Quick – name the Seven Cardinal Virtues. Can’t do it, can you?
It’s funny (or maybe not) that many of us can name the Seven Deadly Sins but have no clue what the Seven Cardinal Virtues are. It seems sins are still objective, nameable things, especially the deadly ones; post-modern people can still find some wisdom in identifying conditions of the heart that lead to wrong action and lack of action. Or maybe sins are just more familiar to us. But there are also foundational virtues that lead to right action. I think this generation has forgotten them partly because “virtue” has become a quaint, stiff, slightly embarrassing word that denotes virginity and connotes librarians, and “goodness” is seen as either a vague, pink cloud of niceness and tolerance or Randian self-fulfillment at all costs, and is no longer an objective standard one can train for.
But let’s buck the trend of our generation and consider the Seven Cardinal Virtues.
- The word “cardinal” comes from the Latin root for hinge, hence the pivot on which all other things turn. These virtues are pivotal to our actions and understanding.
- Like all elements of Christian tradition, they serve as checks or guideposts to keep us from veering off the narrow path after the enthusiasms of our own age.
- They remind us that any virtue, even (especially) our favorite one, can be distorted into a vice when it’s not kept in balance with all the others.
- It is an act of humility in us to remember and apply the wisdom of tradition rather than trying to reinvent wisdom every generation.
- An acknowledgment of universal virtues presumes a realistic view of the world. The ancient philosophers, Church Fathers, and great souls of all times and places focused on training in virtue, because they knew that they had to prepare to live in a world of suffering, temptation, and imbalance. Confucius, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, St. Francis de Sales, and Gandhi all understood this.
- For thousands of years people have thought that one of the reasons we exist was to develop virtue. Whether because developing virtue provided one with immortal glory or because it aligned one with the gods or God, generations have seen life as the battleground of character, not (as we do now) the playground of whim.
- Finally, the Seven Cardinal Virtues give us a vocabulary to talk about an essential but neglected part of human history and human character. It’s a vocabulary that needs to be retaught, I think. The names of many virtues have fallen out of common use, which makes me wonder whether the virtues they represent are equally unfamiliar.
Definition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a virtue as “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.” The pagan Aristotle would have felt comfortable with this definition, but the Catechism goes on to quote St. Gregory of Nyssa, reminding us that “The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God” (CCC 1803).
So according to the Catechism, virtue is more a disposition than an action, though it leads to action; it is what we are as well as what we do. It is the ground from which all the fruits of our lives grow. It is the habit of goodness. Virtue doesn’t just buff us up to make us more attractive; it enables us to act with generosity and integrity to give the best of ourselves to others. Its goal is Christlikeness – a Jesus-shaped life, in Michael Spencer’s words.
Like the Seven Deadly Sins, the Seven Cardinal Virtues are divided into two categories. There are four human, or natural, virtues and three theological virtues.
The Human Virtues
These dispositions are considered natural to humankind, not because they are regularly achieved but because they are widely accepted throughout time and space as admirable human qualities. They are also, to some degree, achievable through human effort and training aided by common grace and therefore can be seen in religious people and atheists alike. They are Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance.
Prudence. The word is another illustration of the degradation of the language of virtue. A “prude” is a coward unwilling to embrace life fully, a snooty Puritan condemning other people’s fun. Even those who use “prudence” in a positive way strip the word of most of its robustness. Prudence is not just the careful, almost miserly, meting out of money, time, and self; it is “right reason in action,” according to St. Thomas Aquinas; it is the charioteer of the virtues. It is the practical wisdom that forms and guides our conscience and our ability to make choices. It is, if I may use a probably inaccurate metaphor, the gear that connects the engine of our moral judgment with the wheels of our actions. Without prudence we would neither recognize the right nor choose to do it. We train our children in prudence before letting them behind the wheel of a car or allowing them to go to school, work, or social gatherings without us.
Justice. Justice is the only one of these four words that retains some of the richness of its original meaning. Justice, however, is not simply sentencing evil-doers or instituting fair laws. Justice is the virtue that gives everything its due. The just person treats creation, other people, and God as they should be treated, according to their natures and their rights. Justice cares for the poor and weak, upholds laws, respects human dignity, and shows honor to those in authority. It implies self-knowledge and an ability to understand one’s place in the universe. If prudence is a virtue that would appeal to Aristotle, justice, on a natural level, is the virtue that would most resonate with Confucius.
Fortitude. What does that even mean? The word is never used in conversation these days. Its closest synonyms are courage and strength. Fortitude faces fear and death unflinchingly. It perseveres and remains constant against all trials. All people admire fortitude, even if they don’t know the word. C.S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, saw fortitude, or courage as he called it, as the foundation of all human goodness: “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” He explained that any virtue – prudence, justice, kindness, generosity, etc. – that buckles in the face of threat or persecution is no virtue at all.
Temperance. This is probably the most degraded word – and virtue – of this list. At its best temperance means abstaining from alcoholic beverages; at its worst it conjures up the comical picture of indignant Victorian matrons waving placards and smashing storefronts. Even more than prudence, temperance is seen as the stingy denial of fun by narrow, frightened people. This is a distortion of the truth. According to the Catechism, temperance “moderates the attractions of the pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods.” It “keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable” (CCC 1809). Ironically – from the point of view of the ignorant – temperance actually makes fun possible. As rules and taking turns permit a game to be enjoyed, as an evening with friends is more pleasant without waking up on the bathroom floor afterward, temperance, or the moderation of desires, is actually essential to “fun.” That’s not the common perception, however. Justice and fortitude are still admired nowadays, and prudence – or at least cleverness – is accorded some respect, but temperance is absolutely at odds with the deepest assumptions of our culture. The practice of temperance would take from the advertising industry its most potent tools – “More! Now! Quick! Go for all the gusto you can get!” It would undermine the economic imperative of maximizing profit. It would put an end to unsustainable exploitation of natural and human resources. It would challenge the casual acceptance of lust, avarice, and gluttony that is such an integral part of our society.
In my next post I’ll look at the theological virtues, how their lack affects our society, and the role of grace in virtue.