We are Christians because we know that we are in need of a savior. We know that we are sinners and, without Jesus, we cannot heal our own wounds, we cannot find or construct purpose and meaning in our lives, and we cannot save our souls from ultimate calamity.
Yet, we also know that God has given us minds and hearts that must freely choose Him. God will not save and transform us without our active cooperation and participation. And, thus, the journey of faith requires our ongoing, active conversion — that is, our turning back to God.
How do we do this? What does this ongoing conversion to Christ look like?
The four cardinal virtues are a map of the steps we must take in this process of ongoing conversion. More than mere habits that are external and extrinsic to the kind of beings we are, virtues are habits of our human souls. They derive from our God-given nature and the natural powers of Intellect and Will that He has given us.
The four cardinal virtues — Prudence, Justice, Courage, and Temperance — are habits of soul by which we begin cooperating with God’s grace at the most basic level of our thoughts, beliefs, choices, responsibilities, fears, and desires. They are the way in which that cooperation grows and becomes part of who we are, so that we not only follow but, by God’s grace, truly become like Christ.
1. Prudence: A Right Response to Reality
The first and foundational virtue of Prudence is essentially a right response to reality. It is the habit of soul by which we engage our basic human faculties of intellect and will in the tasks for which they were created: to know what is true and to act upon it.
Prudence can sound too obvious and is easily overlooked, but it is the first and foremost of the cardinal virtues for a reason. The reality is that most of the time we practice the very opposite of this virtue; our doing so is at the root of our inability to grow in the other virtues and to progress in our spiritual journeys.
Prudence is not about information per se, but about one’s active relationship with reality. It does not mean presuming to know the truth — it means choosing to look. It means to go through life awake and intentional; to be a person who engages with reality rather than one who retreats to a lie OR who allows oneself to be paralyzed by fear or indecision. Prudence means to think (rather than merely ruminate or worry), to act (rather than to merely react), to make a plan (rather than to blunder blindly through life).
Prudence is about making a right response to reality, and this includes the reality of our own ignorance and weakness. It is precisely the virtue of seeking truth and converting it into action — taking the next right step forward, even in the midst of uncertainty or fear.
The virtue of Prudence is the first and necessary conversion, for it is only by an active turning of our hearts and wills to the truth that we become the sort of people open to hearing what God is speaking to us and acting upon it.
2. Justice: Embracing Relationship
If Prudence is a waking up and turning to reality, then the primary reality to which Prudence attends is this: you are a person in relationship with other persons — God being the first. Striving to “give each person his due” according to their nature and the nature of your relationship with them is the virtue of Justice.
Justice begins by taking relationships seriously — their objective qualities, opportunities, and demands. What is due to your Creator? Your parents? Your spouse and children? Your employer and employees? What is due to all of your fellow human beings, made in the image and likeness of the almighty God?
Justice means working to put these relationships in proper order and priority, according to what God has called you to in life, and then to start taking action, even if you are still figuring things out. As you practice carrying out the demands of Justice, your understanding of other people and your relationships with them deepens, as does your ability to respond readily and joyfully.
In Prudence we turn to face reality and select the next, best steps according to the demands of Justice. But as we walk this path, we quickly encounter difficulties and resistance, from without as well as from within.
Two more virtues are in order.
3. Courage: Facing Your Fears
Courage is a virtue that we are, in theory, more familiar with. Courage is facing and enduring fear for the sake of doing what is right. But Courage as an authentic virtue — meaning a habit of soul — is only possible when it builds on the foundation of Prudence and Justice.
Courage does not mean to be fearless, nor does it mean to be reckless; neither the foolish nor the belligerent man are courageous. On the contrary, Courage means to see clearly the good that is to be done and being willing to suffer the consequences of doing it — be they discomfort, embarrassment, pain, suffering, or even death.
As we turn to truth and consider what God is calling us to do, we discover dark places in our lives that we would rather not think about — broken relationships, intimidating projects, new territory we need to explore. To choose to look anyway, to remain clearheaded and honest about what we believe we should do, and then to identify steps we could/should take — despite being afraid — are all exercises of the virtue of Courage. But once we have identified the good that is to be done, Courage becomes most explicit in action — in facing fear, in taking the first steps, and in persevering through fear and discomfort in order to see it through.
The path of Courage is unique to each person. What God is calling you to do with your life is different from what he is calling me to do with mine, and moreover, your fears are different from my fears. But turning, in Prudence, toward those aspects of reality that we are afraid of seeing and being willing to enter those dark caverns that Justice us bids us enter — this is how we grow in the virtue of Courage and thus in our readiness and ability to do God’s will even when it is difficult.
4. Temperance: Purifying Your Desires
The fourth and final cardinal virtue, and our next step in ongoing conversion is Temperance. Like the virtue of Courage, Temperance enables us to carry out Justice by bringing order and harmony to our inner life of passions, drives, and desires.
Our nature as human beings — both soul and body — is God-given and essentially good, but it has been distorted and clouded by sin. As a result, we not only tend to desire what is degrading and destructive but we also, if we allow ourselves, to be completely driven and dictated by such desires. This state of intemperance is precisely the opposite of Prudence — turning not to what we want but to what is true and good.
Building on the foundation of Prudence and Justice, and fortified by Courage, Temperance then is the habit of soul by which we see the true purposes of our natural drives and desires and we strive to put these in right order according to God’s design.
The virtue of temperance tends to be thought of merely in the negative — as the virtue of restraint, denial, limitation, and avoidance — and these are often necessary starting points. But temperance is ultimately a virtue of order, and ultimately of joy.
Enslaved to their disordered passions, the glutton, the drunkard, and the philanderer not only misuse food, drink, and other people, but they also ultimately destroy their own ability to appreciate the very things they crave. It is only the temperate man who can learn to savor a healthy meal, raise a glass of wine in honor of a bride and groom, who can reverently and faithfully love his wife — and who can give glory and thanksgiving to God, the creator of all good things.
Furthermore, it is only the temperate man who can — whenever and in whatever way it becomes prudent to do so — let go of these good things, giving them back to God and remaining open to the next steps He is inviting him to take.
The Cardinal Virtues — Prudence, Justice, Courage, and Temperance — are what it looks like to embrace and live out the human nature God gave for the purposes for which He gave it. They are the foundational mechanisms for discerning God’s will for your life and progressively becoming more ready, willing, and able to carry it out.
The cardinal virtues represent the opportunities for conversion present in every, single thing you do — every thought, word, and action. Each one of the virtues is present in, strengthens, and unlocks the other three. The more they are practiced the more they become natural and habitual — not just what you do but who you are.
By practicing and growing in the cardinal virtues, we make ourselves ever more open and receptive to all of God’s gifts, but especially His gift of grace — that is, the gift of an ever-deepening, indwelling relationship with Him.
No matter the starting point or the difficulties you face or the mistakes you have made, God loves you and is calling you onward.
It is never too late and every moment is the right time to convert — to turn back to God.