The Cardinal Virtues: Justice

Justice, Raphael Sanzio

As we explore the cardinal virtue of justice, it is helpful to follow the schema of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae (II, IIae, qq. 57-122), where he treats it expansively. Because I am summarizing a large amount of material here, I have not included references for each specific point below. Please allow the previous citation of the Summa to serve for the entire post.

The cardinal virtue of justice enables us to render to others what is due to them on a consistent basis. Justice seeks to observe the rights of all. While it is sometimes easy render to others what is their due, at other times it is difficult; these are the situations in which justice shows itself as residing in the will. In particular, justice seeks the good of others. Temperance and fortitude are internally focused, as they are directed to the appetites and passions of the soul. In contrast, justice is more of an external virtue because it is directed to others. Justice seeks proportionality, such that each person has what is his part, share, portion, or due. Justice seeks to render to each what he should have.

As we have noted before, “every virtue observes or consists of the mean” (omnis virtus in medio consistit). Virtue is the middle ground between excess and defect. Justice is no exception. There are two fundamental vices opposed to justice:

Injustice is the defect. This is obviously the exact opposite of justice; it strikes against both the common good and the good of individuals. It fails to render to others what is their due. It possesses or withholds unlawfully or unreasonably. Injustice in small matters can be a venial sin; in more significant matters it becomes a mortal sin. One may be unjust intentionally (which increases one’s culpability) or through ignorance or in a moment of passion (which lessens one’s guilt). If one habitually and knowingly acts with injustice, he bears the mark of an unjust person.

Judgment is the excess. Judgment in this context refers to what we call “rash judgment” or “harsh judgment” today. There are, of course, judgments that we should and must make, such as between right and wrong. There are some whose occupations require them to pass judgment; there is no problem with this provided such judgments are conducted with justice.

There are certain judgments, however, that involve an overreaching, wherein we seek to establish justice by excess. For example, out of too much zeal for justice we may rush to judgment without sufficient information; this is rash judgment. Further, in our zeal for justice we may at times render judgments or inflict punishments on others that are overly harsh. At still other times we may pass judgments that are not ours to make. This is usurped judgment, wherein we take justice into our own hands unreasonably and possibly illegally.

Anger is a common response to witnessing injustice. Sometimes out of this anger we sinfully overreach. It is this “excess” of zeal for justice that the true cardinal virtue of justice seeks to moderate.

Thus, justice as a virtue stands in the middle between injustice and rash or harsh judgment. It regulates our tendencies toward those extremes.

Just as the seven deadly sins have related sins which spring from them (which St. Thomas calls “daughters”), the virtues have what St. Thomas calls “parts.” These parts are different aspects of the virtue that help us to describe it or recognize it in action.

