Why are the moral virtues considered cardinal? Which aspects of man does each govern?

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Moral/ Cardinal virtues

“A virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do good. Virtue allows a person to give the best of himself” (CCC 1803). Virtues can be divided into moral and theological virtues. Theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) direct us to our End (God), while the moral virtues direct us in our means to that End[1]. The theological virtues affect our relationship with God, whereas the moral virtues influence our relationship with our neighbors and ourselves[2]. Lastly, theological virtues are gifts of God unlike the moral virtues which are acquired through human effort — education and deliberate acts — purified and elevated by God’s grace” (CCC 1810 and 1839)[3].

Four of these moral virtues are known as cardinal virtues. “Cardinal” is derived from the Latin word cardo, which means “hinge.” The cardinal virtues are “hinge virtues” as they are root virtues to which all other virtues can be reduced[4]. The cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

How cardinal virtues govern Man

The Catechism defines cardinal virtues as “stable dispositions of the intellect and will that govern our acts, order our passions, and guide our conduct in accordance with reason and faith” (CCC 1834).

Moral virtues help us lead a morally good life with joy and ease (CCC 1810). The cardinal virtues regulate the composition of man and his faculties. Prudence governs the intellect, justice governs the will, fortitude the irascible powers, and temperance the concupiscible powers of the soul[5].

The cardinal virtues are interdependent. They can neither exist by grace independently, nor can temperance exist without fortitude, fortitude without justice, and justice without prudence[6]. An emotionally unhealthy life is when emotions are not subject to a will or are governed by a mind not rectified by reason[7].

Prudence governs intellect

Prudence is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues), as it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure[8]. We cannot have justice, fortitude, and temperance without prudence as we need a reference point. Prudence is the ability to know the middle point, or the “mean” of virtue, lying between excess and defect. To strike the mean does not mean that we can be moderately virtuous. We cannot be chaste sometimes; we must be chaste all the time, a task that requires hitting the “mean.”[9]

Prudence is called the “matrix,” the “mold,” the “cause” of other cardinal virtues. For Saint Thomas Aquinas, prudence is the primary cardinal virtue because it is concerned with the intellect. It also functions as a moral virtue as it is theoretical knowledge dictated by a properly formed conscience to know what to do, how to act, and what to say to be moral and virtuous in any situation.[10] It is practical knowledge, and in the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas (echoing Aristotle), “right reason applied to action” (ST II-II.47.4) [11].

Father John Hardon elaborates three stages of a prudent act: to take counsel with oneself and from others, to judge correctly on based on evidence, and to direct one’s activity after a prudent judgment has been made.[12] Three aspects need to be considered: memoria, docilitas, and solertia.  Memoria means having a “true-to-being” memory which contains real things and events as they are now and were in the past.  Docilitas means that a person must be open-minded to receive others’ counsel. Finally, prudence involves solertia, which is sagacity (a clear vision, foresees goals and consequences, considers the circumstances, and overcomes temptations of injustice, cowardice, or intemperance[13].

Justice governs will

Justice governs the human faculty of the will, which is the second highest because the will requires intellect to inform it on how to act. Saint Thomas Aquinas refers to justice “as a moral quality or habit which perfects the will and inclines it to render to all what belongs to them” (ST II-II.58.11). Justice desires what is right (towards others), as contrasted with prudence which is knowing what is right[14].

The virtue of justice has three dimensions:  reciprocal justice, distributive justice, and legal justice.  Reciprocal justice governs relationships between individuals, such as contract justice between individuals to identify each party’s rights. Distributive justice orders the relationship of the community as a whole to its individual members. Those entrusted with the care of the common good must ensure individuals are given what is due. For instance, the basic goods for members who are most vulnerable. Legal justice concerns the individual’s relationship to the community.  Every person has to uphold the just laws for the common good, such as through the defense of the country[15].

Fortitude governs passions

Saint Thomas Aquinas ranks fortitude as the third of the cardinal virtues because it serves the higher virtues of prudence and justice. Prudence and justice are virtues to help us decide what needs to be done; fortitude gives us the strength to do it.

Fortitude is the virtue that allows us to remain steady in our will in the face of obstacles. Fortitude involves risking discomfort, suffering, and even death to do what is required by justice and prudence[16]. Saint Thomas Aquinas believes that fortitude “removes any obstacle that withdraws the will from following Reason. Fortitude curbs fear and moderates daring” (ST II-II.123.3). Fortitude, therefore, controls the emotions of the irascible appetite, which include fear, daring, hope, and despair[17]. The Catholic Encyclopaedia adds that fortitude is “moral courage against the evil spirit of the times and improper fashions.”[18]

Temperance governs passions

Saint Thomas Aquinas ranks temperance as the fourth cardinal virtue because temperance serves prudence, justice, and fortitude. Temperance is the last as it governs the lowest of our appetites. Temperance, however, is important and exists in the other virtues. The moderation of our desires is essential to acting rightly (prudence), giving each man his due (justice), and standing strong in adversity (fortitude). Temperance is a cardinal virtue as the moderation required for every righteous habit requires temperance[19].

