Action Alert!

The Virtue-Driven Life

by Mark Lowery, Ph.D.


If one is to be truly happy in this life and in the next, he must grow in virtue. This article by Dr. Mark Lowery, associate professor of theology at the University of Dallas, explains how the cardinal virtues and the theological virtues work together.

Larger Work

Envoy Magazine


46 – 48

Publisher & Date

Envoy Institute of Belmont Abbey College, Belmont, NC, November / December 2007

I heard someone refer to the "cardinal virtues." I know what a virtue is — a good habit — but I need some help with the word "cardinal."

There are four cardinal moral virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. They are called "cardinal" from the Latin word for "hinge," (cardo, cardinis) since the whole life of natural virtue pivots on these four key virtues. Think of these as "grooves" in your life that keep you headed toward your final destiny. Every particular virtue — patience, magnanimity, gratitude, trust — belongs to one of these grooves.

Think of those cases in which you really had to struggle in your conscience to figure out exactly the right thing to do. Of course we know that we can never violate an absolute moral norm. Yet there are so many cases in which we have to do go well beyond moral norms and determine what it means in this or that particular case to act justly or charitably. It is the virtue of prudence — the first of the cardinal virtues — that helps us discover "just the right way" to act. Let's take the second cardinal virtue, justice, as an example.

Justice is the habit by which the will easily chooses to treat others well, and prudence "attaches" itself to justice so as to practice it in just the right way. For instance, friendliness to others is part of justice. But the person who smiles all the time is excessively friendly, which can harm relations with others who never know when that individual is in fact unhappy and in need of some type of help. On the other hand, the person who barely forces out a weak smile or kind word is defective in his friendliness.

The right balance must be struck, and prudence is the ability to know that middle point. This middle point is called the "mean" of virtue, lying between excess and defect. To strike the perfect mean between excess and defect does not mean, however, that we can be moderately virtuous. We cannot be chaste some of the time, or courageous some of the time. Rather, we must be chaste and courageous all of the time, a task that requires hitting the "mean."

For good examples of particular virtues which fall under the cardinal virtue of justice, turn to the "Scout Law" of the Boy Scouts where you'll find virtues such as trustworthiness, respect, honesty, loyalty, friendliness, obedience, and courtesy.

Can we try out the "middle point" on the virtue of temperance? I believe that's another of the cardinal virtues.

Yes. The moral virtue of temperance (or moderation) perfects our appetites toward things pleasurable. The technical term for that appetite is the concupiscible appetite, not to be confused with concupiscence, though they are related. By the wound of concupiscence we find it difficult to control our concupiscible appetite, as well as other appetites.

While concupiscence is a tendency toward evil (disorder), the concupiscible appetite itself is not evil. Pleasurable things are great — as long as they are properly ordered. Temperance allows us to use the pleasurable goods of the world in a proper and ordered way. Someone who disdains material goods practices temperance on the side of defect, since the creation is good and meant to be used and enjoyed. Someone who takes various goods of creation and misuses them, or makes them into the final end, errs on the side of excess. Prudence assists temperance in helping find the proper mean between excess and defect.

Temperance is too often given a very narrow meaning: curtailment, curbing, repressing. But it is a key to unlocking authentic freedom. It is a directing of reason in the widest sense — getting all the goods of human life properly ordered under the highest good. Without temperance, created goods easily creep up and vie for the position of the ultimate good. When a created good takes that position, something disastrous happens: the desire for that created good becomes insatiable. A person is, after all, treating it as the ultimate good, a position it can never fill, but in which effort it will endlessly absorb that agent. The agent will remain restless until the true ultimate good is placed back where it belongs.

As I'm sure you've noticed, there is something interesting that God built into life to remind us of all this. When we experience created goods, even at their very best, they leave us unfulfilled. Remember the childhood experience of discovering that all the perfect Christmas gifts still leave us wanting something more? That painful experience, and all the adult versions of it, turn out to be friendly to us, reminding us gently (or not so gently) of the true ultimate end.

Ouch! It takes a lot of guts to recognize that fact, no?

And you've just hit upon the fourth and final cardinal virtue: fortitude. Fortitude or bravery is needed to carry out every virtuous act — as you said, it takes "guts" to keep all the goods of life in proper order. We all experience, in different ways, the inertia that lets us "dodge" that proper order. There's a perfect name for that appetite that says "run away!" — the irascible appetite — and there's a virtue, fortitude, by which we can perfect that appetite. For instance, if you understand the importance of studying Latin, but feel so overwhelmed by its difficulty, you are affected by the irascible appetite (that appetite that says "run away!"). Fortitude is the virtue allowing you to overcome this barrier and bravely set out to do that which is difficult. It also allows us to pursue that which is dangerous.

