Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Retreat 2000
Saint Thomas Aquinas Seminary
September 27-30 AD 2000
Conference IV - Virtues and the Virtue of Humility
Ave Maria!

    Today we are going to talk a bit about the virtues in general, and about the virtue of humility in particular.  If you are interested in pursuing this further, you will find that Saint Thomas deals with the virtues in his characteristically thorough fashion in the Summa Theologica, I-II, Q.55-70 and II-II Q.1-178.  That is a rather large part of the Summa.  There is also a college theology textbook called The Christian Life, by Francis L.B. Cunningham (Dubuque: Priory Press, 1959).  No doubt there are other scholarly works.  But today, we are going to have to be content with a much more informal approach, and talk about virtue as it relates to living the everyday Christian spiritual life.

    These sorts of books are a necessary adjunct to the moral theology studies made by seminary students where the emphasis is on learning to become a confessor.  Of necessity, we spend a great deal of time reviewing all the bad things that people do and might bring to us in Confession.  But priests, seminarians, and lay as well also need to understand the mechanism by which we live a holy virtuous life.  Hopefully, we ourselves will form our lives more by knowing about the virtues than about the vices.

    QUESTION:  To begin with, does anyone know where the word "virtue" comes from?

    EXPECTED ANSWER:  From the Latin "virtus," which is sometimes translated as "power"—but note that the root of the word is "vir" or "man" in English.  Cassell's dictionary gives the first translated meaning as "manly excellence," followed by "capacity," "worth," "virtue," "valor," and "courage."  We might think of it as the manly power to live a good life.

    The philosophers tell us that there are two main powers in the human soul.  First there is the intellect, which is the seat of all that we do rationally; things like extracting information from the world around us, comparing it with what we already know, integrating it into our knowledge, and making decisions as to how we will act.  The intellect distinguishes man from all of the animals—so much so that the Greek philosopher Aristotle defines man as "the rational animal."

    But equally important is the other power of the human souls which is the will.  The will is the seat of human desire, determining the things that we like and dislike, the things that attract us or repel us, the things that we love or hate.

    Occasionally, people come up with questions about which power of the soul is more important;  the intellect or the will.  The classic question asks "is it more important to know God or to love God?"  This and other questions like it are in a sense trivial, because without knowing God it is impossible to love him, and without loving Him you will probably not make much of an effort to know him.

    You might respond to this fear of God might be motivation to know him, but even still you are naming another aspect of the will—the desire to avoid punishment, perhaps—as your reason for knowing God.  Very rarely—if ever—do real human beings function only with their intellect or only with their will.  Trying to consider them in isolation is a job for the philosophers or the psychiatrists.  It just isn't the way things work in practical life.  But, sometimes being able to theoretically split the two apart in our minds does help us to understand them.

    I mention the two powers of the soul, intellect and will, because all of the virtues, in one way or another relate to these two powers.

    Before we get ahead of ourselves with considering the virtues in specific, we ought to say that it is possible to think of the virtues as habits.  The virtues, of course are good habits, so what might we call our bad habits?

    EXPECTED ANSWER:  The vices, of course.

    QUESTION:  And how I do form a habit—good or bad?

    EXPECTED ANSWER:  By practice, of course.

    QUESTION:  And, if we have a habit we are trying to break, what must we do?

    EXPECTED ANSWER:  By practicing the opposite form of behavior from the behavior we want to eliminate.

    So, already, we see that we know a great deal about the virtues, just from everyday experience and common sense.  The virtues are very much like talents—like playing the piano, for example:  Whatever musical talent we may have will be maintained and grow only if we make a regular effort to practice our music.  Or, take sinking baskets from the foul line—no basketball player can expect to be good at it unless he practices it regularly.

    The concept of "virtue" as a habit of moral behavior is quite old.  Several hundred years before Christ, the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle presented well thought out theories of virtue.  They named virtues of the intellect, like wisdom, understanding, knowledge, art, and prudence.  And they also named moral virtues like justice, friendliness, temperance, and truthfulness.  The virtues of these philosophers were, of course, "natural virtues"—Christianity would add the "theological virtues" somewhat later—but the basic ideas are the same, and Christians certainly do not do away with the natural virtues.

