5 On Virtues

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Thomas Nemeth (ed.)Vladimir Solov’ëv’s Justification of the Moral Good10.1007/978-3-319-12775-0_6

[119]Chapter 5 On Virtues

Thomas Nemeth 

Old Bridge, New Jersey, USA



Thomas Nemeth

E] The original form of this chapter was first published with the subtitle “From my moral philosophy.” In the first edition of the compiled work from 1897, Chap. 5 spans pp. 131–164.


Each of the moral foundations I have established—shame, pity and religious feeling—can be examined from three sides: as a virtue , as a rule of action, and as the condition of a certain good.

Thus, with respect to shame we distinguish, above all, people who are by nature modest and shameless,1 approving the first and censuring the second. Consequently, modesty is recognized as a good natural2 quality, or a virtue. However, it is thereby abstracted from specific cases and3 elevated into a norm, or a general rule of action (and, through this, also serves as a basis for the evaluation of actions), independently of this virtue’s presence or absence in this or that person. If modesty is not something that can be good in one case yet bad in another (as, for example, a loud voice in a public assembly is good but bad in the room of a sleeping patient), i.e.,4 if modesty is in itself a moral good, then reason demands that in every case we5 act in accordance with it, namely, that we abstain from all shameful actions, i.e., those that express the predominance of the lower nature over the higher, and practice actions of the opposite character. Behavior conforming to this rule as a result leads to constant self-control, to freedom of the spirit and to the spirit’s power over material existence. That is, it leads to a state that gives us a certain higher satisfaction and that is a moral good.

Therefore, the ability to feel pity or compassion (as opposed to egoism, cruelty and rage) is, [120]in the first place, a good personal quality or virtue. Insofar as it is recognized, or approved of, as such, this ability serves as the norm, for an altruistic action in accordance with the rules of justice and mercy. Such action leads to the moral good of true social life, or solidarity, with others, and finally with all living creatures.

In the same way, a feeling of gratitude to that which is higher, and upon which we depend, is the natural foundation of that virtue called piety.6 It, thereby, also gives a rational7 rule for religious behavior, and it leads to the moral good of solidarity with the original causes and bearers of existence, viz., with our ancestors, with the deceased in general and with the entire unseen world that from this point of view8 conditions our life.

With an inseparable and intrinsic connection between a given virtue, the rules of action corresponding to it and the moral good resulting from this action, there is no need for us to adopt all of these points of view each time we examine9 some ethical content more closely. It is enough to limit ourselves to one, viz., the point of view of virtue, since the other two are logically contained in it. As a consequence of this, it is impossible to carry out a sharp demarcation between them. In fact, it is impossible to deny the virtuosity of a person who invariably acts in accordance with the rules of virtue, even if this person possesses the corresponding natural faculty only to a weak degree or even is noted for the opposite faculty. On the other hand, in contrast to virtue what I call a moral good is also a virtue—though not as an originally given, but as an acquired, state. It is a norm of activity that has been transformed in us into our second nature.


A virtuous person is a person as he or she ought to be. In other words, virtue is the normal, or proper, relation of a person to everything (because it is impossible to think of unrelated qualities or properties). A proper relation is not a relation of equality. In distinguishing oneself from another, we necessarily10 posit or determine this other in three ways: either as lower (in essence), or as similar to us (of the same kind), or as higher than us. [121]Obviously, there cannot be a fourth possibility.11 From this, the three-fold character of the proper, or moral, relation logically follows. For clearly to treat that which is lower (let’s say, an inclination of one’s material nature) as if it were higher (say, a prescription of the divine will) would by no means be the proper relation. It would be precisely contrary to what is proper if we were to treat a being similar to ourselves (say, a human) either as lower (looking at him as a soulless thing)12 or as higher (seeing him as a deity).

Thus, we have not one, but three proper, or moral, relations, that is, three kinds of virtue, corresponding to the three spheres into which the totality of objects is13 necessarily divided in relation to us. This is necessarily the case, because we find ourselves to be neither the unconditionally supreme, or highest, being nor the unconditionally subordinate, or lowest. Nor, finally, are we the only one of our kind. We are aware that we are an intermediate being, and, besides, one of many intermediate beings. From this, the triplicity of our moral relations follows as a direct logical consequence. By virtue of this, one and the same quality or manifestation can have a completely different or even opposite significance, depending on the kind of object it is a matter of. Thus, when it is a matter of objects of greater dignity, belittling oneself or recognizing one’s worthlessness is called humility and is a virtue, but in relation to worthless objects it is called meanness and is immoral. In precisely the same way, enthusiasm is, without doubt, a virtue when it is aroused by the highest principles and ideals. With respect to unimportant objects, however, it is a ridiculous weakness, and when directed to objects of a lower order it becomes a shameful mania. Thus, virtues, in the proper sense, are always and in everyone the same, because in essence they express a quality that is properly determined, or that corresponds to the very sense of one or another of the three possible spheres of relations in life. From these determinate and determining virtues, we must distinguish qualities of the will and types of action that do not have in themselves a moral determination or do not constantly correspond to a certain sphere of duty. This is why they can at one time be virtues, at another indifferent states, and at yet another time [122]even vices. However, the change in moral significance is not always accompanied by a corresponding change in our designation for the given psychological property.14

