Hildegard of Bingen believed in a holistic approach to wellness. Her notion of living a good life was based on the concept that wellness was the natural result of the choices and actions people make every day. Hildegard’s subconscious virtues reflect a wellness lived through the pursuit of a virtuous life that is constantly seeking balance and moderation. This belief reconciles with homeostasis, which our bodies seek in an ideal state.
In opposition to this virtuous life, there are ever-present vices that must be actively kept at bay. Hildegard believed that the noble path of living well required vigilance and discipline to navigate through the duality of virtues and vices. She believed that in order to attain (and maintain) good health, mental blocks must be eliminated, or else we impair our ability to truly live our virtues.
Accordingly, Hildegard’s notion of holistic wellness required acknowledging the union of spirit, mind, body and thus the need to nourish, protect, and exercise these three dimensions of our lives. As a guide to help detect potential underlying conflicts between the virtues and vices, Hildegard proposed 35 subconscious virtues, which she thought influenced the mind and spirit’s ability to understand and solve problems.
She believed that the ability to solve these potential problems was necessary to clear the way for the virtues, that our ability to effectively manages stress, resolve conflicts, dispel anxiety, and overcome worry was essential in order to overcome vices and embrace virtues in everyday living.
Among Hildegard of Bingen writings, these virtues are most carefully worked out in The Book of Life’s Merits (Liber Vitae Meritorum), where she describes these 35 subconscious virtues as existing in the mind of the soul. They arise in pairs, so for each virtue there is a corresponding vice. Consistent with the duality of nature, each vice has negative or debilitating influence that can cause illness, and each corresponding virtue possesses positive healing powers to reinforce good health.
Hildegard’s 35 subconscious virtues are a great way to internalize the various conflicts and struggles we confront when navigating the path of a virtuous, and thus healthy life. These subconscious virtues may serve as attainable targets in setting healthy goals.
The following list represents a translation of Hildegard’s subconscious virtues and corresponding vices.
- Inner love of the spiritual / Outer love of the material
- Discipline / Exuberance
- Modesty / Jocularity
- Compassion / Ruthlessness
- Divine victory / Sloth
- Patience / Anger
- Belief / Cynicism
- Abstinence / Feasting
- Generosity / Bitterness
- Benevolence / Spitefulness
- Truth / Deceptiveness
- Peace / Contention
- Happiness / Misery
- Discretion / Excess
- Salvation of soul / Shiftlessness
- Humility / Pride
- Charity / Envy
- Fear of god / Vainglory
- Obedience / Disobedience
- Faith / Disbelief
- Hope / Despair
- Simplicity / Luxury
- Justice / Injustice
- Strength / Numbness
- Cosmic bond / Disorientation
- Stability / Instability
- Longing for the heavenly / worry over the earthly
- Openness / Stubbornness
- Freedom from Desire / Desire
- Harmony / Discord
- Reverence / Scurrility
- Consistency / Restlessness
- Worship / Crime
- Frugality / Greed
- Heavenly joy / World-weariness
Using Hildegard’s List
Hildegard recognized the difficulty in achieving the self-awareness and discipline required to change vices into virtues, which is part of why her list is subconscious. These dualities exist in her “mind of the soul”, so they are not so easily brought into conscious contemplation.
When practicing the 35 subconscious virtues, she envisioned a gradual process of setting healthy goals, and inviting change through the practice of living each virtue with patience and love. The virtues are meant to guide you through a life-long pursuit of living well, not a checklist to be accomplished.
When applying Hildegard’s 35 subconscious virtues to your everyday life, being honest, open, and patient with yourself will ensure you are giving yourself what you need to create real, lasting change. Ask yourself whether a negative vice applies to you. For example, “Am I greedy, impatient, unhappy, angry?” etc.
Alternatively, ask yourself if you’re falling short on any of the positive virtues. “Do I lack in discipline, modesty, hope, love?” etc.
Hildegard would favor using your independent discretion (discretio) to find balance. Only you know what works best for you, but don’t allow your preconceived notions to lock you into comfortable or familiar patterns. Find harmony that suits your overall health objectives.
Striving for perfection will only lead to frustration and more conflict, so don’t rush the process and be accepting of your weaknesses and strengths. Through your patient acceptance you can lovingly recognize and deal with those aspects of yourself, which can be improved.
If you’re looking at making improvements on several virtues and vices, it’s enough to simply focus on one at a time. Work your way slowly and patiently ahead. You will find that progress may come easily on some and slowly on others.
When setbacks happen or conflict arises, Hildegard would recommend using dynamic meditation or prayer to help clear space for you to progress. Try using Hildegard’s joy of giving as a safety net for achieving more happiness.
The process of transforming your vices into virtues requires learning through patient acceptance. It is through this path that holistic wellness becomes an inseparable part of your everyday life.
And when you feel that a virtue is always out of reach or you are sliding back into conflict try to remember what Meister Eckhart said: “We are to practice virtue, not possess it.”