Saint Thomas Aquinas Seminary
September 27-30 AD 2000
Conference IV - Virtues and the Virtue of Humility
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.
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?
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
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."
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
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
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.
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.
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?
ANSWER: The vices, of course.
And how I do form a habit—good or bad?
ANSWER: By practice, of course.
QUESTION: And, if we have a habit we are trying to break, what must we do?
ANSWER: By practicing the opposite form of behavior from the behavior we
want to eliminate.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
is believed that all three theological virtues are infused simultaneously by
God, yet there appears to an order in their activity:
"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.
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.
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.
of course is the greatest of the three theological virtues, for the other two
will not pass away, but will be supplanted in heaven.
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
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.”
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:
Faith—disbelief of what God has revealed,
Hope—despair of salvation—"even God can't save a sinner like me,"
Charity—a coldness to God and an attachment to sin.
even excesses against the theological virtues might be envisioned if we stretch
Hope—by presumption of salvation "I'll be saved no matter what I
Faith—perhaps by credulity; accepting every story of apparitions and
miracles as though divinely revealed
Charity—by ignoring other God given responsibilities to devote attention to
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
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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.
"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
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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."