It is clear, therefore, that even should we not find in our psychic experience the three fundamental moral feelings of shame, pity and reverence, it would be necessary on the basis of logic alone to divide the full scope of moral relations15 into three spheres or accept the three fundamental types of virtue as expressive of our proper human relation to what is lower than us, what is similar or like us and what is above us.


In addition to the moral foundations we have recognized, viz., shame, pity and reverence for the higher, if we look over all the other qualities that have been considered virtuous in antiquity and in modernity, not a single one of them would in itself deserve this designation. Each of these various qualities can rightfully be considered a virtue only when it accords with the objective norms of a proper relation, expressed in the three kinds of fundamental moral data we mentioned. Thus, abstinence, or moderation, has the dignity of a virtue only when it refers to shameful states and actions, restricting or pushing them aside. Virtue does not require that we be abstinent or moderate in general, or in everything, but only that we abstain from what is below our human dignity and that would be shameful for us to accept unhindered. However, if someone is moderate in seeking the truth or abstains from showing kindness to his neighbors, no one would consider or call such a person virtuous for doing this. On the contrary, he or she is condemned for lacking generous aspirations. It follows from this that moderation is not in itself, or fundamentally, a virtue but becomes or does not become one depending on its proper or improper application to these or those objects. In the same way, bravery, or courage , is a virtue only to the extent that it expresses the proper relation, namely of mastery and power, of a rational human being to one’s lower material nature, an elevation of the spirit over the [123]animal instinct of self-preservation.16 Valiant bravery is shown by a person who does not tremble at accidental disasters, who keeps one’s self-control in the face of external dangers and boldly risks one’s own life and material goods for the sake of higher and more worthy goods. However, the bravest expression of outrageous behavior, the boldest aggressiveness and the most intrepid blaspheming are not praised as virtues, nor is the dread of sin or the fear of God considered shameful cowardice. This means that the property of being virtuous or vicious depends upon a fitting relation to the object, and not on the psychological quality of emotional and volitional states.17

The third of the so-called cardinal (fundamental) virtues,18 wisdom is the understanding of the best ways and means for attaining set goals and the skills to apply these means properly. It attains the significance of a virtue as a result of this formal capacity for the most expedient action, but that significance also necessarily depends on the worth of these very goals.19 Wisdom as a virtue is the ability to attain the best goals in the best way, or the skill of applying one’s mental powers to objects of the greatest worth in the most expedient way. There could be wisdom without this latter condition, but it would not be a virtue. The biblical “serpent” was certainly justified in being called the wisest of earthly creatures by its understanding of the nature of the human psyche and by the skill with which it used this understanding to achieve its goals.20 However, since the goal itself was not a moral good, all of the serpent’s superior21 wisdom was not recognized as a virtue, but was cursed as the source of evil. The wisest creature has remained the symbol of the immoral, creeping [124]mind, which quibbles only about what is base and unworthy. In everyday life, the worldly wisdom that goes no further than understanding human weaknesses and the skillful organization of personal matters in accordance with egoistic goals is not22 recognized as a virtue.

