Four Cardinal Virtues

In our study of the four cardinal virtues we have been learning many ideas and
theories on how to live “the good life.” It was very difficult in the
beginning of this semester to define what “the good life” means. After
studying the virtues and their theories it became very clear to us what “the
good life” is all about. Josef Pieper, the author of the book we have been
studying, has made it very simple to understand how to be a good human being.


Christian thinking and morality has played a major role in the understanding of
the four virtues. The so-called four cardinal virtues that we have been studying
are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. According to Pieper these four
virtues are the key elements in trying to achieve the highest good. Pieper
believes that these virtues are necessary in order for a human being to fulfill
the Christian image of man. These virtues exercise a persons moral,
spiritual, emotional, and physical self. Every virtue has its own importance
with prudence being the most important, or mother of all virtues. The order of
importance of these virtues is as follows, from most to least important:
prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. To study these virtues we began
with the virtue of prudence and worked our way down. We began to realize that
these virtues are very dependent on the virtues that are above in importance.

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For example, fortitude depends on prudence and justice. You cannot have
fortitude without first achieving prudence and justice. This distinction makes
these virtues very interesting and as a result presents a strong case as to why
they are crucial for human beings to possess. The ability to attain all of these
virtues is something that all humans should strive for because it would be to
the best for society. In the following I will analyze each virtue separately and
show how they all tie together to form the “Christian image of man.” First I
will start with the most important virtue of them all, prudence, and then move
on to justice, fortitude, and finally temperance. The first and most important
virtue is the virtue of prudence. This is known as the mother of all virtues
because it is the first step towards working to become a good human being.


“…none but the prudent man can be just, brave, and temperate, and the good
man is good in so far as he is prudent.” This quote here is the best
explanation that can be given to show the importance of prudence to the
Christian doctrine of man. From this quote we see that prudence is necessary in
order for a human being to be just, brave, and temperate. The reason prudence is
so crucial is because it is the ability to make good decisions. In order for a
human being to be able to make good decisions he or she must be able to know
what is good and what is not good. There is a very special relationship between
the virtue of prudence and the idea of good. “Classical Christian ethics
maintains that man can be prudent and good only simultaneously; that prudence is
part and parcel of the definition of goodness.” It is very important for one
to understand this unique relationship between prudence and the idea of
goodness. One cannot have one without the other. Prudence is the whole idea of
one being able to recognize what is good and always be able to act in the good
way. We will see later how this relationship is also very vital to the virtue of
justice. The virtue of prudence is the hardest to attain due to the fact that a
human being must be able to recognize what is good. This makes it necessary for
the person to also be able to know what is good and what constitutes what good
is. This is not something that we can all be able to do overnight; the ability
to know what is good is something that can only be attained through moral and
just thinking. When a person begins to recognize the good and act in moral and
just ways, that is when he or she has attained the virtue of prudence and has
become a prudent human being. It has been necessary for me to use the words just
and moral because one cannot talk about prudence without mentioning everything
it deals with. Although justice is the next virtue in the order and is dependent
on prudence, one must still use the concept of justice when explaining prudence
because that is what prudence is, just actions. “…there is no sort of
justice and fortitude which runs counter to the virtue of prudence; and that the
unjust man has been imprudent before and is imprudent at the moment he is
unjust.” Here, Pieper makes it clear to us that an imprudent man will be
unjust in his actions. To show how important prudence is to the Christian image
of man, Pieper states the following: “Prudence is the cause of the other
virtues being virtues at all.” Well, I have already explained that for a
person to fulfill the Christian image of man he or she must first attain the
four cardinal virtues. And if prudence is the cause of the other three virtues,
then it must be the basis of the Christian image of man. If prudence is the
basis of the Christian image of man, it is very important for every human being
to try to become prudent so that he or she can become a person of goodness.


