Working through C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity once again, this time with bible study of millennial and gen-x women who are considering social media and the internet in the lives of young Christians, I was srtuck by his words on the cardinal virtues. These virtues have also taken on more central role in our discussion of modern Christian life than any of us expected.
These “Heavenly Virtues” have been a part of the Christians tradition from the get go. They are Four classical virtues - Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice, and their divine companions - Faith, Hope, and Love.
Today, most Christians are aware of the tradition of the seven deadly sins ( pride, greed, lust, envy, wrath, gluttony, and sloth). I was mostly aware of them thanks to a few horror movies and a mystery novel series with titles of the same names, even after a 5-year seminary education.
But the tradition of the seven deadly sins is primarily from the early church and remained a useful teaching tool within the Roman Catholic Church for centuries. Of course, as is typically human, we remember our failures more easily than aim for our successes.
These seven deadly sins are the direct correlatives the seven heavenly virtues. The virtues have a longer history. The first four, Temperance, Prudence, Fortitude, and Justice, have been with us in that form since the time of Plato. The great classic writers and western culture at large throughout the Roman Empire, its prior Greek ancestry, and the following Middle Ages up through the present have accorded these four virtues a central place culturally and in the artistic imagination. For Christians - to these four are added the three divine virtues - faith, hope, and love named by Paul in 1 Cor. 13.
Each of these virtues is worth considering on its own. But you certainly don’t have time to read about all that. And I’m not prepared for a big ‘ol blog series unless its requested. So for the time being - a few thoughts on the four cardinal virtues. I’ll save the Divine ones for another time.
Prudence: the modern translation here would be common sense. We bemoan the lack of it in our young people, and we critique our elders for too much common sense and caution. Prudence is walking that line of trust and caution - considering consequences and outcomes while also living in a way that is good to others and the world. I wonder what our lives might look like if we took a week to focus on this quality. Would we post online in the same way? Share the same pictures? Watch the same television shows? Prudence is the important ability to be in the world, but not OF the world.
Fortitude: This is courage. But this courage is not simply the courage in the face of danger or fear, it is also the courage that faces one’s friends and family. It is the courage that faces the self with head held high. As Christians - we know that this courage is also a gift of the Spirit. Who could look into their own hearts without fear if it weren’t for the spirit’s encouragement, that shows us ourselves in the light of the one who loves us? We must remember that fortitude is contextual. C.S. Lewis (paraphrased) reminds us that for someone who is phobic of snakes, to pick one up to save another is akin to bravery on the battlefield. Or if one is unable to leave the house with crippling anxiety, coming to a godchild’s graduation is similarly courageous. This also applies to intervening in the lives of our peers and family when addiction, abuse, depression, and the like are poised to attack.
Temperance: It seems like the modern life is most crucially lacking in this virtue. Temperance is knowing when to stop. I’m tempted to say, “All things in moderation” but its more than that. Temperance is what is at work when we are with a friend who struggles with alcohol and we choose to refrain for their sake. It is the quality that reminds me that, at 39, I can’t just keep working and working on a project until in exhaustion its done, and then I’m no good for the rest of the week for all my other responsibilities. Temperance is the acknowledgment of our human limits and the restraint to consider them in the daily moments of our lives. Just one piece of cheesecake, and maybe less than 3 Netflix episodes...
Justice : Justice is paid lip-service in our era, but more often than not, Justice is described as the appropriate punishment for actions taken. Justice though in its classic sense is much broader. Justice is fairness to all - the poor are provided for and rescued from systems of oppression, while the wealthy are responsible and contribute to the greater needs of society. Those with power wield it with care and are beholden to the same laws and considerations as those without it. All men and women stand on the same playing field before God and considerations for all are the boundaries of the field.
One could do much worse than to spend some time considering these four virtues and our current lives. Is your life lacking in temperance? Has Prudence become your primary concern while justice has fallen to the wayside? What sorts of fortitude are necessary in your life - how might God provide you the necessary “nudge” to bring about the change that is necessary?
I’ve begun using these virtues in conversation with my boys. I am hopeful to raise them into men of virtue in this life. But without having a clear goal to aim for - how can we measure our actions? And of course, we are human, imperfect, inconstant, fallen. Our best efforts will never draw us up to heaven or perfection. But the striving for virtue is absolutely worth the effort - and it might put you into the good company of the saints who have come before.
Christ’s Peace - PrCR