    There is an important concept here that ought to be mentioned.  Even though the Greeks did not have the benefit of God's revelation, they were nonetheless able to know the essential points of God's moral law just by observing the way society works.  Even without the Ten Commandments, thoughtful men are able to realize that society just can't function if people are killing each other, stealing each other's property and each other's wives, or continually lying to each other, or whatever.  The members of a family, parents and children, have to have respect for each other if that small unit of society is to prosper.  Given this understanding of a natural law that governed people in society, people like Aristotle and Plato developed lists of qualities that individual men and women had to practice in order to fit into that society.  These qualities, the virtues, were usually seen as a "middle way" between improper behaviors.

    The Greeks judged that there were certain virtues that were central to human behavior.  In modern times we call these the "cardinal virtues," with "cardinal" coming from the Latin word "cardines," or  "hinges"—the virtues that all others hang on and rotate about, just as a door hangs on its hinges and pivots about them.

    Plato listed four cardinal virtues:  Temperance, courage, wisdom, and justice.  St. Thomas Aquinas modified the list a bit after fifteen centuries or so, but he still includes temperance and justice.  Plato's "courage" becomes St. Thomas' "fortitude", and "wisdom" becomes "prudence"—more closely reflecting characteristics that an individual man might be able to develop through practice.

    St. Thomas preserved the Greek idea of virtue being a "middle way," or a "golden mean" between extremes of behavior.  For example, "courage" can be seen as a middle ground between "cowardice" and "foolhardiness."  Man is supposed to practice walking the middle ground so that it becomes instinctive.  In the case of "courage" he may depart from the "mean" by the defect of "cowardice," in which he is afraid to do necessary things even when there are no proportionate reasons for being afraid.  Life is always filled with some risk, but reasonable risks must be taken if life is to be lived and progress is to be made.  One must not be afraid of his shadow, or of getting out of bed in the morning, or of the drive to work.

    On the other hand, a man can depart from the mean of "courage" by the excess of "foolhardiness."  One is not practicing "courage" by looking for tigers to wrestle with, insulting the boss, or trying to pick a fight with the cop on the beat.  There is virtually nothing to be gained by taking such risks.  But even when there are very useful gains to be made, in some cases the risks may be too great to justify action.

    Another cardinal virtue is temperance.  This refers to the use of any material good, not just alcohol;  it means using one's goods in a rational fashion.  One can violate temperance by using one's goods "as if there were no tomorrow":  eating all of the candies, drinking all of the wine, burning the entire fuel supply;  all without regard to the effects such excesses may have now, and what shortages they may cause in the future.  But, by the same token, one can violate temperance by defect:  for it is not a virtue to sit around cold and hungry when resources are available in good supply.

    Now, before we move from the natural virtues to the theological virtues—those that originate with God and not with man, we ought to note that some of the virtues appear both on the list of natural virtues and the list of theological virtues.  "Charity," is probably the best example.  Even among the pagans with no knowledge of God, "charity" existed as a natural virtue.  There has to be, in any society, a certain amount of love or concern on the part of every individual for those around him.  It is obvious that society wouldn't function if we all hid behind stone walls and sicced our dogs on everyone who came to visit -- nor would it work if everybody was minding everyone else's business.  In a moment we will see that there is also a theological virtue of "charity."

    The theological virtues, "Faith," "Hope," and "Charity," are slightly different from the natural virtues.  To begin with, they are primarily concerned with our proper relationship with God;  only secondarily do they regulate our conduct toward other men, and even then, only in order to retain a proper relationship with God.

    The theological virtues do not arise through human effort, they are infused.  That is to say that pagan man cannot develop them through his own activities.  They are given to us as a free gift of God, and we are expected to respond to them.  Only by response to God can we practice and cultivate these virtues.[1]  Our first response is through Baptism, and then through the other Sacraments which restore or increase sanctifying grace in the soul.  We also respond on the level of the intellect or the will as appropriate.

    It is believed that all three theological virtues are infused simultaneously by God, yet there appears to an order in their activity:

    By "Faith," one is brought to know God and to accept the truths that He has chosen to reveal about Himself.  This is distinct from the natural "faith" we might have in another human being, for theological Faith is infused (not acquired), and points us to absolute truths that cannot be denied because God and not fallible man is their source.  Faith must usually be augmented by knowledge of God which is not generally infused, and must be acquired through study of Scripture, Tradition, the works of reliable theologians, and the magisterial pronouncements of the Church.  In some cases we may be required not only to believe in God's revelations, but also to profess them through our actions and through the spoken or written word.

    "Faith" tends to lead us to the second theological virtue of "Hope" by which we trust that God will make available the means of our salvation, so that we may one day share the happiness of heaven with Him.  It produces confidence in us, so that we are moved to make use God's means.  Without "Hope" it would seem pointless to do the things necessary for salvation.

