Summary: The Nature of True Virtue

Jonathan Edwards’ The Nature of True Virtue was published posthumously in 1765, seven years after the American theologian’s death. Interestingly, it was simultaneously released with its companion work, The End for which God Created the World. The reason for this joint publishing venture was due to the fact that Edwards considered the two works as a set. For Edwards, ethics and metaphysics were partners in divine order and purpose.

Edwards begin his dissertation by clarifying that not all beauty is called virtue – only that which belongs to beings that have perception and will. This is the kind of beauty that has its original seat in the mind (understanding/speculation). According to the author, “By virtue is the beauty of those qualities and acts of the mind, that are of a moral nature.” Virtue is also the beauty of the qualities and exercises of the heart. Therefore the nature of true virtue concerns whatever renders any habit, disposition, or exercise of the heart truly beautiful. Edwards distinguishes between particular and general beauty, the latter being that which appears beautiful when viewed most comprehensively. “True virtue most essentially consists in benevolence to being in general,” Edwards states. Beauty consists in consent and agreement. Virtue, on the other hand, consists in love – specifically love to being in general.


There are two kinds of virtuous loves: love of benevolence and love of complacence. The first is that “affection or propensity of the heart to any being, which causes it to incline to its well-being.” The latter has the delight in the beauty of its objection as its foundation. Edwards clarifies that virtue cannot consist primarily in gratitude. Rather, the first object of virtuous benevolence is being. Therefore, that object who has the most being or has the greatest share of existence will have the greatest share of the propensity and benevolent affections of the heart. The second object is benevolent being. For Edwards, “that which truly and sincerely seeks the good of others, must approve of and love that which joins with him in seeking the good of others.” This is where true spiritual beauty consists. It is a secondary ground of virtuous benevolence and the primary ground of complacence. One who loves being in general will necessarily value good will to being in general, “wherever he sees it.” Ultimately, true virtue must consist in love to God, who is the “Being of beings, infinitely the greatest and best.” God has infinitely the greatest share of existence. He is the “foundation and fountain” of all being and all beauty. Though we are not able to give anything to Him, we are instruments of promoting his glory, in which he takes a true and proper delight. According to Edwards, God’s worthiness consists in two things: greatness and moral goodness.

True virtue consists essentially in a supreme love to God. The supreme, infinite, all-comprehending Being requires it. Consequently, “no affection limited to any private system, not depending on nor subordinate to being in general, can be of the nature of true virtue.” The divine nature must then consist primarily in love to himself – the mutual love/friendship that subsists eternally between the three Person of the Godhead. God’s love to created being is derived in this love to himself. According to Edwards, a “truly virtuous mind” seeks the glory of God and makes this his supreme, governing, ultimate end. Edwards identifies a secondary and inferior kind of beauty – mutual consent/agreement of different things (aka. Order, symmetry, proportion, harmony, etc.)

It is possible for something to have “double beauty”: a twofold agreement and conformity. Edwards distinguishes between cordial agreement and natural agreement. The latter consists in union of mind and heart. The latter is uniformity/consent of nature, form, quantity, etc. Secondary beauty is that by which God respects mutual agreement and proportion. The relation is important. This beauty could be in a melodious song, in society, and even in wisdom and justice. For Edwards, a higher beauty in true virtue consists in “the union of heart to being in general, or to God, the Being of beings.” One who loves being in general will hence love particular beings. Consequently, one who comes to love being in general and appreciates the beauty of true virtue will also come to relish the agreement of justice to the will and command of God.

Self-love, according to Edwards, is “a man’s love of his own happiness.” He concedes that self-love may also be viewed as man’s loving whatsoever is pleasing to him. In some sense, self-love is man’s liking. This is because he is capable of having inclination, will, and choice, and what he inclines to, he chooses and is grateful in. However, self-love most commonly signifies “love to himself with respect to his private interest.” Here, as a result, a man’s love to himself will make him love love to himself and hate hatred to himself. Furthermore, love to some others may truly be the effect of self-love. For this reason, a man’s love to others that love him is no more than a certain expression or effect of self-love. This is not, however, true virtue. This is only natural to extend something of the same kind of love which we have for ourselves, to those who are of the same kind of beings as ourselves.

