The Nature of True Virtue by Jonathan Edwards
I. THE ESSENCE OF TRUE VIRTUE
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. 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 upfront. There are some things which are truly virtuous, while others only seem 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:
- Particular Beauty: appears beautiful in regards to its immediate circumstance, limited perspective, and private sphere.
- 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:
Benevolence to Being in General
“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 for the love’s inclination (this becomes a very important point as one contrasts ‘love of benevolence’ and ‘love of complacence’). “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 is the foundation for His benevolence. Therefore, if all virtue consists in ‘love of benevolence,’ then God’s virtue is so great that it is inclined to give love to those who do not even exist yet, as to give these beings beauty and happiness. God loves beings not only for who they are, but who they can be made to be by His goodness. He is inclined to give a being beauty and happiness because of His benevolent love.
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.
As To Where Virtue Essentially Consists:
These definitions 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.
“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.
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.” 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.
“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.
Six Particulars in Regards to the Secondary Object of Virtuous Benevolence
Now, if that last paragraph was disconcerting, Edwards clarifies it with six particular observations.
- “Loving a being because of their beauty “necessarily arises from pure benevolence to being in general.” If one loves ‘being in general,’ and thus consents to being, then he must love and agree with those that express the same inclination. “That which truly and sincerely seeks the good of others, must approve of, and love that which joins with him in seeking the goof of others.”
- “This secondary ground of virtuous love is the thing wherein true moral or spiritual beauty primarily consists.” Spiritual beauty primarily consists in a love to being, and thus a love to those who are inclined towards the same love. This spiritual beauty concerns both the internal affections and the external actions.
- “As all spiritual beauty lies in these virtuous principles and acts, so it is primarily on this account they are beautiful.” Because spiritual beauty primarily consists in the love to being in general, and thus a love to benevolent beings, its beauty is reckoned by its affections for and loving actions towards being. In a perfect and complete view of things, it is these principles and actions that primarily render a beauty observed.
- “This spiritual beauty, which is but a secondary ground of virtuous benevolence, is the ground not only of benevolence, but complacence, and is the primary ground of the latter; that is, when the complacence is truly virtuous.” Let the student build up to this: spiritual beauty primarily consists in a love to being in general, and thus a love to those that consent to the same love. Therefore, this love to those that consent to the same love is a love of complacence; yet it is the only ground of a love of complacence that is truly virtuous, because it is rooted in a love to being, as the beauty in the object is only determined by its love to being, not merely another being’s beauty. The secondary ground of virtuous benevolence, spiritual beauty, is the primary ground for a truly virtuous love of complacence.
- “The degree of the amiableness of true virtue primarily consisting in consent, and a benevolent propensity of heart to being in general…is in proportion compounded of the greatness of the benevolent being, or the degree of being and the degree of benevolence.” The pleasantness of true virtue (the delight of it) is multiplied not by the degree of the subject’s affections, but rather by degree of the being. The more being, the more delight there will be in true virtue. “For there is more being that favors being; both together having more being than one alone.”
- “It is impossible that any one should truly relish this beauty, consisting in general benevolence, who has not that temper himself.” If one is inclined to general benevolence, then he will be unavoidably attracted to love those with that same inclination (see particular 1). Therefore, if one does not have the inclination, he will not find it ‘truly’ attractive in another; he will not sincerely “relish this beauty.” One does not value in others what he does not himself value.
II. HOW LOVE RESPECTS THE DIVINE BEING AND CREATED BEINGS
True Virtue Supremely Consists in Love to God
All of Edwards’ premises culminate into this profound claim: “From what has been said, it is evident that true virtue must chiefly consist in love to God; the Being of beings, infinitely the greatest and best.” Since the primary object of virtuous benevolence must be ‘being in general’ (see pg. 6), then the greatest being must be the chief object of virtuous benevolence; and since God by definition is the greatest and best of being, all true virtue must essentially consist in love to God. The same conclusion is drawn in regards to the second object of virtuous benevolence, benevolent being. Since God is also the most benevolent of beings, He is worthy of all love directed to the secondary object of virtuous benevolence.