After saying all that, it becomes clear that the Christian image of man is an
image that calls for human beings to be good. This is why the most crucial part
of attaining the four virtues is being able to recognize and know what the good
is. “Prudence is the measure of justice, of fortitude, of temperance.”
This is also very important because it shows how justice, fortitude, and
temperance are not only dependent on prudence; they are also measured by
prudence. What Pieper means when he says measured is this: “..the decree of
prudence is the prototype and the pre-existing form of which all ethically good
action is the transcript.” In other words a good action becomes just, brave,
and temperate due to the decree of prudence. This goes back to what I was saying
about the good and prudence; the relationship is that “whatever is good must
first have been prudent.” Since prudence calls for the person to be able to
recognize the good, a person must then have knowledge about reality. The
knowledge of reality is important because one must be able to know what is good
in a situation. In order for a person to be able to do this he or she must
understand the principles of reason and the singulars with which ethical action
is concerned. I believe that all of these actions and realizations are there so
that a person may be able to find the just action. This will then lead me to the
next virtue in order, which is the virtue of justice. The virtue of justice is
the next virtue in line of importance. This virtue is very dependent on the
virtue of prudence for many obvious reasons. The virtue of justice is one which
calls for persons to give other persons what is due to them. An unjust person is
one who takes or withholds something that belongs to someone else. “All just
order in the world is based on this: that man give man what is his due.” Above
we saw how justice was closely tied to prudence. I also explained how prudence
is a virtue, which teaches humans to know the good. “Justice is something that
comes second: right comes before justice.” This piece of text explains the
concept of right comes before justice. As we have seen justice is a virtue,
which depends on prudence, and prudence is the ability to recognize what is
right. Once a person understands this, it becomes evident as to why prudence
precedes justice. Justice asks the human person to act rightly; before a person
can do that he or she must know what is right. Prudence is what teaches us what
the right and good are and then a person can become just. This is very unique
amongst all of the virtues, the fact that one aspect of a virtue affects the
next virtue in line. This very unique relationship shows the importance of
humans being fully moral. A person cannot act justly while imprudent; this is
impossible. Once a person becomes prudent then he or she can move on to act
justly. Justice states that man must receive what is his due. This claim has
caused much controversy on how do we know, as humans, what is our due. One of
the answers that Pieper gives is based on the fact that man is given certain
rights through creation. “It is through creation that the created being first
comes to have his rights.” This does not mean that God owes us certain rights
for being created; God does not owe us anything, it is the fellow humans who
must give each other what it rightfully theirs. All humans, as a community, must
recognize what is ours and must not infringe on anybody elses property. This
is where justice plays its most important role in society. Justice is there so
that we do not hurt each other by not treating each other fairly. Justice, in
its basic form, keeps all humans aware of the fact that we all have rights and
must respect each others rights. For example: if I am asked by another person
to do a certain job for him for a specific amount of money and we do this
through mutual agreement, then that person is obliged to pay me. There are many
other factors that play a role in this situation, however considering that I do
the job to fulfill what we agreed on, then that person owes me a certain due. It
is unjust if that person does not pay what he promised me if I gave him what I
said I would. This very simple situation brings justice in to play, and justice
is the reason that I now have something due to me. If that person is a just
person then he will pay me. Humans deal with each other in everyday life in many
situations. Usually justice is the basic element that builds trust between
individuals. If I see someone act in an unjust manner then I will not be
inclined to trust that person. In order for us to trust and respect each other
we must learn to be just with one another. Once a person develops the notion to
act justly and not try to hurt another person, then he or she has taken a big
step forward towards fulfilling the Christian image of man. Then it becomes
necessary to move on and try to develop and attain the next virtue towards
becoming a Christian human, which is fortitude. I will now move on to explain
what fortitude is and its role in the process of becoming a Christian being. I
will also show how this virtue is dependent on the previous two, prudence and
justice. This next virtue, fortitude, is the one that interested me the most in
our study of the four virtues. The reason it interested me so much is because of
what it explains in human beings actions. The virtue of fortitude is the one
virtue that deals with suffering and injury; but deals with it in a manner where
it justifies humans death in certain situations. This may sound very
complicated; but it is really very simple and is crucial in the process of
fulfilling the ideal Christian image of man. Fortitude is the readiness to give
up ones life, suffer injury, and be brave in the name of something that is just
and moral. “Fortitude is basically readiness to die or, more accurately,
readiness to fall, to die, in battle.” However, the battle must be one that is
for a just and moral cause. If a human believes that there is injustice and
immorality in any sort, then he or she must fight against the injustice and
immorality no matter how much pain and suffering they face. The ultimate test of
fortitude would be death for a good cause. I have already written a short paper
on this specific issue. Death is considered to be the ultimate test of fortitude
due to the fact that a human faces the biggest fear in life, which is death.