The concept of justice (the fourth fundamental virtue) is taken in four different senses. In its broadest sense, “just” is a synonym for proper, correct, normal, or right in general—not only in the moral sphere (concerning action and the will), but also in the intellectual sphere (concerning cognition and thinking). We say, for example, “You reason justly” or “Cette solution (d’un problème mathèmatique ou métaphysique) est juste.” In such a sense, the concept of justice, approaching that of validity,23 is wider than the concept of virtue and belongs to theoretical more than to practical philosophy. In a second, more specific sense, justice (aequitas) corresponds to the fundamental principle of altruism, which demands that we recognize the right to life and well-being for all others as much as we individually recognize it for ourselves. In this sense, justice is not just another particular virtue. Rather, it is merely the logical objective expression of the same moral principle that is subjectively, or psychologically, expressed in the fundamental feeling of pity (compassion, sympathy). A third sense of “justice” arises when we distinguish between degrees of altruism (that is, of a moral relation to those similar to us), and, properly speaking, we reserve the designation “justice” (justitia) for the first, negative stage (“harm no one”). The second, positive stage, which demands that we “help everyone,” is designated by the word “charity” (caritas, charité). As we already pointed out earlier (in the third chapter),24 this distinction is only relative.25 It is, in any case, inadequate to isolate justice as a separate virtue. For no one would call a person “just” who decisively refuses to help anyone or refuses to alleviate anyone’s suffering, even if he or she does not directly injure one’s neighbors through violence. The moral motive in both of these latter cases, i.e., in abstaining from injuring and in not rendering assistance, is one and the same, namely, a recognition of the right of others to life and well-being. Additionally, it is impossible to find any moral motive that [125]would force someone to stop precisely here at this halfway point and be satisfied with merely the negative side of this moral demand. For these reasons, it is clear that such a break, or limitation, cannot in any way correspond to any particular virtue, but merely expresses a lesser degree of the general altruistic virtue (namely, the feeling of sympathy). Here, there is no generally obligatory and constant measure for the greater or the lesser. Rather, in each case our evaluation depends on concrete conditions. When the moral awareness of a community reaches a certain level of development, conscience directly condemns the refusal to help a person as wrong, even if the person is a complete stranger or even an enemy. This is quite logical. For, in general, if I ought to help my neighbor, then by not helping him or her I thereby wrong this person. Even at the lower stage of moral awareness, a refusal to help, within certain limits, is equivalent to a wrong and a crime—for example, within a family, a tribe, a military detachment. Among barbarian peoples, where everything is permissible towards enemies in such a way that the very idea of wrong is inapplicable to them, a peaceful traveler or guest has a right to the most active help and generous gifts.26 However, if justice prescribes charity or demands mercy (among barbarians only towards some, and with the progress of morality towards all), it is clear that such justice is not a separate virtue, distinct from mercy, but only the direct expression of the general moral principle of altruism, which has different degrees and applicable forms, but which always contains the idea of justice.

Finally, the word “justice” is used in yet a fourth sense. Supposing that laws (both governmental and of the church) objectively express moral truth, unswerving adherence to these laws also imposes an absolute moral obligation, and a corresponding inclination to adhere rigorously to laws of all types is regarded as a virtue identical with that of justice. Such a view is applicable only within the limits of our assumption, that is, it is applicable only to laws that proceed from Divine perfection and therefore express the highest truth. To all others, it is applicable only insofar as they agree with this truth. For it is proper that we should listen to God more than to people. Therefore, justice in this sense, i.e., as an aspiration [126]for legality, is not in itself a virtue. It may or may not be a virtue depending on the nature and the origin of the laws that demand obedience. For the source of human laws is vague. The transparent stream of moral truth is hardly visible in it under the deposits27 of other, purely historical elements, which express only the factual correlation of forces and interests at one moment or another. This is why justice as a virtue by no means always coincides with legality, or judicial right, and sometimes directly contradicts it, as jurists themselves are aware:28 summum jussumma injuria.29 However, fully recognizing the difference and the possible conflict between inner moral truth and the law, many suppose that such a conflict should always be settled in favor of legality, that in every case justice demands submission to the law, even if that law is unjust. In support of such an opinion, they refer to the authority and example of the righteous Socrates from antiquity, who considered it inadmissible to flee from the lawful, albeit unjust, verdict of the Athenian judges against him. However, this famous example, in fact, says something quite different.

As far as we know from Xenophon and Plato , it was chiefly two different motives that led Socrates to his decision. In the first place, he held it would be a shameful act of cowardice to flee and thereby save the small remainder of the life that he, as a 70-year-old man, could expect, particularly since he believed in the immortality of the soul and taught that true wisdom is a continual dying (to the material world). In the second place, Socrates held that for the sake of filial piety a citizen should sacrifice his personal welfare to the laws of his fatherland, even if they are unjust. This is why asceticism and piety as moral motivations, and certainly not some unconditional significance of legality, which he never recognized, guided Socrates. In his case, there was no conflict between the two obligations, but only a conflict between a personal right and a civic obligation . In principle, we can accept that right must yield. No one is obliged to defend one’s material life. It is merely one’s right, and to sacrifice it is always permissible and sometimes commendable. However, it is a different matter when [127]the civic duty of obedience to law conflicts not with a personal right, but with a moral obligation. For example, there is the famous classical example of Antigone, who had to choose between a religio-moral obligation to give her brother an honorable funeral and her civic obligation to obey a dishonorable and inhuman prohibition to give him one. Since the prohibition stemmed from the legitimate authority of her native city, it was legally just. Here, the rule comes into effect: We should obey God more than men. It clearly turns out that justice, in the sense of legality, i.e., formally legitimate behavior, is not in itself a virtue, but can become such, or not such, depending on the circumstances. This is why the heroism of Socrates, who yielded to an unjust law, and the heroism of Antigone, who violated such a law, are equally commendable. Both cases are commendable not just because there was a sacrifice of life in both, but from the very nature of the concern. Socrates yielded his material right for the sake of the higher ideas 30 of human dignity and patriotic duty. Antigone, however, affirmed another’s right and thereby fulfilled her obligation, for her brother’s funeral was his right. She viewed the funeral as an obligation, whereas Socrates was in no way obligated to escape his prison. In general, pietas erga patriam,31 as well as pietas erga parentes,32 can oblige us only to sacrifice a right of our own, but in no way that of another. For example, let us assume that filial piety, carried to the point of heroism, prompts someone not to oppose one’s father, who intends to kill him or her. The moral value of such heroism can be disputed, but it would never occur to anyone to justify or consider heroic a person who considers oneself duty-bound to obey one’s father and kill one’s brother or sister. Precisely the same thing applies to unjust and inhuman laws. It follows from this that justice in the sense of obedience to laws, as such, according to the motto fiat justitia, pereat mundas,33 is still not a virtue.


