Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Cardinal Virtues: Introduction

MOST OF US ARE GENERALLY familiar with the cardinal virtues: prudence, courage, temperance, and justice. The virtues are fundamental features of a complete and adequate moral philosophy or moral theology. So long as man is not defined by one act, but a series of acts which both define who he is and how fitting he is with who he is, there must be a "rule" or a fixity, a habitus or hexis (ἕξις), that comes along with it. Since man acts discretely in matter, in time, the sort of continuity in discreteness that links the acts and gives them some sort of union--like pearls on a string--might be said to be these virtues.

Thankfully, there has been a sort of revival in virtue ethics in addition to the ethics of natural law, one that has perhaps been given the greatest push by the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and his 1981 book After Virtue.  One ought not to view the natural law ethics and the virtue ethics as opposed.  They are both features of a fully-developed and accurate portrayal of the moral life.  A virtue ethics bereft of natural law is as odd a creature as a natural law ethics bereft of virtue.  One can see the two strands brought together well in the excellent works of Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P.

Within the Christian context, the cardinal virtues perhaps reached their greatest importance during the course of the middle ages.  Here, the doctrine of virtue generally, and the doctrine of the cardinal virtues, received a great emphasis.  Medieval artisans painted or sculpted depictions of the virtues, and so we find allegorical depictions of the virtues in medieval manuscripts, in stained glass windows, in paintings and frescoes, embossed on doors, and beckoning in statuary.

The Four Cardinal Virtues, Strassbourg Cathedral (13th Century)

Obviously, the doctrine of the cardinal virtues did not spring out of the head of the scholastic theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas ready-made like Athena sprung out from the head of Zeus.  Rather, the synthesis or development achieved by the medievals regarding virtue clearly borrowed from prior traditions which we might conveniently divide into three groups: the philosophers (philosophi), the Church Fathers (sancti), and prior schoolmasters (magistri).  The central vein that brought these three sources together might be said to be that scriptural injunctions found in the Book of Wisdom:
She [Wisdom] teacheth temperance, and prudence, and justice, and fortitude, which are such things as men can have nothing more profitable in life. (Wisdom 8:7)
It seems that the Book of Wisdom gave scriptural warrant for focus on the cardinal virtues and allowed use of the insights of the pagan philosophers just like the analogous reference of St. Paul to the natural law in his epistle to the Romans (Rom. 2:15-16) allowed use of the insights of the Stoics as it pertained to the natural moral law.  The notion of the cardinal virtues is therefore warranted by Scripture.  Here both revelation and reason seemed to be tightly bound into one strong moral rope.

During the next few postings, we will discuss the cardinal virtues, relying largely on the discussion contained in the book The Cardinal Virtues: Aquinas, Albert, and Philip the Chancellor by R. E. Houser (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2004).

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