Patience Does Not Seem to Be One of the Seven Virtues

Here are some random thoughts that have arisen from the discussion that started on my previous post about whether or not patience is a virtue, as the saying goes.

First thought: As I hinted in the other post, the word virtue comes from the Latin vir, meaning a man. So, for the ancient Romans, the good qualities of a person that we now call virtues were those qualities which go to make a good man. Women, of course, had no place in society, no vote, no rights, and they were legally deprived of citizenship, being subject entirely to the whim of their father or husband. So the qualities were those of an honourable man, and that is why the word has come to us as "virtue".

The notions of honour in Roman society were actually quite similar to those of the Samurai, which many people in the present day seem to admire, often at the same time criticising the honour system of the West, which comes to us from the Romans. But that's another matter altogether.

In the first few centuries of the Common Era, when Christianity was spreading fast across the Roman Empire, it began to be accepted that there were just seven virtues. They were:


The last three were considered to be religious virtues, and the first four were called cardinal virtues. Why cardinal virtues? Because there were those who enjoyed the idea of a system, and would look for all kinds of correspondences in everything. So they associated each of the four virtues with a point of the compass, North, South, East, and West. The four virtues also were associated with the elements Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Also each of them was associated with three of the star-signs of Astrology, and further with certain of the cards in the so-called Major Arcana of the Tarot pack.

I mention these purely as historical curiosities. If anyone wants to believe that these associations are valid, you are more than welcome to, but personally I think they go just a little bit too far!

The last one of the "religious" virtues, Love, needs some explaining. It used to be known as "charity", but this came from an over-literal translation in the King James Bible of the word caritas. This word means love, in a caring sort of way, note the similarity. Our word charity means alms-giving, and this sense of alms-giving is not really present in the Bible passage in question, which is from 1 Corinthians 13. This is the passage that a lot of people get read out at their wedding.

It's not only that last one that needs explaining though. All the others, in one way or another, need to be examined carefully if we are to decide whether or not we are leading the virtuous life by keeping to them...

The thing is, I'm running out of time on this post, so if anyone else would like to start the ball rolling, so to speak, feel free!

Maybe could start by wondering why is it that PATIENCE does not appear on the list?


Mulled Vine said...

Love is patient (1 Cor 13), so if love is a virtue, patience is implicitly a virtue.

Sofia said...

Well spotted Mulled Vine, that shows it would help if I actually read the texts I quote from, so thanks for that lesson!

One thing that slightly worries me though, is that St Paul doesn't say Love is Patience, meaning love equals patience. He says love is patient, and here the adjective is qualifying the noun, suggesting that it's one of the attributes of love. He goes on to list other qualities of love. So he is not really saying the two are exactly equivalent.

So I don't think it's as simple as it first seems to be. For example, take another virtue, Fortitude. This obviously means strength, but it carries the association of endurance through trials, so it's not merely brute strength. (After all, a grizzly bear is strong, but not notably virtuous). The endurance aspect of Fortitude might well involve some patience, and you could make out a case for saying other virtues, maybe all of them, require a degree of patience. So does this mean that we can reduce the seven virtues to one, and name it Patience? I don't think so...

Or take this counterexample. A bank robber has made a tunnel under a bank vault containing ten million dollars. He completes the tunnel on Wednesday; he could go into the vault now. But the chances of discovery are quite high. He will have a better chance of getting all the money out if he waits until Saturday, when the bank is closed for two whole days.

To steal the money effectively, he has to exercise patience, even though he badly wants that ten million dollars. Does this mean the thief is a virtuous man? No, of course not. So then we have to question the assertion that patience is a virtue...

Hermster said...

Your posts always have a nice flow to them. Well written.

Sofia said...

Thank you. You are very kind. x