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The Queen of all Virtues 👑
and how it applies to us mere mortals
As I alluded to last week, I recently had to make a hard decision. It has zero bearing on anything I write or do online, so I won’t divulge specifics, but let’s just say I really, really wrestled with it. I prayed, analyzed, brainstormed, asked others for wisdom, and prayed some more. I’d meet with a friend or two over coffee, and like clockwork, a few sips in and the conversation would veer right into this decision I needed to make, and we’d spend the better part of our time together unpacking and weighing pros and cons of the whole thing. Rinse and repeat, honestly for about six weeks.
Because God is good, and because God gives us brains and inserts into them via the Holy Spirit the gifts of wisdom and knowledge and discernment, the right call eventually became clear as day, and I made the decision—not without hesitation because it would, indeed, affect other people (I hated that bit), but at least with clarity and confidence. I was honestly taken aback by the whole thing; I couldn’t remember a time when I began walking a path that was covered with fog, clear only around the single stone on which I stood, then with one daily step of faith at a time, the fog cleared and the path’s direction eventually became clear as day. I was rather astonished.
Throughout the entire month and a half of decision-making, there was wisdom Beth Silvers once shared with me that rattled around my brain and wouldn’t stay quiet:
When making a decision, keep the aftermath of the decision as a separate issue. First, make the right decision. Then, deal with the consequences.
Beth didn’t mean “Just back out of the driveway with your foot on the gas, no regard for any cross traffic coming your way.” She meant that we so often add possible consequences, which may or may not happen, onto the pro-con lists during our decision-making process, and this muddies the waters that we’re trying to clear.
(As an example, let’s say you’re deciding between two potential universities to attend — they each have merits and setbacks, but your parents would be disappointed if you didn’t choose one of the schools because it’s their alma mater. Because their emotional reaction isn’t really a true “pro” or “con” weighing the merits of either choice, at least in comparison to the deciding factors that do matter such as academics, location, and price; with this wisdom in mind, it’s best to make the college choice, then deal with the aftermath of parental disappointment as a separate issue.)
I have used Beth’s wisdom on several occasions since she first shared it with me a few years ago, from making business moves to broaching challenging conversations with friends. It doesn’t make the possibility of disappointing people any easier, but it does provide the healthy boundaries that are essential to maturation and human development.
All this leads me to the real subject of this essay: the four cardinal virtues.
Scattered throughout the next few months, I’m going to unpack one of these virtues and reflect on how we could all grow in them for the betterment of ourselves and others.1 Don’t worry, I have no plans to preach or soapbox as though I’ve got them all figured out. Believe me, these thoughts will come from a place of personal reflection and real-life growth in real time.
And if you’re like me and weren’t raised by St. Thomas Aquinas, I’ll begin this whole thing with a very quick 101 on what the heck I’m even talking about when I say “the four cardinal virtues.”2
The Four Cardinal Virtues
This system of the Four Cardinal Virtues was initially developed through Greek Socratic thought, most notably unpacked by Aristotle (and eventually adopted by first-century Stoics), then later expanded in Christian theology and philosophy via the minds of the likes of St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and especially St. Thomas Aquinas. This idea has been around for a long time, in other words.
But first, as always, clear definitions are key.
• Cardinal: Stemming from the Latin word “cardo,” meaning hinge, in this context cardinal means the most essential virtues, the virtues upon which all other virtues turn (like a door hinge) and are related3.
• Virtue: Defined as “a habitual and firm disposition to do the good4,” virtues help us habitually do what is good because they are the building blocks for morality. I personally love St. Augustine’s more poetic definition of virtue best: rightly-ordered loves5.
With these two definitions in mind, the Four Cardinal Virtues are essentially “the habit of having righty-ordered loves so as to build a foundation for our entire morality.” It’s inarguably a lifelong pursuit for each of us.
So what are these four virtues? They’re prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice—and if you’re like me upon first hearing them, they’re a bit surprising. Justice makes sense, maybe, but temperance? Isn’t that a deprivation of fun, a la the Temperance Movement in the nineteenth century? Time once more to go back to our dictionary.
Prudence: Right reason in action.
Fortitude: Firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of good.
Temperance: Moderation in pleasures and the balanced use of created goods.
Justice: Constant willingness to give rightful due to God and neighbor.6
And according to some of the smartest people who ever lived, if you get these down as a habit, you’ve got your foundation for living a moral life.
In case you haven’t yet connected the dots, this week I’m reflecting on what’s called the “engine” of the four cardinal virtues, the one that pulls all the rest, like train cars, straight along the track. That would be …prudence.
The Good of Prudence
If prudence is “right reason in action,” that means it disposes us to discern the true good in every circumstance and helps us choose the right means of achieving it. Prudence helps us make good decisions. It provides the wisdom necessary to walk through life.
According to Fr. John Hardon, prudence is ‘the queen of all virtues’ because “it guides all human actions” and it’s practical, not a general feel-good maxim (which never really motivates us). Prudence leads to action, not just thinking about the right things. A prudent person doesn’t merely philosophize, write about, or ponder the right way to live, she actually lives it out.
