Straight-Up: Cardinal Virtues 101

Part Three of a Straight-Up Conversation With Young People

By Jennifer Hartline Published on May 7, 2017

[Editor’s note: This is part three of Jennifer’s Straight-Up series. Be sure to read parts one and two, if you missed them.]

Previously, I mentioned prudence. Now don’t take this as an insult, but I’m willing to bet that a lot of you aren’t even sure what prudence means. Sadly, it’s gone out of style, and that’s why people make such a mess of things all the time.

The dictionary defines prudence as “caution with regard to practical matters; discretion.” That’s a start, but it’s not enough. This explanation of prudence is much better: Prudence is “right reason in action.” (St. Thomas Aquinas)

Prudence is what we call a cardinal virtue. There are four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. These virtues are “cardinal” because they are of primary importance. All the other virtues take shape around the four cardinal virtues. A person whose life shows clear evidence of these cardinal virtues? Pay attention — that’s a person you want to learn from and imitate.

There’s a Better Way to Live — With Prudence

Prudence first. It’s the virtue that helps our practical reason decide what is really right and good in every circumstance. It helps us figure out the right means of doing the right thing. It’s not being timid or afraid, or reluctant to act. It guides the conscience. It means honestly determining what is the moral thing to do, not merely what we want to do or what is easiest.

We are in the Age of Feelings right now, and if you want to be miserable, you can certainly live by your feelings.

Prudence helps you skip some temporary fun for the sake of something truly good. It helps you say no to some immediate pleasure and choose a higher moral good instead. Prudence protects you by helping you think carefully and make decisions based on more than your feelings.

Let me repeat that: prudence protects you by helping you make decisions based on more than your feelings. That’s going to be huge for you.

We are in the Age of Feelings right now, and the most popular voices out there right now are telling you that it’s all about how you feel. Your feelings are king. Your feelings should never be hurt or even challenged. Your feelings decide whether something is right or wrong, and whether someone else is a good or bad person. You’ve been brainwashed to think that everything you do in life should be motivated and directed by your feelings.

And if you want to be miserable, you can certainly do that. You can live every day taking your orders from your emotions. You can build the house of your life on your feelings. But feelings constantly change, so your house will shake from the emotional earthquake and collapse on top of you. Not good.

How ’bout a better plan? Learn to be wise and prudent. You can learn to make decisions based on right reason, not on feelings. You can learn to act based on good judgment, even if it’s contrary to your feelings. You don’t have to be a slave to your every impulse. God gave you a brain. He gave you an intelligent mind. Use it. Tell yourself “No” once in a while. Do the right thing, not the easy thing.


Next comes justice. You like the sound of that? Good! The first one we owe justice to is God. You heard me. We owe God what is due Him. He deserves our worship and our obedience. Then we are obligated to give justice to our neighbor. That means upholding the genuine rights of every human person. (Every human person, including the child in the womb.) It means protecting the true common good. It means equity and harmony in our relationships. The just man or woman is upright in character. Is that you?

Temperance and Fortitude

Now let’s talk temperance and fortitude. Fortitude is the inner steel you need to resist temptation and choose the good. Fortitude is what helps you conquer fear — fear of scorn, humiliation, and rejection from your friends, maybe? — and do what is right even when it costs you dearly. Fortitude is a big part of your moral work-out. It’s where you build muscle and become strong.

If you can master your own desires and inclinations, you’re well on your way to a prosperous life.

Temperance is as unpopular today as prudence, and just as badly needed. Temperance might sound like a buzz-kill, as much fun as an Algebra test or a sink full of dishes to wash, but listen up. Temperance is the ticket to being a master. Maybe not master of the universe, but master over yourself. And if you can master your own desires and inclinations, you’re well on your way to a prosperous life.

Temperance is about moderating even the good things, and refusing the destructive things. It means balance, and using things in the proper way.

For example, temperance can mean not wasting every spare second playing a video game, or on your iPhone, or Facebook, or whatever. It means having one or two cookies, not the whole box. Temperance begins to make a big difference in seemingly little ways.

Temperance will do battle with all your mindless habits and addictions. It says, “Enough of this. Time to choose something better.” Temperance and prudence are BFF’s in this way, and there’s no chance you won’t have a healthier, happier, more fulfilled life by practicing these virtues.

As They Say, Practice Makes Perfect

Have you heard the old saying, “Practice makes perfect”? That’s what I’m talking about. It takes daily, consistent practicing of the virtues to make us “perfect.” By perfect, I mean holy. I mean happy, thriving, and whole.

If that sounds impossible, it almost is. Human effort will never do it. You and I need the grace of God to help us do the right things every day. We need supernatural power to overcome the darkness in our lives.

Good news! God delights in pouring out His grace on His children when they ask!

Let me leave you with a little St. Augustine (read more about him here and here):

To live well is nothing other than to love God with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul and with all one’s efforts; from this it comes about that love is kept whole and uncorrupted (through temperance). No misfortune can disturb it (and this is fortitude). It obeys only God (and this is justice), and is careful in discerning things, so as not to be surprised by deceit or trickery (and this is prudence.)


This is part three of Jennifer’s Straight-Up series. Stay tuned for future installments.

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