Not all anger and not all gratitude arises from a truly virtuous benevolence of heart. As men may love persons and things from self-love, so they may also love qualities and characters. There is a certain approbation of virtues like meekness and justice that arises from self-love. The idea of benevolence is “habitually connected” with the idea of being loved and rewarded by others, which is grateful to self-love. Edwards identifies another principle important and natural to mankind: “a disposition in man to be uneasy in a consciousness of being inconsistent with himself.” Pure love is therefore a union of the heart with others – “a kind of enlargement of the mind, whereby it so extends itself as to take others into a man’s self: and therefore it implies a disposition to feel, to desire, and to act as though others were one with ourselves.” The inward turmoil begotten by a man’s conscience may actually, according to Edwards, justify God’s anger and condemnation.

Edwards records that natural conscience consists in two things: (1) that disposition to approve/disapprove the moral treatment which passes between us and others, (2) and the sense of desert consisting in a natural agreement, proportion, harmony between malevolence and punishment, or between loving and being loved. Thus, according to Edwards, “natural conscience, if the understanding be properly enlightened, and stupifying prejudices are removed, concurs with the law of God.” Although the natural conscience does not taste beauty or consist in supreme love to God, it may approve of it from that uniformity/equality there is in it. By their natural consciences, men may see the justice/natural agreement there is in yielding all to God. Therefore the natural conscience, if well-informed, will approve of true virtue and will disapprove of its lack. Edwards describes the day of eschatological judgment when “their consciences will be greatly awakened and convinced, their mouths will be stopped, all stupidity of conscience will be at an end.” The author is clear to note this is not the same thing as repentance, which is “hearts being perfectly changed to hate sin and love holiness.” By their natural consciences, however, sinners may have a clear sense of the desert of their sin and the natural agreement between opposition to such a divine Being and his opposing this opposition.

Edwards then addresses the instincts, the “various dispositions and inclinations natural to men, which depend on particular laws of nature, determining their minds to certain affections and actions toward particular objects.” Some may respect ourselves personally and others may be more social, extending to others. However, according to Edwards, none of these instincts can be of the nature of true virtue. Natural affection owes to this natural instinct, and thus arises from self-love which is often mistaken for true virtue. Edwards agrees with the likes of Hutchison and Hume that there is a foundation laid in nature for kind affections between the sexes. However these do not arise from a principle of general benevolence. Edwards also makes a distinction between natural pity and virtuous pity. Moreover, there is a natural gratitude (as evidenced in Saul after David spared his life) which does not arise from benevolence. Likewise, many ancient Romans had “love” to their country which was the highest virtue. But this is not of the nature of true virtue.

Although “private systems” bear no greater proportion to the whole of universal existence, they are often regarded as if the were in fact the whole. For this reason, natural benevolence and universal benevolence can often be confused. Approbation of conscience, however, must not be mistaken for truly virtuous approbation. According to Edwards, “Natural conscience is implanted in all mankind, to be as it were in God’s stead, as an internal judge or rule, whereby to distinguish right and wrong.” This consists in a sense of desert, a natural agreement between sin and misery. It’s no wonder, Edwards concludes, that men, acting upon this selfish principle of self-love, become accustomed to treating themselves as if they were all, increasing in pride. On the contrary, a sense of the just deserts of sin consists in this: a sense of resentment from the Deity and fountainhead of universal existence. Still, by God’s grace, the present state of the world is so constituted in God’s wisdom and goodness that these natural principles tend toward our good. Self-love often restrain man from acts of wickedness and tends them toward seeking after virtue.

Edwards identifies virtue as “a certain kind of beautiful nature, form, or quality. He then defines “beautiful” as that form of quality “which appears in itself agreeable or comely.” This agreeableness or gratefulness of the idea is beauty. One does not perceive the beauty of true virtue by argumentation on its connections and consequences, but by the frame of the human mind – a “certain spiritual sense” given by God. This frame of mind is benevolence: a disposition to relish, be pleased with, or share union of heart to being. Virtue thus consists in the cordial consent or union of being to being in general. God himself, according to Edwards, is in effect being in general. Furthermore, it is necessary that God should agree with himself and be united with himself and love himself. Consequently, to give the same temper to his creatures is more agreeable to his necessary nature. After all, every being that has understanding and will necessarily loves happiness. And it necessarily follows from self-love that men love to be loved by others. This is what the sacred Scriptures call by the name of light, knowledge, and understanding. The moral sense in natural conscience is indeed the “general natural rule which God has given to all men, whereby to judge or moral good and evil.” Edwards then defines words like right and wrong in terms of “that which deserves praise or blame, respect or resentment.” In the end, men cannot call anything right or wrong, worthy or ill-deserving, where there is no uniformity in connecting praise and blame. This general stand is found in nature, which comes from God.


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