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VI. Human Virtues

SO FAR we have endeavored to center our thoughts around certain general facts which may be summed up as follows: There are three clearly distinct realms of human motives, which construct about them the three kingdoms of human life--the civil, the moral, and the spiritual kingdoms; each of which has its characteristic laws and its own criteria of judgment. Moral behavior, which flows from rational reflection and a free recognition of the good, is quite distinct from merely social behavior, which is based on habits and customs, and still more distinct from merely animal behavior, which arises from bodily desires and instincts. The tendencies toward a dead social conformism on the one hand and, on the other, toward an extreme individualism that finds an expression for self at the expense of society, are both non-moral, if not immoral, attitudes. Moral sense--the sense of an obligation to society, the recognition of a law of right and wrong, a law of reason higher than expediency--is implied in the fact that man possesses a rational mind. The rational faculty develops by degrees throughout childhood until it can freely recognize the abstract virtues or laws of morality; all of which are comprised within the words of the Lord, "Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them". The moral virtues, in their complex, are called Honorableness, and their form is called Decorum or becoming behavior. Reflection is necessary for the execution of the moral law; and such reflection, which characterizes morality, is always confronted by three ever present problems. The first is the problem of estimating the relative importance of the quality of the motive over against the nature of the act. The second has to do with the rights of each man, each group, or each use, and thus with our responsibilities towards uses--our own and that of others. The third major problem is that of recognizing the degree of moral value or of use which various acts have, so that we might always choose the greater good rather than the lesser; considering in the choice both discrete and continuous degrees, as these exist together in the untold complexities of human situations.

We thus find that it would be a super-human task always to take account of all the precise values of each of our actions or each of the acts of others. In practical life, therefore, men are esteemed and trusted according to their general attitude, i. e., according to the virtues which make up their apparent character and personality.

Spiritual Virtues

Within the Church, the virtues which we esteem most highly--discretely above all else--are spiritual, such as "love of Religion, charity, truth, faith, conscience, innocence, and many others" (CL 164). The signs by which the possession of these spiritual virtues may, to a fallible extent, be inferred, are--the Writings show "all things that pertain to worship" (Char., ch. viii). For a moral life without these manifestations of piety testifies only of natural good. Spiritual virtues thus flow from a love to God and to the neighbor, and inspire into the moral virtues a regenerate good from the Lord through heaven which transforms them into goods of charity, and makes them not only of worldly but of eternal worth.

The angels retain the moral virtues which they had infilled with regenerate good during their abode on earth. Indeed, individual angels are named according to their moral and spiritual life (TCR 300). The very garments which they wear testify to the nature of the moral life which is theirs (AE 195s). But if no spiritual life had infilled the moral principles according to which a man had lived, he would be regarded in heaven as one without a "wedding-garment", and would be stripped and cast out if he succeeds in forcing his way in.

Yet all goods, on all planes, are from the Lord. Just as we may love infants and children for the promise which they represent, so we may love moral goods--moral virtues--as the possible basis for receiving the goods of heavenly use.

The Moral Virtues

The Rational Psychology--a manuscript which Swedenborg drafted some seven years before the publication of the Arcana Caelestia--devotes a great deal of space to the description of the various affections of the soul, the animus (or natural mind), and the rational mind. In treating of the rational mind, he shows that none of its affections originate with itself, but are derived from the lower mind or from the soul (superior mind). The goods and evils of the lower mind--as well as the loves and hatreds which inflow from the spiritual world through the "soul"--are not virtues or vices except so far as they are received freely in the rational mind. "Thus all morality, like all vice, is of the rational mind alone." Human virtue--moral virtue--must be accompanied by a rational intuition as to why the good is chosen. You cannot make a virtue out of a necessity, or out of a merely automatic action, such as the act of an insane person. A mere machine cannot give assistance to the poor and thus be called virtuous! (R. Ps. 335.)

Swedenborg thus shows that the actual elements from which the rational mind constructs what is called Virtues, are, many of them, connate affections, i. e., hereditary, natural goods or native abilities; while others are acquired by training or from the habits of the environment in which a man is brought up. Virtue, however, can never be inherited, nor be the result of training: but the natural affections which combine to display the moral virtues,--these may come from parents or be acquired by education. Thus the impulse of avarice may be an inherited tendency with a man, and extravagance may be a habit imposed by his early training. The rational mind pairs these conditions of the mind and balances them to allow the virtues of Prudence, Benevolence, or even Generosity to exist in the rational mind and express themselves in the life.