Temperance, as the Catholic Encyclopaedia indicates, is the virtue that helps us control our physical desire for pleasure, and prevents us from being over-indulgent[20]. Temperance attempts to overcome our fallen human nature: “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). Temperance in sexuality is chastity, and temperance requires the balancing of legitimate goods against an inordinate desire for them[21].

Conclusion

The cardinal virtues are hierarchically ordered but they are interdependent. The goodness of Man is achieved when there is prudence in reason, justice in the will, temperance in the concupiscible appetite, and fortitude in the irascible appetite.

[1] Brother Andre Marie (2008, April 14). The Mystery of the Moral Virtues. Retrieved from http://catholicism.org/ad-rem-no-69.html

[2] Father Rick Poblocki. Catholic Q&A: The Theological & Cardinal Virtues. Retrieved from https://www.thestationofthecross.com/catholic-qa-the-theological-cardinal-virtues/

[3] Saint Peter Catholic Church (2014, August). The Cardinal Virtues. Retrieved from https://www.stpeterparish.com/documents/2014/9/AugustFaithFact_CardinalVirtues1.pdf

[4] John Rickaby. Catholic Answers. Cardinal Virtues: The four principal virtues upon which the rest of the moral virtues turn or are hinged. Retrieved from https://www.catholic.com/encyclopedia/cardinal-virtues

[5] Nicene Guy (2016, January 5). Ignitum Today. Resolutions and Virtues Part 1: Cardinal Virtues. Retrieved from http://www.ignitumtoday.com/2016/01/05/resolutions-and-virtues/

[6] Father Charles C. Fiore (2011, August 4). Seton Magazine. The Cardinal Virtues. Retrieved from http://www.setonmagazine.com/catholic/spirituality/the-cardinal-virtues

[7] Doug Macmanaman (2006). Catholic Education Resource Center. The Virtue of Fortitude. Retrieved from https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/education/catholic-contributions/the-virtue-of-fortitude.html

[8] Legion of Mary Tidewater. Divine Mysteries: The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. Retrieved from http://www.legionofmarytidewater.com/news/news07/may/divinemysteries.htm

[9] Mark Lowery. Catholicculture.org. The Virtue-Driven Life. Retrieved from https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=7992

[10] Nicene Guy (2016, January 5). Ignitum Today. Resolutions and Virtues Part 1: Cardinal Virtues. Retrieved from http://www.ignitumtoday.com/2016/01/05/resolutions-and-virtues/

[11] Father Charles C. Fiore (2011, August 4). Seton Magazine. The Cardinal Virtues. Retrieved from http://www.setonmagazine.com/catholic/spirituality/the-cardinal-virtues

[12] Richert, Scott P. (2018, May 14). The Cardinal Virtue of Prudence (And What It Means). ThoughtCo, Retrieved from thoughtco.com/prudence-a-cardinal-virtue-542128.

[13] Catholic Straight Answers. What is virtue and what are the four cardinal virtues?. Retrieved from http://catholicstraightanswers.com/what-is-virtue-and-what-are-the-four-cardinal-virtues/

[14] Nicene Guy (2016, January 5). Ignitum Today. Resolutions and Virtues Part 1: Cardinal Virtues. Retrieved from http://www.ignitumtoday.com/2016/01/05/resolutions-and-virtues

[15] Catholic Straight Answers. What is virtue and what are the four cardinal virtues?. Retrieved from http://catholicstraightanswers.com/what-is-virtue-and-what-are-the-four-cardinal-virtues/

[16] Nicene Guy (2016, January 5). Ignitum Today. Resolutions and Virtues Part 1: Cardinal Virtues. Retrieved from http://www.ignitumtoday.com/2016/01/05/resolutions-and-virtues/

[17] Doug Macmanaman (2006). Catholic Education Resource Center. The Virtue of Fortitude. Retrieved from https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/education/catholic-contributions/the-virtue-of-fortitude.html

[18] Richert, Scott P. (2018, May 14). The Cardinal Virtue of Prudence (And What It Means). ThoughtCo, Retrieved from thoughtco.com/prudence-a-cardinal-virtue-542128.

[19] ibid

[20] Nicene Guy (2016, January 5). Ignitum Today. Resolutions and Virtues Part 1: Cardinal Virtues. Retrieved from http://www.ignitumtoday.com/2016/01/05/resolutions-and-virtues/

[21] Richert, Scott P. (2018, May 14). The Cardinal Virtue of Prudence (And What It Means). ThoughtCo, Retrieved from thoughtco.com/prudence-a-cardinal-virtue-542128.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Natalie says:

    This is so interesting!!

    Liked by 1 person

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