    "Hope," in turn leads to "Charity," or the love of God.  God is the ultimate good that man can hope to possess, and knowledge of that possibility leads us to cherish and develop greater affection for God.

    "Charity," of course is the greatest of the three theological virtues, for the other two will not pass away, but will be supplanted in heaven.[2]  In heaven, "Faith" will be supplanted by "Vision," the direct perception of God in the beatific vision -- and "Hope" will give way to "Fulfillment," for one cannot hope for something already possessed.

    “If I should speak with the tongues of men and angels but do not have Charity, I am become as a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal....  If I have all faith, so as to move mountains, yet do not have charity, I am nothing.  And if I distribute all my goods to feed the poor, or deliver my body to be burned, but do not have charity, I am nothing....  Prophecies will disappear, and tongues will cease, and knowledge will be destroyed....  There abide Faith, Hope, and Charity, these three, but the greatest of these is Charity.”[3]

    The theological virtues don't always and completely seem to lend themselves to idea of a "middle way," but such analysis is still useful.  Of course, it is impossible to imagine believing God, or trusting God, or loving God too much.  Yet, the defects are surely possible:

·                    against Faith—disbelief of what God has revealed,

·                    against Hope—despair of salvation—"even God can't save a sinner like me,"

·                    against Charity—a coldness to God and an attachment to sin.

And even excesses against the theological virtues might be envisioned if we stretch a bit:

·                    against Hope—by presumption of salvation "I'll be saved no matter what I do."

·                    against Faith—perhaps by credulity;  accepting every story of apparitions and miracles as though divinely revealed

·                    against Charity—by ignoring other God given responsibilities to devote attention to God alone.

    So, those are the theological virtues, "Faith," "Hope," and "Charity."  And again, one of the most important things we can remember to do in fostering them is to receive the Sacraments and assist at Holy Mass.  You will also find it useful to make sure that you reading and viewing contains a strongly God centered component, so that your knowledge of the Faith and spirituality continue to grow, and the things of God are always on you mind. 

    Now, so far we have talked about the concept of virtue in general, the natural virtues, and the theological virtues.  No doubt we could go on for many hours if we were to examine each of the many virtues in any detail.  We can't do that, but I would like to commend two particular virtues to your attention, as being of above average importance.

    The first would be "truthfulness."  It goes without saying that a Catholic must a truthful person.  To be a good Christian, by definition, is to be Christ-like.  And our Lord identifies Himself with the Truth:  "I am the way, and the truth, and the life."   "If you abide in My word, you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."   The Holy Ghost, the "Advocate" is the Spirit of truth," and our Lord prayed that the Father would "Sanctify them (the Apostles) in the truth."  "I have come into the world to bear witness to the truth.  Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice."[4]

    I would guess that most of you here today are truthful people, and if not, you know that you should be.  You would probably not be taking the time to make this retreat if you weren't already striving to be good Christians.

    But what I am going to suggest is that Truth needs a little activism to spread truthfulness to others.  What I am asking then, is that you hold others to the same standard of truthfulness.  That means knowing the truth yourself, to the best of your ability.  It means thinking critically about what you read, view, and hear—actually understanding it, and not just killing time.  And it means respectfully questioning those who seem to play lose with the facts.  I am not saying to be argumentative, certainly not to start fights, verbal or physical.  And, certainly, don't go off "half-cocked"—be sure of your own facts, even if you just read them yesterday.

    You have a right to receive the truth, particularly if you are paying for it by way of a magazine or cable subscription;  or by way of the taxes you pay in the case of information from government officials.

    Now, I can hear some of you thinking to your selves, "Ah, come off it Father, we live in a dishonest society; so dishonest that we can do nothing about it!"  Well, in great measure you are correct -- but the reason it is that way is because most people prefer to ignore it.  And for fear of being different, the rest are afraid to discuss the problem, even with family or friends.  It is so much easier—more comfortable—to turn on the football game and let them tell you what you just saw, crack open a cold-one, and discuss the coaches or the quarterbacks or whatever.  Next time you are tempted to ignore in important falsehood, remember that is "the truth that will make us free."

