The Soul and its Virtues and Vices

Anatomy of the Soul

To understand the passions and the virtues and vices of the soul it is helpful to understand a basic “anatomy” of the soul.  The soul is not a body and so it cannot properly be spoken of as having parts, as if we could divide it like a three dimensional body. But it is not improper to speak of the soul as having properties or aspects which sum up its activities.

There are three aspects, which have been observed from ancient times about the soul of human beings.  This is not the image of the Trinity in the soul.  But this is a more basic division: between the rational aspect, that which decides; the irascible or spirited aspect, that which responds to a perceived danger – fight or flight; and the appetitive or desiring aspect, that which moves us towards what is good.  It is a helpful model as we consider the outer or carnally minded man.

Plato famously described the ideal ordering of the soul as the charioteer (the rational aspect) holding the reins of two horses (the spirited and appetitive aspects).  A soul out of control is one where the charioteer has lost the reins and the soul is being led wildly astray or no where at all by these horses.  Christian teaching would agree that reason must be restored to its proper place of rule by grace – Jesus’ miraculous healings of the blind point to this (the mind being enlightened by the truth), he continually makes reasoned arguments to help us see through our confused thinking, and he calls on us to “judge with right judgement” [Jn 7:24].  And there are many calls to live a moral life: following the commandments is to rightly respond to the passions of the appetitive, irascible and rational aspects of the soul.

As creatures we share these three aspects of the soul – rational, irascible and appetitive – with our animal friends. But as human beings we have a rational capability which far exceeds that of the beasts – making us capable of much greater good as well as much greater evil.  It is this higher reason that is made in the image and likeness of God and that we desire, by God’s grace, to recover.  But a basic order has to be established in the soul – reason restored as governor and seeking grace to curb our disordered outward actions and to lead the powers of the soul into acts of love and to seek out God.

The soul can be described as like a city with walls to protect it from harm (see below), but perhaps a better image of the soul is of a vessel for holding water or a hot-air balloon.  These are better pictures because the soul is to be in-filled with desire, with love. If the vessel has a leak in any one place, it will never hold water, or if the hot-air balloon is torn badly on any one side, it will never lift off the ground!  Jesus described the soul as a wineskin, into which God will pour new wine, his Spirit – it must be ready to hold this great gift, and to expand to hold the joy of his effervescent Spirit without breaking.  Then that new wine can be poured out in acts of true love.

God holds back from infilling us with his Spirit more fully until we are ready to rightly direct that desire.  Otherwise, the love received, the added desire, would be turned down the well worn track of a destructive passion [James 4:1-3].  This is where the ancient call to “contained-ness” or continence comes from.  It is about self-restraint in all the ways our appetite or feelings or thoughts need to be held in check if our love is to be expressed in a good way.  This gift of self-control, this narrowing of the expression of our desire, is not an end in itself, but the preparation of our souls to be filled more fully with new wine that will lead us to heaven.  This is what Jesus means when he says, Enter by the narrow gate: for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow, and the way hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. [Mt 7:13-14]

The Seven Virtues

Nowhere in the Bible is it made explicit to us why there are seven pillars set up by Lady Wisdom in Proverbs [9:1], or the seven lamps seen in visions of heaven by Moses [Ex 25:31-40] and John [Rev 4:5]. But we would not be wrong to think of the seven in this case as a description of the fullness of God’s grace, the sum of every virtue that can adorn the soul.

One helpful way of thinking of them is that they describe the four cardinal natural virtues – prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice (identified also by the pagan philosophers) – and the three theological virtues – faith, hope and charity (e.g. 1 Cor 13).  All of these virtues are referred to in Scripture.

Over the ages some have tried to show a direct link between these virtues and the seven deadly sins (described below), but this never quite works out, although we can see that some of these virtues relate more closely than others to particular disordered passions.

Whereas with the passions, we could have all in order but be diseased in one, it is not the case with the virtues that we could have all or any one perfected in us except be lacking one, for God is undivided. What is clear is that we need God’s gifts of faith, hope and charity throughout our pilgrimage and that prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice are revealed in the soul as one is faithful and obedient to the call to love. The Christian tradition has come to see that the theological virtues are necessary even for the perfecting of the natural virtues. [see Augustine’s On the Trinity and Dante’s poetic way of figuring this.]

