Lecture Five: The Cardinal Virtues


    A virtue is a habit which assures that an activity is good, thus making the agent good. As truth is the object of intellect, so good is the object of will or appetite. Properly speaking then, virtues relate to appetite -- because of the double occurrence of "good" in the definition. Moral virtues are virtues in the full sense of the term. Intellectual virtues, artistic skills, make a person good in a certain respect -- a good geometer, a good birdhouse maker, a good golfer. But one can be good in these partial ways and be a bad person. Over and above the capacity to think effectively or to make well, there is the need to use these attainments and skills well -- if one is to be a good human person. Moral virtues just as such are concerned with the good of the agent, of the person who acts.

    From ancient times, the moral virtues have been discussed in terms of there being certain key virtues, around which many others turn -- thus, they are called cardinal virtues, the word meaning hinge.

    Cf IaIIae, q. 61, 2 Utrum sint quattuor virtutes cardinales


    What is formal or definitive of virtue is the notion of good -- as we have just pointed out. But this can be considered in two ways: [1] as it consists of the consideration of reason, and here there is one principal virtue, PRUDENCE. [2] insofar as the order of reason is imposed on something else, and that something else is either [a] an operation or activity, and then the rational direction gives rise to JUSTICE; of [b] the passions or emotions, which have to be brought under the sway of reason because they are in conflict with it. And this comes about in two ways: [i] insofar as passion impels to something contrary to reason, and this passion must be restrained, hence the need of TEMPERANCE or MODERATION; [ii] insofar as passion draws us back from what reason dictates, as the fear of danger or of work, so we need to be firmed up with COURAGE.

    Thomas also distinguishes the four cardinal virtues in terms of their different subjects: [1] PRUDENCE perfects essential rational activity; the others perfect rational activity by participation, which is divided into three: [2] the will, the subject of JUSTICE, [3], the concupiscible appetite which is the subject of TEMPERANCE; and the irascible appetite which is the subject of COURAGE.


    Virtue in the primary sense of the term is moral virtue; the perfective habits of intellect, both speculative and practical, are virtues in a secondary sense, because they make us good only in a certain respect -- good geometers, good golfers. The intellectual virtues that perfect the speculative use of reason are acquired by being taught to us. Of course someone has to discover truths before they can be taught and learned, or we would get into an infinite regress. If then we state as a generality that the intellectual virtues are taught and learned, this cannot be said of the moral virtues.

    The only way to learn how to play the harp is to play the harp. That is one of Aristotle's aphorisms. It captures a truth we already know. In order to curb our appetites and bring them into line with what we know we should do, it is not sufficient to have an argument on behalf of action of a certain kind. It is a sad fact of life that we can act contrary to what we know we should do. The acquisition of moral virtue involves a change of life, not just a change of mind -- and such a change involves appetite as well as reason. It is by repeated acts of a certain kind that we acquired the disposition to act easily when confronted with like circumstances in the future.


    Plato in the Protagoras put forward the view that really to know what one ought to do is tantamount to doing it. If we do not do the right thing, this must be because of a defect of knowledge. This flies in the face of common experience. Taking a course in moral philosophy is not going to make us morally good -- it may be of some remote help, but such knowledge cannot of itself change our lives. For such a change to occur, we must be involve, not simply as minds, but body and soul, reason and appetite. There must be an habituation. And of course there will be, of one kind or another. The pattern of our lives make our acts more or less predictable, because of the virtues or, alas, vices that we have acquired by repeated acts of a certain kind.

    Moral change is painful. The Greeks likened it to gymnastics: the moral muscles have to be exercised and strengthened against the tasks of the future. That is why moral philosophy, if it is to play some role in our moral life, must move from the level of generality to the particular, where appetites are engaged. Only it is not moral philosophy as such that does this, but the virtue of the practical intellect called prudence -- sophrosyne -- practical wisdom.


    Josef Pieper, The Cardinal Virtues
    Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, IaIIae, qq. 55-67


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