When it comes to virtues in the Christian tradition, this verse from the King James version of the Bible has tremendous influence: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” (1 Corinthians 13:13). In many translations of the Bible, the word charity is love. Popular culture, as evidence by popular songs, seems to agree that love is the greatest of virtues.
Next in importance seems to be faith. For example, a simple word count of faith in the bible yields 247 uses of the word, whereas hope has nearly a third less occurrences at 144 uses.
Yet because of the order in the verse above “faith, hope, and charity,” hope tends to get lost in between the heavy weights of faith and charity.
One can make a case to begin the discussion of virtues by focusing on hope because it is the starting point for virtue development. Thus it is one of the primary virtues. In this sense, a better ordering of them might be hope, faith and charity.
Hope or Optimism
Hope or Optimism, and Faith and Confidence have a very close relationship. At times we use these words interchangeable, speaking of something that cannot be proved empirically, but which we think is true—have confidence in—or at least hope is true. To paraphrase Neil Maxwell, in the geometry of virtues, the circumference of hope is greater than that of faith. (“Brightness of Hope” Neal A. Maxwell, October 1994 General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)
And thus I believe hope or optimism is where virtues begin. We may lack confidence completely, and yet we hope to be able to do something. We may not necessarily care about others, but we hope they might become our friends rather than our enemies.
Hope is the seed of progress; dreams are born within the virtue of hope. Hope is focused on the future, the unknown, the yet to be created, the yet to be explored.
I am mindful that many others have suggested different virtues as the parent or starting point for all virtues, including Gratitude (Cicero), Humility (Saint Augustine), and others. And although hope might be sandwiched between the powerful virtues of faith and charity, hope’s power as the starting place for all virtues warrants its position as one of the primary virtues. Virtue begins with Hope.
Faith or Confidence
Faith or Confidence share with Hope and Optimism a relationship to that which is not seen: we have faith in things we cannot see; we have confidence in things that might not be proven empirically.
Yet there is a difference in Faith and Hope. That which we hope for may not come to pass; it may not be true. Faith and Confidence however, must be based on truth. This bright line divides these two sets of great virtues.
Hope is almost wholly centered in the future, whereas Faith, or Confidence have a deeper relationship with the past. Faith and Confidence grow based upon our experiences, and those experiences ground us in things we know, but cannot necessarily see or prove.
In this sense, Faith and Confidence are like a great rudder to a ship, held at the stern, which help to keep the potential impetuousness of Hope and Optimism at the bow of the ship in check as we chart a course. As we sense our hopes prove possible, they move under us to become things we have faith in, stable positions by which we are guided.
If we only act upon that which is proven in such a way to be understandable to others, we will not know very much in this life. Faith is a virtue because it expands our knowledge of truth to things that may not be known to others, and gives us steadiness in acting upon them in very strong, forceful ways.
Faith and confidence build upon the initial energy of hope
in forceful ways, propelling us to assertive actions. It allows us to test other virtues for
goodness, and gather the evidence in ways others may not see or understand, as
we grow in our goodness.
Love or Caring
Of course the most powerful of all virtues is Love, and its counterpart appropriate for all occasions, Caring. As noted, a review of the most popular topic in music and literature attest to nearly overpowering nature of this virtue.
Perhaps this propensity to sing about love is the incredibly positive feelings that come with it as an emotion. And this perhaps is why it might be considered the greatest virtue. It provides a power not available in any other virtue.
Hope and Optimism, Faith and Confidence can be applied to an innumerable number of tasks and activities. One of the powers of love and caring is it focuses us on the most important subjects; those we love. Love and caring center us.
Two more important characteristics of this virtue. One is that by its nature, when practiced purely, it has a very strong selfless quality to it. This enables love to act as a catalyst for complementing every other virtue. In a sense if we are centered in love alone, we have a good chance of being virtuous in all respects.
In a sense this can be seen through the famous Christian text: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Note how many other virtues are encompassed in this one virtue of Love. [Footnote: New International Version (NIV) of the Bible, 1 Corinthians 15:4-7]
However, the opposite (or should it be complement?) of this is also true. This virtue is so powerful that in some ways it must be countered, or complemented, by all the other virtues in the virtue wheel, to keep us from becoming too absorbed on the object of our love alone. We’ll discuss this more fully below in discussing it’s complement, Virtue.
Hope is the beginning of all virtues; but it is not long-lasting in its power to keep going.
Faith allows us to gather evidence—even if only available or explainable to ourselves—to move forward more powerfully in pursuit of any goal, including being more virtuous.
Love, though, provides the most powerful force in the world, focused, selfless, and willing to overcome any obstacle.
This is why these three are the primary virtues, universally.