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moral virtues

The theological virtues of faith, hope and charity set the proper context for the actions that lead to happiness by getting us into the habit of asking the ultimate questions, being willing to try and do what will make us ultimately happy, and being willing to love what is good.

Then the moral virtues, especially prudence, take over to get us into the habit of applying this context in our day-to-day lives.


Prudence is the habit of thinking well about what is to be done. It has nothing to do with being a prude but for Aquinas means actually reflecting on what we are about to do, relating it to the context set by faith, hope and charity, and making the right decision. It is what today we might call the consistent practice of common sense.

Prudence looks ahead, figures out what we should want and not want, and then figures out the particulars of how to go about getting it. And how might a medieval view of common sense look? Pretty much like our own, requiring:

  • a good memory of past events
  • insight into the individual case
  • readiness to learn from the experiences of others
  • inventiveness in shrewdly figuring out the best course to follow
  • and soundness of inference from the general to the particular.

Aquinas is nothing if he is not practical.


Justice is the virtue that puts order into our interactions with others, making sure we render to our fellow humans what is their due, the goal of which is the equitable flourishing of all.

He says it is a "stable and lasting willingness to do the right thing for everyone." (2a2ae, 58, 1) This includes justice to society as a whole (e.g., the common good) and justice to individuals in society, including justice between people and the justice of the community to the individual, providing proportionally what is owned in common and sharing equally the burden of the common good.

The goal of justice is happiness:

"The whole of political life seems to be ordered with a view to attaining the happiness of contemplation. For peace, which is established and preserved by virtue of political activity, places man in a position to devote himself to contemplation of the truth."
Aquinas, Commentary of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, 10.11, #2102


Courage helps us be bold in the attainment of good and helps us overcome fear and despair. It is the spiritual bravery we need to help us act properly in difficult situations, doing what is right, responding rationally to fear (neither under or overdoing it) and forging ahead in an enterprising and persevering manner in the attainment of what we see as our good.


Moderation helps keep our passions from ruling over reason and moderates our passion for goods, eating, drinking and sex. There is nothing wrong with partaking in them as we need them for health and welfare and as appropriate to the situation. The idea is to avoid excessive behavior so that such acts do not dominate or distract from what will make us ultimately most happy.

In fact, those acts that do block our path to authentic happiness Aquinas calls sins.

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