  1. Commutative Justice – This is justice that between persons; it looks to the exchange of goods in due proportion and with a significant degree of exactness. For example, if I agree to pay you $50 for some good or service, then I owe you $50 when the work is complete. If I pay less or if you demand more, there is injustice.
  2. Distributive Justice – This is justice exercised by the community (e.g., government, Church, religious order) toward its individual members. This type of justice looks to the bestowal of goods rather than their exchange. It is rooted in proportionality of merits or needs. Thus, some with greater merit are rightly honored more highly; those who truly need more are given more.
  3. Restitution – This is the restoration of balance or equality that is due. For example, if I possess something I should not, I must return it, or something of equal/greater value, to the owner. If I have damaged something, I must compensate the owner for the damage. If I have harmed someone’s reputation by false accusation, I must set the record straight. Sometimes acts of restitution are required of more than one person. If multiple people benefitted from something that was stolen, they must all take part in the restitution (though perhaps to various degrees); if several people were harmed, they must all be compensated. All who cooperate in evil must join in making restitution. St. Thomas lists many ways in which one may cooperate in evil or unjust acts: counsel, command, consent, flattery, receiving, partaking, silence, or refusing to intervene or denounce when it was possible.
  4. Religion – It is interesting that St. Thomas includes religion as one of the parts of justice. Most of us think of religion under the heading of faith, which is one of the three theological virtues. Religion, by contrast, is among the moral virtues and is a part of justice because we owe God a great deal. We owe Him a debt of honor, worship, gratitude for He has given us: life and every good thing. Many people today have forgotten this, thinking of religion as essentially for their own good, as something to serve, console, and benefit them. Indeed, there is great benefit to religious observance, but first and foremost, religion is an act or virtue required of us in justice. We are to render to God what is rightly His. St. Thomas enumerates some of the following things we owe in justice to God: devotion, prayer, sacrifices, oblations, tithes, and in some cases vows and oaths.
  5. Piety – This disposes us to show due honor, deference, and respect to those who have bestowed benefits on us and/or have a place of excellence in our life. Clearly piety is due to God, but it is also due to parents, family members, teachers, and leaders of the Church and government. It is due in justice because from God and our parents comes our very life, and from the others listed come the things that make for and supply our life.
  6. Observance – This is a respect we have for those with special dignity among us. This form of reverence is due in justice on account of the excellence of those with dignity; excellence ought to be praised. It is related to veneration or dulia (reverence accorded to saints/angels).
  7. Obedience – This is conforming our behavior to the lawful command of a superior. We owe God absolute obedience. Human superiors are to be obeyed within the sphere of their authority and when what they command is not contrary to God’s law or our duties toward Him. Obedience is a requirement of justice on account of the common good and our obligation to preserve order and charity. Obedience to just civil law is also required of us under justice.
  8. Gratitude – We owe God thanks for all things. We also owe a debt of gratitude to all who bestow benefits upon us. Gratitude should be expressed in words and deeds. In enumerating our debt of gratitude we should take into account especially the disposition of the giver, not merely the size of the gift.
  9. Truthfulness – We ought to speak the truth to others; we owe them the truth. This moral virtue does not require us to tell all that we know, but others deserve to hear the truth from us rather than a lie.
  10. Liberality – Even though liberality refers to giving more than what is strictly due, it is allied with justice because it is related to the proper use of money and the universal destination of goods (wherein God gives all the goods of this world to all the people of this world). Thus excess wealth is rightly shared not only in charity but in justice. If I have excess, to some degree some of it belongs to the poor.
  11. Equity (or Epikeia) – This helps to interpret the mind of the lawmaker in order to best apply the law in particular circumstances. Because laws are most often written in a general way, applying them to specific situations serves justice.

Yes, justice is a many-splendored thing; it is rightly numbered among the cardinal virtues. The word “cardinal” is derived from the Latin cardo/cardin, meaning hinge. Many of the other virtues swing upon the hinges of justice. Rendering to others what is due is sometimes complex and/or difficult, but it is always necessary. Injustice, particularly accumulated over a long period of time, often breeds anger and even contempt; From such things violence and war emerge.

May justice protect us!

The Cardinal Virtues: Fortitude

Fortitude, Pietro Perugino

In exploring the cardinal virtue of fortitude, it is helpful to follow the schema of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae (II, IIae, qq. 123-140), where he treats it expansively. Because I am summarizing a large amount of material here, I have not included references for each specific point below. Please allow the previous citation of the Summa to serve for the entire post.

Not only is fortitude a cardinal virtue, it is also one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit, of course, elevates this natural virtue to something greater and more directly rooted in faith and in God. In today’s article, we will consider fortitude as a cardinal virtue and therefore ponder it primarily as a natural and human virtue.

The cardinal virtue of fortitude enables us to withstand even great difficulties that hinder us from attaining our true goal. A chief feature of fortitude is being able to see an act or decision through to the end despite obstacles. It is not merely being brave in the face of danger or sallying forth into battle; it is also being steadfast in the face of difficulties and enduring without sadness or loss of faith.

In its strictest and loftiest sense, fortitude is the virtue that enables us to face the danger of death; in this sense it is at the root of martyrdom. However, fortitude is operative at every level short of mortal danger as well. By it one endures in order to overcome not merely physical dangers, but spiritual ones as well, which are enemies of our soul and impediments to our salvation. Therefore, the chief and most common act of fortitude is enduring in order to see a thing through despite obstacles, hardships, persecution, and any number of other difficulties.

