Think of the person in your life that you most admire. Most likely, it is not that person’s looks, job, or wealth that you most admire about them. Most likely it is their virtue. Maybe it is their ability to keep cool under any circumstances, maybe it is their patience, their kindness, or their humility.
Whether we recognize it or not, most of us want to grow in virtue, and it is a topic that several listeners have written to Msgr. Stuart Swetland about. He recently addressed the topic of virtue on Go Ask Your Father™, specifically how to recognize virtue and grow in it.
“How do you grow in virtue? Well, first we have to do some defining of terms,” he began. “A virtue is a habit. It’s part of our character, that if it’s a virtue that habit makes it easy to do the good and difficult to do the opposite of good, which is evil.”
“There are other kinds of habits, and we call those vices,” he continued. “And what a habit is that is a vice is that it makes it easier to do the bad and harder to do the good. Because we habitually tend toward the evil if we have a vice. But if we have a virtue we tend in our character toward the good.”
So how do we recognize the difference between virtue and vice in our own lives? Msgr. Swetland explained that “The way that virtues work (with one exception, and that is the supernatural virtue of charity) is that all virtues stand in the middle, between vices on either side. Most famously, the virtue of fortitude or courage, that’s the habit that makes it easy for us to deal with difficult things. A man or a woman who is courageous, who has the virtue of fortitude, deals readily and easily with difficult things.”
Continuing with the example of fortitude Msgr. Swetland said, “To one side of the virtue of fortitude, to have too little of it is to be cowardly. … But if they have too much courage then they are rash. There is such a thing as being a rash person, a person who rushes in. There is an appropriate time to recognize that this thing is right now too difficult or too dangerous for our circumstances. And we need either to get reinforcement, to get help, or to deal with it in a different way.”
So the first step is recognizing the difference between a virtue and a vice. But once we identify where the virtue is, what can we do to grow in that virtue? Msgr. Swetland explained, “There is both a natural and a supernatural way to grow in virtue. The natural way, and you can see this in ancient Greek philosophy like Aristotle, would say to imitate the virtuous man. So a child growing up who wants to grow in virtue imitates a virtuous person. And in doing so they learn to inculcate that virtue habitually.”
“You can also, if you’re struggling to inculcate a particular virtue, then you overshoot toward the opposite vice that’s closest,” he continued. “Let’s say temperance. Temperance means that we handle pleasant things well. And there is the person who never takes pleasure in anything, and that’s not what God wants for us, it’s not particularly virtuous. But if we’re struggling to be temperant we might have to go to that other extreme until we hit the middle. So if we are going to err we err on the side that is closest to the middle, closest to the virtue.”
But we need not rely only on ourselves to grow in virtue. There is also a supernatural way to grow. Msgr. Swetland pointed out, “God can infuse in us the virtues. We can build them up in natural ways, but God’s grace can also infuse them in us.”
“So God can give us help to be virtuous in a supernatural way. And we ought to pray for those supernatural gifts to be infused. Even the natural virtues of temperance, fortitude, justice, and prudence. And all the aligned virtues with them. But there are three virtues that can only come by the supernatural gift of God. And that’s the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love (or charity). And again, they stand in the middle, except for love. You can never love too much. As St. Bernard said, ‘The measure of love is to love without measure.'”
Listen to the full reflection below: