The Four Cardinal Virtues, Part 2: Fortitude & Temperance

The objects of virtue are defined by prudence and justice. By objects, I mean, the things we are to pursue, such as a relationship with God, a loving family, and scientific discovery. However, knowing what to do is not the same as being able to do it. There are many hardships and dangers in pursuing the best. This requires fortitude. There are many good things that distract us from the best. This requires temperance.

These are the four cardinal or principle virtues required in the excellent or virtuous person. Josef Pieper has written a helpful explanation of these four virtues for our time in consultation with ancient philosophy, Christian theology, and modern philosophers. In this post, I am considering his discussion of fortitude and temperance. You can read my post on prudence and justice here.

What are you willing to die for? This is the chief question of fortitude. It’s one every single one of us should consider. Preparing for death prepares us to live. As Josef Pieper says, “Fortitude that does not reach down into the depths of the willingness to die is spoiled at its root and devoid of effective power. . . . Readiness to die is therefore one of the foundations of Christian life” (117). This does not mean that death or suffering are valued in and of themselves. Pieper explains, “The brave man suffers injury not for its own sake, but rather as a means to preserve or to acquire a deeper more essential intactness” (119). The flip side is a desperate attempt to keep one’s life at all costs, “All neuroses seem to have as a common symptom an egocentric anxiety, a tense and self-centered concern for security, the inability to ‘let go’; in short, that kind of love for one’s own life that leads straight to the loss of life” (134). Consequently, careful consideration of what is worth living and dying for is at the root of our well-being.

True fortitude or courage, then, must be rooted in reality. The cause for which we endure must be a good one, and the suffering must be appropriate to the cause: “Genuine fortitude presupposes a correct evaluation of things, of the things that one risks as well as of those which one hopes to preserve or gain by the goals” (124). Pieper cites Pericles as an example of this point: “For this too is our way: to dare most liberally where we have reflected best. With others, only ignorance begets fortitude and reflection but begets hesitation” (124). Fortitude begins with careful consideration of reality.

Fortitude is not the same thing as having no fear. An unwillingness to consider real risks or a rash desire to enter into dangers is not bravery. Pieper says, “To be brave is not the same as to have no fear. Indeed, fortitude actually rules out a certain kind of fearlessness, namely the sort of fearlessness that is based upon a false appraisal and evaluation of reality” (126, see the whole quote here). There is no shortcut to careful analysis of what is truly valuable and the real risks that are involved in attaining and keeping it. The man of fortitude has considered the risks and the real value of what he risks his life for and either stands his ground or moves forward anyway. When the cause is truly worth the risks, then we have the virtue of fortitude.

What good things are we willing to give up to attain what is better? This is the question of temperance. For example, to get stronger will mean saying no to some activities we could do in order to focus on lifting weights (or some similar activity). It will take self-control or temperance to become stronger.

The key thing is to simply avoid doing what we do on impulse and to do it deliberately in light of true wisdom and justice. To explain this, Pieper moves outward to the social and Paul’s comparison of the church to a body in 1 Cor. 12. He says: “There was to be no want of unity in the body; all the different parts of it were to make each other’s welfare their common care. The primary and essential meaning of temperare, therefore, is this: to dispose various parts into one unified and ordered whole” (146). This is the meaning of temperance. It is not simply to forego things. It is to use all our resources in a way that is in accordance with reason.

Pieper says that this applies even to things that we might find to be especially good. For example, it would seem that pursuing literature or studying history or philosophy would be an unalloyed good. Not so, says Pieper: “Without rational self-restraint even the natural hunger for sense perception or for knowledge can degenerate into a destructive and pathological compulsive greed; this degradation Aquinas calls curiositas, the disciplined mode studiositas” (151). This illustrates well the whole point of temperance. In all good things, we should not act according to mere impulse but should act in accord with what is really the best for us. The ability to do this is temperance.

Just like with fortitude, the virtue of temperance is only a virtue if the purpose for which we control ourselves is good. Pieper explains:

Discipline, moderation, chastity, do not in themselves constitute the perfection of man. By preserving and defending order in man himself, temperantia creates the indispensable prerequisite for both the realization of the actual good and the actual movement of man toward his goal.

Once again, virtue is about the real world. It is about real excellence. This shows the priority of wisdom. All virtue is about really doing good in the real world. On the other hand, without an ability to say “no” to some good things, we will not attain the best things.

I’m giving only a small introduction to the insights of Pieper in his broader work and specifically in The Four Cardinal Virtues. I encourage you to read his relatively short book and begin thinking about these categories which Christian and non-Christian alike have seen as crucial for a life of excellence or virtue.

To sum up, the key thing is to see that virtue begins with a knowledge of reality. It is about really doing good. That’s why prudence or wisdom comes first. This vision for the good has a specific relationship to the people around us. Ordering these relationships rightly is justice. There are many things that will keep us from the good. The first is a fear of death or pain. We overcome this by the virtue of fortitude. There are also many good and pleasurable things that keep us from doing what is best. This requires the virtue of temperance, to order our participation in these activities in such a way that will enable us to attain what is truly good.

The ancients saw these four virtues as “cardinal,” principle, or basic. They saw them as necessary for every other virtue. They commend them to our meditation as ways of attaining what is good and finding real meaning and purpose in this world.


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