In Part I, I situated virtue ethics within alternative approaches to morality in modern philosophy. This post describes four of the seven classical virtues known as the Cardinal or Pagan virtues: Prudence, Justice, Courage, and Temperance. Part III will discuss the theological or Christian virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love.
Deirdre McCloskey, in her Inaugural James M. Buchanan Lecture, argues that the seven classical virtues are as the primary colors of virtue. Just as every color in the spectrum is derived from the three primary colors, so every virtue imaginable, McCloskey asserts, can be derived from the seven classical virtues. For example, honesty is Justice and Temperance in matters of speech; thrift is prudence and temperance in money matters, etc.
It has been said that the Cardinal virtues are the virtues of the city, of public life, and that the absence of these virtues leads to failed cities and states. One can make a strong case that the four cardinal virtues are the virtues of citizenship, whereas the three theological virtues bind us to a higher vision of human nature. The best philosophical analysis of the virtues is by the philosopher Josef Pieper, a close student of St. Thomas Aquinas, and what follows leans heavily on Pieper’s work The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance (B&N link).
Prudence: Prudence is the virtue most concerned with the self. It is foresight, practical understanding, proficiency, sagacity. Save some for a rainy day. The Latin phrase, recta ratio agilbilium constitutes the best definition of prudence: right reason about things to be done or the right method of conduct. Prudence, like all the virtues, is active. It is basically concerned with how we treat ourselves, how we prepare for our future and make ourselves useful in the present.
The contemporary term self-interest is often our poor substitute for thinking and talking prudently. The term “self-” makes the aim seem subjective rather than virtuous, but they are not always mutually exclusive. It is prudent for me to care for my own children, for example because they will be more likely to care for me. This may sound selfish rather than virtuous, but virtue adheres in seeing Prudence as one among the virtues. In other words, I may care for my own because it’s Prudent, but I may also do it because it is Just and because I Love them. Seeing this broader picture is a means of understanding that possessing one virtue does not make us virtuous.
Prudence is the father of the virtues, or the charioteer of the virtues, using Aristotle and Aquinas’s system, because it is the virtue of the mind that helps us find the golden mean in any given circumstance. It is the virtue of making right decisions and thus drives, as a charioteer drives a chariot, the other six virtues.
Justice: If Prudence is concerned with the self, Justice is the virtue that regulates our relationships with others. Justice is uprightness, equity, vindicating the right, giving to others what is due them with pleasure, consistently, and in a timely manner. It is paying what is owed, fulfilling the terms of a contract to a T, imparting fairly by good measure, pressed down and shaken together (see Luke 6:38).
Aristotle said that Justice is concerned with geometrical proportion, meaning that its interest is equality between two things. “This, then,” Aristotle says, “is what the just is – the proportional; the unjust is what violates the proportion. Hence one term becomes too great, the other too small, as indeed happens in practice; for the man who acts unjustly has too much, and the man who is unjustly treated too little, of what is good.”
Much has been said and written about justice, its administration and its function. Different conceptions of justice have emerged to describe different aspects of the same coin: distributive justice is concerned with a just distribution of goods throughout society; retributive justice is the idea that a proportional punishment evens out a crime: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (and if we followed this rule, Gandhi says, we’d soon all be blind and toothless); restorative justice is a way of conceptualizing crime as against individuals and communities rather than against the state, encouraging offenders to make reparations for offenses.
The question that should be asked, Pieper says, is when justice may be said to prevail in a nation? "One might almost say that the subject of justice is the “community,” although of course it is only the person, and, therefore, the individual, who can be just in the strict sense of the word. . . . it is the nature of communal life for men constantly to become indebted to each other and then just as constantly to pay one another the debt. We have further said that as a result the balance is in a constant state of shift and needs constantly to be restored to equilibrium. The act of justice is precisely to effect this process of compensations, restitutions, and satisfactions for debts" (Pieper, 70, 104).
Yet, at the same time, “the fact that some debts are not or cannot be paid is essential to the world’s actual conditions” (Pieper, 104). The community must pursue justice, but as a virtue it is only one piece of the puzzle of virtuous living.
Courage: Courage is spirit. Courage is heart. Courage is self-control in the face of fear. In Part I, I described courage as occurring on a continuum between over-confidence and cowardice. It is a willingness to take risks, to assert oneself – not always for the sake of oneself – but for the sake of a higher purpose, too. It includes a willingness to risk one’s life, but for the purpose of justice rather than merely saving one’s self.
To be courageous and brave, Pieper argues, presupposes vulnerability. If there were no vulnerability and no fear there could be no courage. The ultimate injury is death, and courage “is basically readiness to die or, more accurately, readiness to fall, to die, in battle” (Pieper, 117). But the brave man does not suffer injury or risk death for its own sake, “but rather as a means to preserve or to acquire a deeper, more essential intactness,” meaning it is about achieving a lost wholeness (Pieper, 119).
Temperance: Like Courage, temperance is self-control, but self-control in the face of pleasure. Today it means being temperate in eating and drinking, but in the classical world it meant the moderation of anger, sexuality, and attitude (humility). Aquinas says that the second meaning of temperance is “serenity of spirit,” which must go deeper than the surface of intellectual and spiritual life to man’s inner order (Pieper, 147).
Temperance may apply to all pleasures, but Aristotle argues that it applies primarily to bodily pleasures of touch. In other words, we would not call a lover of honor or a lover of learning to be self-indulgent. Nor would we say that someone who delighted in objects of vision – like colors – or of hearing – like music – as acting self-indulgently, nor those who act towards these things as they ought temperate. As it applies to touch, however, temperance includes chastity and unchastity as well as food and drink. Anger, too, in this manner: “In the upsurge of his self-will,” Pieper writes, “the intemperately angry man feels as if he were drawing his whole being together like a club ready to strike” (195)
Temperance is the virtue most concerned with the body and with nature. Everyone gets hungry and thirsty or craves sexual connection. Where we most likely go wrong in these endeavors is the direction of excess. To become a slave to self-indulgence is voluntary, and means that we place our own pleasure at the cost of everything else.
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