Chapter 1 of “True Virtue”
In Jonathan Edwards’ The Nature of True Virtue is the philosophers’ concrete attempt to define the nature of virtue – in Chapter 1, “What the essence of true virtue consists in,” Edwards insists that, regardless of controversy, “virtue is something beautiful, or rather it is some kind of beauty or excellence” (Edwards 1). In essence, virtue is something that is intrinsically beautiful, but not all things that are beautiful are virtuous. Instead, virtue belongs only to human beings and those other creatures of free will (like God); “Virtue is the beauty of the mental qualities and acts that are of a moral nature” (Edwards 1). Edwards insists that there is a true virtue independent of general virtue, which is where ‘particular beauty’ comes in.
Edwards’ primary thesis is that “True virtue most essentially consists in benevolence to being in general” – this means that kind affection towards the very nature of existence is required to actually have what he would call true virtue (Edwards 2). For example, God cannot love humanity simply because they are beautiful; instead, people are beautiful because God loves them. Gratitude is shown to not be real benevolence, as it comes from benevolence, and makes a repetitive cycle that cancels itself out. Virtue cannot simply be gratitude, or the love of beauty in another being; to that end, Edwards concludes that “the primary object of virtuous love is being, simply considered” (Edwards 4). As an extension of that philosophy, the “being who has the most being” (i.e. God) is the most virtuous and receives the most love and benevolence (4). Spiritual beauty goes hand in hand with the virtuous principles and actions that people who love being partake in; this is what actually causes said beauty and virtue.
Edwards’ view of true virtue and beauty in Chapter 1 of The Nature of True Virtue has its appeal. One of its biggest strengths is that he is largely able to separate his philosophy from his theology. Edwards was a devout Christian, and his ultimate thesis was that God created the world in order to justify his own glory, and therefore true virtue is the desire to see God’s will carried out in the world. However, in chapter 1 he manages to separate that and put these concepts in entirely secular terms; the “being with the most being” is God, to be sure, but being as a construct is focused on as the necessary recipient of love to achieve true virtue.
In terms of weaknesses, the ultimate logic of Edwards’ argument is difficult to apply. Chiefly, Edwards makes the difference between apparent and true virtue difficult to see. Edwards fails to make clear his supposition that consent, propensity and the union of the heart are the perspectives that make up true virtue, choosing merely to state this as a matter of fact. Edwards also fails to elaborate on what precisely makes regress and circularity poisonous and defective parts of the human psyche. The arguments about being and love of being are circular to the point of infinite regress; it is very difficult to unpack the idea that people can have more being or existence than others, as existence is often thought of as binary. Terms like “Being in general” or “Being simply considered” refer to both God and other aspects of existence, leaving too much room for interpretation to make a clear argument (Edwards 4).
Edwards, Jonathan. The Nature of True Virtue. 1765.