A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XXXVII.

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XXXVII. October 24, 2011

Introduction and Part II

“A man whose destitution deprives him of the power to inflict harm is not therefore to be regarded as holy. But when someone has the power to inflict harm yet refrains from doing so, out of reverence for God sparing those who are weaker, he is greatly rewarded after death.”[1]



The absence of a vice is not an indication of its opposite virtue. If someone has never fornicated, we must not assume it is because they are holy. It can be simply that they have never had the opportunity for sex. It certainly does not mean they are free from lust, nor free from the vices of lust. They could be addicted to pornography, engaging it daily, completely contaminated by lust, while having the appearance of holiness. If someone tempted them to fornicate, because they have not fought against their lust, they are likely to fall, and show the contamination they have let on inside. On the other hand, the one who has stumbled once or twice with lust, and found themselves back up and out of its clutches through the helpful hand of the Lord, might even overcome its clutches and, though in external appearances seem to be a greater sinner than the one who has not engaged fornication, they will be the one who has gained a virtue because of their struggles and subsequent attainment. We can say something similar with other vices, like gluttony. One who is too poor to be a glutton can still suffer from the temptation and fall for it when given a chance. But someone, say a cook, might at one time have had to fight the vice, and through long, hard work, come out on top. Without opportunity, the hidden desires and the weaknesses of people are not tried. We do not know how they might act in given instances – it is easy for us to think of themselves as holy, but without a pursuit of holiness, without actual struggles against temptation whereby one comes out victorious against them, such holiness is not there.

One must pursue a life of holiness and actively seek to overcome vices, especially those they know they most desire to engage, if one does not want to stumble and fall into sin.  We must avoid an artificial sense of security and assume, through such security, one has overcome one’s vices. Many monks and nuns, because they close themselves off from all society, often find themselves sinning when they are in the world. Story upon story of wanton religious comes from this fact. They have turned a tool, their enclosure, into a spiritual crutch, losing all spiritual strength in the process. The tool is to help free oneself from temptation so that one can then develop the spiritual strength oneself so that one would eventually not need the tool itself to avoid sin.

The true spiritual master struggles with temptation, and know it is what allows them to attain holiness and be saved. “Take away temptation and no-one will be saved.”[2] The spiritual master knows the tools they have been given, and use them as aids; they know they cannot rely upon them alone, but they must also do their part, they must engage the vices within and overcome them. To do this, one must be willing to engage self-examination. “Discuss with yourself what you now are, what you were, what you ought to be, what you can be; discuss with yourself what you have been by nature, what are now by your faults, what you ought to be by striving industriously, and finally what you can be by the grace of God.”[3] One who ignores such self-reflection because of the security of their position easily falls into sin when they lose that security.

There will be times when one needs to rest, to gather oneself together after one has engaged a significant spiritual struggle, but it is easy to take one victory, rest and get lax. In times of rest, one should still remember the struggles to come, and know that even after a victory, one should not rest in one’s laurels. Temptation can happen at any time, but when one is unaware because of a significant victory, a different kind of temptation and attack upon oneself is possible. Always lean on God, knowing that all victories come from his grace, and that our struggle always is a struggle which is helped by God and that it is his power which gives us strength. And God wants us to confirm what he has given us, to put it into use, to make sure the talent he gives us multiplies under our guidance. This is why one must, from time to time, push oneself to move on, to gain greater spiritual integrity and holiness. One must be willing to engage the struggles with God’s grace, for this is what allows us to grow and to become the person God wants us to be:

If you wish always to press forward on the path of virtue without stopping, you should pay great attention to things, which may serve as chances for acquiring virtue, and never let them slip out of your hands. Therefore those are ill-advised, who do everything in their power to avoid any kind of obstacles on the path of virtue, in spite of the fact that these might have helped toward success in their progress. For example, if you wish to gain the habit of patience, you should not avoid the people, things and circumstances, which particularly try your patience. Meet them with a good will and the resolve to submit to their unpleasant effect on you, but at the same time prepare yourself to suffer them with unshakeable calmness of spirit. If you do not act thus, you will never learn patience.[4]

Our God is full of love and grace for us. He shows us, in his action, what it is we are to be like with others. Despite his omnipotence, he lets others become the people they want to be; he does not force them to be with him, nor does he annihilate them if they deny him. He does not seek to harm anyone, but rather, to lift them up. In his strength, he shows what holiness entails. Since he is capable to do what he does not do, he shows us that we, too, in finding ourselves in positions of authority or power should use that authority to help others, not ourselves. If we do, we show ourselves to be on the path toward God. If we do not have power, if we do not have authority, we can’t abuse it, and if we can’t abuse it, we don’t know if we would or would not; when we are not challenged, we must prepare for the challenge so we can meet it with integrity and prove ourselves on the side of God. Love for our neighbor comes from our love for God, and in our love for God we see and understand how we are to love our neighbor. It is only in such love true holiness flourishes and the strength given to us is able to be used according to its proper purpose.


This passage could easily have been from the hand of Anthony or one of his disciples. We have already seen our text point out the need for authorities to be merciful in their judgments, because God is merciful. Now we are reminded that if we have no authority of our own, we cannot be said to have exercised this virtue; it is only those who have a talent can be tested as to how they use it, and if we don’t have it, we can’t compare ourselves with those who use it properly. This certainly ties in with the kind of monastic compassion often demonstrated in the desert, where a particular monk who boasted about not being tempted by a certain vice is often put to shame because of their heartless pride. But, beyond this, not much more can be said here.

[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 350 (#139).

[2] Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 64  (#5, Evagrius).

[3] St. Bonaventure, “On the Perfection of Life” in Writings on the Spiritual Life. Intr. and Notes by F. Edward Coughlin, O.F.M. (Saint Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2006), 144. St. Bonaventure here is citing Pseudo-Bernard, Tractatus de interiori domo ch6 n76 according to Coughlin.

[4] Unseen Warfare, 128.

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