by Andre van Heerden
Is there a practical remedy that would bring about a speedy resolution of the world financial crisis and the socio-economic chaos attending it? Well, just imagine if we could persuade a decent majority of people to return to a life of virtue, specifically the four cardinal virtues of the classical world. People with prudence, courage, justice, and temperance would turn things around in no time at all.
But does anyone even understand these virtues anymore?
Prudence is a word that is not used much nowadays; if it is, the meaning is taken to be ‘caution’, even ‘timidity’ or a shrewd, self-seeking, no-risk attitude. This is unfortunate because our society has lost an appreciation of the most important of the cardinal virtues — the one from which the others grow.
Prudence is the ability to make the right decisions in everyday life. It is practical wisdom that grows with experience and knowledge of reality. Hence, courage, justice and temperance all depend in the first instance on prudence. Their opposites — cowardice, unfairness and a lack of self-control — all work against the good of people and our world, so violating prudent judgment.
Prudence demands honesty with ourselves and others, openness to truth, a willingness to listen to all points of view, and clear-minded rationality when we are caught unawares by the vicissitudes of life. It is an attitude to life that has to be deliberately chosen and cultivated.
The enemies of prudence are thoughtlessness, laziness, negligence, irresponsibility, credulousness and blindness to the plain truth. Good character cannot be built without prudence.
Courage is the ultimate commitment to truth — the willingness to sacrifice all for what we know to be right and good. It is an implicit acknowledgement that a person recognises a principle higher than himself. People can only decide what that principle is for themselves on the basis of a knowledge of reality, on what they see to be the truth.
Courage is required in life precisely because we are vulnerable and not self-sufficient; we have to take risks. If we were not vulnerable, we could never be brave. Hence we are called to be courageous, to take a stand on principle in our homes, communities, workplaces, society, and the world at large. When we shrink from what we know to be right or good, we stain our character, and our personality suffers a loss in our quest for integrity and fulfilment.
Modern psychology and ancient wisdom agree that the source of many mental illnesses is the egocentric anxiety that values personal security above all else and refuses to risk injury or loss to self in any circumstances. Good character demands courage.
Justice might not sound like an attitude, but that is precisely what it is. It is the commitment to give other people their due as human beings, which of course requires the prudence to decide what is just and the courage to stand by one’s decision.
Our word ‘justice’ comes from the Latin word for ‘right’ or ‘law’, implying once more that there is a standard that is above the self and that is binding equally on all, the powerful and the weak, the rich and the poor. The false prudence of unscrupulous politicians and businessmen, the sophists of our day, and the violence that threatens the whole world to some degree or other, underline how an attitude of injustice characterises this age of misleaders.
An attitude of justice, sincerely desiring and promoting the obligations and protection of the law (both natural law and positive law) to apply equally to all, is essential to good character and needs to be cultivated by every individual. Justice should not, however, be a legalistic attitude, but should be tempered by compassion and mercy.
Temperance is another word not much used or understood today, and most people would associate it with abstinence from alcohol. Temperance, however, comes from the Latin ‘temperare’, which means to put the different parts of the whole, the person in this case, in proper order, or to build integrity.
We are correct in thinking of temperance as self-control or self-discipline, but wrong when we think of it as puritanical or afraid of exuberance and the pleasures of life. Pleasure is a proper part of personal fulfilment. Developing one’s potential involves avoiding over-indulgence and enslavement to destructive habits, attitudes, and behaviour.
Temperance requires unselfish self-preservation and self-assertion, developing one’s full potential within the context of society and the world. It is intemperate, or self-destructive, to use one’s freedom and intellect to push for one’s own self-preservation, self-assertion and self-fulfilment without due regard for other people, the community and the environment.
The four cardinal virtues have always been the recipe for prosperous human community. However, for people to embrace them sincerely requires the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. No wonder western secular society finds them so elusive.
This article is an adaptation of an excerpt from the book, Leaders and Misleaders, by Andre van Heerden.