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Virtues and Their Vices

Kevin Timpe and Craig A. Boyd (eds)
Published by Oxford University Press in 2014

Reviewed by Philip Smith, Christian Studies, George Fox University

Virtues and Their Vices is a collection of twenty two essays, freshly written for this volume, addressing that region of ethical theory called “virtue theory.” Most of the authors are philosophers, with two essays contributed by psychologists and one by a theologian. Some of the essays have multiple authors, so the book has thirty one contributors. As one would expect from a meal prepared by so many cooks, Virtues and Their Vices does not deliver a single soup. There is no attempt here to build a unified theory of ethics or of the virtues. Rather, Virtues and Their Vices provides an appetizing menu, a comprehensive treatment of specific virtues and, in many cases, their competing vices. Most of the essays are deeply informed by the history of the virtue tradition, with many careful examinations of the influential work of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Additionally, the authors discuss ideas from other thinkers (such as J. R. R. Tolkien’s comments on courage as depicted in Beowulf), and they make very many references to recent moral philosophers (such as Josef Pieper, John Rawls, Alasdair MacIntyre, Robert Adams, Bernard Williams, and many others).

The editors map out the territory of the virtues using traditional categories. First, they offer four essays on the “cardinal” virtues, those that Aristotle said were central to the good life: prudence, justice, fortitude (courage), and temperance. Second, there are seven essays on the “capital” vices (and the virtues that correct them) as identified by the desert fathers and mothers of the early Christian centuries: lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy, and pride. “Capital” in this sense is often wrongly associated with seven “deadly” sins, but that is not what the desert fathers meant. The capital vices are “head” vices, in the sense that from them flow many other vices.

The third section of the book has three essays on intellectual virtues: trust, understanding, and theoretical wisdom. The fourth section presents essays on faith, hope, and charity, the virtues Aquinas called “theological.” In the last section are five essays that discuss virtues in conjunction with various academic disciplines, including theology, psychology, and cognitive science.

There is a certain amount of repetitiveness in these essays, as multiple authors make repeated references to Evagrius and John Cassian (desert fathers) and especially to Aristotle and Aquinas. The essay writers explore historical voices not pedantically, but to mine the tradition for insight. To use an Aristotelian distinction developed by our authors: these essays seek better understanding (episteme) of moral philosophy, but that understanding immediately grounds and invites prudence (phronesis) in the essays’ readers. After all, moral philosophy is intensely practical; in considering virtues and vices, we are talking about what kind of persons we ought to become. At least some of the essays succeed admirably. Here are two examples.

In modern economies, industrial and post-industrial, “productivity” is an almost unquestioned good. We have all heard of the “protestant work ethic,” and we may assume that Christian morality meshes well with a capitalist view of work. After all, “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” Right? Laziness is one of the seven deadly sins. Right? Well, wrong. At most, only partly right. When Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung explores the treatment of sloth in Evagrius, Cassian, and Aquinas, she finds that Christians of earlier centuries understood sloth very differently. DeYoung points out that Aquinas treats sloth as the vice opposite to love (caritas). Sloth must be understood in light of the Christian’s true calling, to become a lover (friend) of God. Consider the monk in his cell. His many tasks of devotion, prayer and labor all center on this difficult “work” of growing in love for God. He can avoid that work in more than one way, by inactivity (laziness) or over-activity (busyness). Aquinas calls both sloth (acedia). The monk can avoid the hard work of transformation through hyper-activity (more vigils, stricter asceticism, and so on) as well as by indolence. Martin Luther and other reformers insisted that ordinary Christians, not only monks and nuns, could honor God by their work. So there is a sense in which the “protestant work ethic” modified Aquinas’s understanding of sloth. God’s highest call is placed on all Christians. But DeYoung’s essay invites us to ask: What is that calling? If our true work is to become lovers of God and neighbor, then sloth, the vice that avoids that work, is a capital vice indeed, leading to many kinds of evil. Understood in this way, the antidote to sloth is not to work harder or more constantly, but to remember the goal toward which we work.

Secondly, Charles Pinches’ essay, “On Hope,” meshes nicely with DeYoung’s. Aquinas said hope was a theological virtue, in that it focuses on God and is infused in us by divine grace. But Aquinas also said that hope is natural passion. How is the virtue of hope similar to the natural passion, and what makes them different? Hope as a natural passion looks with desire for some doubtful future outcome. Aquinas agreed with Aristotle’s analysis: we do not hope for something that is certain or impossible. The future outcome must be doubtful. And, of course, we must desire the future outcome; otherwise we are talking about fear, not hope. But Aristotle had only this world and natural futures in mind; thus, he remarked that hope is seen typically in young persons and is replaced by memory in older folk. Christian hope differs from the natural passion, Aquinas said, because it looks forward to a supernatural goal, the eternal enjoyment of friendship with God in the kingdom of God. This object of hope is so exalted that it can only be engendered in us by God’s gift, by grace. The virtue of hope marks a kind of lifelong youthfulness, in that we desire an eternal good. Hope is a virtue for people “on the way.” We can miss true hope in two ways, by presumption and despair. In presumption we assume that sanctity is already achieved; the goal is in our grasp, and there is no work yet to be done. In despair, we see that true friendship with God is eternally above us, and we conclude it cannot be achieved. Our sins and finitude doom us to failure, so we give up. Notice that both presumption and despair can lead to sloth, in that they discourage us from the work of transformation. Divine grace transforms our natural hopes, leading to us to hope for a true eternal good, and to depend on grace as we grow into friendship with God.

Virtues and Their Vices is a good book for those who want to read deeply and comprehensively about the virtues. The collection invites further reflection about human pilgrimage, with many insights from past Christian thinkers. I am hoping that a more affordable, paper-bound edition will come out, so I can use it as a secondary text next time I teach virtue theory.

Cite this article
Philip Smith, “Virtues and Their Vices”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:3 , 309-311

Philip Smith

George Fox University
Philip Smith is Professor of Philosophy at George Fox University.