Lesson 9: The Cardinal Virtues
The four chief moral virtues are temperance, courage, justice and prudence. The first two have their seat or subject in sense appetite, that is, the desire that follows on sense perception. The subject of justice is the will or intellectual appetite. And practical reason is the subject of prudence. The adjective derives from the Latin word for hinge, so these are the virtues on which the others swing, or they give entrance to a fulfilled human life. "A human life," Thomas Aquinas notes in the Disputed Question on the Cardinal Virtues, "is one that is proportioned to man." Taking his cue from this, Thomas proceeds to examine the human make-up and its relation to these virtues.
In hoc homine autem invenitur primo quidem natura sensitiva, in qua convenit cum brutis; ratio practica, quae est homini propria secundum suum gradum; et intellectus speculativus, qui non perfecte in homine invenitur sicut invenitur in angelis, sed secundum quamdam participationem animae. Ideo vita contemplativa non est proprie humana, sed superhumana; vita autem voluptuosa, quae inhaeret sensibilibus bonis, non est humana, sed bestialis. Vita ergo proprie humana est vita activia, quae consist in executio virtutum moralium: et ideo proprie virtutes cardinales dicuntur in quibus quodammodo vertitur et fundatur vita moralis, sicut in quibusdam principiis talis vitae; propter quod et huiusmodi virtutes principales dicuntur.
In man there is found indeed a sensitive nature, in which he is one with the brutes, and practical reason which is proper to man according to his rank, and speculative intellect which is not found in man perfectly as it is in the angels, but only according to a kind of participation in the soul. That is why the contemplative life is not properly human, but superhuman. The voluptuous life, which is enmeshed in sensible goods, is not human, but brutish. The properly human life, accordingly, is the active life, which consists in the practice of the moral virtues. Therefore, the cardinal virtues are properly called those in which the moral life is founded and on which it turns. That is why they are also called the principal virtues.
Higher than the brutes, a little less than the angels. This passage conveys the solid common sense of Thomas. He will argue, as will Aristotle, that the contemplative life represents the highest perfection of the defining characteristic of man, his reason -- man is a rational animal -- but our mind moves from point to point discursively, compares, derives, creates a whole congeries of concepts and interrelations among them to know reality. Our reason, however, begins and ends with a function that is found more perfectly in higher creatures, the function Thomas names intellectus, understanding, whose etymology, he suggests is intus legere, to read the innards of things. Intuition is sometimes suggested as its translation. Our grasp of first principles -- which are of course complex: S is P -- is immediate, underived. Furthermore, the term of our rational inquiry seems to resolve the vast complexity of reality into its first cause. Thus, contemplation, the culminating act of mind, is the seeing of all things in relation to the divine.
Both of these terminal acts are imperfect. First principles are sure and certain, but not informative of the many differences among things. Human wisdom and contemplation, desirable as they are, are a poor thing. This very poverty is invoked in praising wisdom. Aristotle notes that a little knowledge, however imperfect, of the highest being, is preferable to extended knowledge of lesser things. As it happens, the former depends upon the latter, so Aristotle is not suggesting a pure choice.
Such considerations as these are suggested by Thomas's underscoring at the outset of his discussion of the cardinal virtues, that it is the life of practical intellect that is more commensurate with our condition, the moral life, the practice of the virtues. This underscores the human primacy of the cardinal virtues.
Considerandum est autem quod de ratione actus virtuosi quatuor existunt.
Quorum unum est, ut substantia ipsius actus sit in se modificata; et ex hoc actus dicitur bonus, quasi cira debitam materiam existens, vel debitis circumstnatiis vestitus.
Secundum autem est, ut actus sit debito modo se habens ad subiectum, ex quo firmiter subiecto inhaereat.
Tertium autem est, ut actus sit debito modo proportionatus ad aliquid extrinsecum sicut ad finem. [Et haec quidem tria sint ex parte eius quod est per rationem dirigitur.]
Quartum autem ex parte ipsius rationis dirigentis, scilicet cognitio.
