Many Americans today have lost track of the semantic trail from which “virtue” enters our lexicon. Contemporaries often associate the word with traditional religious principles, like chastity. While sexual ethics may be derived from classical virtues, there’s much more to it. To understand the nature of virtue, we must explore pre-Christian, pagan thinkers who initiated our civilization’s quest for human flourishing. By their lights, virtues encompassed the essential activities of a well-ordered life. To succinctly translate Aristotle, virtues are the habits of a happy human!
In the long-standing conversation on virtue, a cloud of witnesses argue for certain ennobling habits to increase our human capacities for excellence. Plato, Aristotle, and their successors have all paid particular attention to the forms and features of these virtuous habits, emphasizing the discernment necessary of “the golden mean” for any specific situation. While it has never been easy to exercise courage, temperance, or prudence, compelling arguments over the centuries claim these habits are the high road to a good life.
However, over the past century, another chorus of voices has openly challenged such traditional virtues, favoring materialistic schemes of economic liberation, philosophic claims concerning the will (to power), and literary works promoting radical self-expression—all proposals for the ultimate values of modern society. Tracing these modern developments of transposed “values” (from Marx to Nietzsche to Sartre) would outstrip this forum’s scope. But, it’s worth noting that the “modern turn” is a late-entry in the history of human thought—and likely lacking some basic insights from our predecessors. In that vein, this issue will briefly recount the four characteristics once considered essential to a well-lived life: the cardinal virtues.
Our quest for the good life begins with an understanding of justice. The most discussed term in the world of philosophy, justice requires a deep reading of one’s social responsibilities. While my individual rights are considered in this moral calculus, the deliberations of justice require an accounting of the debts I owe, as an individual, to others: parents, family, teachers, friends, and so on. As Dr. Theresa Smart explains in her essay, this communal aspect of individual fulfillment produces a paradox: “I cannot succeed in my quest [for the good life] without repaying those debts my very existence incurs—that is, I cannot succeed without justice.”
Determined to pursue justice, we soon discover other virtues propitiously coming to our aid, helping us to control the instinctive and appetitive impulses that naturally distract us from pursuing higher ends. Natural fears need the curbing force of courage, or fortitude. In turn, fortitude enables us to choose well and wisely, time and again, thus “answer[ing] the call of prudence,” as Dr. Fred Putnam puts it.
Our natural dispositions need the added strength that tradition calls temperance: “a kind of toughness of soul, or perhaps rather a quietness of soul, that enables one to build the other virtues,” as Dr. Gregory McBrayer explains in his exposition of how personality can be trained to serve higher ends.
To produce a more just society involves training the will via fortitude and temperance, but it also requires the finely tuned sensibilities of prudence. No technique or checklist will enable an individual to bring about justice. One must acquire, through experience and reflection, the exquisite benefits of an internal compass that orients the individual in choosing a particular path.
The exquisite ways of prudence, as Dr. Brett Bourbon reminds us, are often distorted by modern society, in at least two ways: with “fantasies of a rational and scientific utopia, policies determined by experts” and “displays of moral passion and righteous indignation.” These “brutal parodies [of] calculative reason and moral passion” form a stark contrast to the cultivation of soul that learns to read practical situations and the inner movements of minds and hearts—both one’s own and those of others. Prudence is thus the pathway to the good life, whereby virtuous souls take one thoughtful step at a time toward a more just and humane society.
These cardinal virtues may seem like remnants from a former age, crowded out by a more self-indulgent, mass-marketed society. However, we are fortunate to find these inter-related virtues at work in all those prepared to rediscover the path less-traveled—en route to happiness!
Dr. Robert L. Jackson is the chief academic officer of Great Hearts America and the founding director of the Institute for Classical Education.