Cardinal Virtues

Cardinal Virtues

The moral virtues were the subject of our last post. If intellectual virtues perfect the intellect, the moral virtues perfect the appetite, whether rational or sensitive. The passions or emotions are real elements in the moral life, not to be degraded or rejected but integrated into the complete moral picture. True, they are a function of our animal bodies—angels do not have emotions, nor does Almighty God—but the body is good and created by God. The moral virtues are also called cardinal virtues. This term remains, I think, somewhere in the modern mind, even if most have forgotten what it means. But what does the adjective “cardinal” mean here. We are not talking about papal electors or about beautiful red birds. Cardo in Latin means a hinge, as one might find on a door or gate. The idea, then, is that the other virtues hinge on the moral virtues; the cardinal virtues are of unique importance in the moral life. St. Thomas will also sometimes call them principal virtues.

Objections and St. Thomas Aquinas

I mentioned last time that there are some objections to calling certain virtues cardinal or principal. St. Thomas raises such objections in ST I-II, q. 61, a. 1. For example, should we not instead call the theological virtues cardinal or principal, since they concern the end and moral virtues concern the means? Thetheological virtues have God in His inner life as their trajectory; they are called theological, as we will see later, in part because they have God as their object. St. Thomas essentially grants the objection. Theological virtues, though, are not properly human virtues but superhuman or godlike, as the Angelic Doctor says. Or consider the intellectual virtues in relation to the moral virtues. The former should be called principal, the argument goes, because they belong to that which is essentially rational (the intellect), whereas the latter belong to that which is rational by participation (the appetite). St. Thomas’s response here is quite interesting. True, he says, the intellectual virtues are more important if we consider their “subject,” the power in which they reside, so to speak, and which they perfect, since the intellect is that which is highest in man. But the moral virtues are more perfectly virtues because virtues concern the good, and the good is the object of the appetite. Do you see how St. Thomas’s mind works? What is principal in one respect might be secondary in another.

'In short, there are four cardinal virtues because there are four powers of the soul that need to be perfected: the intellect, the will, the concupiscible appetite, and the irascible appetite.'Click To Tweet

Four Cardinal Virtues

Perhaps you have always wondered why there are four cardinal virtues, and not two or five or nine. In short, there are four cardinal virtues because there are four powers of the soul that need to be perfected: the intellect, the will, the concupiscible appetite, and the irascible appetite. Remember that in the future we will take a closer look at these virtues. Nevertheless, for now we can say that prudence perfects the (practical) intellect, justice perfects the will, temperance perfects the concupiscible appetite, and fortitude perfects the irascible appetite. Careful readers of the previous posts will have noticed, though, that prudence is an intellectual virtue and yet it numbered among the moral virtues called cardinal or principal. How can this be? St. Thomas’s answer (ST I-II, q. 58, a. 3) is fairly straightforward: prudence is essentially an intellectual virtue, since it perfects the intellect. But it can also justly be ranked among the moral virtues since it is right reason about things to be done.

So far we have been speaking about virtues that are natural and in accord with man’s nature. We can work to cultivate these virtues, which we have seen are either intellectual or moral. The next virtues we will discuss, the theological virtues, are habits altogether different and higher. They cannot be acquired and cultivated in the same way but require God’s supernatural help.

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