Virtue: The Concept
The term “virtue” is not an important part of the vocabulary of AA. The word and its cognates appear in our two basic texts only twelve times: eleven in the 12&12 and once in the Big Book. As Bill Sees It employs it eleven times. Only on two occasions is “virtue” coupled with specific instances of what the word traditionally designates, as in “prudence” and “humility,” quoted below.
Instead, the concept of virtue and particular instances of it are referenced in the Big Book and the 12&12 using a variety of other terms. These include assets, attributes, concepts, keynotes, practices, precepts, qualities, standards, strengths, tenets, themes, tools, traits, and values.
Obviously, these words are very general and can apply to a broad range of things which have nothing to do with recovery. This overgeneralization and imprecision, which is also shown in the use of the word “principles,” is one of the reasons why many of us might find it hard to get a handle on what “these principles” refers to in Step 12 and how we are to practice them.
How we arrived at identifying one set of those principles as virtues—and what this means for the way we work the Steps—is discussed at length in PTP. Here we are interested in summing up a number of basic points from that discussion and supplementing it with a variety of quotes reflecting what has been thought and said about the concept of virtue over the ages in different fields, traditions, and cultures. This will hopefully help us to improve our understanding and practice of the specific virtues in each of the Steps.
As the concept applies to recovery, then:
1. A virtue is a trait of moral (e.g., honesty) and/or intellectual (e.g. open-mindedness)
excellence which characterizes a human being as a human being. It is not a trait of
animals or inanimate objects or of members of a subdivision of human beings, such
as those involving sex, race, ethnicity, nationality, or religion.
2. A virtue represents what is best in being human. It fits or adapts a person to function
to the highest capacity of his or her humanity in situations which call for that virtue,
such as courage in the face of danger, for instance, or compassion in the face of suf-
fering. Because of this, it has been closely linked with human wellbeing, flourishing, or
happiness, both as regards the individual and the community.
3. A virtue is a practicable and observable trait of persons, not some abstract theory.
The concept was arrived at through observation of human behavior and the traits
that appeared conducive to human flourishing. Most if not all of us know or have
known people who exemplify a certain kind of virtue, say kindness or generosity.
4. As a character trait, a virtue denotes an internal unity of action, intention, and
emotion. The generous person gives to help those who are in need or who may
benefit from the giving (not to look good) and gives gladly (not reluctantly).
The person whose act is externally but not internally virtuous is said to be acting
according to virtue (the way a virtuous person would act), not out of virtue (as
the virtuous person would).
5. A virtue is an acquired, not an inborn trait. Being necessary for their proper
functioning, however, humans are born with the capacity to acquire and develop
them. Central to this process is acting repeatedly in a manner that is consistent
with the purpose of the virtue and the emotion intrinsic to it. Regular and recurring
practice over the long term ingrains the trait in one’s character and makes it a
stable habit. Once a habit, the person has a natural tendency (is disposed or
inclined) to act out of that virtue consistently, with relative ease, and in some cases
even with delight or pleasure.
6. A virtue is the opposite of and the antidote to, a vice or defect of character, a trait
conducive to moral, emotional, spiritual, and often physical decline, deterioration,
and failure. Humility corrects pride in its multiple forms, such as arrogance and
grandiosity; honesty corrects the manifold expressions of dishonesty, such as lying
and cheating; gratitude corrects ingratitude in its various manifestations, such as
greed and envy.
7. Virtues are also corrective of defective emotions. Patience, tolerance, and forgiveness
are antidotes to self-righteous anger and resentment; faith and courage to self-
centered fear and paralyzing anxiety; acceptance to distorted guilt, remorse, regret,
and self-pity; hope to despair and depression.
8. As part of one’s character, virtues interact with and further each other. The person
who is gaining in humility is likely to grow in simplicity, and the one gaining in
acceptance to gain in serenity. Similarly, the person growing in gentleness is likely to
grow in kindness; the person growing in understanding to grow in compassion; the
person growing in justice to grow in mercy; and the one growing in love to grow in
all the virtues.
The pages that follow build on these ideas and their original discussion in PTP. For an introductory discussion of virtue there, please see chapter A: These Principles; of their relation to the emotions, chapter B: In All Our Affairs: Emotional Sobriety. For their role in Steps 1-3, please see the discussion in those Steps. For relevant excerpts on this site, please click on "Spiritual in Nature
," "Disciplines & Virtues
," "The Virtues
," and "Virtue & Character
," all under submenu of "These Principles."[Image: Dr. Bob's and Anne's house in Akron, Ohio. See "A Day at Dr. Bob's," in Audios & Videos: AA History & Big Book Authors.]
“Wise men and women rightly give a top rating to the virtue of prudence. They know that without this all important attribute little wisdom is to be had.” – Bill W.
