“Love, and do what you will.” St. Augustine of Hippo
There are many virtues that we might name: honesty, modesty, magnanimity, prudence, and temperance, for example.
Suppose that we were to practice each of these virtues. To practice honesty we would make a point of rendering to each person what is due and always speaking the truth as we know it. To practice modesty, we would be sure to wear only those clothes which covered much of our bodies. To practice magnanimity, we might give generously when asked to donate to charities. To practice prudence, we might strive ever more to be governed by right reason rather than letting emotions get the better of us. To practice temperance, we would not only refrain from over-indulging, but very much limit our use of the good things that we enjoy.
When we finished practicing all these virtues, we might be more honest, more modest, more magnanimous, more prudent, and more temperate. Or, instead of practicing each of these virtues, we might practice love. In practicing love, we would become more virtuous in each of these areas, and many others.
St. Augustine says, “Love, and do what you will.” He means that if we love perfectly, our love will manifest itself in everything we do. Sheltering our lives under the umbrella of love, we need not worry specifically about individual virtues. Virtues will proceed naturally from love, just as an underground spring naturally bubbles over and reaches the surface.
We do well to practice virtue, but we must remember that individual virtues are not ends in themselves. It is only the love which motivates these virtues which is the goal. The true purpose of modesty, for example, is not to cover this or that body part, or to make sure that this or that piece of clothing is a certain length. The purpose of modesty is love in two forms. The first form is to love our own human dignity sufficiently to be sure we do not become mere objects in the eyes of others. The second form is to love our neighbor sufficiently to be sure we do not become an occasion of sin for others.
We could say the same for each of the virtues. Love of neighbor will impel us to treat each other reasonably, to give to each what is theirs, not to over-indulge lest we neglect our duties. Love makes us want to share generously with others the abundance that we enjoy.
By exercising love, these virtues become habits, and we are no longer required to force ourselves to do the honest or the prudent thing. The things that we will—the things toward which our free will inclines us—are in fact the things which are right and good, as Augustine posits.
But suppose that we practice each of these virtues and do not practice love. In such a case, the very practice of the virtues can become harmful. If we practice honesty not out of love but because we want others to speak well of us, what benefit have we gained? If we practice magnanimity so that others will notice us and say how generous we are, what virtue is there? If we drape ourselves from head to foot, but scorn those who we feel are not so modest, how have we grown in love?
Love is honest.
Love is modest.
Love is generous.
Love is prudent.
Love is temperate.
But honesty is not love. Modesty is not love. Generosity is not love. Prudence is not love. Temperance is not love. In mistaking the outward actions for the inward disposition, we may lose the benefit of both.
In this life, the many virtues are good and necessary. But what will they avail us in the next world? Suppose I have made a lifelong practice of honesty and become the most honest living person. How will that honesty manifest itself in the next life? Suppose I am the most modest or most generous or most prudent person who ever lived. How will I practice that modesty, prudence, or generosity in the next life? Despite the goodness of these virtues, they all eventually pass away.
But if I practice love, I can love always.
What is the greatest obstacle to love in your life? What are you doing about overcoming that obstacle?