Everybody wants to be happy. That desire is built into the human heart. In our modern lives we are bombarded with advertising that promises us happiness if we would only buy the latest computer, phone, or fashions. That siren song is always playing nearby, the one that promises happiness if we have enough money, fame, pleasure, or power.
But it doesn’t work. If it did, we wouldn’t see so many rich celebrities make a mess of their lives. So what does work? In a word, virtue.
Virtue helps us lead happy lives. What is virtue? In the simplest terms, a virtue is a good habit. Virtues are habits because they involve a pattern of making good choices in our lives. Like any habit, virtues need to be developed. Parents train children in virtue when they teach them to be honest, to respect other people, to help with chores around the house, etc. Virtue helps us to regulate our own desires so they don’t get out of hand. To acquire a virtue often means denying ourselves some momentary pleasure or satisfaction for the sake of a greater good. It can be difficult at the moment, but in the long run leads to greater happiness in our lives.
Wise people of all places and eras have developed different ways of seeking virtues. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote extensively about virtues and how to live a happy life. Saint Thomas Aquinas drew on that tradition in developing his own approach to morality. Aquinas made happiness the goal of the moral life.
There are two basic types of virtues. The first are natural human virtues, which all people can acquire through their natural efforts. But through Baptism God gives us grace, and also the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love. Aquinas teaches that through grace God also gives us infused virtues, namely prudence (good judgment), justice, temperance (moderation in our appetites), and fortitude (courage.) These are called the four cardinal virtues, because they are the key virtues on which the other moral virtues hinge. (The word “cardinal” derives from the Latin cardo or hinge.) At one level the cardinal virtues can be natural virtues, and the Catholic Catechism speaks of them in that way. That’s because by our own efforts we need to develop them. But for the baptized person, these virtues are also infused by grace. We still need to work at them, but grace makes it easier.
At Baptism, along with grace and the virtues, we also receive the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit. The seven gifts of the Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and holy fear of the Lord. Saint Paul mentions the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” The gifts and fruits help us to practice the virtues. Aquinas associates each gift with a certain virtue.
In the coming months, we’ll look in detail at the seven major virtues, and how they can help us to live a happy life. It is an exciting journey that can enable us to conquer bad habits and make a new start in life.