It is only in the human being that there is a rational mind which serves as an umpire in the election of what is best. An animal is predestined as a form of a specific hereditary natural affection. But man's character can be formed--under the direction of his free reason--into a balanced perfection of various hereditary and acquired affections, according to the decision of his free will. And the decision depends on his choice to receive either of good or of evil, which both inflow from the superconscious realms of the spiritual world.

It is true of moral goods as it is true of spiritual goods, that no good is genuinely acquired except through the shunning of the opposite evil. Virtue thus comes from shunning whatever impulse or habit that seems to work against the good of a use or of society. The reason must restrain the impulses of the natural affections and tame them into obedience. The natural mind--from resembling a jungle, or at best, a barnyard or field, containing so many animal affections must be transformed into a new order of use which may be seen as human. Such a quality as Courage is not always a human virtue under all circumstances: it may be only the inborn ferocity of the lion in a human disguise. It may however be moral courage, and then it is generally acclaimed as a social virtue; but only if it is balanced by other virtues. For no single virtue can be virtuous by itself.

It is the rational mind which judges as to the balance of these elements--so as to produce what at best amounts to an approximation of the real good, the real object of life (DP 77). And the reason judges according to its light from the appearances of truths that are brought before it. Therefore Swedenborg wrote in his Psychology, that "all that which is good and true in itself is Divine. All that which is good and true in appearance and semblance is human; thus the just, the sincere, the honest, virtue, etc." (R. Ps. 332). For men can never arrive at pure truth. There is, therefore, no absolute virtue in man. His virtues are all relative. Therefore the Lord asked the rich young ruler--that pattern of morality who had addressed Him "Good master""--Why callest Thou me good: one is good, namely God." The acknowledgment of the Lord as alone good is the beginning of spiritual morality, as contrasted with natural morality.


In the Writings two lists of moral virtues are given. One begins with Temperance, the other with Justice.

For in all virtues, justice and judgment must predominate (CL 164, D. Wis. xi. 8: 5a). As a moral virtue considered, justice is not confined to civil affairs. It sums up a moral attitude. The just man views a situation as a whole, apart from self-interest or prejudice. He attempts not to be misled by appearances. He is impartial, and likes to view his obligations in the light of the truth. He is fair-minded or equitable: which means that he distributes his attention to all sides of a question and takes equal account of the reasonable claims or objections of each factor.

Justice is thus needed in every decision. It silences any too obtrusive natural affection, so that the eye of man's mind may see clearly. "If the mind were not ruled by the animus and its desires, man would know from himself what is just and equitable, and a perpetual harmony would rule" (R. Ps. 416). Justice is what produces in the mind that suspension of judgment, or that moral equilibrium, which is necessary for wise decisions. Therefore justice is said to belong to moral wisdom (CL 164).


A just man is also truthful. And when a man is known to be truthful, his word is accepted and relied on, while those who are given to habitual lying, misrepresentation, or exaggeration are continually under suspicion, never quite trusted. Indeed, truthfulness is the foundation of a man's character. Only he who respects and loves the truth can realize his mistakes, escape from his faults and fancies, and progress towards perfection. The love of truth is essential if one wants to become a rational and moral member of society, learn some trade, or advance in one's profession. But it is also indispensable in the life of regeneration. For only by loving the truths of spiritual life can we be lifted out of ourselves into the light of heaven.

The habit of lying is born of fear and is overcome only by the nobler fears which love and truth call forth. But the petty lies of childhood, unless stemmed in the course of growth and education, may turn into habits of deceit which utterly eat out the marrows of man's character and poison his whole life. We can therefore hardly overestimate the need for establishing truthful habits at an early age. For it is truth that makes one free.

It is wise to distinguish truthfulness or sincerity from what is called frankness. To be frank is sometimes admirable and sometimes necessary. But to say all that we think or show all our unruly feelings, often leads to premature judgments, offends the innocent, and testifies to a lack of self-control and charity.

Temperance or Moderation

Temperance is used in the popular parlance in connection with pleasures, especially that of drinking. But the wider meaning is that of moderation in all things.

