Some of the most dreaded words we hear in our day to day lives is wait, stop, or not at this time. In some instances the time it takes to learn something, have something done for us, or accomplish something seems reasonable. Other times the waiting can feel excessive. There is a saying that has been around a while that directly deals with this issue.
Who said “patience is a virtue” is answered with names like: King David (d. 970 B.C.), Cato (d. 149 B.C.), St. Paul (d. 64/67 A.D.), St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274 A.D.), William Langland (d. 1386 A.D.), and Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400 A.D.). It is true. Patience actually is a ‘lesser’ virtue.
All of these men did write something very similar and all meant something very close. Though, we will see that one of them hit it directly on the head. They were each conservative in their personalities and all but one were followers of either the Jewish or Catholic faiths.
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Who Actually Said ‘Patience Is A Virtue’?
It is important to make the distinction between a ‘saying’ or colloquialism and something that was written down in a manuscript. The things people say sometimes come from written texts and sometimes they influence them.
There is no way to be sure how many times this phrase has come into and out of existence throughout history in the many languages and cultures around the world. It could have been a common saying and then recorded by some of these authors or it could continuously be given new life as future generations read what they wrote.
Four out of these six didn’t write their works in English, and the two who did, wrote in an older version very foreign from our spoken language today. Nevertheless, all of these writers penned sentiments that match the phrase, “patience is a virtue” in meaning.
|King David||970 B.C.||“Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him”||Psalms|
|Cato The Elder||149 B.C.||“Of human virtues, patience is most great.”||The Distichs of Cato|
|Saint Paul||64/67 A.D.||“…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”||The Letter To The Galations|
|Saint Thomas Aquinas||1274 A.D.||“It is therefore evident that patience is a virtue.“||Summa Theologiae|
|William Langland||1386 A.D.||“patience is a fair virtue.”||Piers Plowman|
|Geoffrey Chaucer||1400 A.D.||“Patience is a high virtue.”||The Canterbury Tales|
King David Of Israel
According to the Jewish Virtual Library in their article on King David of Israel, his 40 year reign from 1010 B.C. to 970 B.C. unified his people. He was known as a successful military leader, poet, musician, and later recognized as a prophet.
The book of Psalms is traditionally attributed to David in Jewish scholarship with concession that this may have been at times in an editorial role.
As stated in the article on the Psalter of the Psalms by Catholic.com, the tradition of the Catholic Church and associated scholarship attribute 73 of the Psalms to King David, with the remainder penned by the sons of Korah, Asaph, Moses, and others.
So, is King David’s words in the Hebrew Writings (Hebrew Ketuvim) of the Tenakh (Hebrew Bible) the origin of ‘patience is a virtue’? Let’s see what he wrote in ancient Hebrew recorded for us in the English version of Psalms 37:
7 Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
over those who carry out evil devices.
8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.King David, Psalms 37:7-9 NRSVCE
Do not fret—it leads only to evil.
9 For the wicked shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.
This is one of the texts pointed to by proponents of David’s inspiration of the phrase. Though the ideas that we will see later appearing in the understanding of patience being the remedy for the sin of wrath, it is not expressly claiming that it is a virtue.
It cannot be denied that it is admonished as a trait of the highest caliber, but it is seen as a characteristic that can be developed as a means to an end rather than an end unto itself. This may not be the origin patience being ascribed as one of the ultimate goals for the moral life, a virtue.
Cato The Elder
The Distichs of Cato is a work of proverbial wisdom that some scholars claim to be a product of Carcus Porcius (Cato the Elder, d. 149 B.C.) written in Latin. It wasn’t used widely in scholarship until roughly the 13th century A.D. though it is believed to have been compiled and penned in the third century B.C.
You can read The Distichs of Cato translated from the Latin into English by getting your copy here on Amazon.
In his collection of wisdom sayings, he recorded a version of our phrase that seems to be very similar once translated.
Of human virtues, patience is most great.Cato Marcus Porcius “the Elder”, The Distichs of Cato
Now here we have something that is closer to what we are looking for. The major problem is ascribing the phrase to Cato. This work is a known compilation of wisdom sayings from various sources and there is no real certainty that he was the author of the work to begin with.
This means that more than likely the phrase or idea predated this text in some form. It is not exactly what we are looking for in composition as well. With unknown authorship and no real agreement that Cato even wrote the compilation, we need to look further. It is clear though that the base idea was present at that time.
Saint Paul, The Apostle
Being one of the most prolific writers of the New Testament of the Bible, Saint Paul (d. 64/67 A.D.) and his letters inform much of the theology of the Catholic Church and of Protestant Christian denominations. The theme of patience and virtues in the writings of later theologians and scholars is based in large part on the writings of Paul.
Converting to the Christian faith after hunting, persecuting, and killing Christians for years as a Jewish rabbi, Saul of Tarsus changed his name to Paul and began establishing Christian communities all around the Mediterranean sea. His letters to these groups are what we see of his writings in the New Testament.
The theme of patience makes an appearance in many of his letters, though some are more explicit than others. Here is a common passage that some scholars would point us to as a foundation for our phrase ‘patience is a virtue.’
