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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.]