Friday, March 28, 2014

Excerpt from "The Nature of True Virtue" by Jonathan Edwards

I ran across this essay in an 
old literature text book and thought I would share a bit. So many people only know the name Jonathan Edwards by his sermon and essay Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God. This essay is from a man who was a very thoughtful philosopher, and is worth a careful read.

At the bottom of this excerpt is a link to the complete essay on-line.

Excerpt from The Nature of Virtue By Jonathan Edwards:

"Whatever controversies and variety of opinions there are about the nature of virtue, yet all (excepting some skeptics, who deny any real difference between virtue and vice) mean by it, something beautiful, or rather some kind of beauty, or excellency. –It is not all beauty, that is called virtue; for instance, not the beauty of a building, of a flower, or of the rainbow: but some beauty belonging to Beings that have perception and will. –It is not all beauty of mankind, that is called virtue; for instance, not the external beauty of the countenance, or shape, gracefulness of motion, or harmony of voice: but it is a beauty that has its original seat in the mind.  –But yet perhaps not every  thing that may be called a beauty of mind, is properly called virtue. There is a beauty of understanding and speculation. There is something in the ideas and conceptions of great philosophers and statesmen, that may be called beautiful; which is a different thing from what is most commonly meant by virtue. But 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. Things of this sort, it is generally agreed, so far as I know, are not anything belonging merely to speculation; but to the disposition  and will,  or ( to use a general word, I suppose commonly well understood) the heart. Therefore I suppose, I shall not depart from the common opinion, when I say, that virtue is the beauty of the qualities and exercises of the heart, or those actions which proceed from them[1]. So that when it is inquired, What is the nature of true virtue? –this is the same as to inquire, what that is which renders any habit, disposition, or exercise of the heart truly beautiful.  I use the phrase true virtue, and speak of things truly beautiful, because I suppose it will generally be allowed, that there is a distinction to be made between some things which are truly virtuous and others which only seem to be virtuous, through a partial and imperfect view of things: that some actions and dispositions appear beautiful, if considered partially and superficially, or with regard to some things belonging to them, and in some of their circumstances and tendencies, which would appear otherwise in a more extensive and comprehensive view, wherein they are seen clearly in their whole nature and the extent of their connections in the universality of things. –there is a general and a particular beauty. By a particular beauty, I mean that by which a thing appears beautiful when considered only with regard to its connection with, and tendency to some particular thing within a limited, and, as it were, a private sphere. And a general beauty is that by which a thing appears beautiful when viewed most perfectly, comprehensively and universally, with regard to all its tendencies, and its connections with everything it stands related to." 

According to the footnote, this was Edward’s last work, composed after an illness and during the last three years of his life. This essay is in the book The American Tradition in Literature, Third Edition. Vol. 1(1967, New York, Grosset & Dunlap Inc.)
The full text of this same essay can be accessed in a pdf here:

[1] Emphasis mine.

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