Throwback Thursday: The Cardinal Virtues and the Pursuit of Happiness

The Cardinal Virtues, by Raphael Sanzio

In the Declaration of Independence, when our nation’s founders spoke of an inalienable right to the “pursuit of happiness,” they did not have in mind a mere feeling or emotional state, as happiness is today often understood. They did not mean the pursuit of money or self-indulgent pleasures, which invariably are fleeting. Much less did they claim a right of seeking enjoyment in various vices or iniquity.

Instead, the founders used the term “happiness” in the classical sense of eudaimonia, meaning to lead a good and virtuous life, from Greek and Roman philosophy and later expanded upon by Christian thinkers like Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, who taught that the happy life is the blessed life found in God, who is Truth and Love. For most of western civilization, in fact, education was directed toward helping the student identify virtue and then develop a life based on it.

Basically, virtue is habitual and firm disposition toward doing what is right and good, seeking the excellence of personal perfection so as to govern one’s actions and be the master of one’s desires. Principal among the virtues are prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude, in that all other manifestations of good human activity in some way hinge upon these four “cardinal virtues,” which are knowable by human nature.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that prudence guides the judgment of our conscience in discerning our true good and in applying moral principles to particular circumstances (CCC 1806). Following Aristotle, Saint Thomas Aquinas described prudence as “right reason in action.” Helping us to manage well our lives so as to do good and avoid evil, prudence is the guide and measure for all the moral virtues.

The virtue of temperance “moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods” (CCC 1809). God endowed human life with many good instincts and desires, but as a result of Original Sin, many of these desires have become disordered, leading us to sin. Temperance allows us to exercise self-control and keep our worldly passions within the limits of what is good and honorable, rather than being a slave to them. Perhaps another way to describe it is “moderation in all things.” Temperance involves the balanced use of the many goods given us so that their use remains ordered and at the service of the development of a good, well-rounded and complete person.

Certainly all of us want to be a part of and contribute to a good and just society. Justice is the virtue that consists in giving to God and neighbor what is due to each, giving to them what rightly belongs to them (CCC 1807). A social virtue, justice disposes us to respect the rights and freedoms of others and seeks to establish the peace and harmony that bring together people and allow them to prosper while living in community.

When life presents its inevitable trials and tribulations, the virtue of fortitude, or courage in the face of these challenges, goes to work. Fortitude provides the ability to persevere in adversity. When we are confronted with moral choices, fortitude allows us to remain strong and constant in our pursuit of what is good and gives us the strength to resist temptation that would pull us in the wrong direction (CCC 1808).

The pursuit of happiness passes by way of virtue. However, it is not always easy or automatic. The old adage “practice makes perfect” is applicable not only to one’s golf stroke, tennis swing or piano playing, but also to virtue.

The strength of our character will reflect the perfection of our virtue. Moreover, the highest happiness corresponds to the highest virtues – the theological virtues of faith, hope and love which relate us to God and then, ultimately, to one another.