Lent is a gut check time. It offers us a season to embrace sacrifices that allow us to become an overall better person. But as people typically ask, why do we need to go through an unpleasant experience to become a better person? It is simple; just like an overweight person needs to go through an unpleasant workout at the gym to obtain a healthier body, so too does our soul need to go through sacrifices to reach its perfected form. So, lent is really a spiritual workout. Lent is like that moment when you finally get serious and enter the gym. But, instead of focusing on your body, you’re centered on something bigger – your soul.
Like with any good workout, and especially if you haven’t been in a long time, you need to start with the basics. The basics and the whole point of lent is to become closer to Christ, and, in turn, become closer to your better self. To do this, we need to grasp what it means to be your better self. Here, is where we come back to the basics, or in this case the classics – virtue and ethics. Probably the two greatest philosophers of all time were Aristotle (350 BC) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1250 AD). Through these two great minds, we can discover what virtue is and how to obtain it. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica are the greatest works on ethics and virtue (outside of the Sermon on the Mount) a person will encounter.
Before getting started on the virtues, Aquinas has us back up to understand two key ingredients – function and excellence. As Aquinas articulates, every created thing was created for some purpose. We might call this its end or purpose. To understand a thing’s function we simply ask what was that thing created to do? Once we know what its designed to do, we will know its end. For example, scissors were designed to cut paper. Therefore, the function or end of scissors is to cut paper. Cutting paper is the whole point of the scissors existence. If scissors were used for something else (like a butter knife), it would violate the function of its very cause. This holds true for every thing – be it a car, a horse, a pen, even human beings. Aquinas gives us the example of a flute player. The function or end of a flute player is to play the flute, not to fish or play tennis.
After establishing the end of a thing, we then shift to focus on the degrees of excellence of that thing. We know there are varying levels of excellence for anything. There are good scissors and bad scissors. All scissors have the same function, but some of them are able to do it well. There are good flute players and bad flute players. Here, Aquinas links the function of something to its level of excellence. That is, if the function of a thing is followed or not followed, it will affect the excellence of it. For example, if a flute player, who’s purpose is to play the flute, spends all his time and energy not on his end (to play the flute) but on fishing and rock climbing, it will negatively affect his excellence of playing the flute. He’ll be a bad flute player precisely because he’s not following his end. The same holds true of every created thing. If you use a pair of scissors as a hammer, it will mess up the scissors. If you use a car as a boat, it will ruin the car. Therefore, if you don’t use something for its end, it will harm that thing’s level of perfection.
Here is where Aquinas drops the bomb on people. He then asks, if every created thing has an end, what is the end of a human person? Why was the human person created? The answer is simple. Our end is to know, love, and serve God (see Baltimore Catechism). Much like Jesus proclaimed the greatest commandment is to “love God with all your heart, soul, and mind” (Matthew 22: 37), our purpose is to be in total communion with God.
Now that we know our end is to serve God, we have to ask the next pressing question – do our actions correspond to our end? Do what we do take us closer to our purpose to love God or further away? The answer is quite clear. Because of human sin, our actions continuously take us away from our end (to love God with everything). As Paul says rather pointedly, “I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Romans 7: 19). In other words, Paul is admitting he knows he’s a sinner because his actions do not correspond to his end. What he does, doesn’t follow suit with loving and serving God. He knows he’s supposed to love and serve God, but his actions don’t match with his end.
Paul is speaking honesty here in which he paints the human portrait in line with the flute player who’s end is to play the flute but his actions are all about fishing. Or, the scissors who’s end is to cut paper but whose action is centered around being a butter-knife. Here, a major problem has occurred when we take the human end and plug it up with actions that have nothing to do with the very purpose of our creation.
If human sin takes us off track from our whole purpose, what can put us back on track? Quite simply – establishing the virtues will do the trick.
What is virtue? As Aristotle and Aquinas show, virtue is the habits we acquire in our lives that turn us into our perfected form (a.k.a. saints). Now, we don’t achieve virtue on our own – it is all through God’s providential assistance. And as Aquinas indicates the primary way God infuses his grace into a person is through the Sacraments. So, if a person doesn’t have access to the Sacraments the virtues are nearly impossible to get. Once we do openly receive the Sacraments we can apply the virtues into our daily lives. If the virtues allow us to be saints, then these virtues will, in turn, make us noble, peaceful, and fulfilled. So, we can say that virtue is a key ingredient to happiness.
