Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Four Cardinal Virtues and the Knowledge of Good and Bad

The Four Cardinal Virtues are Prudence, Justice, Courage, and Temperance. In order to understand what they mean, you have to have a thorough understanding of both good and bad.

Prudence is listed as the first and foremost of the virtues. It is defined as recta ratio agilbilium - right reason about things to be done. Prudence, then, is knowledge,

But how do you know if you are engaging in “right reason” and have the “right” knowledge?

“Reason” is defined as “making the necessary connections to discover the principles (laws) that govern reality.” Reason has to be used to not only understand the “good” laws, but also the “bad” laws, i.e. to understand the good and evil of human nature.

If you don’t understand the badness in human nature, then I believe it’s impossible to truly understand the goodness. Prudence, then, is making necessary connections to understand the laws that govern the strengths and weaknesses of humankind, and putting them into effect. It’s not just theoretical knowledge; it’s also practical knowledge.

The word “virtue” means “strength” or “power” and also comes from the word “man.” It means “the strengths or powers of Mankind.” The word “sin” comes from the archery word “hamartia” and means “missing the mark.”

To put it in more simplistic religious terms, Prudence allows us to understand the virtues and sins of Mankind. But how to tell the difference between a virtue and a sin? It clear humankind, right from the beginning, has always had problems telling right from wrong.

The difference is the difference between health and sickness, between wholeness and unwholeness. The words “healthy” and “whole” come from the same root word. That which is “good” is healthy and whole – everything is connected and working smoothly and easily, like the parts in a well-maintained car.

Disease can be split into two words – “dis-ease.” A lack of ease. A lack of wholeness, of health, of the parts not connected and working smoothly and properly. In fact, the word “diabolic” means to “split” or “split into two.” (Generally, a word that starts with “di” means, roughly speaking, “to make into two or more” – disease, divide and diabolic, for examples.).

Justice, another cardinal virtue, is defined as giving “to each person what is due to him, and we do this consistently, promptly and pleasurably.” To do justice properly, we again have to have a thorough knowledge of good of evil, most especially since a lot of justice is concerned with giving criminals their just due.

How do you tell what is just and unjust? Again, it has to do with wholeness and unwholeness. Criminals are those who make things unwhole – they steal, they murder, they batter. They take away people’s ease, their happiness.

Criminals are always motivated by one or more of the Seven Deadly Sins – hubris, envy, lust, gluttony, greed, ennui. You have to understand these weaknesses, this missing of the mark, to truly understand the strengths – the virtues.

If you don’t understand that murder and theft are bad things, then how can you understand that not to do them is a good thing? People who don’t understand that these are bad things are psychopaths – they have no conscience. And, not surprisingly, the word “conscience” comes from the words for “knowledge” and “awareness.”

The purpose of Courage is to “remove obstacles to justice.” Physical courage is a common thing moral courage far less common. Physical courage is an animal thing, even an instinct, and can be used for some very bad reasons. Moral courage is a human thing.

The true purpose of courage is to used in the service of making things whole. Unfortunately, physical courage is often not used for that end. Physical courage does not empathize with people; moral courage does. And that is a very important distinction.

Temperance allows us to “govern our appetites for pleasure.” Temperance “does not act against our natural human inclinations, but works with them. Temperance is opposed to the inclinations of nature when they are like a beast that is not ruled by reason.”

“Beast” is the important word here. It means our animal nature. That nature is not a bad thing when it is under control of “right reason,” i.e. the good principles or laws that govern human nature.

Let’s take lust, for example. I define lust – animal lust – as having no empathy for the other person, just using them for your ends. Mere sexual desire is not lust. True lust is having no concern for the other person. That’s one of the “bad laws” of human nature.

One of the good laws is putting that sexual desire together with love.
Wholeness, or health, involves empathy, of understanding others as human. With the Four Cardinal Virtues, we can strive to see this – to understand the laws of human nature than contribute to health, to happiness, to ease.

The opposite, of course, is that which shatters or splits or destroys – that which makes unwhole or unhealthy. It is the beast in man not under the law -- it lacks empathy, it breaks the connections, it lacks a conscience.

The more one understands good and evil – and the laws that govern them – then the more one can embody the good.

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