As we have noted before, “every virtue observes or consists of the mean” (omnis virtus in medio consistit). Virtue is the middle ground between excess and defect. Fortitude is no exception. There are two vices opposed to fortitude:

Timidity or cowardice is the defect. While there are proper fears which teach us to shun or flee what we ought, timidity or cowardice leads us to avoid what virtue requires of us. It is especially serious when such fear leads us or makes us willing to violate divine law in order to avoid what we fear. As a defect of fortitude, timidity makes us indisposed to endure hardships or difficulties and influences us to give up easily or to refuse to do what is reasonably required of us.

Insensibility to fear or foolhardiness is the excess. As noted, there are some things we should reasonably fear and avoid. Insensibility or foolhardiness causes us to rush into danger when not required. As a result, this excess amounts to a form of stupidity, pride, impulsiveness, and/or presumption.

Thus, fortitude as a virtue stands in the middle between cowardice and foolhardiness. It regulates our tendencies to these extremes.

Just as the seven deadly sins have related sins which spring from them (which St. Thomas calls “daughters”), the virtues have what St. Thomas calls “parts.” These parts are different aspects of the virtue that help us to describe it or recognize it in action.

  1. Magnanimity – This word literally means “large-minded” and it refers to pondering great things such that we are inspired to yearn for or pursue them. Magnanimity helps us to comprehend with our mind things that are great, honorable, virtuous, and worthwhile. By it we he lay hold of a kind of vision for our goals; we are inspired to reach for them and are willing to endure difficulties and obstacles to attain them.
  2. Magnificence – This word literally means doing great things. With magnanimity we consider great, virtuous, and honorable things to pursue; with magnificence we set about accomplishing them, overcoming difficulties and being willing to make sacrifices to do so.
  3. Patience – This helps us to resist giving way to sadness and to bear up under the difficulties of life with a certain equanimity or steadiness of soul. By it, we do not give way easily to excessive sadness or anger. Patience helps us to endure painful or difficult things without weakening in our faith or in our commitment to the truth and the pursuit of our spiritual goals.
  4. Perseverance – This helps us to pursue good purposes steadily in spite of difficulties, delays, fatigue, and the common temptation to eventual indifference if results are not quickly forthcoming. Many worthy goals take a long time, even generations, to accomplish. Perseverance keeps us steadfast.

Fortitude is rightly numbered among the cardinal virtues. The word “cardinal” is derived from the Latin cardo/cardin, meaning hinge. Many of the other virtues swing upon the hinges of fortitude.

Fortitude is more than mere bravery. It is a beautiful virtue that considers great things, enduring difficulties to attain to them, but doing so via the middle path, avoiding both cowardice and foolhardiness.

The Cardinal Virtues: Temperance

Temperance, Piero del Pollaiuolo

In exploring the cardinal virtue of temperance, it is helpful to follow the schema of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae (II, IIae, qq. 141-170), where he treats it expansively. Because I am summarizing a large amount of material here, I have not included references for each specific point below. Please allow the previous citation of the Summa to serve for the entire post.

Temperance, in its broad sense as a general virtue, disposes us to act in moderation and do what is ordinate or measured. In one sense, temperance is a part of every virtue because “every virtue observes or consists of the mean” (omnis virtus in medio consistit). Virtue is the middle ground between excess and defect, as St. Thomas often notes in the Summa.

In a more specific sense, though, we usually restrict the cardinal virtue of temperance to the virtue that helps us to moderate our appetite for tactile and bodily delights, specifically food, drink, and sexual activity. The senses of taste and touch are especially involved and only to a lesser degree those of sight and hearing, insofar as they present to our intellect the food, drink, or sexual things that must be moderated. Temperance not only controls our pursuit of pleasurable goods; it also helps to curb our distress when we lack them.

As a virtue, temperance stands in the middle of defect and excess:

Insensibility is the defect. It involves an unreasonable rejection of the pleasures associated with preserving our life. Because food, drink, and sexual activity are necessary for our survival either as individuals or as a race, God has associated pleasures with them to assist us in not neglecting them. Rejecting the pleasures associated with them to the extent that they harm our well-being is what is meant by insensibility. Unhealthy fasting would be an example of this.

There are some among us who perpetually abstain from sexual pleasure through virginity and celibacy. This is not to be confused with insensibility because it is not necessary for every person to engage in sexual activity for the human race to survive.