The cardinal virtues relate to the three aspects of the soul in the model described above in this way: prudence is the virtue that adorns the rational aspect; temperance adorns the appetitive aspect; courage adorns the irascible aspect; and as these aspects are adorned with their virtues, justice is manifested in the soul.

The Passions of the Soul and the Vices

We’ve all had the experience of being sometimes overwhelmed by a kind of thinking or by a strong emotion or by a strong desire for something.  We say that these thoughts or feelings or desires “came upon us”.  We didn’t will them, we received them, they were “done to us”.  We were “passive” in this experience, that is why these thoughts, feelings and desires are called “passions” of the soul.

Passions are not bad in and of themselves, they are a part of being human, they are a gift of our creatureliness.  Yet, because we are born into and are a part of a fallen world, we often respond in a wrong way when a passion comes upon us.

In the Bible, Jesus speaks about the various disordered passions that arise in our hearts and he says they can defile us if we follow them. [e.g. Mk 7:14-23]  The Apostles, in their letters, list or describe the results of following passions in a disordered way and the message is consistent [e.g. Romans 1:29-31; Gal 5:19-26; James 3:13-5:12; 2 Peter 2-3].  Those who are led astray by these are called in Scripture “carnally minded” or “earthy” or “fleshy” or “worldly” because they have lost a human freedom to respond to their passions in the way of love, that is, according to the Spirit.

For example, when the passion of anger arises, instead of explaining clearly to another what has upset us or in more serious cases seeking redress through the legal system for an injustice, a person might go into a rage and say cruel things or seek to harm or even commit murder, either outwardly or by holding hatred in his or her heart.  Or, if we are hungry, we might respond by eating far more than our body needs.  When we respond wrongly to a passion, it is easier to respond again in the wrong way the next time the same passion arises.  Through repetition we may discover we have become enslaved, we can’t seem to stop ourselves from responding in the wrong way [Romans 7:15-25].  Jesus has come to lift us out of the various ways of enslavement and being crippled spiritually by an improper response to our passions. [see St Paul writings and Augustine’s Confessions.]

Christian doctors of souls from the earliest times have summarized the disordered passions from considering the Law in the Old Testament and from the various lists of Jesus and of the Apostles and from their personal experience and observation of them.  For the sake of teaching and ease of remembrance, in the Church’s tradition the disorders have been summarized under a few main headings.  You’ve heard of the Seven Deadly Sins? – that is simply one way of organizing the disorders.  Seven is a biblical number often meaning “fullness” and there are biblical texts which suggest why one might chose seven or eight [e.g. Deut 7:1; 2 Kings 5:14; Prov 26:24-26; Matt 12:43-45; Mark 16:9].  The seven deadly sins, according to Gregory the Great (7th century), that all stem from pride as the root, are: vainglory, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony and lust.  An earlier list by Cassian (5th century) is similar except that it includes dejection in the place of envy.

We need basic physical health in all ways to be described as physically healthy.  It would make no sense to be satisfied that we have a strong heart and are physically well in every way except we have life-threatening cancer.  The same is true when it comes to our spiritual health.  Imagine a city in the ancient world, with walls guarding it all around.  It doesn’t matter how strong the wall is on one side or on every side—if there is a small breach anywhere, then the invading army will overwhelm the city from that place.  (The Psalmist laments, “O…that there may be no breach in our walls, no leading into captivity, and no cry of distress in our streets” [144:14])  It is why it makes no sense to be healed of one vice only to replace it with another or to be unconcerned about all of the vices.  It is why James tells us that whoever has broken one part of the Law has broken all of it. [James 2:10-11]  The seven deadly sins are meant to be a comprehensive summary of all the disorders of the soul so that we become aware of all the possible breaches and also come to know what true health is.

The seven deadly sins relate to the three aspects of the soul in this way: pride, vainglory and envy relate to the rational aspect; greed, gluttony and lust relate to the appetitive aspect; and dejection and wrath relate to the irascible aspect.  Sloth is a lack of love and so is not specifically tied to any.

When our passions are rightly responded to or directed, by grace, we are loving God and our neighbour as ourselves and our love will grow.


Sermons on the Virtues and Vices:

Faith, Hope, Charity (Love)
Prudence, Temperance, Courage (Fortitude), Justice

Pride, Vainglory, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony, Lust