It is easy to identify that this is not the way modern culture views true virtue (love to God), yet it is unavoidable given the logical deduction from Edwards’ premises. It resolves back to the essential claim of the primary object of virtuous benevolence. Since the essence of virtue cannot primarily consist in love to those who are virtuous, because this would conclude virtue to be both the cause and effect of itself (circular reasoning), then ‘being in general’ is left to be the primary object of true virtue – i.e. to act virtuously, one must love the being as being, and not simply love the being for its acting virtuously. Therefore, since ‘being’ is the primary object of love, love to the greatest of beings must be the chief exercise of virtue, and without it, there can be no true virtue.
“He that has true virtue, consisting in benevolence to being in general, and in benevolence to virtuous being, must necessarily have a supreme love to God…all true virtue must radically and essentially, and as it were summarily consist in this.”
One can see how Edwards has truly paved the way for his conclusion. If one rejects this claim of ‘true virtue chiefly consisting in love to God,’ he must debunk Edwards at his foundation (whereby I still see no avenue to refutation).
God is not only the greatest and most benevolent being, but also He is the source, fountain, head, and foundation of all being and beauty. Every good and perfect thing is from God, from the very emanation of His own goodness and perfection. God is the one “on whom all is most absolutely and perfectly dependent; of whom, and through whom, and to whom is all being and all perfection.” If one be inclined to love a being for its being, how can it be truly virtuous not to love God, the source and fountain of all being? If one subsequently is inclined to love those who share their love of being, thus being beautiful themselves, how can it be truly virtuous not to love God, the source and fountain of all that is beautiful?
Objection: God Does Not Profit From Our Love to Him
Most people are unsettled with this understanding of virtue. Is this not a devaluation of love to our fellow beings? Are we discouraging charity to the needy? Moreover, being that God is perfectly content, perfectly happy, and does not need our love, why would we focus on God rather than our fellow man, who is starving, impoverished, etc.? Edwards addresses this objection.
- “A benevolent propensity of heart is exercised, not only in seeking to promote the happiness of the being towards whom it is exercised, but also in rejoicing in his happiness.” The promotion of the being’s happiness is not the only impetus for one’s benevolence towards the being. A man is not simply virtuous towards a beggar because the beggar will be happier, but also because the man is able to rejoice in the beggar’s happiness. Benevolence also benefits the benefactor.
- “Though we are not able to give any thing to God, which we have of our own independently; yet we may be the instruments of promoting his glory, in which he takes true and proper delight.” Yes, it is logical to see that we are not ‘giving’ anything to God, and thus not profiting Him in that sense, because it is only in Him we live and move and have our being. Nevertheless, an eternal fountain of goodness is capable of an infinite amount of instruments to praise and delight in its goodness. An eternal fountain is capable of infinite streams. In one sense, the emanation of God’s glory can be infinitely extended and manifested. The purport to promote God’s glory, therefore, can be a proper existential aim.
“If no benevolence is to be exercised towards God, because we cannot profit him, then for the same reason, neither is gratitude to be exercised towards him for his benefits to us: because we cannot requite him. But where is the man who believes a God and a providence, that will say this?”
It may be best to assert simply that one does not love God as to profit Him, but rather, one loves God because He is worthy of such admiration. If God is truly commendable, then why would one search for an opportunity not to commend him? Praise is linked to an object’s praiseworthiness, love to a thing’s loveliness, and God is eternally worthy and lovely. If He exists and exerts such providence, no one acting in true virtue will deny God their love.
Now, says the objector, one is left with an egotistical megalomaniac for a God. As Edwards noted in his first answer to the objection, however, one also loves because the benefactor himself benefits in his benevolence – i.e. he rejoices in the happiness of the being. Edwards addressed this rebuttal more comprehensively in his previous treatise The End, but the essential truth is that God is glorified by his creatures delighting in Him, and thus the creatures’ well-being is in view.
