“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.”
In regards to the phrase “being in general,” – If true virtue consists in the beautiful exercises of the heart, and this is in regards to general beauty, not merely particular beauty, the benevolence of virtue must be directed towards “being in general.” As every being is a member of the universal system of existence, then virtue consists in the union and consent of beings to the great whole. Benevolence towards a particular group or private circle of beings that does not imply a tendency to a union with the great whole of being in general is not of the nature of true virtue. Nevertheless, from one’s benevolence to being in general, exercises of love towards particular beings may arise. In fact, the more one has a genuine affection to exercise benevolence to being in general, the more he will have the disposition to exercise benevolence to particular persons. The essential point to be made: if you love someone particularly without loving them from the general disposition to love ‘being in general,’ you are not acting in the nature of true virtue.
In regards to the word “benevolence” – Edwards makes his first reference to his Christian foundation, as he references the “holy scriptures,” where it is made abundantly plain that “virtue most essentially consists in love.” Thus, the word “benevolence” can be substituted for the word “love.” Benevolence to being in general can also be called “love to being in general.” Edwards then proceeds to further elucidate this concept of ‘love.’
Benevolence and Complacence
There are two commonly distinguished categories of love: 1) love of benevolence and 2) love of complacence.
Love of benevolence is that affection of the heart to any being, which causes it to take pleasure in the being’s happiness and incline itself to the being’s well-being. Now, the beauty of the being (the object) is not always the reason (or foundation) for the love’s inclination. “There may be a disposition [inclination] to the welfare of those that are not considered beautiful, unless mere existence be counted a beauty.” In this same thought, one can observe that benevolence in God is “not only prior to the beauty of many of its objects, but also to their existence.” God loved before any of the objects of His love (creation, especially man) were beautiful or even existed, “so as to be the ground both of their existence and their beauty, rather than the foundation of God’s benevolence.” God loved creation before it existed so that 1) His love may be the very reason for the creation’s existence and beauty, and 2) that creation would not be the foundation for God’s benevolence. God’s goodness is the reason creation (more importantly, man) exists and is beautiful. God alone is the foundation for His benevolence.
Love of complacence “presupposes beauty… for it is no other than delight in beauty.” This love is a love of the beauty in the being, rather than a love for the being as a being. The word ‘complacence’ may stunt one’s understanding at first, being that this word has smug connotations in its use today, but Edwards is using the word in its original meaning – i.e. delight, pleasure, tranquil satisfaction. It is a ‘love of delight,’ where the subject sees beauty in the object, and thus loves the object because it is satisfying to do so.
These definitions will be further clarified in Edwards’ identification of love and its relation to the essence of true virtue.