Four Thoughts on the Four Virtues
Upon the recommendation of a very good friend, I began reading through Joseph Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues. Not surprisingly, the book is divided into sections of chapters dealing with each of the four virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. I found the opening pages to be quite thought provoking and offer here four reflections that came to mind as I worked through the first chapter:
We don’t speak this way anymore. Until, I think, fairly recently, the language of virtue was part and parcel to (at least) Western civilization. Pieper’s discussion begins with prudence, the first virtue, and he argues that contemporary minds are uncomfortable with the notion that prudence is preeminent among the virtues. It ranks the highest, and all others depend on it. Beyond that, I would suggest that, as a society, we not only resist the idea of a hierarchy of virtues, we have come to the point where we don’t really see virtue as essential or even important. The cultivation of virtue is no longer a value common to Western civilization. Rather, we have elevated the pleasure of personal preference to the place of highest value. And when preference replaces virtue, the result is hedonism.
Right worship cultivates virtue. To become virtuous is to become good. But a person cannot live into the fullness of their potential to be good apart from a life of discipleship following Christ our Lord. And one of the ways – indeed, the primary way! – that Christ forms us into good people is through worship. To pray the liturgy is to develop habits of worship that cannot be attained anywhere else, habits that lead to consistent goodness, or (as it is called in our Wesleyan tradition) holiness, which brings me to the next point.
Virtue is essential to holiness. As Pieper’s discussion unfolded, I couldn’t help but conclude that virtue and holiness are intimately connected, though I’m not altogether settled on how to talk about the connection. For now, suffice it to say that holiness may be more than virtue, but it is not less. Pieper puts it this way: “All Ten Commandments of God pertain to…the realization of prudence…every sin is opposed to prudence. Injustice, cowardice, intemperance are in direct opposition to the virtues of justice, fortitude, and temperance; ultimately, however, through all these virtues, they run counter to prudence. Everyone who sins is imprudent.” To be free from sin is to be both virtuous and holy. And I am inclined to say that the highest virtue is actually holiness. One benefit of including the cultivation of virtue in our talk of holiness is that it defines holiness in positive terms. All too often, we think of holiness negatively as avoiding sin. And it is that. But it is also the positive cultivation of consistently godly character, and godly character is nothing if not virtuous. Pieper calls it, “impulses and instincts for right acting.”
The Greeks and Romans went far with what they had. C.S. Lewis described Christianity as “the true myth.” He deployed this term against those who suggested that the presence of parallel stories to scripture among pagan religions suggest that the Bible is simply one myth amongst many. Lewis rejected this line of thinking and argued instead that the presence of similar themes in pagan mythology and Christianity simply indicated that the pagans had picked up on some truth, even if they didn’t get it all right. The presence of similar themes in varied traditions meant that there was some common reality or revelation that all observed. Christianity is the true myth that gets the story right. Likewise, I suggest, the Greco-Roman writers who saw the cultivation of virtue as an end of society were working in the right direction. Even if, apart from Christ and the Holy Spirit, they were unable to achieve what they were after, namely the fullest and best expression of human life, they got a long way in the cultivation of virtue, though they could not reach the pinnacle. The stunning thing about it is that the Greeks and Romans at least knew they should be virtuous, which is perhaps more than can be said of us.