Q: I keep hearing about the importance of virtue and being virtuous, but no one explains what virtue is.
St. Paul in his Letter to the Philippians captured the idea of virtue and the living of a virtuous life: “My brothers, your thoughts should be wholly directed to all that is true, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, admirable, decent, virtuous or worthy of praise” (4:8). With this in mind, the classic definition of virtue is a habit or firm disposition which inclines a person to do good and avoid evil. Characterized by stability, a virtuous person not only strives to be a good person, but also seeks what is good and chooses to act in a good way. Aristotle defined virtue as “that which makes both a person and what he does good.”
Dr. Joseph Pieper, one of the great Thomist theologians and an expert on virtue, provided this explanation: “The doctrine of virtue … has things to say about this person; it speaks both of the kind of being which is his when he enters the world as a consequence of his createdness and the kind of being he ought to strive toward and attain to — by being prudent, just, temperate and brave. The doctrine of virtue is one form of the doctrine of obligation, but one by nature free of regimentation and restriction” (The Four Cardinal Virtues).
On one hand, an individual can acquire human virtues through his own effort under the guidance of reason. Through education, by deliberately choosing to do what is good, and through perseverence, a person acquires and strengthens virtue.
On the other hand, with the help of divine grace from God, the individual finds greater strength and facility to practice these virtues. Through these grace-assisted virtues, which we would now call moral virtues, he gains self-mastery of his weakened nature due to original sin. In sum, these virtues help to forge that Christian character and to motivate a person to become God-like, in the best sense of the term.
There are four primary moral virtues, which are called the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. The word cardinal derives from the Latin cardo, meaning “hinge.” Consequently, these four virtues are called “cardinal” because all other virtues are categorized under them and hinge upon them. The Book of Wisdom of the Old Testament states, “For [wisdom] teaches temperance and prudence, justice and fortitude, and nothing in life is more useful for men than these” (8:7).
Prudence, the “mother” of all of the virtues, is the virtue by which a person recognizes his moral duty and the good means to accomplish it. Actually, prudence is part of the definition of goodness. A person can be prudent and good only simultaneously. No other virtue can contradict what is prudent. Therefore, what is prudent is substantially what is good, and prudence is the measure of justice, temperance and fortitude.
A prudent person looks at the concrete reality of a situation with a clear, honest objectivity; references and applies the moral truths (e.g., the Ten Commandments or the teachings of the Church); makes a moral judgment; and then commands an action. Moreover, prudence also seeks to accomplish the action in a good way — doing what is good in a good way.
Clearly, prudence is essential for the formation and operation of one’s conscience. To be a prudent person, one must know God’s truth, just as to have a good conscience, one must know God’s truth. One cannot do what is good if one does not know the principles of truth and goodness.
To prudently examine a situation and then to determine a course of action, one must keep in mind three aspects of prudence: memoria, docilitas and solertia. Memoria simply means having a “true-to-being” memory which contains real things and events as they really are now and were in the past. Everyone must learn from his past experiences. Remembering what is to be done or avoided from past experiences helps to alert us to the occasions and causes of sin, to prevent us from making the same mistakes twice and to inspire us to do what is good. Be on guard: the falsification or denial of recollection is a grave impediment to exercising prudence.
Docilitas means that a person must have docility, an open-mindedness, which makes the person receptive to the advice and counsel of other people. A person should always seek and heed the wise counsel of those who are older, more experienced and more knowledgeable.
Finally, the exercise of prudence involves solertia, which is sagacity. Here a person has a clear vision of the situation at hand, foresees the goal and consequences of an action, considers the special circumstances involved and overcomes the temptation of injustice, cowardice, or intemperance. With solertia, a person acts in a timely manner but with due reflection and consideration to decide what is good and how to do the good. With a well-formed conscience attuned to God’s truth, and with the proper exercise of memoria, docilitas and solertia, a person will act prudently.
Contrary vices to prudence include precipitance (acting impulsively), inconstancy (changing resolutions too quickly), negligence, and losing sight of one’s supernatural destiny, namely eternal life. Perhaps the last vice is most prevalent today: too many people act without regard to their eternal judgment and without setting their sights on Heaven. The prudent person seeks to always do what is good in the eyes of God so as one day to be joined to His everlasting goodness in Heaven. After all, Jesus asked, “What profit would a man show if he were to gain the whole world and destroy himself in the process?” (Mt 16:26).
Given this introduction to the cardinal virtues and to the virtue of prudence, we will continue the discussion on the virtues of justice, fortitude and temperance.
Editor’s note: This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.