Ethics, Philosophy

What is a virtue?

Understanding virtue is so crucial for true happiness and success that you should probably read this page even if you don’t intend to read anything else at Virtus et Potentia. Essentially a virtue is a good habit. But what is a habit and what does it mean for a habit to be good?

Introduction: Virtues are Good Habits

Virtue, without reference to morality, is a good habit.[1]

A habit is a stable or persistent way of acting in the world, habits are like emotional base lines. They are not easily altered. The difference between a virtue and an emotional baseline is that one might be natural to who you are due to genetics (emotional baseline), but your habits are based on repetitive choices (conscious or unconsciously made).

What makes a habit good is whether or not it is fit for purpose.

Examples of habits fit for purpose:

If you want money, but have a habit of sleeping in and missing work that is very difficult not to do, then you have a bad habit on your hands.

If you want to make friends and have a tendency to listen carefully, tease effectively, give generously, and offer helpful advice, then you have good habits of friendship.

The result of possessing virtues/good habits is that with practice they give their possessor the ability to act in that fashion easily and well[2]. So a man with the virtue of justice has no problem making restitution when he has wronged him by mistake. Similarly, a man with courage will act in spite of fear for noble causes as a matter of course, not merely because circumstances have become so dire than action is the only alternative to death.

This is why you want to develop virtue. In the lives of many people, success does not come easy so they resign to mediocrity. But according to a virtue theory of human development, you cannot have “easy success” unless you first imprint yourself with several virtuous habits.

Be The Oak

My favorite metaphor for virtue is the oak tree.

In your life you already have a will, a set of emotions, and rational powers. These are like an acorn.

Every good choice you make is like choosing to water this acorn and give it fertilizer. Every choice you make at odds with your goals or your purpose in life (more on that another time), is like pouring poison on the seed or depriving it of water and soil. Eventually, as you train your desires with your reason, the tree grows so much that external impediments to success, power, or virtue simply become stimulus to further growth. This is similar to trees which need to be pruned or coastal trees which only grow stronger in the face of the harsh wind from the sea.

In classical thought there are several categories of virtues, some are moral and some are amoral. The two categories I’ll deal with are the intellectual and the moral virtues.

The Intellectual Virtues

The five intellectual virtues are listed and described below (btw, intellectual virtues are not necessarily possessed by intellectuals):

  1. Understanding/Sanity – This virtue is the power to understand first principles (cause and effect, number, non-contradiction, etc.).
  2. Science/Knowledge – This is the ability and habit of making inferences and drawing conclusions from principles and sensory data.
  3. Wisdom – While the word wisdom is often used as a synonym for prudence, in this case it is the ability to see things in context and relationship to one another with reference to values, consequences, and so-on.
  4. Prudence/Deliberation – Prudence in classical virtue theory is the habit of right choice. Prudence relies upon and builds upon the foundation of understanding, science, and wisdom for the purpose of making good decisions (decisions which move the man of action toward his goals). My own definition of prudence (because it builds upon the previous virtues) is “understanding the world, discerning good from bad, and acting accordingly.”
  5. Art/Know-How – Art is the virtue of “right reason about things to be made.[3]” This is the virtue of the engineer, the chef, the gardener and the painter. Observe how little modern art is actually created under the guidance of reason.

Moral Virtue: The Cardinals

The next category of virtues are the moral virtues. What makes them moral is that they tend toward governing the customs of society for the purpose of the perfection of individuals and their increased happiness. A moral virtue is a habit that is fit for the purpose of human excellence and happiness:

  1. Fortitude – This is the virtue of action and endurance in the face of fear of great danger or death. In one sense it is presupposed by the other virtues, because one must pursue prudence, justice, and temperance in the face of many difficult obstacles. In another sense it is its own virtue in that pursuing the other virtues rarely puts us in the gravest of dangers.[4]
  2. Prudence – Understanding the world, discerning good from bad (not just in moral, but especially in morals), and acting accordingly.
  3. Justice – This is the virtue of habitually giving others their due. It has to do with your relationships with others in regard to money, honor, duty, and friendship. Just men pay their debts, protect the weak, and ensure the well-being of their families.
  4. Temperance – This is the virtue of rightly using the external goods such as food, drink, sleep, shelter, clothes, etc. It is the virtue of enough. A temperate man doesn’t sleep too much, avoids obsessing over being liked or loved, enjoys food but eats the right amount, and so-on.


Many people feel that they cannot be successful because they would have to become bad, be inauthentic (by going against their natural habits), or that their efforts are often thwarted. But if you shift your mindset toward making happiness your goal (it already is) and you begin to seek happiness by gaining the virtues then I submit to you that you’ll become happier and more successful. The problem is that you must pursue the virtues until they become virtues (hard to alter habits) and not mere occasional heroic actions. Here, I’ll try to give you tips from experience, modern literature, and the classics on how to do that.

[1] R. C Mortimer, The Elements of Moral Theology. (London: A. and C. Black, 1947), 100

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.), “Art is nothing else but the right reason about things to be made. And yet the good of these things depends, not on man’s appetitive faculty being affected in this or that way, but on the goodness of the work done. For a crafts-man, as such, is commendable, not for the will with which he does a work, but for the quality of the work.”

[4] Mortimer, 156.

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