"We may still have no very high opinion of humility as a desirable personal virtue, but we do recognize it as a necessary aid to our survival." – 12&12
“Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, what-soever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” – Phil. 4:8
"The virtuous will be sure to speak uprightly; but those whose speech is upright may not be virtuous." – Confucius
“Men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting a particular way... you become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions.” – Aristotle
"The most virtuous are those who content themselves with being virtuous without seeking to appear so." – Plato
“Virtue is a habit of the mind, consistent with nature and moderation and reason.” – Cicero
"Most virtues lie between two vices." – Horace
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Every night before going to sleep, we must ask ourselves: what weakness did I overcome today? What virtue did I acquire? – Seneca
"Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues: hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance." – St. Augustine
“Prosperity discovers vice, adversity discovers virtue.” – Sir Francis Bacon
“The greatest minds are capable of the greatest vices as well as of the greatest virtues.” – Réne Descartes
"Virtue that wavers is not virtue." – John Milton
"The more we use wisdom and virtue, the more they are our own, and the more we have of them." – Benjamin Whichcote
“Hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue.” – François de La Rochefoucauld
"Virtue is harder to be got than knowledge of the world; and, if lost in a young man, is seldom recovered." – John Locke
"Some virtues are only seen in affliction and others only in prosperity." – Joseph Addison
"If you can be well without health, you may be happy without virtue." – Edmund Burke
"Virtuous and vicious everyone must be; few in extremes, but all in degree." – Alexander Pope
"Virtue is a state of war, and to live in it we have always to do combat with ourselves." – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
"Wickedness is always easier than virtue, for it takes a short cut to everything." – Samuel Johnson
“To be proud of virtue, is to poison yourself with the Antidote.” – Benjamin Franklin
"There is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness." – George Washington
"Encourage all your virtuous dispositions, and exercise them whenever an opportunity arises, being assured that they will gain strength by exercise, as a limb of the body does, and that exercise will make them habitual." – Thomas Jefferson
"The fear of punishment may be necessary to the suppression of vice; but it also suspends the finer motives of virtue." – William Hazlitt
"Vice stings us even in our pleasures, but virtue consoles us even in our pains." – Charles Caleb Colton
"Every deed of dishonor, every victim of vice, every ghastly spectacle of crime, is an eloquent testimony to the need and the worth of virtue." – E. H. Chapin
"Virtue is like health: the harmony of the whole man." – Thomas Carlyle
"The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Our virtues are like crystals hidden in rocks. No man shall find them by any soft ways, but by the hammer and by fire." – Henry Ward Beecher
"A man's virtue should not be measured by his occasional exertions, but by his ordinary doings." – Eliza Cook
"We do not place especial value on the possession of a virtue until we notice its total absence in our opponent." – Friedrich Nietzsche
"The most influential of all the virtues are those which are the most in request for daily use. They wear the best, and last the longest." – Samuel Smiles
“Virtue, like beauty, is commonly only skin deep.” – Austin O’Malley
"As the flower, when plucked for enjoyment, begins to wither, so does virtue practiced for reward begin to vanish." – Ivan Panin
"Man seems to be capable of great virtues but not of small virtues; capable of defying his torturer but not of keeping his temper." – G. K. Chesterton
"Virtue consists, not in abstaining from vice, but in not desiring it." – George Bernard Shaw
"I can't love anyone if I hate myself. That's the reason we feel so uncomfortable in the presence of people who are noted for their special virtuousness, for they radiate an atmosphere of the torture they inflict on themselves. That's not a virtue but a vice. – Carl Jung
"The person who talks most of his own virtue is often the least virtuous." – Jawaharlal Nehru
"I respect a person that has had to fight and howl for his decency." – Tennessee Williams
“The three hardest tasks in the world are neither physical feats nor intellectual achievements, but moral acts: to return love for hate, to include the excluded, and to say, "I was wrong.” – Sydney J. Harris
"All art is a struggle to be, in a particular sort of way, virtuous." – Iris Murdoch
"Virtue makes us appear amiable to others; vice, contemptible even to ourselves." – Norman Macdonald
“Our flourishing involves the authentic fulfillment of our natural inclination to know what is true, to love what is good, and to be rightly related to God. Virtue is essentially the proper direction of those inclinations.” – Stephen Pope
“Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.” – C. S. Lewis
"Because virtue is an ideal, to go further down the road of virtue is always possible." – John W. Chapman
“Virtues are ‘excellences’ of character, habits or dispositions of character that help us live well as human beings.” – Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung
“Beauty without virtue is like a rose without scent.” – Proverb
"With virtue you can't be entirely poor; without virtue you can't really be rich." – Anonymous
“The moral virtues that animate the Steps are qualities or attributes that mark the human character as it is conformed to the will of God. To be virtuous is to embody God’s will for me in my being and to live it out in my conduct day by day.” – PTP
“We practice the principles in all our affairs to do good and, by doing good, to become good, so that we can do still more good. This doing and becoming is how we grow in virtue and thus in good character; it is the seed and the fruit of our spiritual growth.” – PTP
For more PTP passages on virtue, click on excerpts The Virtues and Emotion-Virtues and see pp. 19, 20, 26, 30-36, 40, and 201. For more BB and 12&12 p passages, click on www.164andmore.com and search virtue and its cognates.
Level I *
1. Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion, by Peter
2. Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas
3. How to Be Good in a World Gone Bad: Living a Life of Christian Virtue, by James
Level II **
1. The Nicomachean Ethics, by Aristotle
2. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, by Alasdair MacIntyre
3. Virtues & Their Vices, Kevin Timpe & Craig A. Boyd, Editors
4. Putting On Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices, by Jennifer A. Herdt
5. Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, by Christopher
Peterson and Martin E. P. Seligman
* For a general audience. ** For specialists or advanced students.
For posts on the virtues and the disciplines, please click on Practice These.