The Nature of True Virtue – Essence (Pt. 1)

Jonathan EdwardsI have begun digging through Jonathan Edwards’ The Nature of True Virtue. I found myself needing to summarize each paragraph in my own words. I would rewrite his sentences (which were the size of paragraphs) and circle words, draw arrows from one clause to another, reformat the text, and anything else I could do to help me better understand what Mr. Edwards was getting at. The process was quite edifying, and I do not think I would have come to the level of understanding that I did without it. My summation and thoughts on his first section (the essence of true virtue) is noted below, and I will continue to release my thoughts in parts.


Beauty and Virtue

When people speak of virtue, they usually mean “some kind of beauty or excellency.” This does not mean that all things that are beautiful are virtuous, but it does mean that all virtue has an excellency or beauty. And Edwards does not mean those external beauties (e.g., not the beauty of a flower), but a beauty “belonging to beings that have perception and will,” which “has its original seat in the mind.” Nonetheless, not all beauty of the mind or of understanding ought to be called virtue. Thus, Edwards proposes that “virtue is the beauty of those qualities and acts of the mind that are of a moral nature, i.e. such as are attended with desert or worthiness of praise or blame.” At first this appears broad and simply unattested, but as Edwards continues, he will specify and continually build into that definition.

Restating the Question

First, Edwards clarifies that the ‘disposition and will’ is commonly referred to as the “heart.” Thus, the definition of virtue can be rephrased as “the beauty of the qualities and exercises of the heart, or those actions which proceed from them.” Now the question concerning the nature of true virtue can be restated as such: what is that which “renders any habit, disposition, or exercise of the heart truly beautiful?” When one asks what the nature of true virtue is, they are simply asking what makes an action of one’s heart beautiful.

General and Particular Beauty

Secondly, Edwards seeks to clarify a very important distinction early in his work. There are some things that are truly virtuous, while others only appear to be virtuous. “Some actions and dispositions appear beautiful, if considered partially and superficially,” yet if they were viewed more comprehensively, seen to “the extent of their connections in the universality of things,” these actions would not appear virtuous. So there are two categories expressed here:

  1. Particular Beauty: appears beautiful in regards to its immediate circumstance, limited perspective, and private sphere.
  2. General Beauty: appears beautiful when viewed universally, perfectly, and comprehensively with all its connections.

A thing that is particularly beautiful may be without and against that which is generally beautiful. For example: one instrument may be in tune with itself and play a beautiful piece of music; nevertheless, if you place it within an orchestra with ‘misplaced connections,’ it could become a horrible and ugly sound. General beauty is what Edwards means by true virtue, “which, belonging to the heart of an intelligent being…is beautiful in a comprehensive view, as it is in itself, and as related to everything with which it stands connected.” This observation leads to Edwards’ next answer (a step forward) to the enquiry of the nature of true virtue:

“True virtue most essentially consists in benevolence to being in general. Or perhaps, to speak more accurately, it is that consent, propensity and union of heart to being in general, which is immediately exercised in a general good will.”


13 thoughts on “The Nature of True Virtue – Essence (Pt. 1)

    • Absolutely. I have read a lot of Edwards already (Religious Affections, Freedom of the Will, The End for Which God Created the World) so that definitely helps in working through his stuff. I love the challenge, because it forces me to actually engage and apply the text, not simply check the book off my to-read list. John Owen was probably just as difficult though. Thank you for your encouragement!



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