You likely first heard the expression patience is a virtue when you were young from your parents, or grandparents, or even your schoolteacher. But did you know what it meant then? How about now? This article will share the meaning of this popular proverbial phrase and help you learn how to use it correctly when writing and speaking. It will also explore the saying’s many possible origins.
Let’s look at the sum of parts of “patience is a virtue”
To understand the definition of this phrase, let’s first look at the definitions of the individual terms that comprise it.
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Patience (noun):Patience means the act of being patient. An adjective, patient means to withstand or tolerate a difficult time or challenging waiting period, and to do so in a calm manner without getting overly restless, anxious, or annoyed. Patience is the act of accepting a delay or hardship without complaining about the time it’s taking or any hurdles and obstacles. It’s also the act of persevering quietly, steadily, and diligently. To be patient is to be the opposite of hasty, which means to do things in a hurried and eager, thus impatient, way. Here are some examples of patience in a sentence:
Being a good nature photographer requires a great deal of patience: You must sit calmly and still, sometimes for hours on end, waiting for that perfect shot.
I don’t have the patience for big jigsaw puzzles; they take too long, and it can be really frustrating trying over and over again to find where a piece fits.
Bill ate well and exercised for months without complaining, even when things didn’t change on the scale, and it’s this patience that helped him lose 100 pounds.
Virtue (noun): Virtue describes a state of moral excellence, conforming to the standard of what is accepted as good and right, or righteous. It is used to refer to a positive, commendable, or admiral trait or quality that someone or something possesses. To behave virtuously is to behave righteously or morally; to hold oneself to certain high standards and ethical principles. Here are some examples of virtue in a sentence:
The judge was seen as honest and fair, and thus a man of great virtue. In his work, the newspaper editor always aspired to the highest state of journalistic virtue.
She knew her mother’s virtues to be many: loving, loyal, kind, and the list goes on. Patience is a virtue (proverb; more below): Put together, then, the phrase patience is a virtue means that the ability to wait for something—especially to wait out a difficult period or a time full of trials and tribulations—without getting angry, upset, anxious, or frustrated is something to strive for: a praiseworthy, desirable, and valuable quality to possess.
The Origins of the Phrase Patience Is a Virtue
We can’t know for sure who said or wrote this now-popular saying for the very first time, but we have some ideas, albeit conflicting ones.
Cato. Some experts date the first use of the phrase, well a version of it at least, to the third or fourth century and Cato the Elder. Cato the Elder penned a textbook referred to as Cato or The Distichs of Cato. It was the most popular Latin textbook of the time, but in addition to teaching the language, it taught morals as well. A line from Cato reads: “Of human virtues, patience is most great.” (A similar Latin expression is maxima enim, patientia virtus, or patience is the greatest virtue.)
Granted, the line doesn’t say patience is a virtue in exactly those words, but the sentiment is pretty much the same, which is why some scholars believes Cato deserves the credit.
Psychomania. Others say it originated in the fifth century with the Lain poet and governor Aurelius Clemens Prudentius and his epic poem Psychomania. The nearly-thousand-line poem describes the battle between virtue and vice, or between good and evil—a conflict as old as time. It lists seven virtues that stand in opposition to the seven deadly sins. Practicing them was said, at the time, to lead one away from temptation and sinning. The seven virtues were named as: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, and kindness. The poem doesn’t expressley use the phrase patience is a virtue, but it is, like Cato, another early attempt at painting patience as a virtue to aspire to, or equating patience with a state of moral excellence and being.
Piers Plowman. A near-exact use of the phrase appears in the narrative poem Piers Plowman, which was likely written by William Langland sometime in the late 14th century, between 1360 and 1387. The poem is about a man searching for faith, with a line stating, “Patience is a fair virtue.” Like Prudentius, Langland’s poem illustrates what he believes to be human virtues, which include other attributes like thought, reason, study, and doing one’s best.
Canterbury Tales.Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his famous collection of stories, The Canterbury Tales, around roughly the same time as Langland wrote Piers Plowman, likely between 1387 and 1400. In it, specifically in The Franklin’s Tale, he uses the line: “Patience is a high virtue… but virtue can hurt you.”
Is the Proverb Right—Is Patience a Virtue, Really?
Chaucer’s use of the phrase brings about the question: Is patience really a virtue? After all, you may be familiar with another proverbial phrase that suggests the opposite: Fortune favors the bold. So, which is it?
Both patience is a virtue and fortune favors the bold are proverbs. A proverb is a short, common phrase or expression that imparts wisdom and advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage and aphorism. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:
How can both phrases be right at the same time? How can there be two universal truths that stand in opposition to one another? It’s all about context. In many instances, being able to practice patience, to tolerate something that might take a long time, is the right or wise path to take, because doing so will keep you as calm and happy as possible in the moment. In these instances, being patient is important and vital to your well-being. That said, there are also certainly occasions in which it pays to be bold and to not just sit back and wait; for example, applying for the dream job you’ve always wanted that never comes open even if it might make for some immediate complications. To use another saying, a quote by George Jackson: “Patience has its limits. Take it too far, and it’s cowardice.”
Patience is a virtue is a proverbial phrase that means that being able to wait for something—to wait for a difficult time to pass or to wait for what you really want to happen instead of going for instant gratification and settling for less sooner—is an admirable quality; a high moral standard to which one should hold themselves. That said, it isn’t always easy being patient. It takes self-control and requires personal development. And, there are other times when fortune favors the bold.
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