Marleigh Kerr

18th Century Theology

Professor Westblade

1 May 2023


The Continuity of the Conversation of Virtue in Jonathan Edwards

The “goodness” of humanity is what many have striven to understand for centuries. What is it that makes humans good? And more importantly, how is one meant to judge that? The answer, in part, can be found in a description and understanding of human virtue. But that of course raises more questions, what is virtue, and how does one know if they have it? This is what many people throughout history have sought to understand and create a definition of. One such person is Jonathan Edwards. By no means did he start this conversation, but rather joined into a tradition that started centuries before. He merely joined his voice to a long-standing idea behind the truth of what virtue is. To frame the conversation, Webster dictionary defines virtue as “conformity to a standard of right or a particular moral excellence.[1] This definition provides a jumping off point but still raises many questions about how one goes about obtaining virtue, and what does it mean in a deeper and more profound sense. Jonathan Edwards, as a theologian, develops his own particular view of the meaning of virtue, but as mentioned above, it comes after many other thinkers. One prominent philosopher, in part known for his view of virtue, is Aristotle. Aristotle too encountered the problem of virtue and attempted to understand how one comes to develop virtue. As the idea of virtue continues to be explored and studied, it is important to see how these thinkers are coming together on virtue, and more importantly where they may differ. Through this discussion, there can be a better understanding of what virtue is, and what it is not. The ideas of virtue in Edwards and in the arena of a Christian Ethicist can highlight how he views the world and God, as well any continuation or straying from previous thinkers, mainly when looking at Aristotle as a prominent philosopher.

            Jonathan Edwards discusses the topic of virtue in multiple different writings. In one Sermon entitled Love the Sum of All Virtue, Edwards sums up what he seems to mean when he discusses the ides of virtue.  He says, “All that virtue which is saving, and distinguishing of true Christians from others, is summed up in Christian or divine love.”[2] He continues to dive into more detail of what he means by this statement and the nuances that are involved in it, however the full meaning of virtue seems to be clear. Virtue is love, most specifically Christian love. In one dissertation, entitled The Nature of True Virtue, Edwards explores this topic of what is true virtue more completely. Here, he attempts to encounter what he still sees as something to be explained and give it the answer it deserves. To start, he walks the reader through many different aspects that are important to seeing the fullest definition of virtue. To do this, he first defines mere virtue. This is to provide a jumping off point with which to then discuss what he believes true virtue is. Here, he gives two definitions of regular virtue. He says, “Virtue is the beauty of those qualities and acts of the mind that are of a moral nature, i.e. such as are attended with desert or worthiness of praise or blame.”[3] In addition, he adds to that definition by saying, “Virtue is the beauty of the qualities and exercises of the heart, or those actions which proceed from them.”[4] Both these definitions share one common factor, the internal process of the human person. The former definition depicts conscious thoughts that are related to morality, specifically ones that have some sort of outward action that can be evaluated by observers, and they can deem them moral or not. The latter definition attaches a certain beauty to the idea of virtue, as well as making it a thing of the heart rather than the mind. It is about the specific actions in these categories as well. If those two definitions were to be combined, they would show an understanding of virtue that is and both from the heart and from the mind, which can be assigned some sort of evaluation but should also be related to beauty.

This start to the definition of virtue still requires more work and conversation in order to expand upon what is meant by true virtue and how it can be attained. In this Dissertation, he focuses more on the latter definition to discover true virtue. He first says, “That only, therefore, is what I mean by true virtue, with is that, belonging to the heart of an intelligent being, that is beautiful by a general beauty, or beautiful in a comprehensive view as it is in itself, and as related to everything that it stands in connection with.”[5] What Edwards chooses to italicize in this gives insight to what he means to be taken as most important of this definition. First, virtue must come from meanings of the heart. Second, when it is beautiful, it must be in a holistic way. The beauty must be general or be attached to all things. This beauty of the heart of the action means that virtue must also contain a certain disposition to other living things, or to being.[6] This ultimately leads to the final connection he wants to make in an overarching lesson of virtue that was alluded to above. This conclusion of Edwards is that “true virtue most essentially consists in love.”[7] This is the conclusion he described in the sermon but was able to be walked to in this dissertation. He started with the typical definition of virtue that consists of moral acts of the mind that can be assigned praise or even blame. He then added a certain beauty and heart action to his definition. This led to a benevolence to other beings in that beauty and heart. Finally, this landed him with the most important word of all, love. Love is the driving force behind all virtue. He sums up the thought behind this by saying,

Therefore there is room left for no other conclusion than that the primary object of virtuous love is Being, simply considered; or that true virtue primarily consists, not in love to any particular beings, because of their virtue or beauty, nor in gratitude, because they love us; but in a propensity and union of heart to Being simply considered; exciting “absolute Benevolence” (if I may so call it) to Being in general. I say, true virtue “primarily” consists in this. For I am far from asserting that there is no true virtue in any other love than this absolute benevolence. [8]


He made many distinctions about the type of love that should be demonstrated. With one definition describing the need for a disposition of benevolence. This is important, because for Edwards, benevolence is the love towards another being regardless of their beauty but merely for their well-being, whereas the other option would be complacence and this love is merely complacence for a being beloved for their beauty, or causing no other delight than beauty.[9] As Edwards says, “So that if all virtue primarily consists in that affection of heart to being, which is exercised in benevolence, or an inclination to its good, then God’s virtue is so extended as to include a propensity not only to being actually existing, and actually beautiful, but to possible being….”[10] This is why it was necessary for Edwards to draw beyond mere beauty in his definition of virtue and bring a disposition of benevolence, general beauty, and most specifically love into focus. That brings the focus out of oneself and into the real concern for others, it also ties the way humans are acting into a replication of the actions and virtue of God, however imperfect. There is a universal aspect to true virtue as well. Edwards says, “…the Nature of true virtue consists in a disposition to benevolence towards Being in general: though, from such a disposition may arise exercises of love to particular beings, as objects are presented and occasions arise.”[11] One must have love to all beings in a general, or an overarching way, rather than all the time focusing on one person. As he mentions, there will be instances of individual love, it must always be towards them and never just merely loving them for only their beauty.

            While Edwards gives many more nuances and depictions of benevolent love and true virtue, he finally settles on one overarching truth. If a being itself must be shown this love for a person to have true virtue, then the true virtue ultimately rests with love of God. As He has the most “being” of all, He deserves the most love, and if love is the end of true virtue, then “True virtue must chiefly consist in love to God; the Being of beings, infinitely the greatest and best of beings.”[12] In order to have any form of true virtue there must first and chiefly be a love of God. If there is no love of God, then there cannot be proper love of created things and then there is not true virtue but merely good acts. Edwards again sums up this view nicely by saying, “And therefore certainly, unless we will all be atheists, we must allow that true virtue does primarily and most essentially consist in a supreme love to God, and that where this is wanting, there can be no true virtue.”[13] The duty and love to God is most important to the understanding of true virtue for Edwards. His definitions and nuances in this description can get confusing, but his meaning is crystal clear; true virtue is love and most importantly love of God. Without these things, existence is less, and virtue is nonexistent.

            Edwards is by no means the first to engage in the conversation of virtue, but he does make the valuable additions and changes to add a new voice to the issues. In an attempt to further understand Edwards, putting him into dialogue with the Aristotelian ethics proves to further the understanding of them both, as well as virtue as a whole. Aristotle’s definition of virtue is well understood in the history of philosophy. He dedicated a lot of time to understand what he meant when he discussed virtue. He landed at the definition that depicted virtue in a very particular way. He wrote,

So virtue is a purposive disposition, lying in a mean that is relative to us and determined by a rational principle, and by which a prudent man would use to determine it. It is a mean between two kinds of vice, one of excess and the other of deficient; and also for this reason, that whereas these vices fall short of or exceed the right measure in both feelings and actions, virtue discovers the mean and chooses it.[14]


