Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Amazon Review

As always, a "helpful" vote would be appreciated.

The Four Cardinal Virtues
The Four Cardinal Virtues
by Josef Pieper
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.27
72 used & new from $3.55

5.0 out of 5 stars A Common Sense Guide to a Life "Fully Alive.", November 19, 2012
This book cannot be praised enough. In it, Josef Pieper lays out the dimensions and interrelationships of the four cardinal virtues - Faith, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. Pieper brings the virtues to life within the life of the reader in a way that modern readers obtain something that modern society does not equip them with, i.e., a vocabulary to talk about the really big ideas without which life is not worth living, which vocabulary is provided care of the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas.

For example, we learn from Pieper some surprising things about that most prosaic of virtues - prudence. Prudence, according to Pieper, is nothing more, and nothing less, than a person's acceptance of reality. This virtue requires that a person cultivate openness toward truth, an awareness of truth when it is presented to him, and a willingness to submit to truth. This last, then, requires the cultivation of "docilitas" - the ability to take advice - and a willing to be silent so as to allow reality to intrude into the person's mind.

Prudence is the "first virtue." Without prudence, no one can be just or temperate or persevering because these virtues must conform to reason, which, in turn, requires a conformity with reality. "The good of man consists in being in accord with reason." (p. 24.) Pieper explains why a narcissist can never truly be virtuous:

"Whoever looks only at himself and therefore does not permit the truth of real things to have its way can be neither just nor brave nor temperate - but above all he cannot be just. For the foremost requirement for the realization of justice is that man turns his eyes away from himself." (p. 21 - 22.)

The Four Cardinal Virtues is filled with these kinds of quick, aphoristic insights that made me experience a "eureka" moment where Pieper crystalized something I had known but didn't know that I knew since I lacked the ideas and the vocabulary.

Pieper then tackles justice, temperance and fortitude. "Justice is a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due with constant and perpetual will." (p. 44.) Pieper observes that with this definition arises the implication that something precedes justice, namely "what is due" or the right of the person to whom something is due. From this insight Pieper explores a Thomistic, communitarian view of justice that avoids the excesses of individualism and totalitarianism.

Fortitude, or bravery, is the next virtue. Fortitude cannot exist without prudence: "only the prudent man can be brave." (p. 123.) Without prudence, an action can be stupid or rash or overly timid depending on circumstance. Prudence precedes fortitude by indicating the right level of bravery appropriate to the circumstance. Likewise, without justice there is no fortitude. (p. 125.) "'Not the injury but the cause makes martyrs,' says St. Augustine."

Often forgotten in this day age as a virtue, fortitude carries with it a positive relationship to (just) wrath. (p. 130.) the passion that motivates a person to the willingness to attack evil is a virtue, although it seems that most moderns and modern Christians prefer a milk-toast approach to this virtue.

Temperance is the fourth virtue. Today, temperance is associated with bodily pleasures, but the classic temperance included spiritual temperance as well, such as the virtue that regulates the desire for knowledge being "studiositas" as compared to the pathological need for sense perception which is the vice of "curiositas." (p. 198 - 199.) It is a worthwhile exercise to read the section on temperance to see how moderate St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic tradition is when it recognizes that virtue is the means between two antipodal vices. Even a disordered turning toward the goods of the world is not necessarily a mortal sin if it does not involve a turning away from God. (p. 173.) Even fasting can be a sin if done to strenuously because it is against reason to overtax nature. (p. 183.) Modern libertines, who can only imagine an either/or world - either all sexual activity is good or we face a world of repression and prudery - would benefit from seeing the nuance that comes from looking at the world as if it had three poles - not two -with two being the extreme of behaviors and the third being the mean in between.

This is a great book for us modern barbarians who need more than a little bit of classical wisdom to find our way to a truly human life.

"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." - St. Irenaeus

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