its completeness or order). The is, like most of the lists on this page, just an example that hints at the elusive “ideal list.” See the many other lists below to compare!
TIP: Depending on what we are talking about, if we are talking about “divine” “moral” laws, or if we are talking about something more human like politics or economics, we can consider different virtues. As Plato says and Aquinas agrees, “Now goods are of two kinds: there are human and there are divine goods…” Below we can see that physical, social, and political virtues are of the human kind, moral virtues are of the “divine” kind, and practical morals bridge the gap.
The Ends: Physical Health / Happiness
The Ends: Health of Relationships
The Ends: Health of State
The Ends: Health of Action (Ethics)
The Ends: Moral Happiness (Health of Soul)
|Beauty||Empathy / Sympathy||Liberty||Prudence / Resolution||Wisdom|
|Wealth||Cooperation / Competition||Authority / Order||Honor||Courage|
TIP: The ends of all virtues are the “health” of that category, a synonym for this is “happiness.” Mill and Smith both see our basic self interest as that of seeking happiness, of course not everything that makes us happy in the short term is “a virtue.” We’ll discuss happiness and vices more below, or see our page on happiness.
NOTE: This example list of virtues above is meant to illustrate different virtues in different “spheres,” which each have different ends (where physical ends are “health” and moral ends are “happiness”). The list it is non-exhaustive to say the least (Truth is for example an important but unnamed virtue), and there is no fully agreed on order or highest good here (there is consensus somewhat, but no official answer). See many more virtue lists below including the most famous ones like the Christian virtues.
TIP: If we synthesize the work of the past virtue theorists (like Plato in his Laws, see the paragraph that starts with “Now goods are of two kinds: there are human and there are divine goods…” ), we can say some of the “Highest Moral Virtues” are Courage, Moderation (Temperance), Wisdom, Duty, Justice, and Good Will (Aquinas thought the “cardinal virtues” were prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude; but there is no one right answer here). Although there are many higher and lower forms of these virtues (at least one for each category of human understanding), the highest moral forms of each cover most bases. If one has Good Will (good intentions) and understands moral duty and the concept of balance (moderation and justice), i.e. if they have the wisdom to understand these things, and if they have the courage to hold fast to their principles, then charity, sagacity, equality, liberty, tolerance, sensitivity, etc would arise almost as a second nature. This sort of thinking, the idea that holding enlightened virtues can help guide one toward other virtuous action “as if by second nature”, is an extrapolation of the moral philosophies of the Greeks and Enlightenment philosophers. See: Good Faith, Bad Faith, and Duty, arete, and “what is justice?“
TIP: Practice makes perfect. Once you understand a virtue and its related vices its all about reinforcement. Act as if, and you become virtuous over time. When the nation inspires virtue in its citizens as part of its laws and civil religion, even better. That is the point of Plato’s Republic and Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. More-so, to some extent, the concept is the point of all philosophy and most written works of philosophy. Yes the virtues describe a code of ethics of Knights in Shining armor, but there is so much more to it than that.
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 theories of ethics can be understood in terms of virtue and vice (furthermore, all these theories were essentially touched on by greats like Aristotle… so with that in mind, lets start by discussing the Virtue Theory of the Greeks).Aristotle on Ethics, Happiness, and Virtue | Peter Adamson. Aristotle and Plato provide the core of much of philosophy, virtue being so fundamental and the Greeks being so fundamental, I can’t stress learning about this enough. It is slightly idealist, but to ignore it is to ignore major aspects of human understanding.
The Foundation of Virtue Theory: Aristotle’s Theory of Means 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”. It is called Aristotle’s Theory of Means (or “the Golden Mean”) and it is a fundamentally useful little trick that can be applied in a number of ways (including in left-right politics and Hegel’s Dialectics).
The Logic Behind Aristotle’s Theory of Means
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.
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):
|SPHERE OF ACTION||VICE OF DEFICIENCY||VIRTUOUS MEAN||VICE OF EXCESS|
|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|
TIP: 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.
