JMC : Four-Square / by Joseph Rickaby, S.J.


We speak of a "cardinal of the Holy Roman Church" and of the "principal of the college." Both words have originally the same meaning. Cardinal is from cardo, a hinge. The college may be said to hinge upon its principal; and again a cardinal was originally and is to this day the principal priest of some parish-church in Rome. The cardinal virtues, then, are the principal virtues -- and that in two ways. Either they are taken as the main virtues, to which all other virtues approximate and can be ultimately reduced, or they are taken for the chief component elements of every virtue whatsoever, In the latter sense they are spoken of as integral parts of virtue, their union going to make up virtue in its entirety. We will consider them in this latter sense first.

We owe the enumeration of the cardinal virtues, not to the Hebrew Scriptures, but to the Greek philosophers. Prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice, were already enumerated at Athens as far back as B. C. 400. The root idea of justice is the rendering to every man of his own. But what is a man's own? That may be said to be determined by law. Let every man have what the law allows him. Justice, therefore, is conformity to law. But the law may be said to prescribe all virtues. The saying is debatable, but it is not worth while debating it here. Every virtue, therefore, is conformable to law, and in practising any virtue a man is observmg the law, and is, therefore, just. Hence in Scripture the "just" or "righteous" man is the law-abiding man; the virtuous man simply the "good man," in contrast with the sinner, who is a lawbreaker. Again, virtue moves a man to do good steadily, regularly and constantly, even in face of difficulties. But constancy under difficulties belongs to fortitude. There is, therefore, an element of fortitude in every virtue, by the mere fact of virtue being a habit. Once more, every virtue is a habit of doing things in moderation, holding on to the golden mean, neither overdoing the thing nor underdoing it, but doing exactly what is fit and proper under the circumstances. Such is the great Aristotelian doctrine, that all virtue lies in a mean between two vicious extremes. Liberality, for instance, observes the mean between prodigality and stinginess; fortitude between rashness and cowardice; humility between haughtiness and meanness of spirit. But moderation is the equivalent of temperance, which is thus shown to be an essential element in every virtue. It is not easy to discern the golden mean, e.g., in government between remissness and over-indulgence, when to punish and when to condone, when to forbid and when to allow. Such discernment is the part of prudence. Prudence is the eye of every virtue. No virtue goes blind. Thus, to be virtuous in any department is to be at once prudent, just, courageous and temperate.

More usually, however, the four cardinal virtues are taken as four distinct virtues and main heads of virtue, under which the other virtues are severally enumerated. Under prudence come prudence in one's own affairs and prudence in the affairs of others whom one has to govern. Justice includes justice distributive (of rewards), vindictive (punishing), and commutative (enforcing contracts); it is further taken to include the virtues of religion, obedience, truthfulness, liberality and gratitude. Under fortitude come magnanimity, patience and perseverance. Temperance includes abstinence (in food), sobriety (in drink), chastity, also modesty, humility, meekness, clemency. The theological virtues are distinct from the cardinal, and are not considered here, as being not "acquired" but "infused."

Every habit, as we have seen, resides in some faculty or power. The habit does not make the power, any more than the schoolmaster makes the child. It presupposes it as a thing given; then taking it in hand it disciplines and trains it and teaches it to act to good purpose; whereas, away from the good habit engendered in it by training, the power would have acted fitfully and at random. Virtue being a habit, it is possible to assign for every virtue the power in which it resides and which it perfects. We shall find the four cardinal virtues residing in the powers of the human soul. All these several powers want virtues to train them and guide them to orderly behaviour.

You sometimes hear people, who know no better, saying that all virtue is in the will. That is a mistake. Virtue is the discipline of the soul. It is not enough for the will alone to be disciplined, the subordinates must be disciplined as well as the chief, else you have no ready and regular action. Not only must the rider be skilled in horsemanship, but the horse also must be broken in. Virtue, therefore, resides even in appetite. It is put there (under God) by reason, and consists in the appetite's being habitually broken in to the obedience of reason. That habitual state is the result of many acts of conflict, in which reason has subdued appetite, as a trainer subdues a wild young horse. Plato expresses it in these terms: "The driver (reason), laying himself back, tugs with all his might at bit and bridle in the teeth of the wanton horse, embruing in blood his foul-mouthed tongue and jaws, forcing him back on his haunches till his legs and hindquarters almost touch the ground, and putting him to pain." Plato thought, and thought rightly, that the discipline of the lower appetites, otherwise known as the virtue of temperance, is not established without strong and repeated efforts on the part of reason, or the rational appetite, that is, the will, to enforce obedience to its commands. It may be added that the obedience of appetite to reason is never quite complete. Temperance is like a sovereign insecurely seated on his throne, and needing, when rebellion waxes high, to call in the aid of a superior power. The habit will not work automatically: it is not self-sufficient.

