On the Virtues and Vices
by John of Damaskos (c. 675 —c. 749)
Man is a twofold being comprising soul and body, and has two orders of senses and two corresponding orders of virtues. The soul has five senses and the body five. The senses of the soul, which are also called the faculties, are intellect, reason, opinion, fantasy and sense-perception. The senses of the body are sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. The virtues which belong to these senses are twofold and so, too, are the vices.
Everyone should know how many virtues there are of the soul and how many of the body, and what kind of passions belong to the soul and what kind to the body. The virtues which we ascribe to the soul are primarily the four cardinal virtues: courage, moral judgment, self-restraint and justice. These give birth to the other virtues of the soul: faith, hope, love, prayer, humility, gentleness, long-suffering, forbearance, kindness, freedom from anger, knowledge of God, cheerfulness, simplicity, calmness, sincerity, freedom from vanity, freedom from pride, absence of envy, honesty, freedom from avarice, compassion, mercifulness, generosity, fearlessness, freedom from dejection, deep compunction, modesty, reverence, desire for the blessings held in store, longing for the kingdom of God, and aspiration for divine sonship.
Besides these there are the bodily virtues or, rather, the tools or instruments of virtue. When used with understanding, in accordance with God’s will, and without the least hypocrisy or desire to win men’s esteem, they make it possible to advance in humility and dispassion. They are self-control, fasting, hunger, thirst, staying awake, keeping all-night vigils, constant kneeling, not washing, the wearing of a single garment, eating dry food, eating slowly, drinking nothing but water, sleeping on the ground, poverty, total shedding of possessions, austerity, disregard of personal appearance, unselfishness, solitude, preserving stillness, not going out, enduring scarcity, being self-supporting, silence, working with your own hands, and every kind of hardship and physical asceticism, with other similar practices. When the body is strong and disturbed by carnal passions, they are all indispensable and extremely beneficial. When the body is weak, however, and with the help of God has overcome these passions, such practices are not as vital as holy humility and thanksgiving, which suffices for everything. Something should also be said about the vices or the passions of the soul and the body.
The passions of the soul are forgetfulness, laziness and ignorance. When the soul’s eye, the intellect, has been darkened by these three, the soul is dominated by all the other passions. These are impiety, false teaching or every kind of heresy, blasphemy, wrath, anger, bitterness, irritability, inhumanity, rancor, back-biting, censoriousness, senseless dejection, fear, cowardice, quarrelsomeness, jealousy, envy, self-esteem, pride, hypocrisy, falsehood, unbelief, greed, love of material things, attachment to worldly concerns, listlessness, faint-heartedness, ingratitude, grumbling, vanity, conceit, pomposity, boastfulness, love of power, love of popularity, deceit, shamelessness, insensibility, flattery, treachery, pretence, indecision, assent to sins arising from the soul’s passible aspect and dwelling on them continuously, wandering thoughts, self-love, the mother of vices, avarice, the root of all evil (cf. 1 Tim. 6:10) and, finally, malice and guile. The passions of the body are gluttony, greed, over-indulgence, drunkenness, eating in secret, general softness of living, unchastity, adultery, licentiousness, uncleanness, incest, pederasty, bestiality, impure desires and every passion which is foul and unnatural, theft, sacrilege, robbery, murder, every kind of physical luxury and gratification of the whims of the flesh (especially when the body is in good health), consulting oracles, casting spells, watching for omens and portents, self-adornment, ostentation, foolish display, use of cosmetics, painting the face, wasting time, day-dreaming, trickery, impassioned misuse of the pleasures of this world and a life of bodily ease, which by coarsening the intellect makes it cloddish and brute-like and never lets it raise itself towards God and the practice of the virtues.
The roots or primary causes of all these passions are love of sensual pleasure, love of praise and love of material wealth. Every evil has its origin in these. As Mark, wisest of the ascetics, says, a man cannot commit a single sin unless the three powerful giants, forgetfulness, laziness and ignorance, first overpower him and enslave him. And these giants are the offspring of sensual pleasure, luxury, love of men’s esteem, and distraction. The primary cause and vile mother of them all is self-love, which is a senseless love of one’s body and an impassioned attachment to it. A dispersed and dissipated intellect given to frivolous talk and foul language produces many vices and sins. Laughter and loose, immodest speech also lead to sin. Moreover, impassioned love of sensual pleasure takes a great variety of forms; for when the soul slackens its vigilance and is no longer strengthened by the fear of God, when it ceases to apply itself in its love for Christ to the practice of the virtues, the pleasures which deceive it are many.