The principle of moderation was recognized by Aristotle in his doctrine of the "mean"--"the golden mean".

Any one-sided development, even of virtue, falls short of the standard of true wisdom. The middle between two extremes is apt to be most desirable. One has to strike a mean between asceticism and over-indulgence, for instance, in order to lead a rational life. But the weakness of human nature is such that one seldom recognizes one's own extreme tendencies, but very readily labels the positions one does not like, as "extreme". It is important, then, that we really investigate what the real extremes are, before we try to take up a middle position. And even so, virtue is not the result of two extremes, or of two opposite pervert affections; but virtue is a thing which is above both, and which governs, curbs, or moderates both!

Intemperance, such as luxury, etc., is, Swedenborg states, always a vice: all excess--in pleasures and in opinions--presupposes a defect, an abuse of a useful, good thing, and thus a perversion (R. Ps. 281, 288). Pleasure (or delight) has its purpose and thus its place and its time. "Temperance" is derived from the Latin root tempus, time, division. There is a time for pleasure. But its end is for the sake of a healthy mental life in a healthy body; and to regard the means (pleasure) as an end in itself, inevitably leads to intemperance or excess. Swedenborg refers to excess in eating and drinking when he warns us that the temperance of one person may, with another, be his intemperance! But this is true in all things.

And, he states, there is spiritual intemperance. Not that we can be intemperate in our desire for true Virtue, for this itself means Moderation. But we can fail to recognize the limitations of our state, and seek, in an immature state, to reach out for the fruits of maturity; we can fail to recognize the limitations of our natural minds, and seek to penetrate by means of mere sensual scientifics or philosophical reasonings into the spiritual mysteries of faith. This the Writings ascribe as the cause why Noah had to be represented as found drunken in his tent (AC 1071). Spiritual intemperance also includes any attempt of the mind to become as the soul! as when it seeks to rely on its rational perceptions as if they were the perfect dictates of the soul (R. Ps. 286).

Thus temperance and moderation beget other virtues modesty, prudence, chastity, as well as a sense of proportion and a sense of true values.

Especially is temperance concerned in moderating and avoiding various undue excitements.* These need controlling. For every affection, as it is stimulated, brings with it an intense desire to grow out of all bounds. In the discharge of his wrath about something, a man has a "sense of expanding power" which is very pleasant to his proprium. There is a similar pleasurable stimulation in the case of other emotional discharges. There is thus a "thrill" in not taking account of consequences, in not being rational; as in hazardous undertakings which may lack any rational purpose--in speeding, gambling, exploring, and generally testing what is the last limit from which there can yet be a safe recovery! Pride of self is behind this. Vanity also has its sense of power; passion and crime have their extraordinary thrills. All these tendencies would cause the affections and the native abilities and natural gifts of a man to run wild, and life would be irresponsible and trivial, flippant and superficial, reckless, and eventually tragic. For man's trust that he can by skill or luck or rational strength recover, is often mistaken. Always, therefore, popular wisdom has seen the need for moderation. The Greeks had a love for the beautiful as an accessory motive for such temperance, the Romans a love of dignity, the Catholics a desire for purity. It is obvious from history that none of these sufficed to produce the wisdom of a balanced moral life. In general, however, there must be higher affections to rule the lower ones. And in the spiritually moral man, the moderating reason is inspired by the love of the Lord and of His kingdom of human souls.


In the list of moral virtues with men, the Writings place Sobriety immediately after Temperance. Drunkenness is given as a cause of vitiation of mind (CL 252). And a judgment from the other world is cited in the Spiritual Diary as follows:

"I was speaking with spirits concerning drunkenness, and it was confirmed by them that it is an enormous sin, for thus man becomes a brute and no longer a man, since it is owing to the intellectual faculty that man is a man. Thus he becomes a brute, besides which he brings injury upon his body and so hastens his death; wasting, moreover, in extravagance what could be of use to many. . . . And what mortals have persuaded themselves to accept as a civil [custom], appeared to them (the spirits) so filthy that they abhorred such a life" (SD 2422).

