What are the seven virtues, and how are they related to the seven deadly sins? If you didn’t grow up with Catholic Catechism, you may have a hazy grasp of these virtues and vices. This article will provide a brief background of the seven virtues and seven deadly sins, provide helpful definitions and give an explanation of each virtue, then detail the seven virtues’ usage and variations by several groups throughout history.
The Seven Virtues: A Brief Background
What exactly is a virtue? You may have some idea just from hearing it in context, but the fact that “is virtue a sin” is a common search on Google shows that the term could use a definition to set some confused people straight. So here are two definitions of a moral virtue:
- According to the Vatican‘s website, it’s a “habitual and firm disposition to do the good.” Hint: this is not a sin.
- The philosopher Aristotle, in his work Nichomachean Ethics, states that moral virtue is “the product of habit” and goes on to explain that each moral virtue is a “mean” or happy medium between two vices. For instance, generosity is balanced between the extremes of stinginess and wastefulness. This concept is known in philosophy as “Aristotle’s Golden Mean.”
Unraveling the Obscurity of the Seven Virtues
What exactly are “cardinal” virtues? They have little to do with brightly colored birds or even with Catholic officials. Here’s a guide to some of the obscure terms used to describe these virtues.
- The “Seven Cardinal Virtues:” the Catholic Catechism explains that they’re called cardinal in the sense that they’re fundamental and central to everything else. Originally only the four virtues Courage, Temperance, Prudence, and Justice were referred to as Cardinal, but the term has expanded to include the entire group.
- “Heavenly” virtues: Originally only three of the virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity) were known as “Heavenly,” meaning that they were theologically based virtues. Like the term “Cardinal,” the term “Heavenly” can now refer to the whole set of seven.
- “Seven lively virtues”: Since these virtues were commonly juxtaposed with the corresponding set of seven deadly sins, the term lively was coined to show that these virtues are opposite. It’s an archaic usage of the word lively, meaning something like “of or tending toward life.”
The Seven Virtues Explained
The concept of the seven virtues dates back to the BC. The most frequent usage for the term today, however, comes from the Catholic Church’s catechism. The seven virtues drawn from this source include:
Each virtue is examined briefly below, with definitions from philosophers and notes on their origins. The first four were originally found in Plato’s Republic, Book IV.
Fortitude, or courage, is one of the original Cardinal virtues described by Plato and expanded on by Aristotle. St. Augustine of Hippo, who defines every virtue according to its relation to Love, calls it “love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object.”
Prudence, another of the original four, was called “Wisdom” by Plato in his Republic. St. Augustine’s definition is “love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it.”
The third Cardinal virtue considered by Plato, Temperance has to do with bodily pleasures but, as Aristotle is quick to point out, not all of them. Aristotle explains that only the pleasures of Touch and Taste are relevant. St. Augustine, of course, thought that Temperance is simply “love giving itself entirely to that which is loved.”
Justice is given disproportionately long consideration by both Aristotle and Plato. According to St. Augustine, it’s “love serving only the loved object, and therefore ruling rightly.” The other, less religious, philosophers seem mainly to be concerned with the “ruling rightly” part.
Faith is the first in the set of three virtues set forward originally by St. Paul and taken up later as “Heavenly” virtues. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it means “[assenting] to the truth of supernaturally revealed principles.” Faith, in St. Augustine’s view, is nearly synonymous with belief.
Hope is a concept which, at first glance, seems nearly identical to Faith. The Catholic Catechism distinguishes it by adding that it involves “[desiring] the kingdom of heaven” and “relying not on [one’s] own strength.”
“If charity means giving, I give it to you,” sang Roddy McDowall as Mordred in the 1960 Broadway musical Camelot. But Mordred was all wrong, or at least decidedly anachronistic; the concept of “charity” in King Arthur’s day didn’t refer specifically to almsgiving as in modern times, but rather to brotherly love in general.
A frightening fact about the seven sins can be found on educationscotland.gov, which reveals that the Catholic Church originally divided sins into “deadly” (mortal) and “not deadly” (venial) ones to determine which of its devotees had earned “eternal damnation.”
Trinity.edu presents these seven sins as “basic categories” of evil and asserts that they are overarching concepts that have come down through history because of their adaptability and fundamental relevance. The list originated in a list of eight “evil thoughts” from hermits in Northern Egypt. First found in written form in the 300s, it went through several transformations, annotations, and editions by scholars before becoming the list used by the Catholic Church. The following sins made it onto the final list:
- Pride (Latin: Superbia).
- Avarice (Latin: Avaritia).
- Envy (Latin: Invidia).
- Wrath (Latin: Ira).
- Lust (Latin: Luxuria).
- Gluttony (Latin: Gula).
- Sloth (Latin: Accidia).
History: Origins and Early Use
The four Cardinal Virtues were not developed by religious groups, but by the ancient Greek philosophers mentioned above. Religious philosophers started mentioning them in the early centuries A.D., and eventually combined these four with a set of three “theological virtues” drawn from St. Paul’s writings, forming the set of seven.
However, these groups have a completely different mindset about the virtues than did the ancient philosophers. For example, the virtues discussed in Nichomachean Ethics (some of which correspond with the Cardinal Virtues) include:
A key difference in thought can be drawn from how Aristotle describes Courage (fortitude) as the mean between the extremes of Fear and Confidence. In this respect, a virtuous life is a balancing act between two undesirable extremes. The courageous man must not give way to excess in either direction.
Religious groups, however, construct entirely different dichotomies using some of the same virtues. In their way of thinking, one does not “balance” on a mean but instead strives continually toward one extreme (the seven virtues) while trying to avoid the other extreme. This shows a fundamentally different outlook on life.
There were two schools of thought regarding how the virtues and vices should be organized. The one described above places the seven virtues and vices opposite each other in a general sense, but doesn’t actually pair them up. In the alternate scheme, the seven deadly sins and virtues were counterparts, each virtue having its opposing vice. The arrangement would look something like this:
- Humility versus Pride.
- Kindness versus Envy.
- Abstinence versus Gluttony.
- Chastity versus Lust.
- Patience versus Wrath.
- Liberality versus Greed.
- Diligence versus Sloth.
Instead of coming from the Greeks and Saint Paul, these virtues came from an epic poem by a Latin poet named Prudentius. Because each of them directly opposes a vice, these virtues are sometimes called the “contrary virtues.”
Throughout history, various small changes have been made to the generally accepted form of the Virtues and Vices. In another archaic variant Tristia (Latin for “Sadness”) stood in place of Sloth, according to the University of Leicester.
Not to be confused with…
A serendipitous coincidence is found between the seven heavenly virtues in the Catholic Catechism and the Japanese Samurai’s code of conduct, known as “Bushido.” According to the New World Encyclopedia, the seven virtues associated with this code of conduct included:
As with the Catholic virtues, these Samurai virtues have had a great impact on the surrounding society through the years. Unlike the Catholic virtues, however, they’re centered more on a warrior ideal and have less to do with morality for the sake of faith.
Throughout history, the seven virtues and vices have been referenced in dozens of books, not to mention Broadway songs and even TV shows. But whether you’re a devout Catholic, an ancient Samurai, or a curious TV watcher, the cultural effects of these virtues and vices have helped to shape your world for thousands of years.