Prudence assists fortitude in knowing the proper mean. For instance, jumping in the water to save a drowning swimmer requires fortitude. If I jump in even though I don't swim well myself, I have erred in the direction of excess. People might say I was brave, but in fact I was rash. Or, if I am afraid to jump in, and then do nothing else to help, I err by defect and am called a coward.

If we take a bird's-eye view of the four cardinal virtues, we see that ultimately they all work together, getting us into that "groove" toward our ultimate end. We distinguish the different virtues only to finally unite them. All the virtues need prudence to find the mean; in carrying out any virtue, fortitude and temperance are needed, and they all help us to treat others the right way: justice. When we grow in virtue, all the cardinal virtues grow together, just as each finger on a hand grows as the hand grows.

Learning about the whole tradition of virtue is illuminating, but scary. Any way at least a few of these could be directly infused into us without all the practice?

To give a professorial answer: yes and no. The bad news is that you have to practice — grace does not cancel nature, but presupposes it. A person's vices do not nicely fall away like scales when that person receives the grace of Christ. The good news is that all of the natural virtues a person has can be infused with Christ's grace, raising them to a supremely high level. These infused-by-grace moral virtues then do wonders for helping a person cooperate with grace to conquer remaining vices.

When people perform virtuous acts, they might have any number of ends in mind, such as fulfilling themselves (virtuous people are happy people) or contributing to the common good (people are happier when they are around virtuous as opposed to less-than-virtuous individuals — think of the exhausted clerk who still gives a smile). But the ultimate end of a virtuous act is one's final end, union with God for eternity. If people are ordered toward that end, it is due to the gift of God's grace inhered in them, called charity. When the natural moral virtues are directed toward the ultimate end, they are then infused with that very charity and, without losing their natural dimension, they are lifted up to a higher, transcendent, or supernatural dimension. Only when the moral virtues are so infused do they come into the fullness of real virtue; without charity, they are only virtues in a qualified sense. That is why charity is called the "queen" of the virtues, and also the form of the virtues.

It's now easy to see why a person who becomes a Christian does not instantaneously become a virtuous person. He has the indwelling of charity, but until the arduous work of cooperation with grace to develop natural virtues occurs, charity has nothing on which to work (it certainly can't work on the privation of virtue, or vice).

If the "infused-by-grace moral virtues" allow a person to be directed toward the final end, what is the effect on other people? Does that effect remain identical to the effect of the natural virtues?

Now that, with the virtue of charity, I am ordered toward my final end, I can love other people with the love of God that has been poured into my heart. Loving other people with this love means caring for them with their final end in view — as God cares for them. With this love, I will always want my neighbors to follow the moral law — no matter how difficult — and I will not assist them in breaking it.

In this light, the great biblical saying "love thy neighbor as thyself" takes on its true meaning. If I genuinely love myself, I am concerned ultimately with my final end, and I orient my whole life toward it. I can only thus love myself if I have the gift of charity. To love my neighbors as myself means to be likewise concerned for them — not just with their temporal comfort and well-being, but with their eternal destiny.

Alongside charity are two other infused theological virtues, faith and hope. Faith is the intellectual assent to the truths revealed by God, while hope is the confidence that we will be able to reach our final goal. Like the moral virtues, these virtues are not full virtues unless infused with charity. When faith is so infused, one then possesses by participation the very thing believed in — the Trinitarian life. Likewise when hope is so infused, that which is hoped for is already present by anticipation.

Let me try to stump you. If a person loses charity — the queen of the virtues — due to mortal sin, then faith and hope are obviously lost as well. Then, the individual would have no motivation to get back on track again because he no longer even believes in any of this, much less hopes for it.

Good try, and you might have stumped me had I not just read St. Thomas on this very point. Recall by analogy how, when one has lost charity, the moral virtues remain as virtues in a qualified sense. The patient person still exhibits patience — good habits, like bad habits, die hard — but those patient acts are no longer ordered toward the final end. Likewise with faith and hope (without charity they still can exist, but that which is believed in and hoped for is no longer present in the soul), sanctifying grace is absent. We call them "dead" faith and hope, or "unformed" (by charity) faith and hope. They still do the person enormous good because if one still believes and hopes, one can be motivated to get back on track, with charity, onto the path to one's final beatific end.

Mark Lowery, Ph.D., is an associate professor of moral theology at the University of Dallas. Contact him at [email protected].

© Envoy Communications, Inc., and Patrick Madrid

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