In both of these scenarios, the first and most basic question that has to be answered is what type of foundation do I want? Everyone will agree that if a house’s foundation is inadequate, the house will not last. All the effort spent building the house will be wasted because the house will eventually fall. The same is with human life. If it is built on a shaky foundation, it will not find its true purpose and meaning.
Human virtues are the firm foundation upon which a full and worthy life is built. Human virtues (also called natural virtues) help us to become human and orient us toward the true, the good and the beautiful. They lay the foundation for meaningful, selfless relationships with each other. They lay the foundation for a loving relationship with God (the human virtues are supplemented through grace by another set of virtues called the "supernatural virtues," which help us to love God).
There are four virtues that are considered the ‘hinges’ upon which all other virtues turn. Called the cardinal virtues, these four firm habits are connected to all other human virtues as well as to the supernatural virtues.
The four principal human virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. These four Cardinal Virtues form our intellect, guide our choices, order our passions, and direct our conduct according to faith and reason.
Prudence is right judgment. It is first among the cardinal virtues and guides the others by setting standards rule and measure, applying moral principles to particular cases. To act prudently means to know what is good and right, and to make a plan to attain it. Prudence strengthens the intellect (knowledge of what is good and how to get it) and the will (directing our choices toward what is good and right).
Justice is constant and firm recognition of the rights of others and giving each person his or her due. When developed, this virtue disposes a person to respect others, and to establish harmony in relationships. Justice promotes fairness in all situations.
Fortitude is firmness of spirit, especially in difficulty. It provides for constancy in the pursuit of good. Fortitude is a willingness to freely go beyond the call of duty, to make sacrifices, to act on your convictions even if it will cost you something. Fortitude includes the courage to confront our personal weaknesses and sinfulness.
Temperance is moderation, self control and discipline. It provides a balance in the use of material goods or human pleasures. Temperance leads a person to be aware of what is truly needed and not what is excessive. To be truly temperate does not mean to see physical goods and pleasures as evil. It means rather to focus on the Gift Giver rather than on the gifts themselves - to receive physical goods and pleasures as signs of God's love.
These four virtues work collectively to support moral life. It is hard to exercise one without the other three. They are like four pillars supporting a foundation. If all are holding their weight, the foundation is firm and strong. If one is missing, the other three are placed at risk of failure.
Let’s take a look at a simple example of how these virtues work together.
Most of us drive some type of vehicle. When we drive, we are expected to follow the rules of the road. One rule that we are all familiar with is attending to the various traffic signs.
If you are driving and you come to a traffic sign that has eight sides, is bright red and has the letters
S-T-O-P written on it, you know that you are being directed to stop. If you understand that the sign STOP means you need to stop your vehicle, then you are exercising the virtue of prudence. The sign is a rule and measure of traffic safety and you understand that.
Knowing that the sign STOP means stop and actually stopping are two different actions. Imagine that you come up to a stop sign that is at an intersection with wonderful visibility. As you approach the sign, you have plenty of time to assess that the intersection is clear. The temptation may be to SLOW down and proceed through the sign rather than to actually STOP. If you choose to roll through the sign, you are not acting with justice. But, if you do stop, then you are demonstrating justice (giving respect and what is due to the rules of the road). Clearly, prudence and justice are closely joined.
Imagine that as you come to the intersection with great visibility, another car quickly pulls up behind you. The driver is in a hurry. This is when moral courage comes to play. If you obey the rules of the road and stop (despite the honking and gesturing of the driver behind you) you are exercising fortitude. It is also important to note that you exercise fortitude if you stop even when no one is watching.
Another rule of the road is to go the speed limit. This presents a challenge for many drivers as is evidenced by the number of speeding tickets issued annually in all 50 states. It can feel good to drive fast. It can give us a sense of power and importance. Temperance is necessary to follow traffic safety laws in the face of our desire to do it our own way. It can also be difficult to oppose the masses of cars passing you as if you are standing still. Sometimes it can be difficult to confront our own selfishness that puts our busy schedule ahead of the safety of others. We need fortitude to do what is right.
The example above is simplistic – yet it shows that virtues become important in all parts of our life. It is natural that in some situations exercising the cardinal virtues is easy. This means that in other situations it will be difficult to demonstrate prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. Consistency in demonstration is a challenge. It is not easy to maintain moral balance because we are all wounded by sin. Thankfully, because of Christ’s gift of salvation, we are offered grace (free and undeserved help from God) which strengthens and enlightens our efforts to develop a virtuous life.
Imagine that you are building a house. The decision to build forces you to answer numerous questions about the project. What type of house will you build? Where will you build it? What materials will you use? What size will you make your house?
Now imagine that you are building your life. Think of the questions that should be asked and answered. What type of life do I want? Where do I want to go in my life? What resources will I use in my life? How meaningful do I want my life to be?