Et haec quattuor Philosophus tangit in II Ethic. Ubi dicit quod non sufficit ad virtutem quod aliqua sint iuste vel temperate comparata, quod pertinet ad modificationem actus.
Note that there are four things which pertain to the notion of a virtuous act.
First, is its very substance be modified, thanks to which the act is called good, as bearing on fitting matter or surrounded by fitting circumstances.
Second, that the act be related in a fitting manner to the subject, as firmly inhering in him.
Third, that the act be proportioned in a fitting way to something extrinsic as to its end.
[These three all pertain to the fact that the act is directed by reason.]
Fourth, there is that which is on the side of directing reason, namely, knowledge.
Aristotle touches on these four in the Nicomachean Ethics 2 when he says that it is not enough for virtue that things are justly or temperately done, which pertains to the modification of the act.
The attentive reader will notice that the aspects of the human act which give rise to this discussion of the cardinal virtues seem somewhat more generic than that mentioned at the outset. And so, we shall see, it is.
For now, having noted that there are three aspects of the human act which are due it because it is directed by reason, he now turns to the knowledge reason must have in order to accomplish such directing.
Sed alia tria requiruntur ex parte operantis.
Primum quidem ut sit sciens; quod pertinet ad cognitionem dirigentem. Deinde, quod sit eligens et reeligens propter hoc, idest propter debitum finem; quod pertinet ad rectitudinem actus in ordine ad aliquid extrinsecum.Tertium est, si firme et immobiliter adhaereat et operetur.
Haec igitur quattuor scilicet cognitio dirigens, rectitudo, firmitas et moderatio, esti in omnibus virtuosis actibus requirantur; singula tamen horum principalitatem quamdam habent in specialibus quibusdam materiis et actibus.
But there other things are needed on the side of the agent.
First, that he be knowing, which pertains to directive knowledge. Then that he be choosing and choosing again for the sake of a fitting end, which pertains to the act's rectitude with reference to something extrinsic. Third, that he firmly and changeless adhere to and act.
These four then, namely directive knowledge, rectitude, firmness and moderation, although they are required for any virtuous act, each has a certain principal role in certain matters and acts.
The four elements are in one sense common to all virtuous acts insofar as any virtuous act will exhibit or instantiate them. We have, accordingly, what we might call four cardinal features of the virtuous act. But over and above that understanding, Thomas continues, there are specific matters and acts which provide another understanding of cardinal virtues.
Ex parte cognitionis practicae tria requiuntur. Quorumprimum est consilium; secundum est iudicium de consiliatis; sicut etiam in ratione sepculativa invenitur inventio vel inquisitio, et iudicium. Sed quia intellectus practicus praecipit fugere vel prosequi, quod non facit speculativus intellectus, ut dicitur in De anima 3, ideo tertioad rationem practicam pertinet praemediatri de agendis: et hoc est praecipuum ad quod alia duo ordinantur.
Circa primum autem perficitur homo per virtutem eubuliae, quae est bene consiliativa. Circa secundum autem perficitur homo per synesim et gnomen, quibus homo fit bene iudicativus, ut dicitur in Ethic. 6. Sed per prudentiamfit ratio bene praeceptivia, ut ibidem dicitur. Unde manifestum est quod ad prudentiam pertinet id quod est praecipuum in cognitione dirigente; et ideo ex hac parte ponitur prudentia virtus cardinalis.
Similiter rectitudo actus per comparationem ad aliquid extrinsecum, habet quidem rationem boni et laudabilis etiam in his quae partinent ad unum secundum seipsum, sed maxime laudatur in his quae sunt ad alterum; quando scilicet homo actus suum rectificat non solum in his quae ad ipsum pertinent, sed etiam in his in quibus cum aliis communicat. Dicit enim Philosophus in Ethic. 5 quod multi in propriis quidem virtute uti possunt, in his autem quae sunt ad alterum, non possunt. Et ideo iustitia ax hac parte ponitur virtus principalis, per quam homo debito modo copatatur et adequatur aliis, cum quibus communicare habet; unde et vulgariter dicuntur iusta illa quae sunt debito modo coaptata.
Moderatio autem, sive refrenatio, ibi praecipue laudem habet et rationem boni, ubi praecipue passio impellit, quam ratio refrenare debet, ut ad medium virtutis perveniatur. Impellit autem passio maxima ad prosequendas delectationes maximas, quae sunt delectationes tactus; et ideo ex hac perte ponitur cardinalis virtus temperantia, quae reprimit concupiscentias delectabilium secundum tactum.
Firmitas autem praecipue laudem habet et rationem boni in illis in quibus passio maxime movet ad fugam: et hoc praecipue in maximis periculis, quae sint pericula mortis; et ideo ex hac parte fortitudo ponitur virtus cardinalis, per quam homo circa mortis pericula intrepide se habet.
Harum aute quattuor virtutum, prudentia quidem est in ratione, iustitia autem est in voluntate, fortitudo autem in irascibili, temperantia autem in concupiscibili; quae solae potentiae possunt esse priincipia actus humani, id est voluntarii.
Unde patet ratio virtutum cardinalium, tum ex parte modorum virtutis, tum etiam ex parte materiae, tum etiam ex parte subiecti
On the side of practical knowledge, three things are required, the first of which is deliberation; the second is judgment concerning things deliberated; so too in speculative reason there is found inquiry or discovery and judgment. But because practical reason commands flight or pursuit, which speculative intellect does not, as is said in On the soul 3, therefore it pertains to practical reason to ponder things to be done, and it is to this that the other two are chiefly ordered.
Man is perfected with regard to the first by the virtue of eubulia, which is to deliberate well. Man is perfected as to the second by synesis and gnome, whereby a man is made to judge well, as is said in Ethics 6. Through prudence is man is made to command well. Thus it is clear that to prudence pertains what is principal in directive knowledge, and for that reason prudence is said to be a cardinal virtue.
Similarly, the rectitude of the act with reference to something extrinsic has the note of the good and praiseworthy even in things confined to oneself, but one is particularly praised in things which involve others, namely when a man rectifies his action not only in what pertains to himself, but also in matter he has in common with others. For the Philosopher says in Ethics 5 that many can use virtue in their own affairs who are unable to when it comes to others. Therefore justice in called a principal virtue, thanks to which a man is adapted and made equal in a fitting manner to others with whom he must live. Which is why just things are commonly called what is adapted in a fitting manner.
Moderation or restraint, however, is chiefly praised and has the note of good where passion chiefly impels, which reason must restrain so that the virtuous mean can be achieved. But passion especially impels to the pursuit of the greatest pleasure, which are those of touch, and thus from this consideration temperance which refrains desires bearing on the pleasures of touch is called a cardinal virtue.
Firmness especially is praised and has the note of good in the things where passion moves to flight, and this is when we face the greatest dangers, which are the dangers of death. So it is that fortitude is called a cardinal virtue since thanks to it a man is related with intrepidity to the perils of death.
Of these four virtues, prudence is in reason; justice in the will, fortitude in the irascible appetite and temperance in concupisicible appetite. These are the only powers that can be principles of human acts, that is, of voluntary acts.
Clearly therefore the notion of the cardinal virtues can be derived from the modes of virtue, which are as it were its formal notes, as well as from different subject matters and also different subjects.
Thomas distinguishes the tradition which explains cardinal virtues in terms of the general modes of the virtues from the Aristotelian tradition which finds their distinction rather in their different subjects and different matters. It is quite typical of Thomas as a man who moves within a plurality of traditions to show, when this is possible, the rationale of each. So it is that, rather than dismiss talk of cardinal virtues that cannot be reconciled with Aristotle -- or vice versa -- he reflects on the two accounts and finds a way -- one might say an Aristotelian -- way to reconcile them. But if the resolution is broadly Aristoleian, the resulting common doctrine amounts to an advance on Aristotle.
Disputed Questions on Virtues, pp. 105-140.
Does a person who has one virtue have them all?