Wisdom, Justice, Courage/Fortitude, Temperance - Moral virtues

After having considered the three theological virtues, we know turn to the next four moral virtues, or the cardinal virtues. They are called cardinal for all other virtues depend on them. Further, they are a united whole, for if a man has one virtue, he has them all, just as if we have one sin, we, in principle, possess them all (James 2:10). One cannot be truly wise who is not also just. One will not be courageous if he is not temperate. Pulling one thread of virtue unravels the entire garment.

When contemplating what it means to be virtuous, we must think about virtue in two senses. One sense is that perfect virtue displayed by Christ and to which all His followers are called. Believers are to imitate their Father and be as wise, just, courageous, and temperate as possible. Their lives are to be living sacrifices and pleasing to God (Rom. 12:1-2), something impossible for the unbeliever (Rom. 8:8). Their virtue is measured by God’s law, done for His glory, and empowered by His Spirit. When we talk about virtue in this way, it is a gift from God, and unbelievers cannot participate in it at all. Bad trees cannot produce good fruit. Stony hearts do not pump blood or flow with living water. Christian virtue evaluates measure, motive, and means beyond a mere external level.

But we also must consider virtue in a second sense for the simple fact that pharisees and stoics tend to make great neighbors. You can trust them to watch your house, take care of your children, strive for the common good, and to do countless other good things. When considered from this narrow, external perspective, they are virtuous. On the outside, the white-washed tomb looks good, but we remember that they are filled with dead bones. So to we must also remember that all of their good works are done in rebellion to God, and thus Augustine makes reference to the “splendid vices of the pagans.” In this external sense, some unbelievers are better or more virtuous than others, but all are condemned under the law and cannot stand before God.

What is wisdom?

Man is gifted with various faculties and abilities. He can reason, will, love, contemplate, and enjoy. When we consider what wisdom is, it will be a habitual use of these abilities in perfection. Man will reason to, and choose his greatest end, and then be able to navigate complex situations to reach this goal. Wisdom is the habit of discerning and choosing the best path towards a man’s supernatural end.

Scripture reveals to us this great end of man as glorifying God (Ps 85; Is 60:21; Rom 11:36; 1 Cor 6:20; 10:31; Rev 4:11) and enjoying Him forever (Ps 16:5-11; Ps 144:15; Is 12:12; Phil 4:4; Rev 21:3-4; Luke 2:10). Man was created to know, love, and enjoy God. The way man glorifies God is further revealed in the two great commandments: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Wisdom consists in discerning how to apply the universal commands to love God and love your neighbor in each particular situation.

There are three primary qualities to wisdom, memoria, docilitas, and solertia. Memory consists in a love of the truth — a conformity to reality. The mind apprehends truth and does not forget it. It will not intentionally falsify evidence in order to achieve to a desired end. It does not lose knowledge like a coriander used as a bucket. Memory doesn’t masquerade as a false humility that willingly “forgets” or obscures the truth that it knows. Truth is too important to be mentally redacted when circumstances are difficult.

Teachability is humility applied to knowledge and is the philosopher’s first confession. Socrates concluded he was the wisest because he was the only one who knew he didn’t know. In contrast to the sophists (wise ones), the philosophers termed themselves “lovers of wisdom” to confess that they did not have wisdom, but they desired it. The one who knows all things cannot be taught. Wisdom strives for knowledge and to take in new information. It thirsts after truth and allows itself to be taught. Wisdom seeks counsel and input from others.

Sagacity or clear-sightedness-under-pressure allows a man to choose the proper end quickly, even while under stress. His memory and powers of observation allow him quickly to take in the situation and apply the truth he knows in a clear way. This is the ultimate end of wisdom, to discern and choose the best bath to man’s end of knowing, loving, and enjoying God forever. Life is complex, and there isn’t a rule book or casuistry guide to all the decisions you will face. Wisdom apprehends the truth of things, observes the situation, seeks council, and then makes the best decision.

How can you grow in wisdom?

As we seek to grow in virtue, there are several immediate applications of this understanding of wisdom. First, since true moral virtue necessitates grace, we must be taught of God. There is a wisdom from above and a wisdom from below (Jam. 3:13-18). Philosophy that seeks to understand the world and proposes the natural ability of man to do what is right apart from God is vain (Col 2:4, 8; cf. Rom 1:18-21; Eph 2:1-3). To truly know reality, we must know God through revelation by His Spirit (1 Cor 2:14). Prudence is put in action especially through trials, and God tells us to ask for this sort of wisdom (Jam. 1:2-5).

Since wisdom consists in sure knowledge, we should seek to develop our memory. A man who must be constantly reminded of what he should already know cannot be considered wise (cf. Heb 5:11-14). One who seeks to be prudent will develop this habit of remembering, and will seek out knowledge in all of the various sciences. True philosophy is man’s method of understanding the world which God has made, and it is a vast and wonderful world. A wise man will grow in knowledge of math, natural science, history, ethics, literature, geography, music, astronomy, and theology. Each of these are sciences or bodies of knowledge that may be explored and enjoyed.

Prudence also seeks to listen to others. It does not rush off and speak before understanding. It is quick to hear and slow to speak. Wisdom is eager to test, discern, and measure in order to find and savor what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8). This is how the virtuous soul is nourished, by being fed on grace and truth. This is not a foolish “wisdom” that uncritically accepts and believes everything it hears, but diligently searches for gold. The wise man loves truth above the choicest jewels and eagerly pursues it (cf. Job 28). The imprudent man loses sight of his supernatural destiny and instead pursues earthly treasures (cf. Matt 6;19-24, 34).

Finally, the wise man is able to take action. Far from being an idle contemplation, wisdom is able to chart the safest course through a turbulent and rock-filled sea to arrive at a safe harbor. It does not grow unsettled or rush into judgment; It does not fall into a paralyzed indecision. I steadily observes and draws upon all its resources in order to love justice and pursue it. This is why the prudent man will also be just. One who claims to be wise, but uses his memory and reason to pursue evil is not prudent, but cunning or crafty.

The wise of this age are put to shame through the foolishness of the cross. The ones who embrace this foolishness of preaching are the wise. One who wishes to be wise will find himself crucified with Christ and die to the elemental patterns of the world — namely, a righteousness through works of the law. The truly wise will receive in rest in a righteousness that is by faith.