In Aristotle’s point of view, he separates virtue as having two extremes, in other words any virtue could have too much or too little of itself. For example, courage as a virtue would have an excess of rashness and a defect of cowardice.[15] The goal of the person attempting to practice virtue is to discover where that mean lands in every particular situation and hone into it. Through this habitual practice of virtue, one is able to better practice virtue in the next situation and so on. By the time it has developed into a true virtue, one is no longer merely choosing the actions because it seems like the right thing to do, but not acting a virtuous person would do. Anybody can replicate actions, and for many, the habituation of virtue begins in replicating the virtuous actions of those around. However, this virtue must continue to grow until it is a true and tried virtue of the person acting rather than a mere replication of a good person.[16] A virtuous person will always choose the right action because they see the mean of that particular virtue, not because there is an attempt to prove they are good. Anybody can mimic and act in a seemingly virtuous way, but only those who have authentically created a habit can be counted among the truly virtuous. There is both a contemplative aspect to virtue, one has to properly evaluate the situation and from there be able to act in accordance with their habitual virtue and be able to choose the mean. Virtue rests on habit, and each situation requires a different mean of each habit and the ability to discern what that would be.

            Aristotle’s thoughts on the purpose and creation for habit can be paired with Edwards to see where they grow from one another, and from where they are speaking with the same foundation. Their most obvious difference that must be contended with is the object of God. Edwards clearly focuses mostly on aligning his view of who God is and where that can be seen lining up with the human life. One analyst, when discussing Edwards in light of this relationship of other virtue thinkers, said, “But Edwards’s theological commitments lead him to an account of the virtues that is simultaneously distinct from his predecessors and contemporaries and that gives him some measure of uniqueness in the history of Christian ethics.”[17] In Edwards’ evaluation of virtue, because of how he sees God, there is some level of newness that allows him to add his voice and wisdom to the conversation of virtue. Edwards defines true virtue as love above all else, as was discussed above. This is important to understanding the ideas behind Edwards and how he is looking at the world. Through this understanding, Edwards does not deny the existence or importance of the other virtues, but merely seems them as in light of love or as revealing “one of loves dimensions.”[18] This provides a difference from Aristotle, as Aristotle is seeing these virtues in light of their own dimensions. Each one has their own mean and must be treated in respect to its excess and defect. It could be said that virtues such as prudence for Aristotle play a special role, as one must have a strong prudent mindset in order to be able to better discover the mean of the other virtues. However, Aristotle does not define true virtue in light of only one. This difference comes because Edwards is looking to God’s love and seeing the effect of that love on the world. As one thinker says, “True virtue is most fundamentally divine virtue; it is God’s very nature and the key expression of God’s perfect moral excellences. Yet through God’s creative and redemptive activity, it becomes a human virtue as well.”[19] There is no looking at the virtues without first understanding God’s nature and who He is and seeing all of love and human virtue in light of that. Aristotle, on the other hand, sees each virtue as having its own form of the good, each mean is the ideal and there is no factor of the nature of God that plays into that.

            There is also the issue of how the habitual view of Aristotle can play into the love view of Edwards. The question becomes whether there is any similarity in this view, and where the differences lie. The forming of virtue through habits is essential to Aristotle’s view of this issue and it becomes a common way in which to view this all. In The Theology of Jonathan Edwards, the authors speculate that in terms of Aristotle, this idea was “conceived of habit as a principle of operation, accidental to the being of substance” while “Edwards habit, on the other hand, is a principle of being, constitutive of an entity’s essence.”[20] This statement, in attempting to tie them both to some form of habit, would appear that there may be a world in which they contain some sort of similarity in the thinking of virtue as being formed by habit, albeit one by accidental, or uncontrollable, fact of the being and one as a principle of that being. However, in this same chapter there is an evaluation of what is truly meant when it comes to habit and an evaluation of the fact that there may not be a similarity in this view at all. Aristotle and his view believed that benevolence was a potential aspect of human life and merely needed to be cultivated and trained in order to fully bring out the effect for people. Eventually, through this practice virtue would just take root in the persons heart and they would continue to act in a virtuous way.[21] Edwards, on the other hand, spoke in a frame of mind that there had to be something else prior to those virtuous actions, there had to be a view of beauty. For Edwards, this beauty was seen only in God, and had to be given by Him. Without that gift there could be no virtue, it could not be trained into a person by repeated action but rather they had to know the beauty of God and act in accordance with that fact.[22] While repeated virtuous actions can be good in both cases because it means the end goal of obtaining virtue has been reached, there is a mass difference between how they believe that virtue can be obtained and whether there needs to be an outside factor. This is also another way the difference of the view of God plays a strong role in how Edwards views virtue in comparison with Aristotle.

            One area where they may be seen as similar and searching for the same thing, is that both are attempting to create and understand virtue for the benefit of mankind. There is an attempt to understand how best to allow people to practice their best lives and discovering human excellence.[23] By teaching what virtue is and how to discover it one can then take that knowledge and pursue how best to live out a full and virtuous life. Even if that may not be done perfectly it is still in attempt of searching out something more than a merely ordinary life in which one just exists with no effort to further oneself. This appears to be a minimal similarity, but it is important to point out that they are in pursuit of an ultimate good, and even if the focus remains different it is still in pursuit of a higher human life.

            Edwards, while joining a long conversation of what virtue is and how it plays into one’s life, still adds something new to the table. Particularly when comparing his view of virtue to that of Aristotle and the Aristotelian conversation. Edwards, by bringing in his view of God and God’s love as the ultimate view of virtue took the conversation outside of one’s own habits and practice and into the view that all is done in light of God and for His glory. The differences this view brings can be most clearly seen when looking at Aristotle and the different ways he sees virtue and how to obtain it. By bringing the two thinkers into conversation with one another on one of the greatest issues to understand, those different starting points, whether God or habit, come into sharper focus. With so many different views of virtue circling around, it is up to the individual practitioner of each virtue to decide which camp seems the best to reach the shared goal of a full and virtuous life. The end goal remains the same, how does one obtain virtue, but the actions to be completed to get there differs greatly when looking at how virtue is defined and understood when looking at different thinkers.

















Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Edited by Hugh Tredennick and Jonathon Barnes. Translated by J.A.K Thomson. London: Penguin, 2004.

Celano, Anthony. Aristotle's Ethics and Medieval Philosophy: Moral Goodness and Practical Wisdom. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Cochran, Elizabeth Agnew. “An Ethic of Receptive Human Virtues.” In Receptive Human Virtues: A New Reading of Jonathan Edwards's Ethics, 1–20. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010.

Edwards, Jonathan. Ethical Writings / Jonathan Edwards. Edited by Paul Ramsey. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

McClymond, Michael J., and Gerald R. McDermott. The Theology of Jonathan Edwards. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

“Virtue Definition & Meaning.” Merriam-Webster. Accessed April 25, 2023.



[1] “Virtue Definition & Meaning,” Merriam-Webster, accessed April 25, 2023,

[2] Jonathan Edwards, Ethical Writings / Jonathan Edwards, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 131.

[3] Edwards, Ethical Writings, 539.

[4] Edwards, Ethical Writings, 539.

[5] Edwards, Ethical Writings, 540.

[6] Edwards, Ethical Writings, 540.

[7] Edwards, Ethical Writings, 541.

[8] Edwards, Ethical Writings, 544.

[9]  Edwards, Ethical Writings, 542-543.

[10] Edwards, Ethical Writings, 542.

[11] Edwards, Ethical Writings, 541.

[12] Edwards, Ethical Writings, 550.

[13] Edwards, Ethical Writings, 554.

[14] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, ed. Hugh Tredennick and Jonathon Barnes, trans. J.A.K Thomson (London: Penguin, 2004), 1107a 1-5.

[15] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 1107b 1-5.

[16] Anthony Celano, Aristotle's Ethics and Medieval Philosophy: Moral Goodness and Practical Wisdom (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 47-48.

[17] Elizabeth Agnew Cochran, “An Ethic of Receptive Human Virtues,” in Receptive Human Virtues: A New Reading of Jonathan Edwards's Ethics (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), pp. 1-20, 1.

[18] Cochran, “An Ethic,” 3.

[19] Cochran, “An Ethic,” 4.

[20] Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 530.

[21] McClymond and McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 546.

[22] McClymond and McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 546.

[23] Cochran, “An Ethic,” 4.