The Common Good
August 2005

The Virtuous Circle

by Rose Marie Berger | August 2005

The ancient virtues help us to know God more intimately.

Ryan Wiedmaier has created a humorous photo project on the Web called "

Ryan Wiedmaier has created a humorous photo project on the Web called "The Seven Gummie Sins." Using tiny corn-syrup bears, he demonstrates the ancient vices of pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. You can imagine the contorted positions into which those little bears are forced.

It’s easy to convert the seven deadly sins to pop art - but what about the four cardinal virtues outlined in the Book of Wisdom? "If one loves justice, the fruits of Wisdom’s works are virtues for she teaches moderation and prudence, justice and fortitude, and nothing in life is more useful than these" (8:7).

Moderation or temperance means living a balanced life that allows one to grow in holiness and love. Symptoms of a lack of moderation include taking more than one needs for a moderate life (the United States, for example, lives way beyond its ecological means), overwork (do I need to name names?), and doing things specifically to avoid reality (pre-emptive war and pornography are cases in point, along with overindulging in drugs, alcohol, video games, iPods, TV, and the Internet). Moderation allows pleasures to be sweet and whets our appetite for goodness.

Prudence, said Plato, is chief among the virtues. It means "knowing how to do the right thing in the right way for the right reason," according to political philosopher R.W. Carstens. To make prudent decisions one needs historical memory of past actions and their consequences. The longer the memory, the more refined the wisdom. Without memory, one is incapable of making prudent judgments. Prudence matures by actively engaging the moral ambiguities of life, not by withdrawing from them. According to Hannah Arendt, prudence is a public virtue because prudent conclusions arrive from the free exchange of ideas and experiences in the public sphere which, Arendt concludes, protects a society from totalitarianism. It’s also a personal virtue. Prudent sexual decisions take into account the needs, rights, and effects of one’s actions on one’s partner and community.

ARISTOTLE AND Thomas Aquinas defined justice as the good of the other. It’s about habitually giving both God and neighbor their due. Each person has certain obligations to fulfill in order to preserve human dignity, and each one has a right to obtain what is necessary to carry out these obligations. Therefore parents are obliged to protect and educate their children and they have a right to a living wage and a functioning school system to meet their obligation. There are three kinds of justice - commutative (what one person owes another), social or distributive (what society owes an individual or group), and legal (what an individual owes to society). Biblically, God’s justice prioritizes the poor, weak, defenseless, and marginalized - and we are to imitate God in this. The virtue of justice comes wrapped in other tempering traits: gratitude, liberality, affability, and mercy. A just social order is one that makes it "easier for [people] to be good," said Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin.

Fortitude involves courage, perseverance, and endurance. To cultivate fortitude we have to face our fears, and - while living with them - learn to act beyond them. You need fortitude to remove obstacles to justice. The antitheses of fortitude are cowardice (debilitated by fear), recklessness (ignorant of fear), and stubbornness (when the end goal serves to gratify the ego rather than the common good). Fortitude empowered Rosa Parks to stay seated on that bus in Montgomery or the young man in Tiananmen Square to stand in front of the Chinese tank or Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi to persevere for years under house arrest.

The ancient virtues form a generative circle. They advance spiritual maturity. As Christians, we experiment with these virtues because they help us to know God more intimately and they generate a sense of well-being in the world God created.

In his book A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, French philosopher André Comte-Sponville adds another virtue to the list: Humor - the ability to laugh at ourselves. Go ahead. Pour out a bag of Gummy Bears and put them in "virtuous" positions.

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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