Traditional Christian theology names faith, hope, and charity as the theological virtues. They are directly imparted to the believing Christian by the grace of God and are not attainable through the natural order. They are called theological because they have God for their immediate and proper object; because they are divinely infused; and because they are only known through divine revelation.
Grace perfects nature and the three theological virtues are the flowers of the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. The word cardinal comes the Latin cardo, translated as “hinge.” Whether you’re a lifelong Christian or a Godless heathen, the cardinal virtues are part of the natural moral order and can be cultivated through self-discipline and hard work. We must cultivate them if we expect to live a happy life in this world.
Roots In Antiquity
It’s difficult to overstate how much Greek philosophy has influenced Christian theology. Plato identified the four cardinal virtues with a corresponding class of citizen in The Republic.
Temperance applied especially to farmers and craftsmen, i.e. those who provided for our bodily appetites. Fortitude was the necessary virtue of the soldier and corresponded to our spirit. Prudence was the virtue of the ruling class. Justice stood outside the system and governed the relationship between the other three classes and the virtues.
The Roman statesman Cicero also emphasized the four:
Virtue may be defined as a habit of mind (animi) in harmony with reason and the order of nature. It has four parts: wisdom (prudentiam), justice, courage, temperance.
And the deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom 8:7 in the Bible:
And if a man love justice: her labours have great virtues; for she teacheth temperance, and prudence, and justice, and fortitude, which are such things as men can have nothing more profitable in life.
The first recorded instance of the word “cardinal” to describe these virtues occurs in St. Ambrose of Milan’s commentaries on the Gospel of Luke. Later on it appears in the writings of St. Augustine and St. Jerome. St. Thomas Aquinas gave it the most in-depth and systematic treatment of any other theologian in Western Christianity.
Thomas teaches that prudence is the virtue that corresponds to the intellect. It enables us to discern our true good in any given situation and the proper means of achieving it. Because it is rooted in the intellect, prudence does not mean directly willing the good it sees, but rather sets the measure for the exercise of the other virtues.
Most importantly, it identifies the golden mean where natural virtue lies. If we lack prudence, courage becomes suicidal recklessness. Mercy becomes weakness. Justice becomes tyranny.
We must not confuse prudence with cowardice or dissimulation. It is the charioteer of the other virtues and guides the judgment of our conscience. The shortest and most effective definition of prudence is “right reason applied to action.” You wouldn’t start your own business without a plan of some sort, no matter how vague.
Prudence governs our actions. Fortitude and temperance concern taming our irascibility and our appetites. Justice deals with our rights and obligations toward other people.
Obviously the words “justice and “right” have been much abused over the last few decades, but abuse does not preclude legitimate use. If Jones borrows money from Smith, then Smith, in justice, has a right to get his money back if Jones refuses to pay up. The supernatural virtue of charity means going above and beyond the demands of justice; Smith may forgive Jones of his debt and make the money a gift. Justice is blind because she does not respect our position in society.
Justice means respecting others and fulfilling our obligations to them, whether it’s their right to life and limb or simply adhering to contracts. It means expressing gratitude toward those who have done us a kindness. It definitely does not mean a vague and undefined resentment of cishet white male shitlords to last in perpetuity upon pain of losing your livelihood.
Temperance is geared toward governing our appetites for sensible pleasure, whether it’s food, alcohol, or sex. If man is the rational animal, as Aristotle put it, then temperance is necessary for governing our animal natures. It ensures our will’s mastery over our base instincts.
If we can’t moderate our own desires, then we cannot act rightly, render other men what is their due, or overcome adversity. In the New Testament, this virtue is often called “sobriety” and “moderation.” The results of intemperance should be obvious: grotesque obesity, raging alcoholism, or swimming in STDs. We admire people who dramatically change their physiques through diet and exercise because they are living examples of the virtue of temperance.
Fortitude is often used interchangeably with courage. Remember prudence though: it is a reasoned courage. It’s not foolhardiness or rashness. It’s the virtue that allows us to overcome our fears and remain steadfast in the pursuit of our goals.
Prudence and justice tell us what we must do, and fortitude gives us the strength to see it through. Christian martyrs, for example, do not actively seek martyrdom, unlike Islamic suicide bombers. But whether it’s the Religion of Peace, or the Soviet Union, or the Roman Empire, Christian history is rife with martyrs who peacefully went to their deaths rather than renounce their faith.
In the context of the United States, if you even mildly agree with anything written on Return of Kings or the manosphere, or the orthosphere where my fellow Traditionalists hang out, eventually the SJWs are going to come for you.
Don’t actively seek out to die on that hill, particularly if you have young children to feed. But if you’re ever in their crosshairs, never, ever back down under any circumstances. If you apologize, you’re going to lose your job anyway, only now you’ve lost your dignity besides.
A Virtuous Man
The four cardinal virtues all work in tandem. Prudence identifies what is good, how to do what is good, and how to avoid evil. Justice ensures that we respect one another’s rights and fulfill our obligations and duties. Temperance gives us the self-control to forgo short-term pleasures in pursuit of our long-term goals. Fortitude will see us through to the end, whether we succeed or fail.
As St. Augustine put it:
To live well is nothing other than to love God with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul and with all one’s efforts; from this it comes about that love is kept whole and uncorrupted (through temperance). No misfortune can disturb it (and this is fortitude). It obeys only [God] (and this is justice), and is careful in discerning things, so as not to be surprised by deceit or trickery (and this is prudence).
Self-improvement entails more than building up our bodies. We must improve our spirits as well.