22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control.Saint Paul, the apostle in his letter to the Galations (5:22-23, NRSVCE)
We can see here that he is placing patience directly in with the higher truths and goals men are to aspire to attain. Later theologians will expound on this list and declare their relationship to virtues.
What is clear from this passage and the subsequent use of it in scholarship is that Paul the apostle held patience in high enough regard that he placed it in the same list as love. Anyone knowing Paul’s writings will understand his view on love.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends.Saint Paul, the apostle in his first letter to the Corinthians (13:4-8 NRSVCE)
Here again, we don’t have the direct quote in syntax and structure and in this instance no explicit designation of virtues.
As we will see with our next theologian, Paul’s words did have a lasting effect on the Christian faith. Though many claiming to be Christian do not head these words out of their own free will, these words changed the world and helped to shape Western culture.
Saint Thomas Aquinas
Saint Thomas Aquinas (1274 A.D.) is a Doctor of the Catholic Church and the primary theologian whose work forms the basis of nearly all Christian doctrine. His work the Summa Theologiae is considered by many in scholarship one of the worlds great texts even in its unfinished state.
Much of his format in the Summa is in the form of questions about theological and moral issues to which he forms honest rebuttals and counters. Relevant to our purpose here is a very on point question that he undertakes in Latin about the value of patience.
The second part of the second part, question 136, Article 1 reads:
Whether patience is a virtue?ST II-II, q. 136, a. 1
Without getting too deep into the reasons for which he makes the following statement, let it suffice here to say that he maintained that virtues lead toward the good or prevent those things that hinder man from reaching it. Patience he attests can ‘safeguard the good of reason against the impulse of the passions.’ (ST II-II, q. 136, a.1, co.)
Here is the quote many may be looking for when they are wanting a direct verbatim translation to the English of ‘patience is a virtue’.
It is therefore evident that patience is a virtue.ST II-II, q. 136, a.1, co.
To be clear here, similar to the note about the Cato quote in the third century B.C., this sentiment must have been in popular thought, usage, or scholarship prior to the penning of this work. It is stated as if it were at least an academic argument in circulation.
With that said though, this is the closest you will find in written history of the exact phrasing of our colloquialism in question. For the most part, you will be safe in stating that Saint Thomas Aquinas said, “patience is a virtue”.
William Langland, The Poet
According to an article about William Langland (d. 1386) on poetryfoundation.org, Piers Plowman is a 3200 to 7200 line poem that is accepted as Langland’s work. As with The Distichs of Cato, authorship is far from certain or agreed upon by scholarship.
We know little about William Langland other than what can be gleaned from internal evidence in this poem. It is surmised that he was a member of the Catholic clergy from the town of Cleobury Mortimer, Shropshire, England. Corroborating evidence exists in a plaque that can be found on a former Catholic Parish church (now the Anglican Church of St. Mary The Virgin) in the same town.
The influence of the Church Fathers, Latin handbooks, and St. Thomas Aquinas are evident in his writing. Here is the quote that some say positions him as the originator of the phrase ‘patience is a virtue’.
patience is a fair virtue.William Langland, Piers Plowman
We should support the claim that William Langland is the origin of the modern day colloquialism with caution. Not only is the work not known to actually be penned by him, the author of the work would have been well acquainted with the work of both Saint Thomas and Cato.
It would be a shaky claim at best to ascribe the phrase’s beginnings as coming from the pen of Mr. Langland.
According to an article about Chaucer’s life on Biography.com, in his early years he attended the St. Paul Cathedral School in London. He became widely known for his poetic work:
- The Canterbury Tales
You can get your own copy of The Canterbury Tales on Amazon by following this link.
As stated by the British Library website’s article on Chaucer and his work, The Canterbury Tales is a poetic work that describes the stories of 31 pilgrims as they related them on the way to the shrine of Saint Thomas Beckett.
It is in this manuscript that we find the line that resembles our ‘saying’ in question. The line reads…
Patience is a high virtue.Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
As is evident, Chaucer was raised a Catholic. Here we should note that he, like William Langland would have been greatly influenced by the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas and Cato ‘The Elder’.
Aquinas’ work would have been at the forefront of Chaucer’s Catholic education. Cato’s collection of proverbial sayings were used in scholarship circles to teach and maintain Latin, the language of the Church.
Though this is similar to our quote in question, it falls short for the simple reason that Chaucer was merely borrowing from those that came before and did not uniquely pen either the language nor the meaning.
What Is A Virtue?
Now that we have surveyed the evidence, it is apparent that the designation of patience being on the level of a virtue was a common thought during the times of most all of these authors. What we can know, is that it is an ancient idea.
Of these old manuscripts, it is further clear that the closest iteration of the exact phrase was written by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae. With that understood, we are faced with the realization of the faith based foundation of the meaning of the word virtue.
Though there is a close and intertwined relationship between faith and reason, the phrase ‘patience is a virtue’ cannot be easily separated from faith based claims. So, in that context what is a virtue?