The enormity of this sin depends, no doubt, upon the degree of deliberateness involved in it. Yet the drunkard presents, in society, the picture of the infernals of the lowest order, whose rational life has been drowned in sensual and corporeal lusts. This should be enough to dissuade the New Church man. And the moral sense of mankind, in proportion as it is awakened, also recognizes the bestiality of intoxication--the pathetic loss of human reason, the moral blindness to decorum and order, and the impairment of bodily health, which overindulgence brings with it.

Yet Sobriety does not mean merely a resistance to the temptations of the cup and to gluttony. Continence must be exercised in other things. A sober mind resists being intoxicated by various spheres of pleasure and levity; it declines to be drawn so far into the gyre of light-hearted recreational occupations that one cannot--if duty calls--at once return to more serious affairs and meet their problems with a clear recognition of their import and with a poised mind. To carry over one's moods of levity into the midst of serious matters, and thus show flippancy and giddiness of thought where responsible opinion and dignity of attitude are called for, is the sign of an immature or undisciplined mind.


Another moral virtue which is related to "moderation" is Modesty. It is an acquired grace in man, and a connate quality characteristic of woman (CL 164, 292, 218). Modesty bespeaks a rational recognition of the fact that the individual is not important, over against Society. His place, when he passes over into the spiritual world, is usually readily filled by others. Scarcely any man has any opinions which would forever remain unborn merely because he did not utter them. There are indeed times when zeal for truth or for the general welfare must overcome modesty. But generally the time for this is indicated by the demand of others, by their call for his opinion or his orderly leadership, and by the common perception of the needs of a situation; and it is not often indicated to a man merely by his own feeling of an urge for self-assertion. Modesty is becoming, even to the great. And those who are great usually possess it to a surprising degree, having become great in the eyes of others because their time and energy was not wasted upon self-contemplation, but spent upon wider problems of social cooperation.

Such men will be marked also by another moral virtue, which the Writings call Probity. This word implies the characteristic of one whose integrity is proved, a man whose reliability, especially in matters of honesty, is unquestioned, and whose judgment is not warped. It is such men who are trusted with the responsible tasks within our social structure. But in the more delicate decisions of justice, another virtue becomes necessary, viz., Rectitude, which is also an essential phase of man's morality.


The Writings teach that there is with man a kind of perception relating to civil and moral things, called the perception of what is just and right, which exists naturally and may thus be called a "common sense". "They who have the perception of justice, can, at once, from a few things which they know, perceive whether a thing is just or not. But they who have the perception of what is right (or of rectitude), are not able to do so in this way, but do so from the laws and from such things as they have learned." The perception of rectitude is thus not so excellent as the perception of justice, because rectitude is judged with reference to a knowledge of laws or principles and not so directly from the light of justice itself. (SD min., 4644)

Rectitude, sometimes translated "uprightness", takes the law for its rule (AC 2235). A man is right when the law is on his side. Such a man is strong in his convictions, unswerving in his allegiances and in his loyalty to his principles; for he is "a man of principle". He lives a life of truth, and if he fails at times to live up in all respects to his high principles, he will at least admit his failure and try again. And because of his faithfulness and integrity of devotion, and thus his sincerity as regards the law which he makes his rule, he has illustration in perceiving the shades of meaning within that law, even though he may not at the same time possess that quicker perception of justice which some may have apart from the law.


Such strict rectitude must, however, be colored by benevolence and patience, and, like all virtue, be accompanied by Prudence. Prudence is also one of the virtues (CL 164), but it must be a servant to the rest (DP 2102). "Be ye prudent as serpents", the Lord advised, "but harmless as doves." Even a man of the highest principles may find it necessary to be silent about them at times, or to simulate interest in matters for which he has no liking. We are not called upon to advertise all our convictions, lest we "cast pearls before swine". Hence a permissible prudence is described in the Arcana Coelestia as "simulation and cunning with good as an end" (AC 399312). This is stated not to be evil. But it is explained that the evils which are mixed up in it are such as "can be mingled with good". (Ibid.)

Thus it may be seen that the principle of Temperance, Moderation, and Justice, enters into our moral life at all points. Only in the Lord, who is infinitely good, is there Virtue itself. Only in His service is it possible to learn how to temper justice with mercy, courage with prudence, alacrity with patience.

The principle of the "golden mean" has served to introduce us to one group of Virtues. The next group centers around the thought of Good Will, and involves the problems and the standards of morality which concern the relations of men and women in their social contacts.

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