The Inconsistence of Virtue without Supreme Love to God
Edwards continues by noting the scheme of other moral writers who do not wholly exclude ‘love to God,’ but wrongfully prioritize that love as subsequent to one’s love of creation and God’s creatures. This is a simple inconsistence because it does not follow its foundational principle – i.e. love to being – to its full expression in love to the Being of beings. Edwards reveals this inconsistence with a series of ‘if…then’ statements, all of which intimate this essential principle: “If true virtue consists partly in respect to God, then doubtless it consists chiefly in it.” The very idea of God signifies a being that infinitely surpasses all other beings, and therefore anyone who is inclined to love being ought to be inclined to chiefly love God. So then, Edwards gives two options in regards to true virtue: 1) one can be an atheist, or 2) one can primarily and essentially love God. It is impossible to believe in God, understanding virtue’s primary object to be ‘being in general,’ and not love Him supremely.
Further, one may not love God, yet love others, because they are exercising a particular benevolence rather than a general benevolence. This principle is already ridiculed by most people, even if they do not realize it – e.g. self-love: good-will ought not to be confined to a single person. The same principle can be applied to a private or particular system; good-will ought not to be restricted to some and not others. Edwards gives three reasons why particular benevolence or “private affections” cannot be of the nature of true virtue.
- “Such a private affection, detached from general benevolence and independent of it, as the case may be, will be against general benevolence, or of a contrary tendency; and will set a person against general existence, and make him an enemy to it.” Selfishness sets a man against the general public. By exalting private priorities above and independent of the priorities of ‘being in general,’ one becomes an enemy to anything that is not for the good of the private appetite. This is why selfish people are often detested and disliked.
- “Private affection, if not subordinate to general affection, is not only liable, as the case may be, to issue in enmity to being in general, but has a tendency to it as the case certainly is, and must necessarily be.” Particular benevolence exalts a particular object over and against ‘being in general,’ and therefore, it necessarily becomes hostile to that which it is insubordinate to. For example, because God is infinitely worthy of our supreme love, and because he thus demands our supreme love, any private affection that does not subordinate itself to that sovereign law establishes hostility towards that decree.
- “Not only would affection to a private system, insubordinate to a regard to being in general, have a tendency to oppose the supreme object of virtuous affection, as its effect and consequence, but would become itself an opposition to that object.” Not only does the object of the private affection necessarily become antagonistic towards God, but the affection itself is placed supremely above God. This is idolatrous in reference to the particular object that is exalted, and it is prideful in reference to the one who employs private affections above and against that which is infinitely greater – God – and the proper order of things that He has decreed.
Edwards offers a concluding statement: “no affection limited to any private system, not dependent on, nor subordinate to being in general, can be of the nature of true virtue.” Moreover, “no affection whatsoever to any creature, or any system of created beings, which is not dependent on, nor subordinate to a propensity or union of the heart to God, the supreme and infinite Being can be of the nature of true virtue.”
God is Most Virtuous, Thus He Supremely Loves Himself
Since God is the most virtuous of beings – the fountain, head and source of all this is good – then it logically follows that God supremely loves Himself. If it be truly virtuous only when His creatures love the greatest and most beautiful of beings, then it would be ludicrous to suppose that the most virtuous of beings does not supremely love Himself. It would not be virtuous for God to superlatively love something other than the greatest and most beautiful of beings. This is where the indicative, “God is love” first and foremost takes on its primary meaning – i.e. there exists a perfect love between Father, Son, and Spirit, the triune God.
The idea of God loving Himself more than He loves others is shocking simply because His creatures are told not to apply the same principle to themselves. Edwards just finished a section condemning self-love; yet, there is no escaping this deduction: God must love that which has the most of being and the most of benevolence, and this happens to be Himself. Nevertheless, Edwards asserts that “God’s goodness and love to created beings is derived from, and subordinate to his love to himself.” Therefore, God’s benevolence towards His creatures is sourced only by God’s own love to Himself, just as His creatures’ love to others can only be virtuous inasmuch as it is subordinate to their love to God.
Edwards anticipates the resistance, and thus sets out to provide his readers with “the manner in which a virtuous love in created beings, one to another, is dependent on, and derived from love to God.” Here is Edwards’ progression.
- Love to particular people is the fruit of a benevolent inclination to being in general.
- To love being in general, one must love God supremely.
