Pieper on the Virtues

In The Four Cardinal Virtues Josef Pieper summarizes good habits in this way: “Prudence looks to all existent reality; justice to the fellow man; the man of fortitude relinquishes, in self-forgetfulness, his own possessions and life. Temperance… aims at each man himself.”

The author is often gently provocative. For example, he declares that prudence – which is commonly viewed as a shirking pragmatism – is really at the pinnacle of the other virtues. In this respect, the German philosopher is not only at odds with modernists but also “Christian” anti-intellectuals. Morality is more than a slavish obedience to a set of arbitrary commands. He quotes Aquinas: “If there were temperance in the sensual appetite and there were not prudence in the reason, then temperance would not be a virtue.” True prudentia implies a valid knowledge of reality which, in turn, informs our judgments and actions.

I found the section on justice to be the most complicated. It deals with abstract concepts of human rights, the common good and restitution. Furthermore, how these things play out in everyday political and economic actions is bound to be the source of contention even among traditional Christians. Nevertheless, it is hard to disagree with Pieper’s point that strict justice is not enough for any society. While the law cannot regulate charity and self-sacrifice, it is impossible to imagine a healthy community that does not possess these qualities.

The section on fortitude is brief but impressive. Pieper says that fortitude “presupposes vulnerability… An angel cannot be brave, because he is not vulnerable.” Also fortitude without justice tends toward evil. One need only think of the fanatical zeal of terrorists and revolutionaries. The chief essence of this virtue is not attack, self-confidence or wrath, “but endurance and patience.” It is not that Pieper favors passivity over action. But “in the world as it is constituted, it is only in the supreme test, which leaves no other possibility of resistance than endurance, that the inmost and deepest strength of man reveals itself.”

In the final section, Pieper explains that temperance is more than just a question of chastity and lust. Following St. Thomas, he acknowledges that man is a “sensual” being and that pleasure is a real and important dimension of his existence. It is the improper use of pleasure that is problematic. Furthermore, Pieper makes the point that such vices are never simply “private,” but that they have a public dimension.

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