Intemperance is the excess. As the literal opposite of temperance, it consists in the immoderate indulgence of taste and touch through excessive and unreasonable indulgence in food, or drink, or sex. St. Thomas reminds us that intemperance is the most disgraceful of the vices because it indulges those pleasures that man has in common with animals. It also plays a powerful role in dimming the light of our reason (we noted this in our discussion of lust last week).

Just as the seven deadly sins have related sins that spring from them (St. Thomas calls them “daughters”), the virtues have what St. Thomas calls “parts.” These parts are different aspects of the virtue that help us to describe it or see it in action.

  1. Shamefacedness – This is a passion whereby one recoils from what is disgraceful because of the shame resulting from the consequences of sin. People feel this and fear this most in the face of those they know. One way of avoiding this is to live virtuously. Sadly, some are unashamed not so much due to a lack of virtue but because they are so accustomed to sin that they have lost the normal shame it should bring. Healthy shame should make us recoil from deserved reproach, humiliation, or the loss of our good reputation. In this way it can assist us in moderating or tempering our sinful desires.
  2. Decorousness (decency) – This is a love of the beauty that virtue brings. Because temperance repels what is most unbecoming in us, namely the indulgence of our lower (or animal-like) desires, it helps us in being decent and possessing that which is beautiful in us, which decorousness desires.
  3. Abstinence – This refers to refraining from some lawful pleasure or thing entirely or for a specific period of time. It must be ordinate, however, lest it become insensitivity. Because temperance helps us to moderate and have authority over matters of taste and touch, abstinence is a species or subset of temperance.
  4. Fasting – his refers to refraining from food for a specific timeframe. The same observations and distinctions apply as for abstinence.
  5. Sobriety – This is the reasonable, moderate use of intoxicating beverages. To be sober indicates a clear mind, rather than one distorted by excessive drink. St. Thomas observes that moderation may need to vary from individual to individual. There are some who do not tolerate alcohol well and may need to refrain entirely. For most, however, drinking in moderation is what is meant by sobriety.
  6. Chastity – This refers to the virtue by which we “chasten” or rebuke concupiscence. We curb or hold it in control based on our state in life.
  7. Virginity – This is the perpetual refraining from the use or pleasures of sexual activity. Sex is a necessary and essential good for the propagation of the human race, and though required for people in general, it is not necessary that everyone engage in it. Those who vow themselves to virginity do so in order to be more wholly devoted to the spiritual life.
  8. Continence – This refers to the general controlling or resisting of lustful desires. It regulates the sexual desires and thereby moderates them.

St. Thomas also notes that certain virtues, though not technically parts of temperance, are aligned with it. These would include virtues such as clemency, meekness, modesty, and studiousness. Clemency and meekness moderate punishment and anger. Modesty observes the “mode” and regulates things such as decorum in clothing, posture, and movement. Studiousness moderates the spiritual appetite for knowledge, permitting it to be neither too weak nor too exclusive in opposition to other goods. It also moderates the tendency toward excessive curiosity, which is the intemperate seeking of knowledge that is not for us to know, is useless, or is the cause of pride.

Finally, St. Thomas notes that the 9th and 10th Commandments forbidding us to covet are directed at temperance. This is because coveting is excessively or inappropriately desiring that which is not ours or is not for us to have. The virtue of temperance greatly assists in the battle to refrain from covetousness.

Temperance is rightly numbered among the cardinal virtues. The word “cardinal” is derived from the Latin cardo/cardin, meaning hinge. Many of the other virtues swing upon the hinges of temperance.

Temperance is a beautiful virtue that rejoices in pleasures by moderating their use and preventing our slavery to them. Pleasure is best enjoyed in freedom.

The Cardinal Virtues: Prudence

Last week we considered the seven deadly sins; this week we begin a series on the virtues. Traditionally, there are seven Christian virtues: the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. There are also seven virtues (some of which are also in the previous list) that are specifically directed against the seven deadly sins. I will begin today with a consideration of the cardinal virtue of prudence.

