Virtues and vices are habits, modifications of our activities brought about by our choosing to do things objectively good or bad. Vice is a settled bad habit. When we have a vice, it means that we have so guided ourselves in our free actions that now we spontaneously do the wrong or bad thing. We no longer question our actions, though we could.
Once we have acquired a vice by our free decisions, everything we do is distorted by it. If we make, say, money the primary definition of our happiness, we will subordinate everything—all our intelligence, pains, and pleasures—to the goal of acquiring wealth. For us, “prudence” will simply mean finding the safest way to make more money. No longer able to see any other good, we will choose even our friends and the schools we attend with a view to profit.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers, the second book of the Lord of the Rings series, we find a striking example of what happens when we select the wrong end for our actions. Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn have been looking for two abducted hobbits, Merry and Pippin. The three are trying to figure out the nature of their enemy. Suddenly, the wizard Gandalf, who they thought was dead, reappears. Gandalf has superior wisdom, but even he does not know everything. Moreover, they all know that dark powers are arrayed against them. But for all its angelic-like powers, their evil enemy does not anticipate everything, especially kindness and joy. We are reminded of the old principle that good can know both itself and evil, but evil cannot know good.
Gandalf and the three heroes struggle to understand what is happening as they prepare to hurry on in pursuit of those who have captured the hobbits. They are particularly concerned with the power of Saruman, the shrewd devil-like figure who opposes them. Gandalf explains the mind of Saruman: This fallen wizard sees everything in terms of his mistaken assumptions about reality, a fatal flaw that provides space in the drama for the small and weak of this world. Gandalf explains the powerful Ring around which the drama revolves. It has strange powers, especially the power to corrupt those who desire it. Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, currently possesses the Ring. He understands that the only safety for the world is to prevent this Ring from falling into the hands of the evil powers who compete for it among themselves.
Here is Gandalf’s analysis of the effect of vice on an angelic soul when it chooses to make its own power its central mission in life:
The Enemy of course has long known that the Ring is abroad, and that it is borne by a hobbit. He knows now the number of our Company…. He does not yet perceive our purpose clearly. He supposes that we were all going to Minas Tirith; for that is what he himself would have done in our place. And according to his wisdom it would have been a heavy stroke against his power. Indeed, he is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring…seeking to cast him down and take his place. That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind. That we should wish to destroy the Ring itself has not yet entered into his darkest dream.
The evil power is being consistent with himself. That is, he must assume that everyone else shares his principles, that anyone would do what he would do to obtain the Ring and its power. He cannot imagine someone’s choosing not to possess that power as his defining purpose. Thus, he cannot see reality or goodness.
This is the power of any vice. It causes us to see everything in the image of our self-defined end. Blinded to everything else, we can no longer imagine a world in which our chosen end is not everyone else’s end as well. Losing sight of reality, we end up with only ourselves.