How often does a spiritual book or talk these days discuss the matter of virtue to any great extent? With the modern tendency to put the emphasis on self-development as the principal aim of spirituality, I would say not nearly enough. And yet virtue is really all there is to the spiritual path. Everything else is peripheral to that which is why the Masters once told me to "Follow the path in humility and patience and all will unfold as it should". Simple, plain words that at first glance don't say very much but which, on consideration, give us the key to progress which is rarely dramatic and usually unnoticed.
Virtue is not morality because morality is a code that we live by, and so there is always a division between us and it. What we actually are and what we think we should be and try to be. I am not intending a criticism of morality when I say this because, until we have virtue, we do indeed need morality to keep us going in the right direction, and help us to conform our behaviour to the true nature of reality. But morality can change according to our position in time and space, that's to say our historical and geographical location, whereas virtue is unchanging and quite independent of fashion or mores. Morality is usually based on virtue to a greater or lesser degree so, even though it may be subject to change, its fundamental tenets are very similar wherever we may find ourselves. However, being virtue at least one remove from the source, it is heavily affected by culture, custom and sometimes prejudice as well. It is also largely dependent on majority opinion and the way that the society in which it is found views itself. But the most significant difference between the two is that morality is based on thought, whereas virtue, true virtue, springs spontaneously from the heart. A virtuous person is his virtue.
So, until we have virtue, we do need morality. Equally, though, once we have virtue we have no further need for morality anymore than we need the Ten Commandments when we have learnt to love God and our neighbour as ourself (though that does not mean we reject the Commandments since to go beyond something does not mean to deny it). This gives us a clue as to what virtue actually is. If we would seek its true basis then that is surely to be found in the love of God. Does this mean that only a person who loves God can be virtuous? I maintain it means precisely that. The love of God is at the heart of all goodness, and virtue is goodness. I am not saying that an unbeliever is a bad person but he cannot truly be a good person either unless, despite his unbelief, he loves God without knowing that it is God he loves. For this is possible, as an initial phase at least. If we love the good, the beautiful and the true then we are beginning to love God even though we may not call Him by His name.
But, as I say, this is a beginning and we must take it further. When Christ was called good, he replied 'Why do you call me good? None is good, save one, that is, God.' Christ had aligned himself with the source of all goodness and that is why he was wholly good and why he could deny personal goodness. In the same way, although a love for goodness may lead us onto the path of virtue, it is only when we have completely identified our will with the Will of God that we can truly be said to be a virtuous person. But then we know that our virtue is not our own. It comes simply from a recognition of the true nature of things. That is why I say that only a spiritual person can really be a good person in the fullest sense. Obviously this does not mean that those who believe in spiritual things are necessarily better than those who do not. They may be, they may not be. But only someone who has fully submitted his will to a higher power can truly be good. For goodness never comes from us. It can only come from going beyond the self.
This points to the fact, one always emphasised by the Masters, that the prime virtue is humility. The four cardinal virtues are temperance, prudence, courage and justice, and these are all excellent qualities, of course, and ones we should strive to cultivate, but theoretically they could be possessed by an egoist or even a bad person. Therefore they are not Virtue as I think of it in the singular and with a capital letter. The theological virtues are faith, hope and charity or love, and while I am sure much ink has been legitimately spilt defining, qualifying and specifying what these mean from a Christian perspective, I hesitate to include faith and hope as part of Virtue (with a capital V). I say this because I envisage a sanctified person to be the embodiment of Virtue, and such a person would have replaced faith and hope with knowledge. So faith and hope (which, again, theoretically could be possessed by a bad person) cannot be considered part of virtue as spiritual perfection.
This leaves us with love. Something I have learnt from the Masters is that humility and love are two sides of the same spiritual coin. Humility is the recognition of our nothingness before God. Love is what comes from that recognition. And if the fear of (as in reverence for) the Lord is the beginning of wisdom then the love of God is its end. All virtue comes from this.