The Nature of True Virtue – Essence (Pt. 3)

Essence: Part 1 // Essence: Part 2

As To Where Virtue Essentially Consists:

These definitions (love of benevolence and love of complacence) will be further clarified in Edwards’ identification of love and its relation to the essence of true virtue. One may get confused if they do not realize that Edwards is trying to narrow-in on the essence of true virtue, not simply its expression or appearance. Before proceeding into the practicalities of virtue, he seeks to identify its essence; and, for Edwards, the means of such discovery regards the deduction of virtue to its beginning, origin, or source. The key to understanding these next few points is take note where Edwards employs the word “primary” and “secondary.”

“If virtue be the beauty of an intelligent being, and virtue consists in love, then it is a plain inconsistence to suppose that virtue primarily consists in any love to its object for its beauty.” The beauty mentioned by Edwards is moral beauty – a beauty “belonging to beings that have perception and will,” which “has its original seat in the mind” – thus, the beauty of virtue. Supposing that virtue is the beauty of intelligent beings, and virtue is the inclination to love those that are beautiful, then there is no starting point. It is an endless cycle: if virtue consists in love to virtue, then virtue must consist in the love of the love of virtue, and infinitely so on. This “makes the first virtue both the ground and consequence, both the cause and effect of itself.” To be succinct, true virtue cannot essentially consist in one’s love to an object for its beauty, because this is circular reasoning in regards to virtue’s causation and essence.

Therefore, if the essence of virtue lies in love or a disposition to love, then virtue “must consist in something different both from complacence, which is a delight in beauty, and also from any benevolence that has the beauty of its object for its foundation.”[1] Moreover, neither can the nature of true virtue primarily consist in gratitude, because this implies the same inconsistence.

Objects of Virtuous Benevolence

Being – There is, then, no other conclusion to suppose: the primary object of virtuous love must be ‘being.’ This is the first object of a virtuous benevolence. When Edwards says ‘being,’ he means ‘being in general,’ which would necessarily include a benevolence to particular beings. Nevertheless, the particular being must be one who is not in disagreement to ‘being in general.’ The emphasis is needed as to permit the opposition of particular beings, where virtue does consist in opposition to enemies of the highest good. From this conclusion, one can assert that the object who has ‘most of being’ – “the greatest share of existence” – ought to have the greatest share of our benevolence.[2]

“Pure benevolence in its first exercise [primary object] is nothing else but being’s uniting consent, or propensity to being…and inclining to the general highest good, and to each being, whose welfare is consistent with the highest general good, in proportion to the degree of existence.”

Benevolent Being – The first and primary object of virtuous benevolence is ‘being in general.’ The second and subsequent object of virtuous benevolence is ‘benevolent being.’ When one (let us call him X) is inclined to love being in general – i.e. when X acts towards the first object of virtuous benevolence – and then sees another (let us call him Y) who is inclined to the same thing, X is unavoidably drawn to have greater affections towards Y. Now, as to the reasoning behind this ‘drawing,’ Edwards becomes a bit mystical (which is why he later gives six “particulars” concerning this secondary object); but if the student ‘rides it out,’ Edwards’ explanation will culminate into a very tangible and understandable position. Regarding the reasoning: X is drawn to Y because X has had his own existence “enlarged” by his consent to Y; and thus his inclination to love being is increased as his being is increased.

“When any one under the influence of general benevolence, sees another being possessed of the like general benevolence, this attaches his heart to him, and draws forth greater love to him than merely his having existence; because…his own being is, as it were, enlarged.”

As one loves being in general, he becomes greater united with being in general, concordant with being – i.e. more beautiful – and thus his beauty exceeds his own existence.

Now, if that last paragraph was disconcerting, Edwards clarifies it with six particular observations, which will be addressed in part 4.


[1] It was very important to my understanding that I notice the word “any” placed before benevolence. I believe it intimates (as Edwards previously noted [pg.6]) that not all ‘love of benevolence’ is founded on the beauty of the object – e.g. divine love. Thus, in regards to the essence of true virtue, he only wants to exclude that ‘love of benevolence’ that is indeed founded on the object’s beauty, which would generate a logical inconsistency similar to that which occurs with ‘love of complacence.’

[2] Spoiler alert: this is an important point as Edwards goes on to say that virtue consists primarily in loving God, as He is the one who has the ‘most being.’

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