The Concept of Virtue

Dr. Bob and Anne's House in Akron

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 that 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 in PTP 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 the book. 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. Hopefully, this will 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 identified by their 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 suffering. 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  it. 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 one another. 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 discussion in PTP. 

[Image: Dr. Bob's and Anne's house in Akron, Ohio. See "A Day at Dr. Bob's," in PTP's YouTube channel, Audios & Videos: AA History & Big Book Authors.]  

Bill W."Wise men and women rightly give a top rating to the virtue of prudence. They know that without this all too important attribute little wisdom is to be had."
– Bill W. 

12&12
"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 

Life Recovery Bible"Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever 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

Confucius
"The virtuous will be sure to speak uprightly; but those whose speech is upright may not be virtuous." – Confucius  

Aristotle "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  

Plato
"The most virtuous are those who content themselves with being virtuous without seeking to appear so." – Plato  

Cicero
"Virtue is a habit of the mind, consistent with nature and moderation and reason." – Cicero  

Horace
"Most virtues lie between two vices." – Horace  

Marcus Aurelius
"Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one." – Marcus Aurelius  

Seneca
"Every night before going to sleep, we must ask ourselves: what weakness did I overcome today? What virtue did I acquire?" – Seneca 

Augustine"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 

Francis Bacon
"Prosperity discovers vice, adversity discovers virtue." – Francis Bacon  

Rene Descartes
"The greatest minds are capable of the greatest vices as well as of the greatest virtues." 
 Réne Descartes

John Milton
"Virtue that wavers is not virtue." – John Milton  

Benjamin Whichcote
"The more we use wisdom and virtue, the more they are our own, and the more we have of them." – Benjamin Whichcote  

Francois Duc de La Rochefoucauld
"Hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue.” – François de La Rochefoucauld  

John Locke
"Virtue is harder to be got than knowledge of the world; and, if lost in a young man, is seldom recovered." – John Locke  

Joseph Addison
"Some virtues are only seen in affliction and others only in prosperity." – Joseph Addison  

Edmund Burke
"If you can be well without health, you may be happy without virtue." – Edmund Burke  

Alexander Pope
"Virtuous and vicious everyone must be; few in extremes, but all in degree." – Alexander Pope  

Rousseau
"Virtue is a state of war, and to live in it we have always to do combat with ourselves." – Jean-Jacques Rousseau  

Samuel Johnson
"Wickedness is always easier than virtue, for it takes a short cut to everything." – Samuel Johnson  

Benjamin Franklin
"To be proud of virtue, is to poison yourself with the Antidote." – Benjamin Franklin  

George Washington"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 

Thomas Jefferson"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 

William Hazlitt
"The fear of punishment may be necessary to the suppression of vice; but it also suspends the finer motives of virtue." – William Hazlitt 

Charles Caleb Colton
"Vice stings us even in our pleasures, but virtue consoles us even in our pains." – Charles Caleb Colton 

E. H. Chapin
"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  

Thomas Carlyle
"Virtue is like health: the harmony of the whole man." – Thomas Carlyle  

Ralph Waldo Emerson
"The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one." – Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Henry Ward Beecher
"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  

Eliza Cook
"A man's virtue should not be measured by his occasional exertions, but by his ordinary doings." – Eliza Cook  

Friedrich Nietzsche
"We do not place especial value on the possession of a virtue until we notice its total absence in our opponent." – Friedrich Nietzsche  

Samuel Smiles
"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  

Austin O’Malley
"Virtue, like beauty, is commonly only skin deep." – Austin O’Malley  

Ivan Panin
"As the flower, when plucked for enjoyment, begins to wither, so does virtue practiced for reward begin to vanish." – Ivan Panin  

G.K. Chesterton
"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  

George Bernard Shaw
"Virtue consists, not in abstaining from vice, but in not desiring it." – George Bernard Shaw  

Carl Jung"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 

Jawaharlal Nehru
"The person who talks most of his own virtue is often the least virtuous." – Jawaharlal Nehru  

Tennessee Williams
"I respect a person that has had to fight and howl for his decency." – Tennessee Williams  

Sydney J. Harris"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  

Iris Murdoch
"All art is a struggle to be, in a particular sort of way, virtuous." – Iris Murdoch 

Norman Macdonald
"Virtue makes us appear amiable to others; vice, contemptible even to ourselves." – Norman Macdonald  

C. S. Lewis
"Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog." – C. S. Lewis  

John W. Chapman
"Because virtue is an ideal, to go further down the road of virtue is always possible." – John W. Chapman  

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung
"Virtues are ‘excellences’ of character, habits or dispositions of character that help us live well as human beings." – Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung  

Proverb
"Beauty without virtue is like a rose without scent." – Proverb  

Anonymous
"With virtue you can't be entirely poor; without virtue you can't really be rich." – Anonymous  

PTP123"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." – PTP123  

PTP123"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." – PTP123


For an introductory discussion of virtue in PTP123, 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 see "Spiritual in Nature,"  "Disciplines & Virtues," "The Virtues," and "Virtue & Character.” In PTP4, see Chapter 17: Virtue: The Concept, and Chapter 18: Virtues: Their Practice. On this site, see excerpt Virtue: The Concept. See also "Aristotle & Virtue Theory: Crash Course Philosophy," in PTP’s YouTube channel, playlist Character, Defect, & Virtue. For more Big Book and 12&12 passages, click on 164andmore.com and search virtue and its cognates.

Additional Resources

  1. Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion, by Peter Kreeft *    
  2. Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas  Geivett, Editors *    
  3. How to Be Good in a World Gone Bad: Living a Life of Christian Virtue,  by James  S. Spiegel *
  4. The Nicomachean Ethics, by Aristotle **    
  5. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, by Alasdair MacIntyre **     
  6. Virtues & Their Vices, Kevin Timpe & Craig A. Boyd, Editors **    
  7. Putting On Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices, by Jennifer A. Herdt ** 
  8. 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, but of benefit to anyone willing to put in the work. 

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