TIP: Stepping back from the above theory, but referring to the concept, lets look a little deeper at Plato and Aristotle’s idea of the ideal city state and the ideal soul (and how it shapes the ideal character of a person), because this is directly related to how the Greeks understood virtue. Generally, both individuals and entities (like small groups or even nations) have virtues. To sum up the argument of Plato and Aristotle simply, the greatest virtue is moderation and the greatest ends is justice. Moderation ensures the other virtues, and a balance of virtues assures the greatest happiness for the most, and that is true justice. Meanwhile, vices are generally lower-order pleasure seeking that is immoderate. A vice isn’t bad in moderation, really here, the general warning will be to seek balance and avoid extremes. This being important to all virtues and vices is why moderation is “the chief virtue”. Likewise, money (although neither good or bad alone), being what is needed to obtain most vices, is emblematic of the vices of excess. So a miser who cares only for themselves and seeks animal pleasures is engaging in lower vices, and a sage who cares for truth and justice and seeks moderation is engaging in virtues of the highest order. In the ideal city state both entities thrive, but each plays a different role, each balancing each-other. Therefore, moderation is also “the chief good” of a state. When a state is in balance, there is the greatest happiness, and this is justice.
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 in More Detail
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. Or, generally speaking, a virtue in a corrupting extreme and without the proper restraints.
Thomas Aquinas’ Cardinal Virtues and Theological Virtues
Now for an example of dividing these into cardinal and theological using Aquinas’ model:
- The four cardinal virtues as prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude. The cardinal virtues are natural and revealed in nature, and they are binding on everyone.
- Three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. The theological virtues relate to a more divine morality; they must be intuited and reasoned.
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.
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.
TIP: Kierkegaard’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.”
In this next section we will focus on different ways to understand political virtues. The health of a state (or the happiness of a state) has a direct baring on the happiness and health of its citizens. That is why this subject gets its own section!
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).
- 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. Plato’s timoarchy and auxiliaries.
- 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. Plato’s oligarchy and producers.
- AIR: In the Sphere of Reason and Ethics (the virtues are mental, like wisdom): The legislative, scholars, scientists, lawyers, and general intelligence. Plato’s philosophers (in terms of intellect and reason).
- 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. Plato’s philosophers (in terms of morality and wisdom).
Political Left-Right Virtues Table
|SPHERE OF ACTION||MALE – RIGHT||TEMPERED LEFT-RIGHT MEAN||FEMALE – LEFT|
|Sense and Sensibility||Logic and Reason (realism)||Hume’s Fork||Empathy and Morality (idealism)|
|Strictness||Order||Principled and lawful||Freedom|
The above table isn’t perfect, but it should help illustrate how certain virtues are at the core of much political debate.
TIP: Conservatism is about authority, tradition, hierarchy, and order, liberalism is about liberty [and equality], socialism about equality, and fascism about nationalism. I will make a full list at some time, but for now our left-right page presents most of the underlying virtues i’ve detected. This is essentially the key to all of politics, but why shouldn’t it be that Aristotle and Plato got the theory right back when? We read them for a reason. From there it is just about critical thinking and abstracting concepts.
TIP: Generally we can say, in terms of governments, the left is toward Pure Democracy / Anarchy and the right toward Monarchy / Despotism. The balanced position then being Aristocracy / Oligarchy, or more specifically “the Republic” (not “the Republican party”, rather “a mixed-Republic” for which any just party stands). See a theory on the types of governments.
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:
- 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:
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).
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]:
|SPHERE OF ACTION||VICE OF DEFICIENCY||VIRTUOUS MEAN||VICE OF EXCESS|
|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|
|Social conduct||Surliness||Friendly Civility||Obsequiousness|
Seven Heavenly Virtues and Seven Deadly Sins (source)
|Chastity||Purity, knowledge, honesty, wisdom||Lust|
|Temperance||Humanity, justice, honour, abstinence||Gluttony|
|Charity||Will, benevolence, generosity, sacrifice||Greed|
|Diligence||Persistence, fortitude, effort, ethics, rectitude||Sloth|
|Patience||Forgiveness, mercy, sufferance||Wrath|
|Kindness||Satisfaction, loyalty, compassion, integrity||Envy|
|Humility||Bravery, modesty, reverence, altruism||Pride|
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.
- VIRTUES &VICES: Countering the Deadly Vices with Godly Virtue
- VIRTUES &VICES: Countering the Deadly Vices with Godly Virtues IV COUNTERING THE “DEADLY” VICES WITH VIRTUES
- The Master List of Virtues
- ARISTOTLE’S ETHICS TABLE OF VIRTUES AND VICES
- Plato’s Laws
- Virtue ethics
- Normative ethics
- Golden mean (philosophy)
- Nicomachean Ethics
- The Summa Theologica
- Thomas Aquinas: Moral Philosophy
- Thomas Aquinas
- Second Part of the Second Part (Secunda Secundæ Partis)
- Book III. Of the Principles of the Three Kinds of Government
- The Spirit of the Laws
- The Origins of Chivalry
- Code of Chivalry
- Nicomachean Ethics: Books I to IV
- seven heavenly virtues