- Therefore, if one loves a particular person from that inclination – supreme love to God – it is of the nature of true virtue.
The Evidences of Love to God in Love to Others
Now, Edwards must clarify: not every exercise of love may “sensibly (apparently, visually) arise from any exercise of love to God, or an explicit consideration of any similitude, conformity, union or relation to God, in the creature beloved.” One who sees another man exercising love to another being may not be able to explicitly or directly link that man’s benevolence to his benevolence to God. Nonetheless, there are a few evidences that provide a connection from man’s benevolence to another being, to the man’s supreme love to God.
Essentially, a man’s love to another being evidences his love to God when it is exercised in the “manner, order, and measure in which God himself exercises love to the creature in the creation and government of the world.” And how does God deal lovingly with His creatures? He, “as the first cause and supreme disposer of all things, has respect to the creature’s happiness in subordination to himself as his own supreme end.” God loves His creatures by seeking their happiness through their subordination to His chief and ultimate end, which is His glorification. God loves His creatures by satisfying them with Himself, whereby He is most glorified.
Therefore, if man wants to seek the well-being of another being, he must seek their ‘good.’ And “the true goodness of a thing must be its agreeableness to its end, or its fitness to answer the design for which it was made.” A chair is a ‘good’ chair if it is indeed fit to accomplish that which it was designed to do – if it comfortably seats me at the dinner table, it is a ‘good’ chair. “Therefore they are good moral agents, whose temper and mind or propensity of heart, is agreeable to the end for which God made moral agents.” For men to be good moral agents, they must point others to the glory of God. If a man is seeking the other being’s goodness, then he will seek to glorify God to the man and through the man.
“So far as a virtuous mind exercises true virtue in benevolence to created beings, it chiefly seeks the good of the creature; consisting in its knowledge or view of God’s glory and beauty, its union with God, conformity and love to him, and joy in him.”
This is how man loves his fellow being in the same manner that God loves His creatures – i.e. by seeking the creatures ‘good,’ which consists in the being’s knowledge and delight of God’s glory, being united with Him, conformed to Him. “That disposition of heart, that consent, union, or propensity of mind to being in general, is virtue, truly so called; or in other words, true grace and real holiness.”
Conclusively, true virtue is found only in one’s love to ‘being in general,’ which must chiefly consist in one’s supreme love to God, whereby we love created beings by seeking their good, which is established by their fitness to achieve the end for which God created them – to glorify Himself – which is most suitable in the creature’s knowledge of God, joy and delight in God, and being united with God. “And it may be asserted in general, that nothing is of the nature of true in which God is not the first and the last.” Virtue, from its beginning to its end, must be chiefly about God and His glory.
 Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue (Ann Arbor Paperbacks) (University of Michigan Press, 1960), 1. All quotations will be from this edition.
 Ibid., 1.
 Ibid., 1.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 2-3.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 1.
 Ibid., 7.
 Ibid., 7. 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.’
 Ibid., 9. 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.’
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 10.
 Ibid., 10.
 Ibid., 10-11.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 11-12.
 Ibid., 12.
 Ibid., 12.
 Ibid., 14
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 16.
 Ibid., 16. Edwards addressed this question directly and more comprehensively in the “prequel” to Nature of True Virtue; see ch. 1, sect. 4 in The End for Which God Created the World.
 Ibid., 16.
 Ibid., 17.
 Ibid., 19.
 Ibid., 20.
 Ibid., 21.
 Ibid., 22.
 Ibid., 22.
 Ibid., 23. This also was more comprehensively proved in The End for Which God Created the World.
 Ibid., 23.
 Ibid., 24.
 Ibid., 24.
 Ibid., 24. Emphasis added.
 God’s glorification is the ultimate end for which God created the world, and it is the main point of Edwards’ previous treatise.
 Ibid., 24-25.
 Ibid., 25. Now, the moral world is the end of the entire world; the physical and nonliving were made for the living, just as a house was made for its inhabitants. Thus, God’s end for the moral world is the end for which he has the entire world.
 Ibid., 25.
 Ibid., 25-26.
 Ibid., 26.