Greek Understanding Of Virtue
In the Greek understanding of virtue one has to consider the stance of thinkers like Plato and Aristotle. In short, Plato believed that nothing is real in them material world.
To free yourself from this shadow existence, a you must deny the pleasures and desires of the material to allow your true ‘spiritual’ self to become less weighed down after death, ascending to the real in the heavens.
This led to denying actions thought to weigh down the spirit that were deemed un-virtuous.
Aristotle was a student of Plato. Nearly all we know about Plato came from the writings of Aristotle as he dismantled Plato’s theories and gave us the thought that is at the foundation of Western culture and the Catholic Church.
Aristotle believed that the material is a completely real extension of the spiritual which is no less real. The virtues were guides to moral action based on universal truths that could be seen in both the material world and surmised about the spiritual one.
For Aristotle, virtues were the perfect goals to which a ‘good’ man would align his life. We were made for a virtuous life and denying this was to deny oneself.
Christian Understanding Of Virtue
Whether many know it or not, much of what we know as morality, happiness, and the good was defined by theologians, early Church Fathers, and leading clergy in the Catholic Church.
The underpinning of our society and culture in the West was and is uniquely Catholic. In the same way, virtue whether professed by a scholar of Greek reason, a proponent of a Protestant viewpoint, or a Catholic theologian will be undeniably influenced by the cultural understanding of virtue as painted by these ancient thinkers.
When St. Paul wrote his letters that we now see in the New Testament, he was writing to Greeks that understood that virtue was a goal that good men set their sights upon. He was writing to Romans that understood that right action was required to reach those goals.
When St. Thomas first read the writings of Aristotle, at that moment the world began to change. His belief that God created man with the goals of perfection set from the beginning informed even the writer of our Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence
Thomas Jefferson understood not only the the government was not the giver of human rights, but that these rights came from God and were dependent on His design. He understood a definition of happiness that Saint Thomas would give. Happiness is rightly defined as a virtuous, character filled life lived till the end.
So what is meant by the cardinal virtues. These are actually the same virtues any Greek thinker in the time of Aristotle would have found familiar. They were transferred by theologians to the Christian faith because of their love for both faith and reason equally.
These are the universally accepted Cardinal Virtues or Human Virtues:
- Prudence – the use of reason over emotion in decision making.
- Justice – giving proper due to God and man
- Fortitude – firmness in pursuit of the good in the face of difficulties
- Temperance – moderation of bodily pleasures
The theological virtues are ones that are centering on the relationship between God and man. They speak to a right minded perception of God and his plan for mankind. These are considered those that have to be aided by God for man to attain.
The Theological Virtues or Virtues of Grace are considered:
- Faith – believing that there is a perfect truth and that truth is God
- Hope – trusting in God that a final reunion with Him is our end
- Charity – loving God above all and our neighbor as ourselves
In these you can see the faith claims and religious affirmations inherent as compared to the Human Virtues which come from reason. To the faithful God created reason and gifted it to us, so all seven make up the core of the virtues. God created reason to allow for the first four, and aids his followers to attain the other three.
Minor Virtues Or Fruits Of The Spirit
Here is where we are going to find patience and its standing as compared to the other virtues. It is considered a minor virtue due to the fact that by itself, it does not have to be directed toward a good. It becomes a virtue when it is oriented towards the true and right.
For example, you can say that someone is patient when dealing with an unruly child which points to charity and justice. On the other hand you can say that a thief is patient and waits for just the right moment to strike. Therefore, these virtues listed here must be focused on one of the major seven or the goals they designate before they are considered virtues.
In theological terms, the Holy Spirit of God helps to develop these in you as virtues as a result of setting your life and actions toward the major virtues.
Let’s look at these Lesser Virtues or Fruits of the Spirit:
To learn more about each of these virtues, a good synopsis of each is given on the Vatican’s website here.
The Patience Is A Virtue Takeaway…
So what can we be certain about after looking at all of this?
- We can say for sure that the meaning of the phrase ‘patience is a virtue’ has been around for thousands of years, and maybe longer.
- Some have come close to penning the phrase, but only one actually used the exact phrase and meaning in their writing.
- Though many have said things similar, Saint Thomas Aquinas used the exact phrase and even took up the defense of the phrase in an exhaustive way in his Summa Theologiae.
- Others after him came close as well, but we can see that they were more than likely directly influenced by his writings.
- Though Cato ‘The Elder’ also reportedly came close to the phrase long before…
- We cannot be sure he authored the compilation of proverbial sayings that was attributed to him.
- Even if he did compile the passages, there is no way to attribute the phrase to him other than in an editorial role.
- There were earlier understandings of virtue in Greek reasoned thought.
- Yet, it was the combining of faith and reason that gives us our understanding of virtue as it stands today.
So, is patience a virtue? There is one thing that all of these writers and most that have used the phrase over the centuries agree upon. No matter the nuanced understanding of the meaning of virtue, patience unanimously fits the bill.
Saint Thomas Aquinas said it best, “It is therefore evident that patience is a virtue.“