Virtue lets you know why you act a certain way and allows you to change your junkie habits into great habits. Virtues let you know more about your soul, your thoughts, and how to improve it. Virtue is picked and practiced in the repetitive fashion in the day to day life. Developing habits are at the beating heart of the virtues. If it is a good habit we call it a virtue. If it is a bad habit we call it a vice. A virtue is not merely doing a couple random acts of kindness – like helping an old lady across the street. Rather, a virtue needs to be a predictable pattern that occurs repeatedly almost as an embedded instinct within. So, if you help that same old lady cross the street every day for a year, you’ve developed virtue. Often times a single act of kindness is calculated by the individual and usually comes with a dubious motive. Modern psychology now shows that people mainly perform moral deeds in order to look good. Psychologist Cordelia Fine illuminates in her book, A Mind of its Own, that the primary reason people perform good works is in order to enhance their personal image in the eyes of others (see also Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18). Such human trickery is not the case with virtue. In other words, you can’t fake virtue.
What Thomas Aquinas does is show how the virtues apply to the hierarchy of your soul. As Aquinas articulates the structure of your soul boils down to the intellect, the will, and passions. You have an intellect that gives you knowledge of the outside world and how you interact with this world. You have a will that makes decisions on what you do and puts this decision into action. Then, you have a passion for what drives you to want to do certain things. We might call these passions emotions (although they are not technically emotions, but it’s a better way to understand them). Aquinas divides these emotions into irascible and concupiscible passions. Irascible passion is your grit, your fight, your determination; while concupiscible passion is your desire, your lust, your hunger, your thirst. What Aquinas articulates is that this structure of your soul needs to be in a tight, specific order of 1. Intellect, 2. Will, 3. Passions. Like the order of ingredients in pizza call for kneading the dough first, followed by the sauce and then the cheese, your soul has to be in a firm sequence of intellect, will, and then passion.
These three-pronged elements act like three hinges that work together in a uniformed machine. Intellect needs to be in the driver seat and the will and passions behind intellect in the great human climb to virtue. If passion jumps ahead of the line, a crisis will naturally ensue. For example, your intellect tells you that consuming a lot of alcohol is bad. It deteriorates your cognitive faculty, gives you a bad hangover, harms your liver and ultimately makes you an addict. So, your intellect holds knowledge of this. But, after a long, stressful week of work, on Friday as you head out to a restaurant with your friends, your passion tells you to consume a lot of alcohol. Your will is supposed to use your intellect to accurately guide your passion. Your will, being in the middle stands in position of taking data from your passion, presenting it to your intellect to make a decision, and, in turn, your will then puts into action the knowledge of your intellect. In this great mechanism of ethics, the intellect controls the passion through the will.
However, if passion by-passes the will, and the intellect and is driving the ship in our alcohol analogy, then that person is in trouble. Only on occasion and in moderation should your intellect and will allow your alcohol passion to come into play. So, when you have one glass of alcohol over and above three-four drinks you’re displaying the virtue of temperance. Therefore, to reach the virtue the three layers of your soul need to be operating like a well-oiled machine in the order of intellect, will, passion.
Aquinas also shows that the virtues fulfill the three layers of your soul. For example, the virtue of prudence (making the right decision at the right time) perfects the intellect. The virtue of justice (doing the right thing) perfects the will. The virtue of fortitude (courage) completes the irascible desire. The virtue of temperance (moderation) perfects your concupiscible desires. Your desire wants to eat a pint of ice cream or consume four pizza slices, but temperance perfects this desire and eventually reduces it. So, Thomas Aquinas when he arranges the four cardinal virtues, pins the tail on the donkey for each of these parts of your soul – the intellectual to prudence, the will to justice, the irascible passions to fortitude, and the concupiscible passions to temperance. Aquinas allows you to shape the parts of your soul in a way that cues you up for success. And when you master this formula, at this point you practically become a saint.
The reason we have the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity is to sharpen the lower virtues which perfects who God made you with an intellect, will, and passions. Then, you become the ideal human – a saint.
The Aristotle and Aquinas formula of virtue is built on the simple process of thinking (intellect) and acting (the will). Here is why this is crucial. There are two parts to the human soul that aren’t in the animal soul. These two parts are the intellect and the will. Your dog has passion (desire), but he doesn’t have an intellect and a will. When my kids drop food on the floor, my dog doesn’t use intellect and will. She is simply guided by her passionate instinct to react and go after the food even if in her overzealous passion she runs over a knife and damages her paw. Here, the animal is completely governed by their passions. They simply react on their programmed instinct of which is fueled by passion. There is no rational thinking in the animal world. What separates us from the animal kingdom is that we have the ability to make a free choice based on the knowledge of our intellect.
In the human, the free will is rendered free by the intellect. However, when you are in a state of vice, you will notice your intellect becomes clouded and you have little, if any, control over your desires. In this stage, you are not free at all. Rather, you have become a slave to whatever your passions demand. Therefore, when a person reaches the state of merely grasping for their passion without thinking, sadly they have been reduced to the level of the animal. However, to combat this Aquinas allows us to foster self-mastery through self-discipline and perform what the Catechism says “mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart” (CCC 2043). So, in the Catholic view, the person is placed in control over the passions, not the passions placed in control over the person. Or, in Paul’s Biblical terms, the spirit is in control of the flesh.
