We can show that we need virtuous dispositions for three reasons. First, for steadfastness in our operations.... Second, we need them to perform a perfect operation readily.... Third, we need virtuous dispositions to bring our perfect activity to fulfillment pleasurably.

–St. Thomas Aquinas (Disputed Questions on Virtue)

The Virtues in General

Our word "virtue" comes from the Latin vir, which means power; a virtue is the perfection of a power. Human virtues are firmly established and readily responsive dispositions in the powers of human beings, especially in reason and in the appetites. Aquinas divides the virtues into the theological, containing faith, hope, and charity, and the cardinal, including prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance; all the other virtues fall under these seven. While the theological virtues are received by grace (and thus are often called "infused" virtues), the cardinal virtues are acquired by effort (also known as "acquired" virtues). A truly liberal education considers what efforts individuals and communities ought to make in order to seek, to preserve, and to promote the virtues.

The Virtues in Particular

“Thus, the theological virtues, whose object is God, are superior to the others. Among these charity is greatest, because it joins us most closely to God. Next, hope is greater than faith, because hope in a way moves our affections to God, while faith causes God to exist in us as an object of thought. Among the other virtues, prudence is the best, because it governs the others. And after it comes justice, by which one is well ordered not only in oneself, but also toward others. After that comes courage, by which one scorns mortal dangers for the sake of the good. And after that comes temperance, by which one scorns the greatest bodily pleasures for the sake of the good.” –Thomas Aquinas (On the Cardinal Virtues, 3. reply)

The Theological and Cardinal Virtues

Painting by Pollaiolo and Botticelli, located at the Uffizi Museum in Florence, Italy. Foritude, clad in armor, wields a mace. Temperance pours a careful amount of liquid into a bowl. Faith holds a cross and raises a chalice full of Christ's blood. Charity, the only virtue crowned to show her prominence among the virtues, holds the fire of love in one hand and nurishes a child in the other. Hope, folding her hands, looks up to Heaven with longing. Justice weilds a sword and grasps a globe of the world. Prudence holds a mirror in one hand, showing the need for self-knowledge, and a snake in the other, referring to Christ's words: "Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." All the virtues are attractive females dressed in the most elegant dresses and riches metals and jewels available at that time, showing the importance of art to imitate the rich value of living a life of virtue.

The virtue of mind and body that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.


The virtue that moderates with reason the attraction of pleasures and the use of created goods.


The virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that He has said and revealed to us.


The virtue by which we love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.


The virtue by which we desire heaven and eternal life as our happiness, relying only on the Holy Spirit.


The virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.


The virtue by which practical reason discerns our true good in every circumstance and chooses the right means to achieve it.

The Purpose of the Virtues

The purpose of the virtues is to dispose us to act in accord with reason and to receive grace fruitfully. Without virtue, good action is difficult; with virtue, however, good action is not only easier to attain, but also more inherently desirable and enjoyable. In fact, one distinguishing mark of the possession of a virtue is taking pleasure in a good action. Free from evil and free for good thoughts and actions, our faculties incline us toward what is truly noble and beneficial when they are perfected by virtue. The greatest action that man's highest faculties can perform, with the aid of grace, is the contemplation of God. Thus, all the virtues ultimately dispose us for the activity of contemplating God.

Learn More

To learn more, either click on one of the theological and cardinal virtues listed above or read some of our "Thoughts from Master Teachers" on virtue, "Six Essential Dialogical Virtues" by Dr. Jeffrey Lehman or RoseMary Johnson's "Moral and Civic Liberty in Sallust’s Bella, and History as an Education in Virtue." Both can broaden your understanding of virtue in different ways.