For countless pleasures surge to and fro attracting the eyes of the soul: pleasures of the body, of material things, of over-indulgence, of praise, laziness, anger, of power, avarice and greed. These pleasures have a glittering and attractive appearance which, though deceptive, readily seduces those who do not have any great love for virtue and are not willing to endure hardship for its sake. Every attachment to material things produces pleasure and delight in the man subject to such attachment, thus showing how useless and harmful is the soul’s desiring aspect when governed by passion. For when the man subject to this aspect of the soul is deprived of what he is wanting he is overcome by wrath, anger, resentment and rancor. And if through such senseless attachment some small habit gains the upper hand, the man to whom this happens is imperceptibly and irremediably held fast by the pleasure hidden in the attachment until he breaks free of it.
As we have said already, sensual concupiscent pleasure takes a great many forms. It finds satisfaction not only in unchastity and other bodily indulgences but also in every other passion. For self-restraint does not consist only in abstaining from unchastity and sexual pleasure; it also means renouncing all the other forms of indulgence too. Hence a man addicted to material wealth, avarice or greed is also licentious and dissolute. For just as the sensual man loves the pleasures of the body, so the avaricious man lusts for the pleasures of material possessions. Indeed, the latter is the more dissolute in that the force driving him is by nature less compelling. For in all fairness a charioteer can be called unskilled, not when he fails to control a difficult and unmanageable horse, but only if he cannot control a much less spirited animal. It is quite obvious that a desire for material things is altogether abnormal and contrary to nature, and that it derives its power not from nature but from a deliberate sinful choice; he who has yielded freely to such desire therefore sins inexcusably. So we must realize that the love of pleasure is not limited merely to the over-indulgence and pampering of the body, but includes every craving and attachment of the soul, whatever the form or object of the desire.
In order to make it easier to recognize the passions in terms of the tripartite division of the soul we will classify them briefly. The soul has three aspects: the intelligent, the incensive and the desiring aspect. The sins of the intelligent aspect are unbelief, heresy, folly, blasphemy, ingratitude and assent to sins originating in the soul’s passible aspect. These vices are cured through unwavering faith in God and in true, undeviating and orthodox teachings, through the continual study of the inspired utterances of the Spirit, through pure and ceaseless prayer, and through the offering of thanks to God. The sins of the incensive aspect are heartlessness, hatred, lack of compassion, rancor, envy, murder and dwelling constantly on such things. They are cured by deep sympathy for one’s fellow men, love, gentleness, brotherly affection, compassion, forbearance and kindness. The sins of the desiring aspect are gluttony, greed, drunkenness, unchastity, adultery, uncleanliness, licentiousness, love of material things, and the desire for empty glory, gold, wealth and the pleasures of the flesh. These are cured through fasting, self-control, hardship, a total shedding of possessions and their distribution to the poor, desire for the imperishable blessings held in store, longing for the kingdom of God, and aspiration for divine sonship. You should also learn to distinguish the impassioned thoughts that promote every sin. The thoughts that encompass all evil are eight in number: those of gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, listlessness, self-esteem and pride. It does not lie within our power to decide whether or not these eight thoughts are going to arise and disturb us. But to dwell on them or not to dwell on them, to excite the passions or not to excite them, does lie within our power. In this connection, we should distinguish between seven different terms: provocation, coupling, wrestling, passion, assent (which comes very close to performance), actualization and captivity. Provocation is amply a suggestion coming from the enemy, like ‘do this’ or ‘do that’, such as our Lord Himself experienced when He heard the words ‘Command that these stones become bread’ (Matt. 4:3). As we have already said, it is not within our power to prevent provocations. Coupling is the acceptance of the thought suggested by the enemy. It means dwelling on the thought and choosing deliberately to dally with it in a pleasurable manner. Passion is the state resulting from coupling with the thought provoked by the enemy; it means letting the imagination brood on the thought continually. Wrestling is the resistance offered to the impassioned thought. It may result either in our destroying the passion in the thought - that is to say, the impassioned thought - or in our assenting to it. As St Paul says, “The flesh desires in a way that opposes the Spirit, the Spirit in a way that opposes the flesh: the one is contrary to the other’ (Gal. 5:17). Captivity is the forcible and compulsive abduction of the heart already dominated by prepossession and long habit. Assent is giving approval to the passion inherent in the thought. Actualization is putting the impassioned thought into effect once it has received our assent. If we can confront the first of these things, the provocation, in a dispassionate way, or firmly rebut it at the outset, we thereby cut off at once everything that comes after.
