Human Excellence: On the Cardinal Virtues

One of the most unfortunate losses during the reformation was the loss of focus on the four cardinal virtues as simple excellencies that are praiseworthy in anybody, but find their truest expression in the Christian Scriptures.

I’ve written about the cardinal virtues (justice, courage, temperance, and wisdom) briefly in the past and their place in the Bible in the past. They are called cardinal because other virtues tend to hinge on them. For instance power depends upon courage because one must act to gain power, generosity depends up temperance and justice because one must first give to those who deserve and moderate his own desires in order to have extra to give to the needy. I don’t intend to say that the cardinal virtues are actually the only hinge virtues, but I see no reason to deviate from a helpful rubric for thinking about human virtue until it is proven useless or wrong. Showing it to be incomplete would be no more damning to the system than showing modern physics to need improvements would be a proof that we should abandon it.

In my mind, the learning the virtues is important because it seems that people are are praised for excellence have these traits and while they may possess others, they always have these traits to some degree. What is unusual is that in our present culture praise is often given to those who do not have these traits, but it never seems to correlate with actual success on the part of those being praise. Edward Feser observed this a few years ago:

But much more prominent than the cardinal virtues — and to a large extent coloring the conception democratic man has of the content of the cardinal virtues — are certain other character traits, such as open-mindednessempathytolerance, and fairness.  The list will be familiar, since the language of these “virtues” permeates contemporary pop culture and politics, and it can be said to constitute a kind of counterpoint to the traditional cardinal virtues.  And in each case the counter-virtue entails a turn of just the sort one might expect given Plato’s analysis of democracy — from the objective to the subjective, from a focus on the way things actually are to a focus on the way one believes or desires them to be.

In other words, virtues concerning the dispositions that require one to interact with the world as it is, to virtues that focus on how the individual wishes the world was. Whereas wisdom is the virtue of knowing the world and acting accordingly, open-mindedness is a willingness to consider alternate points of view without settling on one. In other words, one of the components of wisdom has replaced wisdom. This is similar with respect to tolerance

There are three important things to remember about the concept of virtue, as I’m using it:

  1. Virtues are dispositions and habits of mind and body, not mere actions.

  2. Because they are dispositions and habits, they can increase and decrease based on actions and belief.

  3. The cardinal virtues are natural virtues.

I want to explain each of them briefly and then in later posts give some tips, from older literature as well as from recent psychological literature on how to acquire these virtues.

  1. Justice is the virtue of giving to others their due. Modern culture has a tendency to think of justice solely in terms of the actions of institutions and other people. Rarely is virtue a consideration, at least in any news outlets I read, for the introspective soul.

  2. Courage is the virtue of facing fear and danger in order to perform a noble act or to suffer for the sake of some good.

  3. Temperance is the virtue of self-control with regard to good things. Temperance is the virtue of saying yes to the good, but no to too much.

  4. Wisdom is the virtue of understanding the world, discerning good from bad (not just morally, but consequentially as well), and acting accordingly.

These are rough summaries of what you would find in Aristotle or Aquinas.

Are there other important virtues from the ancient world that you feel make humans excellent, but are ignored or even treated as vices in our culture?

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