The Cultivation of Prudence
With that in mind, how do we moderns cultivate prudence? What does it look like to become a prudent person by way of handling our family budget, deciding whether to engage in an online argument, go to place X or Y for family vacation, or even watch this or that movie? A normal person wouldn’t look for their prudence button and wait for it to activate, then dive into the works of Aquinas or Aristotle to decide whether to watch another episode of Friends. Remember, virtues are a habit. Habits, once cultivated and by definition, become second nature.
It’s generally believed by Smart People (here they are again) that there are three basic steps to cultivating prudence:
Make a choice.
Apparently this is it, the gist of prudence (thanks, Smart People, this is very helpful). Unpacking these ideas, though, it all makes sense.
1. Thinking involves deliberation—collecting data and focusing on what’s true without making hasty assumptions. Make judgments, yes (judging isn’t a bad thing most of the time), but base them on reality. This is key, and it’s harder than we assume. The quick definition of ‘truth’ is simply “what is,” not what we wish was so, or what we’re told by our culture is real. This first step of thinking involves deciphering truth from fiction. How do we do this?
At a minimum, we reference trustworthy sources—wise people in our lives, laws of nature, the Holy Spirit, brilliant dead guys (and gals) whose work is widely trusted by people we trust. If we research via the internet, we check our sources and cross-check them with multiple documentation. Many times, a trustworthy source is our own gut, animated by the Holy Spirit7.
Failure to do this step well and to jump right into step three is called rashness. A prudent person deliberates by gathering data, even data they don’t like.
Example: This car in front of me just cut me off. According to the data available to me, there is a lot of traffic, it’s a beautiful day, I have young children in the backseat of my car, there is smoke coming from the hood of their car, and their trunk has slapped on it a magnet that reads “student driver.” I’m tempted to lay on my horn for several seconds and utter a few choice words.
2. The second step is to make a choice, to decide on a course of action. In this step, it’s essential to separate the relevant from irrelevant information (similar to Beth’s wisdom, stated earlier) and to recognize the options in light of what’s true. By not getting rid of irrelevant information, our judgment is clouded. Remember, judgment is good—in fact, the failure to judge is called negligence because we freeze from making a decision. Paralysis by analysis, we infinitely overthink things and never reach a decision.
Example: There’s a lot of traffic, which means the roads are crowded, and it’s a beautiful day—but neither of these things are relevant because it’s still not okay to cut someone off in traffic, so I’ll toss that out of my consideration. However, this car is clearly breaking down and the driver is probably a young teen, which means they’re nervous and need to quickly exit the freeway. I’m also hyper-vigilant because of the young passengers in my car. Therefore, I will choose to not take personally their having cut me off.
3. The third step, taking action, is key because it demonstrates how prudence moves beyond thinking wisely. All the above matters only if I take action on it, if I follow through. The failure to follow through to the point of completion is called hesitation, or stalling. To keep going with this driving analogy, it’s keeping your foot on the brake at the intersection even though there’s a green light, vehicles honking behind you in agitation.
Example: I will let go of this car’s poor driving, not say anything out loud so as to shield the littles from needless profanity, and shake it off so I can go back to acknowledging the beautiful day.
Obviously, the above example takes three seconds, but there are countless times when these three steps take days, or even months or years. It’s a copy-and-paste rhythm of being a human being on earth—which is why it’s so crucial to do this well, and why prudence really is the queen of all virtues. We can either choose to become more prudent, or we slide into foolishness and reactionary living.
Ultimately, prudence is listening to wisdom and holding a lifelong learner’s posture, developing a teachable spirit, and recognizing in humility how much we still have to learn.
What I’m personally doing to cultivate more prudence
Always be reading something worthwhile
Take a continuing-ed class or two when I can (either online or in-person; no need to wait for the ideal)
Listen to solid podcasts from smart people
Immerse myself in good, true, and beautiful art—music, movies, visual arts, etc.
Meet with a spiritual director (this is a ‘hopefully’ — I’ve met a local director and I’m praying about this idea)
Surround myself with good friends
Actively avoid the reading of silly or obviously untrue things (which is different from enjoying occasional light reading—that, I’m all about)
Actively avoid podcasts and what-not from folks who promote untrue things or otherwise muddy waters with confusion and emotion-fueled vitriol
Actively avoid bad, untrue, and ugly art—you know what I mean
Actively avoid the habitual company of folks who don’t love what’s true, good, and beautiful
Prioritize good sleep, diet, and movement—because neglecting those affects my mental and emotional health, which affects my outlook towards life in general
I didn’t notice it at all in real-time, but looking back, I can see now how prudence guided me through the past six weeks of decision-making. Not that this is yet a fully-cultivated habit of virtue in me (not by a long shot), but it’s encouraging to recognize how that whole thing wasn’t just shooting aimlessly and hoping I’d hit a target. There was a virtuous method in the madness.
I’d love to hear from you: What are boots-on-the-ground, in-the-midst-of-ordinary-life ways you seek out wisdom? Do share.
And also: What are your thoughts on prudence?
Ora et Labora,
I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on the history of and truth behind these four virtues and why they matter, since I’m in the process of updating my Rule of Life workshop and plan to incorporate them more heavily in the newer process I’ve personally grown to appreciate. Stay tuned!
And I don’t have time to unpack the three theological virtues. Maybe that’s another series of essays in the future.
City of God, XV.22
If you’re like me, it’s far too easy to undervalue this source.