    The other virtue that I would like to particularly commend to you is of great importance in the spiritual life, and that is the virtue of "humility."  It is important in that without "humility" we are unable to see ourselves in our proper relationship to God or in our proper relationship to those around us.  Lack of humility contributes to the incidence of serious sin.  "Humility is the moral virtue which restrains the inordinate desire for one's own excellence."[5]

    We usually speak of "pride" as the vice that is opposed to "humility."  Really we should speak of "inordinate pride," for we can all recognize that certain forms of pride are beneficial.  There is nothing wrong, for example in having pride of workmanship -- whatever job we do, we ought to strive to do it well -- those who pay for our products or services have a right to value in exchange for their money.  A father ought to have pride in the development of his children, and ought to demand that they do their best to make him proud.  Within limits we ought to have pride in a neat and clean appearance for ourselves and our property -- such pride never has to be ostentatious.

    The "pride" that is dangerous, the "inordinate pride" is the "pride" that makes a man see himself as more important than he really is -- that he and his concerns are of greater significance than those of his neighbors -- or that he is so special that even his relationship with God is privileged.

    It is not difficult to see how such "inordinate pride" leads quickly to sin.  If I think I am more important than my neighbor, it become very easy to justify sinning against him.  My great importance gives me the right to harm him if he gets in my way;   my great importance gives me the right to take his property if I fancy it;  my great importance gives me the right to his wife if I should feel inclined to do her that favor;  my great importance gives me the right to lie to him if I find it convenient.  My great importance makes God so lucky to have a creature like me that I don't have to pay him any of the respect that lesser people have to;  like keeping His name or His day holy.  After all, the very first sin was clearly attributable to pride, the "inordinate pride" of Adam and Eve that they would "be like gods" once they ate the forbidden fruit.

    The virtue of "humility," then, is the habit of considering one's self accurately with respect to those around us, and with respect to God.  Note the word "accurately."  It is the vice of "pride" to see ourselves falsely as more important than we really are, but it is equally a vice to claim falsely that we are of terribly low importance.  The truly humble man is an honest man who knows that he has some qualities that are above average and can be put to work to benefit himself and society -- and -- knows that he has some deficiencies that will make it necessary to receive help from others around him.  Every man has his strengths and his weaknesses -- the humble man is the one who can accurately assess them in order to deal properly with others.  The humble man knows that He always owes a debt to God, that he must depend on his neighbors for some things, and can help his neighbors with other things.

    "Humility" does not come from humiliation.  While you may be able to crush someone's spirit with humiliation, you will be doing so at the expense of the honesty and objectivity that are necessary to the humble man.  In some respects, you will make a liar out of him by requiring him to deny that he has his share of talents and good qualities.  You may even get him to start boasting about his "unworthiness";  a sort of inverted "false pride."

    Dom Eugene Boylan was a Trappist Abbot who lived during the first half of the 20th century.  Now, Trappist monks have a reputation for being humble men, and in a retreat something like this one, about fifty years ago, he spoke to a group of monks about its importance.  He mentioned that his Order had, at one time, followed the route of humiliation, but that in his experience, in actuality the more humble monks or those likely to become humble monks were those who entered the monastery after having at least a little success in the world.  He said that if a man had gotten out of school, and held a job, and had been able to support himself doing something useful -- that man usually didn't feel that he had to prove something when he entered the monastery -- he knew, objectively and honestly, that he could fend for himself.  On the other hand, the new monk who had never been successful outside the wall was very likely to expend a great deal of effort demonstrating his "abilities" to the other monks and to the superiors.

    And so it is with us.  To be humble is an essential part of being a spiritual man and a good Catholic;  and to be humble, one must know one's self, honestly and objectively -- not falling into the pit of self-denigration nor rising to the heights of false pride.  Interestingly enough, that brings us back to those Greek philosophers with whom we started, for Plato's single great point of advice was "know thyself."  And certainly that is the root of humility.

    In conclusion, we have looked very briefly at the concept of virtue and at a few specific virtues.  Remember that virtues are like good habits -- they require practice and cultivation if they are to become second nature to our personality and behavior.  We'll let Plato and his student, Aristotle, put an end to this conference:  "Moral virtue comes about as a result of habit."  "Know thyself."



[1]   Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q.62.

[2]   Cf.  1 Corinthians xiii.

[3]   1 Corinthians xiii: 1-13.

[4]   John xiv: 6;  John viii: 32;  John xiv: 17;   John xvii: 17;  John xviii: 37.

[5]   Francis L.B. Cunningham, The Christian Life, (Dubuque: Priory Press, 1959) p. 733.


Dei via est íntegra
Our Lady of the Rosary, 144 North Federal Highway (US#1), Deerfield Beach, Florida 33441  954+428-2428
Authentic  Catholic Mass, Doctrine, and Moral Teaching -- Don't do without them -- 
Don't accept one without the others!