These eight passions should be destroyed as follows: gluttony by self-control, unchastity by desire for God and longing for the blessings held in store; avarice by compassion for the poor; anger by goodwill and love for all men; worldly dejection by spiritual joy; listlessness by patience, perseverance and offering thanks to God; self-esteem by doing good in secret and by praying constantly with a contrite heart; and pride by not judging or despising anyone in the manner of the boastful Pharisee (cf. Luke 18:11-12), and by considering oneself the least of all men. When the intellect has been freed in this way from the passions we have described and been raised up to God, it will henceforth live the life of blessedness, receiving the pledge of the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Cor. 1:22). And when it departs this life, dispassionate and full of true knowledge, it will stand before the light of the Holy Trinity and with the divine angels will shine in glory through all eternity.
The soul, as we have already explained, has three aspects or powers; the intelligent, the incensive and the desiring. When the incensive power is imbued with love and deep sympathy for one’s fellow men, and desire with purity and self-restraint, the intelligence is illuminated. But when dislike of one’s fellow men dominates the incensive power, and desire is dissolute, the intelligence is in darkness. The intelligence is healthy, restrained and enlightened when it has the passions under control, perceives the inner essences of God’s creatures spiritually, and is raised up towards the Blessed and Holy Trinity. The incensive power functions in accordance with nature when it loves all men and does not bear a grievance or harbor malice against anybody. Desire likewise conforms with nature when through humility, self-control and a total shedding of possessions, it kills the passions - that is, the pleasures of the flesh, and the appetite for material wealth and transient glory - and turns to the love that is divine and immortal. For desire is drawn towards three things: the pleasure of the flesh, vain self-glory, and the acquisition of material wealth. As a result of this senseless appetite it scoms God and His commandments, and forgets His generosity; it turns like a savage beast against its neighbor; it plunges the intelligence into darkness and prevents it from looking towards the truth. He who has acquired a spiritual understanding of this truth will share, even here on earth, in the kingdom of heaven and will live a blessed life in expectation of the blessedness that awaits those who love God. May we too be worthy of that blessedness through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Virtue, however, can only be attained by unremitting effort. This means that we struggle all our life to pay close practical attention to such things as acts of compassion, self-control, prayer, love and the other general virtues. A person may practice these virtues to a greater or lesser degree. He may from time to time perform acts of compassion, if he does so only infrequently we cannot legitimately call him compassionate, especially if what he does is not done in a good manner and in a way that conforms with God’s will. For the good is not good if it is not rightly done. It is really good, only if it is not done with the purpose of receiving some reward: as, for instance, the search for popularity or glory may be rewarded by fame, or by excessive gain, or by something else that is wrong. God is not interested in what happens to turn out to be good or in what appears to be good. He is interested in the purpose for which a thing is done.
As the holy fathers say, when the intellect forgets the purpose of a religious observance, the outward practice of virtue loses its value. For whatever is done indiscriminately and without purpose is not only of no benefit - even though good in itself - but actually does harm. Conversely, what appears to be evil is really good if it is done for a godly purpose and accords with God’s will. The action of a man who goes into a brothel to rescue a prostitute from destruction is a case in point. Hence it is clear that someone who occasionally shows compassion is not compassionate, and someone who occasionally practices self-control is not self-controlled. A compassionate and self-controlled man is someone who fully, persistently, and with unfailing discrimination strives all his life for total virtue; for discrimination is greater than any other virtue; and is the queen and crown of all the virtues. The same is true of the vices: we call a man a fornicator, a drunkard or a liar not on account of a single lapse, but only when he keeps on falling into the sin in question and makes no attempt to correct himself. There is something else which you must know if you really want to attain virtue and avoid sin. Just as the soul is incomparably better than the body and in many major respects altogether more excellent and precious, so the virtues of the soul are infinitely superior to the virtues of the body. This is especially true of those virtues which imitate God and bear His name.
Conversely, the vices of the soul are much worse than the passions of the body, both in the actions they produce and in the punishments they incur. I do not know why, but most people overlook this fact. They treat drunkenness, unchastity, adultery, theft and all such vices with great concern, avoiding them or punishing them as something whose very appearance is loathsome to most men. But the passions of the soul are much worse and much more serious then bodily passions.
For they degrade men to the level of demons and lead them, insensible as they are, to the eternal punishment reserved for all who obstinately cling to such vices. These passions of the soul are envy, rancor, malice, insensitivity, avarice - which according to the apostle is the root of all evil (cf. 1 Tim. 6:10) - and all vices of a similar nature. We have arranged our homily clearly and concisely, explaining each point in a simple manner, as far as our lack of knowledge permits, so that anyone can easily distinguish the various categories of ever been faithful servants of Christ. For mercy is His and to Him are due all glory, honor and worship, together with His unorigin-ate Father and His all-holy, blessed and life-creating Spirit, now and always and through all the ages.