Justice regulates our dealings with other persons. Fortitude and temperance work within the self, and secure order at home. As for prudence, there is no department of human action which prudence should not pervade. Therefore, it has been said: "Temperance and fortitude in the home department; justice for foreign affairs; with prudence for premier."

The question has been asked whether the virtues are separable one from another, whether, for instance, one can be courageous without being temperate, or exercise liberality while neglecting religion? If the four cardinal virtues are taken, not as distinct virtues, but as common elements of all virtue, it is clear that they can not be separated. In all virtue discretion (prudence), rectitude (justice), moderation (temperance), and firmness (fortitude) are inseparably conjoined. The question can be raised only when the virtues are considered as distinct from one another. One cardinal virtue is not another, e.g., justice is not fortitude, that we allow. May not in the same person one of these virtues flourish in the absence of one or more of the other three? Does not plain experience evince that the sailor is brave, but not temperate; and that many a man is temperate, and just to fellowmen, but not just to God in that he wholly discards the virtue of religion? In answer to this somewhat intricate question we must distinguish between a virtue and the good acts which that virtue is apt to elicit. Those acts, as we have seen, may be done in the absence of the virtue: a man may show liberality once in a while without having the virtue of liberality. Much more may he do acts of liberality here and there, without having some other virtue, as temperance or religion. A man of no religion may subscribe handsomely to a hospital -- it may be, I allow, out of the virtue of liberality, but his mere subscription is no certain argument of that virtue. The act may be motived by ostentation or human respect and fear of public opinion; or he may live out of a certain native predisposition to fling his money about, a predisposition which makes excellent material for virtue, but is not of itself the virtue of liberality before it has been trained according to reason. What seems to be virtue may be a mere chance combination of good nature with happy circumstances. What seems to be virtue may keep up the semblance only because it has never been tried by temptation. It may be a keeping up of appearance out of love of respectability and desire to make one's way in society; and that is not virtue. Still I would not deny that a man may have one virtue and not another -- liberality, for instance, and not religion -- provided his lack of that second virtue be due wholly or chiefly to ignorance, misapprehension, weakness and frailty. But if a man casts any one virtue which carries duties in its train -- casts it out wilfully and against his conscience -- should gravely doubt his possession of any other virtue. However much he did the acts, I should doubt whether they were motived by the motive of the virtue. A man who spurns conscience upon one ground is not likely to be really conscientious upon another. Henry VIII affected zeal for religion and for the sanctity of marriage. His loose and dissolute life gave the lie to his zeal. What shall we say of Louis XIV? We must be cautious in judging of individuals. But this we may observe in general. Virtues are like the timbers of a roof. Dry rot, set in on one beam, does not at once bring the whole roof down. Nor does the decay of one particular virtue work the immediate ruin of a man's whole moral character and destroy all his other virtues, the gradual growth of years of well-doing. They may remain some considerable time uninjured. But evil spreads, and things move from bad to worse.

By doing our duty we do acts, from which acts virtues are apt to result. Nor is a sinner condemned precisely for his vices, but for those sinful acts which have engendered vices in his soul. We are not bound to do all good acts possible, else there would be no difference between counsel and commandment. Good acts indeed are often inconsistent one with another. It is good to marry, good to receive holy orders; but you can not do both. In every good man, grown up, there will be found the cardinal virtues, but not every subordinate virtue which ranks under those general heads. Some virtues he may not have been in a position to practise. You can not practise clemency if you have no authority to punish; nor munificence if you are not a rich man. Some virtues grow out of acts which are rarely practicable or obligatory -- magnanimity, for example, which is the maintenance of a proper attitude of mind in reference to high honors. Some virtues are as the garments of the soul, covering its nakedness and its shame; others are as jewelry; now no one is obliged to wear jewelry.

The ancient Greeks, who first made out the list of cardinal virtues, also enumerated four corresponding goods of man. They were health, strength, beauty, and what we may call a competence, or a competent position in society. Fortitude and temperance evidently answer to strength and beauty respectively: they are spiritual strength and beauty. The drunkard, or the unchaste youth, is morally and spiritually ugly, though he perceive it not: higher powers perceive it. The Greeks said: "Vice is unknown to itself." Prudence is the being of sound mind and sound judgment in matters of primary importance. Prudence takes "a healthy view" of the general situation. Justice is the moral attribute that fits us to be members of human society; for no society, not even that of lieves, could hold together, were the members all unjust to one another. In this, justice is like a "competence," which means a place in the social organism, with associates and friends to converse with, and sufficient pecuniary substances to maintain the position honorably.

Or we may put the relation in this way. Prudence is the safeguard of health; fortitude keeps up strength; temperance, which includes chastity, is the defender of beauty; while justice prevents man abusing his worldly wealth and position. So that, without the cardinal virtues, health, strength, beauty and social competence, may prove a curse rather than a blessing to the owner. And the same of all other corporal and material advantages.

<< ======= >>