I, and perhaps many of you, came from a generation which was taught morals mainly as a series of rules – most of which were deduced from Scripture, and developed to cover almost every activity available to human beings. These were divided into two classes: mortal sins – whose potential punishment was Hell for all eternity, and venial sins which were not. This was summed up by a leading Jesuit moral theologian: “(The Church) indoctrinates its children during many years, until resistance to evil becomes an almost second nature… It says to the child: you must be good in the way
I teach you to be good, so that afterwards you may know how to be good.”
We might discuss the values and the dangers of such an approach but, over time, the emphases have moved in the direction of pursuing the virtues rather than focussing on lists of sins. The argument here is that it is better to work at becoming a good person rather than being fixated on avoiding this sin or that.
Ironically the ‘cardinal virtues’, as we call them, come originally from Aristotle. They lead us towards the good, and thus towards God. Not surprisingly they seem to have a slightly musty air about them attributable to their long history. This does not make them irrelevant since human nature has not changed since Aristotle; but the terminology lacks appeal.
So we get as a listing of the cardinal virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. They are called ‘cardinal’ because they are the “hinges” on which the multiplicity of other possible virtues turn.
But Prudence has a specific meaning – that of practical wisdom in our choices or, as St Augustine put it “..the knowledge of what to seek and what to avoid.”. It does not carry the common overtone of prudence in the sense of being cautious. Justice carries the feel of the courtroom; it is too large a word for our petty experiences. Fortitude is not a word in ordinary usage and does not readily suggest the determination to stick with the right thing despite opposition from within and without – in both large and small matters. And temperance sounds like avoiding hangovers; it has largely lost its original sense of finding the judicious mean between two possible extremes: courage, for instance, is the mean between foolhardiness and timidity.
These old fashioned terms, while understandable in their true context, do not readily convey their intended meaning. Perhaps we need some new names. I propose, merely as a first shot, Practical Wisdom, Fairness, Determination, and Balance. Others will perhaps have better ideas. Of course, even under new names, each virtue needs explanation and extension, but it is important that they set us off at least in the right direction, and are qualities which are recognizable to all as desirable.