Reclaiming the Excellence of Virtue

By Michael S. Sherwin

Thomas Aquinas, excellence, virtue, habit, michael sherwin
Photo Credit: TJ Dragotta

In contemporary parlance, the term habit has come to mean a psychological groove that diminishes freedom and restricts a person to stereotypical forms of behavior. Whether this refers to speaking with a heavy regional accent or to drinking coffee each morning or even to smoking a cigarette after every meal, we tend to view each of these practices as difficult to change and as limiting one’s freedom. In certain situations we might prefer to speak without our regional accent or to go without coffee or especially cigarettes, but find this difficult to do. We are dealing here with a common human experience. The point at issue is that we employ the term “habit” to describe this experience. In contemporary usage, habits are like the ruts in Roman roads that determine us to one fixed course of action.

Thomas Aquinas and the ancients, however, employed the Latin term habitus to signify a larger spectrum of meanings. Although the restrictive meaning was not unknown to them, they also employed the term to signify a richer and more interesting psychological experience, one that was exactly the opposite of diminishment and restriction. They understood that not all habituation has the same effect on a person’s character. Some forms of habituation—habituation occurring in relation (directly or indirectly) to the spiritual powers of intellect and will—can result in a type of psychological empowerment. This is the meaning of habitus in relation to the virtues. Although this habitus does indeed dispose us to act in certain ways, its dispositional effect exists only at a general level of specificity. For example, the virtue of justice disposes us to give to each one his or her due. What is due to another in the concrete, however, varies greatly. What is due to an employee, for example, varies according to his age, his time with the company, his health, and even the value of the currency in which he is paid. The habitus of justice, therefore, disposes us to perform a variety of different actions according to the concrete situation.

A number of ancient authors conveyed this feature of virtue through analogies with the skills proper to the arts and athletics. Contemporary scholars have rediscovered this helpful comparison. These analogies not only illustrate what contemporary scholars mean by “moral expertise,” they also help us better understand the social context of habit formation.

The acquisition of virtue presupposes some conception of human flourishing. It also entails an apprenticeship with an expert or experts in the moral life whom we trust as we begin, in community with others, the difficult discipline of internalizing the basic rule of living. Virtue, however, is more than merely following the rules, just as proficiency in music is more than merely playing the notes on the page or proficiency in language more than merely obeying grammar. The excellence of virtue is something like the improvisation of a jazz quartet or the ornamentation of a baroque chamber ensemble: it requires the internalization of the rules but is more than the rules. The rules are part of what enables four musicians to create music together, but the rules cannot tell the musicians what to play at each critical creative moment. This is why great musicians experience their creative freedom as deeply rooted in a demanding discipline. One jazz master stated this succinctly when he affirmed that jazz has something all people need to succeed: “freedom within tremendous discipline.” This creative freedom requires both facility in judgment and in the execution of that judgment: to know what note to play and be able to play it.

The wisdom of the ancients is that this is analogously true for the virtues. The Greeks employed the terms kalos (the morally beautiful good) and kairos (the critical present moment) to convey this reality. They understood that those who wish to acquire the virtues must learn to recognize and to do the kalos in the kairos.  They must learn to recognize the excellent act as good for them (and for their community) here and now, and be disposed to do that act. This is what the virtue of prudence (phronesis or prudentia) empowers us to do. Far from being a timid calculation of safety and advantage, prudence—which is a form of practical wisdom— is instead a disposition to know and command the excellent act, an act that may imply danger and require sacrifice. This is the type of knowledge proper to lovers. Only the lover (one who loves the beloved truly) knows what is the right thing to do or say for the beloved during the events of daily life: the lover knows this and is on fire to put this knowledge into action. If this is true of one who loves another, it is also true of one who loves the common good of the community: those who love the excellent good are both able to recognize what it entails in the critical present moment and be inclined to do it.


Michael S. Sherwin, O.P. is professor of Fundamental Moral Theology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Director of the Saint Thomas Aquinas Institute for Theology and Culture and the Pinckaers Archives, Fr. Sherwin has written extensively on the psychology of love, virtue ethics, and moral development. Much of his work is collected in On Love and Virtue: Theological Essays.