Three Reading Selections from Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues

June 29, 2012

I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion.
(Proverbs 8:12)

 There are four primary moral virtues, which are called the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. The word cardinal derives from the Latin cardo, meaning “hinge.” Consequently, these four virtues are called “cardinal” because all other virtues are categorized under them and hinge upon them. The Book of Wisdom of the Old Testament states, “For [wisdom] teaches temperance and prudence, justice and fortitude, and nothing in life is more useful for men than these” (8:7).

Prudence, the “mother” of all of the virtues, is the virtue by which a person recognizes his moral duty and the good means to accomplish it. Actually, prudence is part of the definition of goodness. A person can be prudent and good only simultaneously. No other virtue can contradict what is prudent. Therefore, what is prudent is substantially what is good, and prudence is the measure of justice, temperance and fortitude.

A prudent person looks at the concrete reality of a situation with a clear, honest objectivity; references and applies the moral truths (e.g the Ten Commandments or the teachings of the Church); makes a moral judgment; and then commands an action. Moreover, prudence also seeks to accomplish the action in a good way — doing what is good in a good way.

Clearly, prudence is essential for the formation and operation of one’s conscience. To be a prudent person, one must know God’s truth, just as to have a good conscience, one must know God’s truth. One cannot do what is good if one does not know the principles of truth and goodness. Josef Pieper comments below:


[From The Four Cardinal Virtues]
The structural framework of Western Christian metaphysics as a whole stands revealed, perhaps more plainly than in any other single ethical dictum, in the proposition that prudence is the foremost of the virtues. That structure is built thus: that Being precedes Truth, and that Truth precedes the Good. Indeed, the living fire at the heart of the dictum is the central mystery of Christian theology: that the Father begets the Eternal Word, and that the Holy Spirit proceeds out of the Father and the Word.

Since this is so, there is a larger significance in the fact that people today can respond to this assertion of the pre-eminence of prudence only with incomprehension and uneasiness. That they feel it as strange may well reveal a deeper-seated and more total estrangement. It may mean that they no longer feel the binding force of the Christian Western view of man. It may denote the beginning of an incomprehension of the fundamentals of Christian teaching in regard to the nature of reality.

“Doing the Truth”
[From From The Four Cardinal Virtues]
Prudence, then, is the mold and mother of all virtues, the circumspect and resolute shaping power of our minds which transforms knowledge of reality into realization of the good. It holds within itself the humility of silent, that is to say, of unbiased perception; the trueness-to-being of memory; the art of receiving counsel; alert, composed readiness for the unexpected. Prudence means the studied seriousness and, as it were, the filter of deliberation, and at the same time the brave boldness to make final decisions. It means purity, straightforwardness, candor, and simplicity of character; it means standing superior to the utilitarian complexities of mere “tactics”.

Prudence is, as Paul Claudel says, the “intelligent prow” of our nature which steers through the multiplicity of the finite world toward perfection.

In the virtue of prudence the ring of the active life is rounded out and closed, is completed and perfected; for man, drawing on his experience of reality, acts in and upon reality, thus realizing himself in decision and in act. The profundity of this concept is expressed in the strange statement of Thomas Aquinas that in prudence, the commanding virtue of the “conduct” of life, the happiness of active life is essentially comprised. Prudence is that illumination of moral existence which, according to one of the wisest books of the East, is a thing denied to every man who “looks at himself”.

There is a gloomy type of resoluteness, and a bright type. Prudence is the brightness of the resoluteness of that man who “does the truth” But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:21).  

The Prudence of Love
[From The Four Cardinal Virtues]
In the Summa theologica we learn that upon a higher plane of perfection — that is, the plane of charity — there is also a higher and extraordinary prudence which holds as nought all the things of this world.

Does this not run completely counter to all that the “universal teacher” has said elsewhere about the nature of the first cardinal virtue? Is holding created things as nought not the exact opposite of that reverent objectivity which in the concrete situation of concrete action must attempt to recognize the “measure” of that action?

Things are nought only before God, who created them and in whose hand they are as clay in the hand of the potter. By the superhuman force of grace-given love, however, man may become one with God to such an extent that he receives, so to speak, the capacity and the right to see created things from God’s point of view and to “relativize” them and see them as nought from God’s point of view, without at the same time repudiating them or doing injustice to their nature. Growth in love is the legitimate avenue and the one and only justification for “contempt for the world”.

Unlike this contempt which arises out of growth in love, all contempt for the world which springs from man’s own judgment and opinions, not from the supernatural love of God, is simple arrogance, hostile to the nature of being; it is a form of pride in that it refuses to recognize the ordinary obligations which are made visible to man in created things. Only that closer union with the being of God which is nourished by love raises the blessed man beyond immediate involvement in created things.

At this point in our argument we approach a limit. Beyond that limit only the experience of the saints can offer any valid knowledge, any valid comment. We would only remind our readers how intensely the great saints loved the ordinary and commonplace, and how anxious they were lest they might have been deceived into regarding their own hidden craving for the “extraordinary” as a “counsel” of the Holy Spirit of God.

But even in that higher and extraordinary form of prudence which holds the world in contempt, there reigns unrestrictedly the same fundamental attitude upon which ordinary prudence entirely depends: the fundamental attitude of justice toward the being of things and correspondence to reality.

The eye of perfected friendship with God is aware of deeper dimensions of reality, to which the eyes of the average man and the average Christian are not yet opened. To those who have this greater love of God the truth of real things is revealed more plainly and more brilliantly; above all, the supernatural reality of the Trinitarian God is made known to them more movingly and overwhelmingly.

Even supreme supernatural prudence, however, can have only the following aim: to make the more deeply felt truth of the reality of God and world the measure for will and action. Man can have no other standard and signpost than things as they are and the truth which makes manifest things as they are; and there can be no higher standard than the God who is and his truth.

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