Prudence is often misunderstood as merely caution or hesitance in taking action. While prudence sometimes dictates caution, and hasty action is seldom prudent, there are times when it is prudent to act quickly. Having a lengthy discussion about the best way to put out a house fire before acting would not be prudent. This is sometimes the case in less obviously urgent matters as well. For example, it would not be prudent to hesitate in stemming the influence of an erroneous teaching that might confuse or scandalize the faithful. Sometimes a carefully planned and gradual response is best, but at other times a quick denunciation of the error is in order. Prudence is the virtue that sees the best way and commands the will to execute that approach.

Let us consider more fully what prudence is by reviewing the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae (II, IIae 47). The following is my meager attempt at a summary. Read St. Thomas directly if you seek further clarification.

St. Thomas states, It belongs to prudence chiefly to direct something to a right end; and this is not done aright unless both the end be good, and the means good and suitable (II, IIae 49.7, respondeo). So prudence is the knowledge of how to act or conduct one’s life rightly, what to avoid or seek in the concrete and particular situations that make up our daily life. While prudence belongs to the intellect—because it so fundamentally guides the will—it also has the quality of a moral virtue. Prudence does not so much determine what is right and what is wrong as it regulates the means to make that assessment. In effect, prudence discovers what is good by taking counsel, judging what is discovered, and then commanding the will to execute what we ought to choose.

Because prudence is a virtue rather than merely an ability, it is oriented to what is good and morally upright. If perchance one were to speak (incorrectly) of prudence that was oriented toward what is sinful or evil, we should instead refer to it properly as craftiness or cunning.

Finally, although prudence can exist as a natural virtue, the Christian tradition usually speaks of it in a way that is also charged by supernatural grace and informed by the Wisdom of God.

Prudence is fundamental enough that we may and ought to speak of it as having parts, which St. Thomas calls quasi-integral parts. This is because none of the parts replaces prudence as a whole or alone describes it; rather, together all the parts make prudence what it is. St. Thomas enumerates eight of these parts in the Summa (II, IIae 49):

  1. Memory – In the context of prudence, this refers to the recollection of what has been discovered, through experience, to be true in the majority of cases.
  2. Understanding – Rather than the kind of understanding we attribute to the intellect’s ability to synthesize or comprehend, in the context of prudence this refers to a kind of grasp or right estimation of situations and what should be done.
  3. Docility – This refers to the ability and willingness to be taught, especially by our elders and those with greater experience. None of us can personally know and experience all possible scenarios and matters for decision. Stubbornly opinionated people are almost never prudent because they are not open to being taught or to considering that their experience and prudential judgment can be assisted and augmented by teaching from others.
  4. Shrewdness – This is the ability to estimate rapidly what is suitable and proper in a given circumstance. While docility looks to considering the experiences of others, shrewdness is an aptitude for acquiring a right estimation of what is to be done. Shrewdness here is not understood in its pejorative sense, wherein it refers to cunning or craftiness, but rather as it refers to the gift of being able to come quickly to a proper estimation of the good.
  5. Reason – In the context of prudence, reason means not so much logical analysis as the right use of our mind, wherein we properly equip it and then use its faculties in a way that is adept yet humble. Because prudence involves accepting counsel and then sizing up a particular situation, it is necessary that one be able to reason well. Prudence belongs to the intellect and so reason both serves and is a part of prudence.
  6. Foresight – This is the ability to see something distant, particularly to envision how future contingencies (or consequences) bear upon what should be done now.
  7. Circumspection – This refers to the ability to compare the proposed course of action in the current situation and consider how other things and people would be affected.
  8. Caution – Falsehood is often found along with truth, and evil is mixed with good; sober care (caution) must be exercised in order to grasp the true and good while avoiding the evil. In addition, prudence requires caution to avoid the potential evil of doing nothing.

Thus we have reflected a bit on prudence, one of the four cardinal virtues. Continue to ask God for a healthy prudence, for frequently we err not in determining what is good but on the best way to accomplish that good. Prudence opens doors and keeps us on course toward that which is truly good. While at times prudence points to bold action, at others it counsels steady perseverance so that we attain the good without setting loose that which is inordinate or evil. Indeed, Lord save us from being “do-gooders” who lack prudence and may thereby set loose more evil than we seek to end!