Freedom & Virtue
The reason that knowledge alone is not enough for success in the moral life stems from the fact that we have inherited a wounded nature. Since the fall of Adam and Eve, human nature is fallen from its original perfection. Saint Paul describes just how wounded our nature is:
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.… Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom. 7:14–15, 18–19, 24).
This condition is an effect of original sin (cf. Catechism, no. 1707). Through original sin every individual is born with a human nature that is weak and inclined to commit personal sin (the theological term for this condition is concupiscence). The mind struggles with ignorance, the body suffers pain and death, and the passions tend to undermine our ability to know and do the good (cf. Catechism, no. 405). We fall into sin not so much out of ignorance but weakness. It is within this context that we understand the virtues as liberating powers, raising man above his fallen nature to the truth and beauty in which each person becomes the person he was created to be.
The weakness caused by original sin causes us to be inclined toward sin. The power of virtue is that it reverses the inclination toward evil, and by strength of habit inclines us toward the good. For example, we are inclined to lie when the truth will hurt us, but the man who has the virtue of honesty possesses the inclination to tell the truth. Virtues tip the scales of the moral life toward good and away from evil.
How can we do good and live a virtuous life given Saint Paul’s account of our fallen nature? Are we bound to sin? No. Saint Paul gives an answer to the anguished cry, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” when he goes on to give thanks to “God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:25). Paul then explains in Romans 8 how Christ has set us free from the captivity of sin and death. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, our fallen nature is healed, perfected, and elevated.
Thus Saint Paul says that through Baptism we have put on “the new nature” (cf. Col. 3:9–10). The grace and power of Jesus Christ transforms our old nature, referred to by Saint Paul in Romans 7. This means that we can live a virtuous life, thanks to Christ. It is important to note the careful balance between God’s grace and our effort. Apart from God we can do nothing, and apart from our effort God cannot work in our lives. Both God’s grace and our effort are needed.
Consider the analogy of a sailboat. The finest sailboat in the world can’t sail far without its sails. Even with much wind and good weather, if the sails are not up, the boat will not make much headway. The sails signify our effort, namely the virtues. Conversely, if the boat has excellent sails but no wind, it cannot sail. The wind is like God’s grace. We can make all the effort and preparation in the world, but without God’s grace we will not make much progress in the moral life. Similarly, we can receive the sacraments and pray, but God’s grace will not avail much if we do not act. The wind will pass over the ship without much effect because the sails are not up.
This happens to too many Christians. They go to Church and receive the sacraments, but the wind of God’s grace passes by them, as they do not put much effort into following Christ. God may be present in our lives but, unless we cooperate with His action, we will not reach our destination of eternal life. Success in sailing through the troubled waters of the moral life requires us to rely on God and expend much effort at the same time. Loving God with all our strength will raise the sails so that they can catch God’s grace, which will empower us to move across the rough waters of this world to the tranquil harbor of heaven. This is what the virtues are all about, our cooperation with God and His plan for our lives. Through the virtues, both human and theological, we enable God to fill the sails of our ship and move it in the right direction.
The virtuous life is critical because it is the path by which we reach the final purpose of life, eternal happiness. Every person is created for happiness, but final and complete happiness comes only after a life directed to the good that lies beyond our immediate needs or wants. Virtue should not be considered burdensome, but rather as liberating and as the path to personal happiness. Indeed, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that substantial happiness and human flourishing could only be grasped through the virtues.
Gray, T., & Martin, C. (2001). Boys to Men: The Transforming Power of Virtue (pp. 12–14). Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing.