Section 2 : Moral Virtues and Vices

In our last discussion, we stated that the human soul possesses four distinct powers. They are: Intellect, Anger, Passion, and the Power of Imagination (al-quwwah al-wahmiyyah or al-`amilah) [1]. The thing we should notice now is that the purification and right training of every one of these powers will result in the emergence of a particular faculty in the human being.

The purification and rightward training of the Power of Intellect will result in the development of knowledge, and subsequently wisdom, in a human being. The purification of the Power of Anger will result in the emergence of the faculty of courage, and subsequently forebearance (hilm). The purification of the Power of Passion and desire will result in the development of the, faculty of chastity, and subsequently generosity. And the purification of the Power of Imagination will cause the emergence of the faculty of justice in a human being.

The moral virtues, therefore, are: wisdom, courage, chastity, and justice. The opposite qualities of these are: ignorance [2], cowardice, concupiscence (gluttony and lust), injustice and tyranny.

Wisdom means possession of an understanding of the objects of the world which concurs with the reality of things. The presence of courage and chastity means that the powers of anger and desire are entirely at the command of the intellect and completely free from the bondages of concupiscence and egoism. 

As for justice, it refers to the condition when the Power of Imagination is completely under the command of the Power of the Intellect. This implies the regulation of all the powers of the soul by the Power of Intellect. In other words, the presence of the faculty of justice in the soul necessitates the presence of the other three faculties of wisdom, courage and chastity.

An important matter must be pointed out here. In the view of Islamic ethicians, a person who has developed the four faculties within himself, is not praiseworthy unless the possession of these virtues benefits other people also. This is what reason tells us. That is, it tells us that purely internal and private virtues do not have much value, and their possessor does not deserve praise.

Moderation and Deviation

Every one of the four ethical virtues is to be practised to a certain degree and within definite limits, transgression of which would transform a virtue into a vice. If every virtue is thought of as the center of a circle, any movement away from the center would be considered as a vice, and the farther away it were to move from this point, the greater the vice.

For every virtue, therefore, there are innumerable vices; since there is only one center in a circle, whereas points all around the center are infinite in number. In regard to deviation, it does not make difference in which direction the deviation occurs. Deviation from the center, in whatever direction, is a vice.

To find the real center, which entails absolute moderation, is thus difficult to attain. To remain at this center and to preserve this balance is even more difficult. The Prophet (S) said:

The Surat Hud has made an old man of me because of the verse, `Remain as steadfast as you have been commanded'. (11:112)

As opposed to the real center, there is the approximate center, which is more accessible. Individuals who purify and develop their souls usually reach this relative center and acquire relative moderation. It is for this reason that moral virtues differ with different individuals, circumstances, and times. Relative moderation, like deviation, covers a wide area at the center of which lies the point of absolute balance and moderation.