The Four Cardinal Virtues, Part 1: Prudence & Justice

The tradition of the four cardinal virtues was already old when Plato wrote about it in his Symposium. This ancient wisdom contained three aspects. Fist, morality was about a person’s character, the type of person he was, as well as the rules he followed. Second, the goal of morality was not merely following rules but to be a person of excellence, which is the meaning of the word “virtue.” Third, a virtuous act requires four key virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

In his book, The Four Cardinal Virtues, the Catholic theologian Josef Pieper explains the meaning of these four virtues. He does this in interaction with the ancient philosophers, Christian theologians, and modern philosophers. The result is a unique and helpful discussion of these four categories. Pieper believed that such a discussion was extremely fruitful. He said, “we may well turn to the ‘wisdom of the ancients’ in our human quest to understand reality, for that wisdom contains a truly inexhaustible contemporaneity” (xii). In this article, I want to summarize and highlight his discussion of the virtues of prudence and justice.

Pieper says that prudence is the preeminent virtue: “the fact is that nothing less than the whole ordered structure of the Occidental Christian view of man rests upon the pre-eminence of prudence over the other virtues” (3). He points to an interesting statement from Jesus to illustrate this, “If thy eye is single, the whole of thy body will be lit up” (Mt. 6:22). To many today, I suspect this would seem more like an intellectual matter rather than a moral one. It may strike as curious that Pieper would say that wisdom is the preeminent moral virtue. So, why does he make wisdom so important in the moral life?

The reason prudence comes first is that to be morally excellent, a virtue has to be in accord with reality. To be in accord with reality, we must know reality. To know reality we need prudence or wisdom. “The meaning of the virtue of prudence, however, is primarily this: that not only the end of human action but also the means for its realization shall be in keeping with the truth of real things” (20). Prudence needs to learn the nature of “real things.” So prudence begins with an openness to reality, a willingness to listen and a willingness to learn.

The Christian has a basic prudence related to salvation. Pieper cautions, however, that the Christian needs to move on to “make provision for himself and for others, not only in matters necessary for salvation, but also in all relating to human life” (14, cf. Phil. 1:9–11). The goal of salvation is the restoration of human life in its fullness, laboring for the glory of God and the good of our neighbors. This involves development of the virtue of prudence. Pieper maps this out by explaining the subordinate virtues related to prudence. I refer you to his discussion, but here is one illustration. “In deliberation we may hesitate; but a considered act must be performed swiftly” (13). Prudence demands slowness and quickness. We need to fully search things out, but when deliberation is complete, we must act. This takes practice, training, and development. This is the virtue of prudence.

Immanuel Kant said, “Man’s greatest and most frequent troubles depend on man’s injustice more than on adversity” (43). This is still true. We experience pain and injustices from society and the people around us. The question of justice is, are we the type of people who are building the community we want to have?

Prudence tells us what the good society is, and justice enables us to live out such a society in our actions and relationships. As we think about what the just person should look like, it would be easy to think simply of someone who knows how to adjudicate disputes or commits no serious crime. However, we owe much more to each other. A just person knows how to give respect and honor to each individual. Justice includes general affability, kindness, and sweetness of temper. It also includes an ability to avoid whatever is “annoying, embarrassing, or compromising to a person’s good name” (47). In relationship to anyone who has some office or dignity, the just person gives honor to whom honor is due. The virute of observantia, as the ancients defined it, “indicates the respect we feel inwardly and express outwardly toward those persons who are distinguished by their office or by some dignity” (109). So, justice is a wide-ranging concept indeed.

Justice is not something that we define for ourselves. It is something that is owed to each other as a natural right. It involves inalienable rights because these rights are not mere human conventions. They are given by God Himself. Consequently, a very important point to recognize is that when someone acts unjustly, they are actually harming themselves. They are acting contrary to and destructive of their own nature. As Pieper says, “At all events, something incomparably worse befalls him that happens to the one who suffers an injustice: that is how inviolable the right is!” (47-48). This is because justice is rooted in man’s being. “Man has inalienable rights because he is crated a person by the act of God, that is, an act beyond all human discussion” (51).

When it comes to politics, Pieper says, “In the affairs of the world, everything depends on the rulers’ being just” (89). The ruler’s reward for this is that he becomes a special picture of how God carries out justice over all the earth. This is what should drive the magistrate, according to Pieper. Prudence, however, teaches us the limits of political action. Party politics is party politics. Political parties will never be completely impartial. Consequently, “any inconsiderable polemic against party politics as such is highly unrealistic and for that reason irresponsible” (93). He goes on to say that in light of human nature, “Unwarranted criticism and opposition, blind abuse and fault-finding, are acts of injustice, violations of iustitia distributiva which alone enables states to exist and function in orderly fashion” (95). At the same time, fruitful dispute between interest groups is a fruitful way of arriving at a more just order. Knowing the balance here is a matter of prudence and demonstrates the interdependence of virtues.

So, what keeps us from pursuing prudence and justice? There are many good things that keep us from pursuing the best and the most excellent. This requires temperance. There are also many hardships that discourage us from pursuing the virtues. This requires fortitude. In my next post on the cardinal virtues, I will unpack how Pieper explains these two virtues.


Leave a Reply