National Catholic Register


Arm Yourself With the Cardinal Virtues

BY Benjamin Wiker

March 3-9, 2002 Issue | Posted 3/3/02 at 1:00 PM


Following the reasoning available even to non-Christian moral philosophers, the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists four cardinal virtues necessary for our natural good: temperance, courage (fortitude), justice and prudence. Understanding these virtues can help us guide our Lent more fruitfully by putting our particular vows and sacrifices into the larger framework of the human good.

Now this might seem all very dull and academic, but there is nothing boring or merely theoretical about the pursuit of virtue. Becoming virtuous is a perilous adventure precisely because it is carried on in the theater of everyday life. In each moment of every ordinary day, we are making the most momentous choices — for good or ill — in regard to our eternal destination.

Lent draws our attention to this connection between our daily actions and our eternal destination by asking us to focus on those aspects of our character that are most in need of repair, for these stand as obstacles to the restoration of virtue in our soul.

Nothing makes this clearer than looking over the list of questions in a standard “Examination of Conscience” in a penitential manual.

Have I semi-deliberately made myself indisposed by overeating?

Have I given up prayer when prayer seemed difficult and uninviting?

Have I borrowed things from others, such as books, articles of clothing, etc., and never returned them?

Have I insisted upon my own opinion, to the offense of others?

These everyday failings, small as they may seem, are directly opposed to the four cardinal virtues. Deliberate overeating opposes temperance, giving up something that is good but difficult shows a lack of courage, borrowing and not returning is opposed to justice, and insisting on one's own opinion rather than taking counsel with others violates prudence.

But these small failings, and the countless others we could have named, are not small at all. Any time we act against a particular virtue, we act on behalf of a particular vice. Since vice and virtue cannot coexist, we are indeed taking ourselves further and further from our natural good. Thus, the better we understand this relationship between our particular actions and the cardinal virtues, the more productive our Lent will be.

Sweet Victory

Let's dig deeper, then, by looking at two fundamental and related laws of human action. The first we'll call the Law of Additional Ease. This law, written into our very nature, makes whatever we do easier the next time we do it. The third time is easier still, and the fourth, and so on, until the action becomes so easy, it is “second nature.”

This law brings both good news and bad news. On the good side, it means that the more we perform acts that make us temperate, courageous, just and prudent, the easier it becomes to do them. In this way, virtue is its own reward.

On the bad side, it means that every time we fail to do the good, or purposely engage in even the smallest vices, it becomes easier and easier to do so — until acting viciously becomes second nature.

And that takes us to the second law, the Law of Moral Gravity, which is quite simple: Climbing up is more difficult than falling down. The farther we have fallen, the more burdensome and unpleasant our climb back up to virtue.


Becoming virtuous is a perilous adventure, for the endeavor is carried out in the hazardous theater of everyday life.

Let us illustrate by looking at a particular virtue, temperance, and its opposite, the vice of intemperance. Temperance, the catechism says, is “the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods” (No. 1809). To focus on the pleasure of eating, according to the Law of Additional Ease, if we eat nutritious foods in moderate amounts, we build up in ourselves the power to eat well. Eating well is easy for those who habitually eat good things.

But when we divorce the nutritional purpose of food from its pleasant taste, and chase madly after the pleasant taste alone, we find it easier and easier to eat more and more empty sweets and fatty foods.

The result? The vice of intemperance, specifically gluttony, of which obesity and poor health are only outward signs.

It is in this larger framework of the recovery of the virtue of temperance that we should see all our particular Lenten vows to give up desserts, snacks, coffee, chips, cigarettes and so on. Giving such things up for Lent should not be seen as a temporary sacrifice, but the beginning steps back up the hill from which we have tumbled, the summit of which is the restoration of the power of temperance in regard to food.

This also allows us to see how the cardinal virtues are not isolated, but essentially related. Since depriving ourselves of sweets, fatty foods or cigarettes proves quite painful — indeed, even to think of such deprivation scares many away from the task before it is even attempted — we need a power to do what we should even against such pain and fear.

We find ourselves needing another virtue, courage. Courage, or fortitude, as it is sometimes called, is “the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life” (Catechism, No. 1808).

What people often call a lack of “will power” in regard to food (as well as other pleasures) is actually a lack of courage, and what is needed in the face of such everyday temptations is the summoning of one's fighting spirit, the desire to conquer what degrades us and draws us away from our true good. To be temperate, then, we need courage.

We've Got the Power

What about the virtue of justice? Justice is “the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor” (Catechism, No. 1807). Justice, too, is built up and destroyed in the ordinary and everyday, and it is there that we should seek to build up justice in our soul during Lent.

For example, Lenten vows to go to a weekday Mass are vows that, if fulfilled willingly, strengthen our will to give God what is his due: praise and thanksgiving. Lenten vows to be kinder to our spouses and more patient with our children also allow the virtue of justice to grow, for we should desire to be both kind and patient, even though (given our moral backsliding) we'd rather look after our own comfort and lash out at all who interfere. Extra almsgiving during Lent, or resolving to tithe, are also acts that strengthen the power to be just; they do this by detaching us from material things and allowing us to be generous.

Finally, we must not only have the powers to do the good, but we need a power of judging, a virtue which allows us to discern what we should be doing each and every day, in things both small and large. That virtue is prudence, the “virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (Catechism, No. 1806). Obviously, this virtue directs our acquiring of the others.

To return, for example's sake, to the “Examination of Conscience,” if I have “allowed my eyes to wander in curiosity over dangerous objects,” a sin against temperance, then I must judge the danger of everyday situations accordingly. Should I turn this television program off? Shall I not look at this magazine? Shall I stay away from an immodestly dressed person?

On the positive side, the best way to train our moral judgment is to humble ourselves, and to imitate someone who is already an expert at being good. Lenten vows to read the Bible and the lives of the saints are particular ways that our judgment can begin to be cured, for (we assume) we are not engaging in such Lenten study merely to gain information, but rather to seek formation. As should be clear, the use of a well-written “Examination of Conscience” also forms our ability to discern the true good in everyday circumstances.

Much more could be said on behalf of the cardinal virtues. But as necessary and wonderful as these natural virtues are, our ultimate goal — becoming good — stretches beyond this life.

Benjamin Wiker teaches philosophy of science at Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio).