A Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue

A Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue

Summarized by Tom J. Nettles

In his opening section Edwards demonstrates that true virtue consists most essentially in benevolence to being in general. Though this could include all things that have existence, Edwards is concerned mainly with rational being. Virtue concerns the “beauty of the qualities and exercises of the heart, or those actions which proceed from them.” Simple virtue does not ask for gratification from the object seen but arises from within as an absolute will for good toward all other beings, being in general. 

The second object of a “virtuous propensity of heart” is benevolent being, that is, another being which shares the same benevolence toward being in general. Such an object as has benevolence towa4rd being in general is pleasing for one knows that benevolence toward being in general is multiplied by another being that manifests that virtue. This necessarily arises from pure benevolence to being in general and is the primary constituent of true moral or spiritual beauty. Those flowings of benevolence toward benevolent being imply a multiplication of consent and union with being in general. 

This spiritual beauty is the primary ground, the objective foundation, of complacence, love to a being for its pleasing impact on oneself, that is, when the pleasure is first grounded in benevolence. Such a benevolent being is amiable and pleasing in and of itself and is attractive to another benevolent being. The degree of amiableness is compounded by quantity of being and benevolence. None can relish this beauty that does not have that temper himself.

The second section demonstrates that true virtue consists, therefore, of love to God with all one’s being. If virtue is benevolence toward being in general, and finds expansion in benevolence toward benevolent being, and then finds complacence as necessarily manifest toward a benevolent being, then God—the triune God is infinitely the appropriate object of both benevolence and complacence. Our benevolence cannot add to his happiness, but we can rejoice in his immutable and infinite happiness. We may promote his glory. If God—infinite, eternal and unchangeable—is to be considered at all in one’s understanding of virtue, then he must be the chief consideration.

Benevolence directed primarily toward any other being is nothing short of self-love, for, in spite of all appearances to the contrary in some expansive manifestations of benevolence, it establishes a private sphere as its ultimate good. It contradicts, therefore, true benevolence and is itself an opposition to true virtue. God has the most of being and manifests the greatest of benevolence toward being in general. In fact, he alone as self-existent has all being in himself either as his proper personal existence or as a manifestation of his volitional power in creation and sustenance.

God’s virtue consists primarily of Love to Himself, because mutual love and friendship subsists eternally and necessarily between the several persons in the Godhead. All other beings are loved in a way subordinate to and derived from love to himself. Because God is the absolute epitome of virtue, and that virtue consists of love to himself in his infinite perfections, even so, virtuous love of one created thing to another consists in seeking the proper end of everything, that is, the manifestation of the glory of God. Any ethical system, or philosophy of virtue, that does not submit to the glory of God as its chief end is a defective system. 

In his third section, Edwards discussed secondary and inferior kinds of beauty. This absolute reality of true virtue underlies all that is truly pleasing within the created order in material things, relationships, and attempts at spirituality. All of these secondary beauties, apart from true virtue, are erroneously confounded with real virtue. This secondary beauty consists in a mutual consent and agreement of different things, in form, manner, quantity, and visible end or design. Material things that possess symmetry, proportion, harmony, regularity, uniformity are pleasing both to eyes and minds. Relationships and attitudes that reflect these qualities, at least as we perceive them, appear beautiful as an analogy of “benevolent agreement of heart.” The beauty of true virtue is “cordial,” but the appeal of secondary beauty is “natural.”

Secondary beauty appeals to men as a law of nature, as an instinct, not that wherein the beauty fundamentally lies. Music can be appealing simply as a reflex of the human mind; one does not necessarily grasp the physics of music in its proportion of sound waves, the physical reasons behind dissonance and harmony and why resolution can be satisfying and failure of resolution agitating. This secondary beauty is enjoyed more in greater and more important things than in lesser and trivial things, particularly when one sees “some relation or connexion of the things thus agreeing one with another.” Thus, immaterial things such as social order, wisdom, and justice are approved of and largely sought to maximize personal benefit in the larger picture. This approval of such secondary beauty, considered simply and by itself, has nothing of the nature of true virtue.

Self-love, therefore, can give rise to things that mimic true virtue. It can generate love to others or lead one to despise others. Self-love may be seen as a person’s “love of his own happiness.” Without investigating why some things become his happiness, love to oneself involves promotion of his private interest. A person loves to be loved and hates to be hated. Sometimes the disapproval of men is hated more than death itself. What would we feel if “universally hated and despised.” Thus we may find self-love as a kind of respect toward and gratitude to those who comply with the inclinations of our self-love.  Both anger at evil and gratitude for good can manifest a species of self-love. Love for near relations concerns their esteem of us and our vested interest in them. Those we love or judge from afar can arise from approval or disapproval of their characters to which our self-love inclines us. Benevolence may be approved from self-love and malevolence disliked. Virtues and vices may find approval or disapproval from self-love. Self-love may generate very wide spheres of benevolence that still are private spheres for they fall short of benevolence to being in general and consequent complacence in the glory and character of God.

