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. Continue reading “The Four Cardinal Virtues, Part 1: Prudence & Justice”

Ambrose & Cicero on the Virtue of Serving the Community

Saint Ambrose of Milan (340–397) was a military governor turned Christian bishop. As such, he was concerned about the conduct of the priests under him. He wrote his tract On the Duties of the Clergy, in order to encourage his priests to live virtuous lives. In doing so, he copied the pattern, many of the arguments, and even some of the illustrations of Cicero’s work, On Duties (read about it here).

The structure of both books is the same. As Ambrose explains it: “The philosophers considered that duties were derived from what is virtuous and what is useful, and that from these two one should choose the better” (1.9.27). Both authors explain what is virtuous in the first book, then what is useful in the second, and then how to deal with a conflict between the two in the third.

In explaining the conflict between the two, Ambrose and Cicero are very similar. Ambrose says, “Let not, therefore, expediency get the better of virtue, but virtue of expediency” (3.6.37). Again, “True expediency does not therefore exist where virtue loses more than expediency gains” (3.6.44). Cicero says, “When men detach the useful from the honourable, they undermine the very foundations of nature” (On Obligations, 119).

Pursuing Justice
They are also very similar in their instance on the active life. Both men believed that virtue must have an outward face. The virtuous person does not hide in seclusion but seeks justice for the whole community. As Ambrose says, “We must think it a far more noble thing to labour for our country than to pass a quiet life at ease in the full enjoyment of leisure” (3.3.23). Cicero says, “you should embark on activities which are of course important and highly useful, but are in addition extremely taxing, full of toils and dangers which threaten both life and the many strands that compose it” (24). Activity not passivity is the characteristic of virtue. Continue reading “Ambrose & Cicero on the Virtue of Serving the Community”

The Glory of the Children of Light

[Listen to an audio version here]

The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece. Greece, a place of such wonder, beauty, and glorious history. From this place burst forth such a level of creative thinking about all subjects that the world continues to stand in awe of it. It inspires politicians, architects, artists, philosophers, and theologians to this day. It is the foundation of much of our own civilization. Lord Byron, the great English poet, who died in the cause of Greek independence, said, “Fair Greece! sad relic of departed worth! Immortal, though no more! Though fallen, great!” (Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto 2.73).

Even in Paul’s day, people would have looked at Greece in the same way. When the Romans conquered it, they took the Greek philosophers and teachers as tutors for their children and imbibed all they could of Greek culture and philosophy. For Christian theologians, the writings of the Greeks have been a conversation partner in a somewhat tumultuous relationship, sometimes wanting to throw them out and then going back to them again, seeing their value.

The Greeks themselves are today a Christian people, in the broad sense of that term. That is part of the story of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. In Acts 16, Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia, calling him over to Europe. He crossed the Hellespont and went into Europe. He entered the Roman colony of Philippi and met a woman named Lydia. She and her companions became the first church in Europe.

Paul and the Thessalonian Church
From there, Paul made his way to the capitol city of the region, Thessalonika. Today, the Greeks call it Thessaloniki. If you go to Greece, you can visit this ancient city. As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue and told the people that Jesus was the promised Messiah or Christ. Several responded positively. “Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women” (Acts 17:4).

Others were not as enthusiastic. In fact, they were downright hostile. They gathered a mob that searched for Paul and his associate Silas. They didn’t find him, so they took a man named Jason and brought him before the authorities. Here’s what they said, “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (Acts 17:6b–7). The authorities made Jason pay bond, and then they let him go. Continue reading “The Glory of the Children of Light”

7 Lessons from the Vikings I Want to Remember & Implement

I’ve nearly completed the History Channel’s Vikings series. I’ve also done some additional study on the Vikings, including listening to a history of the Vikings by Lars Brownworth.

One thing is clear: there are many things about the Vikings you do not want to imitate. Many of the scenes in Vikings are hard to watch. Their morality is clearly lacking in many areas. They can rightly be accused of toxic masculinity. They worship false gods in sometimes awful ways.

All that said, the Vikings were not without virtues. In a culture that is highly sensitive to toxic masculinity, we may miss some of what we might call “the masculine virtues.” It’s rather striking to see some of the things that they do that are rooted in this “masculine” culture because they are somewhat rare in our own culture. These are things I want to remember and imitate. Continue reading “7 Lessons from the Vikings I Want to Remember & Implement”

A Protestant Virtue Ethic

What’s the right way to act? What is good and just and worthwhile to pursue? What will give meaning to life? What will enable us to flourish? These are the questions of ethics.

One way to look at this is from the perspective of norms. Norms tell us what people ought to do. This includes things like, “obey the government”; “do not kill”; “honor God”; and so on.

Virtue ethics looks at ethics from the standpoint of the person. It looks at character and character traits or virtues should be present in people. These include wisdom, justice, love, patience, etc.

The question is, which of these characteristics deserve the most attention and the most focus? What characteristics are most important to human prosperity and functioning? Continue reading “A Protestant Virtue Ethic”