St. John of Damascus: On the Virtues and the Vices

Philokalia, vol 2, pp.337-340

In this section, St. John replaces the Aristotelian framework he used to categorize virtues and vice in the previous section, and restates them within a Platonic framework.

For Plato, there are three separate parts of the soul: appetite, spirit, and reason.

For St. John “the soul has three aspects: the intelligent, the incensive and the desiring aspect.” Each aspect contains sins. Each sin can be remedied through concrete cures.

The Three Aspects of the Soul

  Intelligent  unbelief, heresy, folly, blasphemy, ingratitude, and assent to sins.  unwavering faith in God and in true, undeviating and orthodox teachings, through the continual study of the inspired utterances of the Spirit, through pure and ceaseless prayer, and through the offering of thanks to God.
    Incensive  heartlessness, hatred, lack of compassion, rancor, envy, murder and dwelling constantly on such things.  deep sympathy for one’s fellow men, love, gentleness, brotherly affection, compassion, forbearance and kindness.  
Desiring  gluttony, greed, drunkenness, unchastity, adultery, uncleanliness, licentiousness, love of material things, and the desire for empty glory, gold, wealth, and the pleasures of the flesh.  fasting, self-control, hardship, a total shedding of possessions and their distribution to the poor, desire for the imperishable blessings held in store, longing for the kingdom of God, and aspiration for divine sonship.  

St. John’s virtues and vices are not disembodied lists but understood in the context of a living human being. Thus, the portrait of the human person that emerges is whole and dynamic.

Within each of us lies a complex labyrinth of passions and virtues that constantly interact with each other and affect the state of our soul and actions. It takes alertness, spiritual knowledge and discipline to continuously re-order them and balance relationships among them so that they retake their original, intended nature. For example, note how desire, in interaction with other forces, can either point us to love for God or self-destruction, depending on our management of it.

Desire likewise conforms with nature when through humility, self-control and a total shedding of possessions, it kills the passions – that is, the pleasures of the flesh, and the appetite for material wealth and transient glory – and turns to the love that is divine and immortal. For desire is drawn towards three things: the pleasure of the flesh, vain self-glory, and the acquisition of material wealth. As a result of this senseless appetite, it scorns God and His commandments, and forgets His generosity; it turns like a savage beast against its neighbor; it plunges the intelligence into darkness and prevents it from looking towards the truth.

Anatomy of passion

As a child and a rebellious teenager, I bristled against the concept of “sin.” I thought sins were static, arbitrary lists of rules that you either kept or transgressed and you were accordingly rewarded or punished. But the understanding of sin as a gradual, fluid process of addiction and enslavement changed my perspective of human soul and life.

St. John dissects the slow and often subtle and imperceptible progression by which a seemingly harmless thought becomes an obsession and drives our lives. He details seven stages.  

  1. Provocation-a random, seemingly innocuous thought comes to mind: shouldn’t I be further along in my career? I can’t believe how offensive his comments were! I must find a way to impress them, etc.
  • Coupling—you dwell on this thought “choosing deliberately to dally with it in a pleasurable manner:”

Come to think about it he has been disrespectful to me for a while now. I remember now what he said to me last summer and, also, during Christmas…

  • Passion: the thought becomes obsessive, “letting the imagination brood on the thought continually:”

I am outraged. I bet others noticed my ill-treatment by him  and thought me a foul. I was an idiot for not putting him in his place. Let me think of all the ways I can take revenge.

  • Wrestling “is the resistance offered to the impassioned thought.” The most effective resistance is cutting the thought the minute it enters our mind, without consenting to be engaged by it for one second.
  • Captivity occurs when we abandon every sense of resistance. We rationalize and accept:

Anyone with any self-respect would react this way. It is a logical human reaction. What else could I have done when disrespected? I will only find relief in a perfect revenge plot.

  • Assent is “giving approval to the passion inherent in the thought.”
  • Actualization is “putting the impassioned thought into effect once it has received our assent.”

Embodiment of the Virtues

It is relatively easy to experience sporadically an outburst of generosity, a feeling of kindness toward someone we like, a rare moment of compassion and charity. Perhaps it happens when we are not too busy at work or not too preoccupied with our own affairs. It is by far harder, ho to have embodied such virtues so that they become second nature to us on a daily basis.

God is not interested in occasional grand gestures, St. John tells us. He is similarly disinterested in good results that our actions bring about accidentally rather than through intention and purpose:  

God is not interested in what happens to turn out to be good or in what appears to be good. He is interested in the purpose for which a thing is done. As the holy fathers say, when the intellect forgets the purpose of a religious observance, the outward practice of virtue loses its value. For whatever is done indiscriminately and without purpose is not only of no benefit – even though good in itself – but actually does harm.


Only by directing the three aspects of our soul toward God rather than vices, do we experience freedom.  

When the intellect has been freed in this way from the passions we have described and been raised up to God, it will henceforth live the life of blessedness, receiving the pledge of the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Cor. 1:22).


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