This dramatic dance of the intellect, will, and passion plays out every day with all people. We intrinsically know our will is misplaced. For example, your intellect tells you that on Dec. 31st you’ve pigged out on too many holiday foods and drinks. You’re out of shape and lethargic. According to Aquinas, this person’s intellect and will are misaligned. This person is being ruled as his passions have taken control of his will. His intellect has taken a back seat to his passion. This is a reversal of man in his perfected self in which his intellect rules over his passion and will.
When a person on Dec. 31st says his new year’s resolution is to do a daily run, his intellect is trying to take back over his will. The intellect tells the will that you have to get off the couch and start running. The first day the out of shape person runs, the will is going to revolt. He hates it. His body hurts and wants it to end. The second day the person does it, he’ll hate it a little less. The key to understanding Aristotle and Aquinas is as long as your will habitually follows your intellect you’ll come closer to obtaining virtue. The rub is a virtue only kicks in when the act becomes a habit that happens over and over. If you run enough days, your intellect is molding your will via habit and eventually, your virtue becomes established. After running 30 days, your body now needs that runners high and feels lost without it. This example simply demonstrates the virtues of fitness. Take this analogy and apply it anything in the spiritual realm – such as praying the rosary. When the average person does the rosary for the first time, it’ll be incredibly challenging. Because they are so accustomed to outside stimuli, their thoughts will drift and they’ll likely become bored. However, the more they do it, the more it becomes routine, then the more they’ll feel out of sort if they don’t do it.
Over time, the intellect begins to mold the will and the person will repress the negative passions that once drove him away from virtue. In fact, he’ll no longer become attracted to his flawed passions. Here, he’ll become disgusted at the sight of fast food because it takes away his runners high or become annoyed at loud noises because it’s a reversal of his quiet rosary prayer.
It is important to note that according to Aquinas there is nothing intrinsically corrupt about the passions in-and-of-themselves. However, the problem surfaces when the passions don’t consult the intellect before coming up to the surface. The intellect stands in position of the wise coach while the passions stand in place of the eager rookie quarterback. When the zealous rookie by-passes the coach, a breakdown will occur, but when he correctly attaches himself to the console of the coach, he’ll naturally become better and succeed. If you’ve been around children (and teenagers) enough, you’ll realize that 80% of what they do is guided by their passions. While these passions could point the children in the right direction, if they decide to break “free” of the intelligence of a guiding adult, they’ll inevitably go down a grisly path.
With the passions, Aquinas identifies 11 of them: love, hate, desire, aversion, joy, sadness, hope, despair, fear, daring, and anger. These passions are bubbling down into the human gut and often want to come up without consulting the intellect. When they do, the passions are trying to take over the kingdom of the person. And whenever you allow them to take over they get stronger and your intellect gets weaker. So, it becomes an internal battle. The more your intellect rules the ship, the stronger and wiser you’ll become – and the closer you’ll get to the very purpose of why you were created.
This formula is not just true in running and eating it has to do with every message you consume throughout your day.
Aristotle says what makes people happy is that they have control of what they can control. While this sounds like a simple alcohol anonymous motto, it allows us to see the profound power of the virtues. The lack of virtues has likely led to the moral decay we witness in our culture. But, with virtues, we can adjust the popular slogan and “Make Humans Great Again.”
The four cardinal virtues were announced in Solomon’s Wisdom. “The fruits of her works are virtues, for she [wisdom] teaches moderation, prudence, justice, and fortitude and nothing in life is more useful to men than these things” (Wisdom 8:7).
The three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity were proclaimed by St. Paul (see 1 Cor. 13:13). These 7 total virtues matter because they make us elevated above the animals and they allow us to be the person where we designed to be – in the image of God.
We all want many virtues, to be smart, athletic, attractive, amusing. Nowadays we call this being a renaissance man. However, in the medieval period, they called this being a virtuous man. The virtuous man is firing on all cylinders. Christ was firing on all cylinders with many virtuous traits. He was a skilled carpenter. He was a wise teacher. He was prophetic. He was a miracle worker, and he is moral in every way. So, this lent let’s go old school with Aquinas and Aristotle and reflect on the virtues. With God’s help in the Sacraments, you can begin to form the habits that will reorder the structure of your soul, which, in turn, will bring you to closer to the virtues.
The virtues are attached to that famous spiritual maxim a Buddhist philosopher once said, “Sow a thought reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.”
I’ll tweak this saying to the Aquinas formula – Sow your intellect, reap a will, sow your will, reap a virtue. Sow a virtue reap a virtuous character. Sow a virtuous character, become closer to God. Become closer to God – smile, you’re a saint in heaven.