Pieper explains to us that fear is not perceived as a bad thing, in fact it is
an important aspect of fortitude. When a human being is suffering injury in the
name of God, he or she does not do it just for the sake of the injury. People
who withstand pain, suffering, and ultimately death do it for the idea that they
cannot live in a society where injustice is O.K. This does not mean that a
martyr perceives life as of little worth; a martyr faces an outstanding fear of
entering the unknowable for the idea that humans must not live amongst
injustice. Humans must be able to recognize any type of injustice around them
and act to change that injustice into the good. God puts us on earth so that we
may live just, moral, and good lives. This is not possible unless we all
recognize the good and devote ourselves to eliminating injustice and immorality.


When a man is ready to give up his life for a good cause, this should tell the
rest of society that we must not go on with injustice as a part of life. Humans
have the power to become good men and women through just and moral thinking. If
a person gives up his or her life for a cause, then this should tell us that
something is wrong and it must be altered. When a person gives up his or her
life for something, this means that the person was not able to go on living
experiencing the immorality and injustice that was occurring. Many of the
injustices that occur in todays society are due to humans not knowing or
understanding the need to know ourselves and be able to comprehend what is good
not only for ourselves but for the rest of society. Many times these injustices
occur due to humans not being able to control their desires, which leads to
unnecessary beliefs and actions. The final virtue of temperance is the one that
deals with the issue of desire. This next virtue tries to explain how humans
need to be in order for us to fulfill the Christian image of man. I will now
move on to briefly talk about this virtue and show its importance in the process
of becoming an ideal Christian. Temperance is a virtue that we have not studied
as closely as the other three. This virtue deals with the difficult task of
humans being able to give things for our well being. The main theme of
temperance is selfless self-preservation. What this means is that humans must be
able to act in good manner for their own good. For example, if I love to eat
chocolate and do it everyday, I must be able to control my desire for chocolate
be knowing that it is for my own benefit as well as to the benefit of society.


It may sound strange that me not eating too much chocolate will benefit society,
however this is a very basic example. Whenever humans consume too much of
something not only are they affecting their own selves, they are also affecting
the rest of society. We live in a country where food and drinks are not that
hard to find; in fact we have too much of it and waste a lot of it. While we are
wasting all this food, there are people in other parts of the world whom
sometimes go a whole day without anything healthy to eat. This is a perfect
example of the type of injustices we are living amongst. Temperance teaches
humans to know themselves and have inner knowledge of what they really”need” and what we consume. Humans must understand that we can be selfless
or selfish. If we act selfishly then we are not caring about the rest of society
and are only looking to please ourselves only. On the other hand, a selfless
person is one who recognizes that there are other people around us and
understand that whatever we do may affect the rest of society. “For man there
are two modes of this turning toward the self: a selfless and a selfish one.


Only the former makes for self-preservation; the latter is destructive.” This
piece of text shows the fact that the sole thing that can throw a person into
destruction is the self. In other words it is our self-being that controls what
happens around us. If we want to live in a just, moral, and good society then
our self-being can see that this occurs. “Most difficult to grasp is the fact
that it is indeed the essential human self that is capable of throwing itself
into disorder to the point of self-destruction.” This is the one unique and
distinct point in the virtue of temperance. This virtue is the only virtue that
deals with the human self. “Temperantia is distinguished from the other
cardinal virtues by the fact that it refers exclusively to the active man
himself. Prudence looks to all existent reality; justice to the fellow man; the
man of fortitude relinquishes, in self-forgetfulness, his own possessions and
his life. Temperance, on the other hand, aims at each man himself.” To sum
things up, I have tried to show how a person who attains these four cardinal
virtues can become the ideal Christian being. This does not mean you have to be
Christian in order to attain these virtues, because when we say the ideal
Christian being, we mean a good person. All humans who attain these four virtues
are people who have dedicated their self-being and life to do what God asks from
all of us. What I have tried to show is how these four virtues are distinct from
each other but yet so dependent and connected with one another. Humans must
understand that we are not living our lives so that we may enjoy pleasure and
wealth at the expense of the rest of society. We are all on earth together and
everything we do affects each other. Therefore we must try our hardest to only
involve ourselves in good action; in this way our action will affect the rest of
society in only a good manner. I have also tried to express the importance of
understanding what the good is. Humans are good in nature; sometimes it is our
surroundings that make us act immorally and in a bad fashion. This is why it is
necessary to always try and keep a good surrounding. This can be achieved if all
humans attain the four cardinal virtues. Therefore, in order to live in a
society that is full of nothing but justice, morality, and good; we must all
work towards fulfilling the Christian image of man. This can be achieved simply
by attaining the “Four Cardinal Virtues.”