Manifestations of conscience and a moral sense, apart from true virtue, still may function out of a variety of manifestations of self-love. Edwards notes, “A disposition in man to be uneasy in a consciousness or being inconsistent with himself, and as it were against himself in his own actions” may cause an uneasy conscience. Conscience may approve or disapprove of actions based on how we would feel if such and such things were done to us.  To dislike, or like, a thing because it is either a contradiction or a union with ourselves is quite another thing than to like or dislike because we are “united with being in general.” Appearance of virtue in expanded private spheres can develop quite apart from primary beauty of true virtue and the consequent odiousness of sin. Such social and personal virtue may express a strictly natural principle instead of a divine principle.

The functioning of natural conscience provides a strong example in two areas of apparent virtue that is not of the nature of true virtue. One, the approval or disapproval of moral action prompted by uneasiness with ourselves when we see that we expect less selfishness of others than we expect of ourselves. Edwards call this that “disposition to approve or disapprove the moral treatment which passes between us and others, from a determination of the mind to be easy or uneasy, in a consciousness of our being consistent or inconsistent with ourselves.” As Paul says in effect in Romans 2:1, “The thing wherein we condemn another, we condemn ourselves” A second function of natural conscience that can mimic true virtue is the approval of true virtue in others. Seeing the character generated by “benevolence toward being in general” and God in particular might win our approval even when we do not “taste its primary and essential beauty.” God’s righteous judgment that stops every mouth (Romans 2:5; 3:19), however, will not be relativized in such a way but will accept only that which is true virtue and thus absolute righteousness.

There are some implanted instincts of nature that resemble true virtue. Natural affection (e.g self-sacrificial love for one’s children) and pity, a sense of identification and care for those suffering. The reason why these things have been mistaken for true virtue is that the driving instinct belongs to the general nature of virtue. They are sentiments that reach out toward others and do not blatantly and offensively betray self-love. Sometimes these instincts resemble virtue in both the primary ground (benevolence) and the secondary ground (approbation of and complacence in virtue itself). They display a negative moral goodness, that is these are never mistaken for true moral evil. Protection of family is morally superior to betrayal of family and giving aid to the hurting and downcast is morally superior to trouncing on the poverty-stricken. Also, these instincts in action have much the same effect in human relations as true virtue in accomplishing social good and restraining vice. These are affections are of the same denomination as those that are truly virtuous.

Edwards discusses two views of why mock virtue that is in reality self-love looks like true virtue in the intention of its perpetrator. The first is “sentiment,” an internal sense of the beautiful that is intuitively approved. These operate as a denomination of virtue because they are indeed real, a reflection of the image of God in man, and not mere labels contrived by social observers. First, God gives what is agreement with being in general. We find something in humanity as a whole and in the entire created order that calls for our admiration and care. Second, God gives what is in accord with his own temper and nature. As image-bearers we are “gods” over those things within our sphere of influence. Third, only in this way can creatures agree with each other. Only if there is a sense of virtue in us that has its origin in an absolute sphere outside of us can we find common values in accord with which we cooperate. Fourth, only in this way can people love their own happiness and use it as a source for apparent good for others.

The second reason is that virtue not only is implanted in the sentiment of each individual, but that is of the nature and fitness of things—the spiritual and ethical world is a reality and operates more or less efficiently and appropriately when actions match the ethical parameters around which the world was created. Thus, when our moral sense and actions agree with the nature of things, when the exercise of virtue is consistent with the uniformity and natural agreement of things, thus helping establish order, justice, compassion, and productivity in a community, we recognize that the sense of morality, good, evil, right, wrong are not altogether unfixed and arbitrary. God has made the world to operate with greatest good for all people when it copies true virtue.

With this understanding of the nature of true virtue, we see that duty assumes perfection of holiness, beauty, virtue, harmony, proportion, symmetry, order, and justice.  Love is the first duty arising from this infinitely compelling perfection. This is why it is harmonious both with rationality and with divine revelation that love can be embraced within a commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God, ..and your neighbor as yourself.” The highest of virtues and the foundation of all true virtue begins with a divinely mandated duty.

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