Resolutions and Virtues Part 1: Cardinal Virtues

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“The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective.”
G.K. Chesterton

Deserter Rainbow
What 2015 brought.

The new year is upon us. This fact alone may not necessarily be cause for celebration, though it is the progressivist’s most sacred holy-day, being the day of change. The wise pessimists among us may be bracing for a new year with the prediction that it will bring more change for the worst. Meanwhile, the more optimistic observers are writing their resolutions with the aspiration that this change will be for the better.

ResolutionIt is the last of these which is of interest to us today: the new year’s resolution. Lists and advice for such resolutions abound: the most popular resolutions, the most commonly broken resolutions (a very similar list); some media sources go so far as to offer blanket coverage of new year’s resolutions. “You are never too old,” C.S. Lewis once observed, “to set another goal or dream a new dream.” Moreover, since we liven in a fallen state of original sin, it is right to add that we are never so good that we do not need nor can bear some further improvement.

In particular, we can all stand to improve morally. This means ultimately becoming more virtuous. Indeed, five or six of the ten most popular resolutions [1] linked above would be aided by improving our moral virtues:

  • Are you resolving to help other more? This should help you to become more just.
  • Are you trying to save money this year? Prudence and justice [2] will help with that.
  • Are you hoping to accomplish your life goals [3]? This will likely be helped by some combinations of the four cardinal virtues.
  • Are you planning to go green? Temperance will help with that by reducing your level of consumption, in particular your consumption of non-essential or “luxury” items and hence of the resources to produce them.
  • Are you resolving to quit smoking or drinking (etc.)? This is another goal which is helped by temperance.
  • Finally, did you resolve (as so many other did) to diet, exercise, and/or lose weight? Temperance will certainly help with this by moderating your appetite. Fortitude can also help with exercise: against the “fear” of going to fast of pushing too hard, and by extension against the fears of not pushing hard or fast enough. By extension, you would need to know how hard and how fast to push yourself in exercising, or else recognize that you don’t know the answer to this and thus that you need a reliable trainer (prudence).
From this source.

What are the virtues, then? I am here focusing on the cardinal (moral) virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Let us consider each of these briefly in turn, before considering them collectively. To do this, I will turn a bit towards one of the great doctors of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. Tally ho!

Prudence is actually an intellectual virtue. Nevertheless, it also functions as a moral virtue in the sense that it is knowledge of what to do and how to act and what to say to be moral and virtuous in any given situation. Thus, it is knowledge, but practical knowledge, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas (echoing Aristotle), “right reason applied to action” (ST II-II.47.4). The other cardinal virtues, the ones which are properly moral virtues, because they govern or appetites (that is, out will) so that we may have the right intentions. But the road to hell is paved by good intentions, if those intentions are misguided: prudence then is the right guidance of our intentions. The Catholic Encyclopedia gives the following definition of prudence:

“[Prudence is] an intellectual habit enabling us to see in any given juncture of human affairs what is virtuous and what is not, and how to come at the one and avoid the other. It is to be observed that prudence, whilst possessing in some sort an empire over all the moral virtues, itself aims to perfect not the will but the intellect in its practical decisions. Its function is to point out which course of action is to be taken in any round of concrete circumstances.”

Or to summarize, prudence means knowing what is right in a given situation, and while in situ.

Having right reason does not mean that we will necessarily act rightly. This is where the other three cardinal virtues (and their parts) come into play. Justice governs the will, fortitude the irascible powers and temperance the concupiscible powers of the sole.

4-cardinal-virtues1Justice “is a moral quality or habit which perfects the will and inclines it to render to each and to all what belongs to them.” It is the habit or power of desiring what is right, as contrasted with prudence which is the habit or power of knowing what is right. In particular, it is the right ordering of our desires towards others, “the proper act of justice is nothing else than to render to each one his own,” as St. Thomas notes (ST II-II.58.11). It is the virtue by which harmony in society is achieved.

Fortitude is about overcoming our fears, in particular as they prevent us from doing what is right. Saint Thomas says of fortitude that

“it belongs to the virtue of fortitude to remove any obstacle that withdraws the will from following the reason. Now to be withdrawn from something difficult belongs to the notion of fear, which denotes withdrawal from an evil that entails difficulty…Hence fortitude is chiefly about fear of difficult things, which can withdraw the will from following the reason. And it behooves one not only firmly to bear the assault of these difficulties by restraining fear, but also moderately to withstand them, when, to wit, it is necessary to dispel them altogether in order to free oneself therefrom for the future, which seems to come under the notion of daring. Therefore fortitude is about fear and daring, as curbing fear and moderating daring” (ST II-II.123.3).

Fortitude means risking discomfort, pain, suffering, and even death that we may do what is required of us by justice and prudence, to say nothing of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

Temperance is the last of the cardinal virtues; it governs the lowest of our appetites, and so in that sense is often counted as the least important [4]. On the other hand, it may well be the most important, because when it is lacking—as it so often is today—the other virtues can very quickly come to naught. Fortitude governs our fears—ultimately, our attachment to this life at the expense of what is right—and justice governs right conduct in regards to others, prudence with practical knowledge of what is right. But temperance governs our pleasures, and prevents our over-indulging them. And it is our pleasures run amok which make it difficult to sacrifice, be it for our own sake or for the sake of others: “Temperance it is which restrains the undue impulse of concupiscence for sensible pleasure, while fortitude causes man to be brave when he would otherwise shrink, contrary to reason, from dangers or difficulties.”

The Prodigal Son after leaving home: intemperance following from injustice.

Temperance is, alas, a very unpopular virtue, and it counts among its own many unpopular parts: chastity, modesty, decorum, abstinence, humility. It is unpopular, perhaps, not because it has been tried and found wanting, but because it has been found difficult and thus left untried. And, moreover, it is in some way the virtue which needs the most continual practice [5]. On the bright side, it is the simplest virtue to cultivate in that it is most easy to understand what we must do to cultivate it.

Now that we know what the virtues are, we can turn to how they might help us (and, conversely, be helped by!) our resolutions. Stay tuned!


[1] For what it is worth, three more of these resolutions are meant to improve our intellectual virtues, a process which is aided (if indirectly) by the moral virtues.

[2] Magnanimity (liberality) is one of the subjective parts of justice, and guards against avarice and envy.

[3] This is one of the odder resolutions. The goal in question usually is “run a marathon,” “write a book,” etc. These are life goals, in other words. For example if the goal is to run a marathon, a combination of temperance (in dieting) and fortitude (in not giving in to self-doubts or fears) may be required.

[4] Here is the Catholic Encyclopedia‘s remark on the matter:

“[Temperance] is called a cardinal virtue because the moderation required for every righteous habit has in the practice of temperance a specially trying arena. The satisfactions upon which it imposes a check are at once supremely natural and necessary in the present order of human existence. It is not, however, the greatest of moral virtues. That rank is held by prudence; then come justice, fortitude, and finally temperance.”

It is in many ways the most difficult of the four cardinal virtues to inculcate and to practice, and it must be practiced constantly.

[5] Though fortitude needs this continually in battle, spiritual or secular; and justice is to be practiced at any time when we are dealing with another person; and prudence must be almost constantly practiced as well at any time that a moral decision must be made.

Nicene Guy

Nicene Guy

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”

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