The three so-called theological virtues recognized in patristic ethics (that of the Church Fathers) and in scholasticism, viz., faith, [128]hope, and love,34 also have in themselves no unconditional moral worth, but depend on other facts. Not all faith is a virtue for theologians. A faith that either has a nonexistent or unworthy object or that treats what is worthy as unworthy is not a virtue. So, in the first case, if someone firmly believes in the philosopher’s stone, i.e., in a powder, liquid or gas that transforms all metals into gold, such a faith in an object that by the nature of things is nonexistent is not held to be a virtue, but a self-delusion.35 For a second case, let us assume someone not just recognizes—with good reason—the existence of the power of evil as a fact, but with confidence and devotion makes this power the object of faith and entering into an agreement sells his foul36 soul, etc. Referring to an object that, although it exists, is unworthy and pernicious, such faith is justly considered a terrible moral degradation. Finally, in the third case the faith of the devils themselves, of whom the apostle says that they believe (in God) and tremble,37 is not considered a virtue. For although it refers to an object that exists and that is absolutely worthy, this faith refers to its object in an unworthy manner (instead of joy with horror, and instead of desire with disgust). Thus, only a faith in a higher being that regards this being in a worthy manner, namely, with free filial piety, can be considered a virtue. Such a faith fully coincides with the religious feeling that we find as one of the three original bases of morality.38

The second theological virtue, hope , essentially amounts to the same thing. It is not a virtue when someone relies on his own strength or wisdom, or “on princes, or on the son of man,”39 or on God when it is in the expectation of obtaining material goods from Him. Hope is considered a virtue only if it regards God as the source of the true good to come. This is the same basic religious attitude,40 though modified by an idea of the future and a feeling of expectation.

[129]Finally, the moral significance of the third and greatest theological virtue—love —depends solely on the given objective determinations. Love in itself, or love in general, is not a virtue, for otherwise all creatures without exception would be virtuous, since all of them necessarily love something41 and live by their love. However, egoistic love for oneself and for one’s own possessions, as well as passionate love for nature and for unnatural pleasures, love for drink and love for horse racing, are not regarded as virtuous.

Il faut en ce bas monde aimer beaucoup de choses,”42 suggests a neo-pagan poet. Such “love” was earlier rejected by the apostle of love:

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.43

This is the first, negative part of the commandment of love, and we should not forget about it, as is usually the case. It is nothing other than the expression of the basic principle of asceticism: Protect oneself from one’s lower nature and counteract its clutches. For, as we clearly see from the context, the apostle took the world to be neither the collection of our fellow human beings nor the totality of the works that herald the glory of God, but precisely only the dark and nonsensical basis of material nature that escapes its proper, passive and potential state and unlawfully invades the sphere of the human spirit. It is bluntly said here that everything in44 the world is a lust of the flesh,45 i.e., a desire for immeasurable sensuality, lust of the eyes,46 i.e., greed, or self-interest, and pride of life, i.e., vanity and ambition.

Biblical ethics adds to the negative prescription, love not the world, two positive ones, love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as you love yourself.47 These two loves are correctly distinguished, for the particular nature of the objects necessarily conditions the particular nature of our proper moral relation to them. Love for our neighbors is rooted in pity, whereas our love for God is rooted in reverence. To love one’s neighbor as one loves oneself really means to pity him or her just as one does oneself, and love for God with all of one’s heart means to be entirely devoted to Him, the complete [130]unification of one’s will with the Divine will, i.e., the perfection of the filial, or religious, feeling and relation.

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