Mere Christianity, Book Three, Chapter 2: “The ‘Cardinal Virtues'”

The ‘Cardinal Virtues’ are Prudence, TemperanceJustice and Fortitude. These are all vertues that most civilized people will recognize and acknowledge. Most of the words have changed meanings over the years, but the meanings are still important. We’ll interpret them to modern language as well as we can as we discuss them.

  • Prudence “Prudence means practical common sense, taking the trouble to think out what you are doing and what is likely to come of it.”
    • Many Christians misapply this virtue starting at “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14), and stopping there. This is very often taken as a license to be naive and foolish about the world.
    • Most children show plenty of prudence, questioning everything. Secondly,

      “as St Paul points out, Christ never meant that we were to remain children in intelligence: on the contrary. He told us to be not only ‘as harmless as doves.’ but also ‘as wise as serpents’.He wants a child’s heart, but a grown-up’s head. He wants us to be simple, single-minded, affectionate, and teachable, as good children are; but He also wants every bit of intelligence we have to be alert at its job, and in first-class fighting trim.

      • giving money to a charity? check it out! Is it a fraud?
      • thinking about God? Is that good enough? Are you still thinking childish thoughts about a childish concept of God?
      • “It is, of course, quite true that God will not love you any the less, or have less use for you, if you happen to have been born with a very second-rate brain. He has room for people with very little sense, but He wants every one to use what sense they have.”

The proper motto is … ‘Be good, sweet maid, and don’t forget that this involves being as clever as you can.’ God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you, you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all. But, fortunately, it works the other way round. Anyone who is honestly trying to be a Christian will soon find his intelligence being sharpened: one of the reasons why it needs no special education to be a Christian is that Christianity is an education itself.

  • Temperance … “Temperance [refers] … to all pleasures; and it [means] not abstaining, but going the right length and no further.”
    • Temperance is often used in our culture to refer to total avoidance of alcohol, but that’s not what it means.
    • Mohammedanism, not Christianity, is the teetotal religion.

    • But the whole point is that he is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying. One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons–marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.

    • This is an example of judging, that is not our job, it is God’s.
    • A man who makes his golf or his motor-bicycle the centre of his life, or a woman who devotes all her thoughts to clothes or bridge or her dog, is being just as ‘intemperate’ as someone who gets drunk every evening. Of course, it does not show on the outside so easily: bridge-mania or golf-mania do not make you fall down in the middle of the road. But God is not deceived by externals.

  • Justice “is the old name for everything we should now call ‘fairness’; it includes honesty, give and take, truthfulness, keeping promises, and all that side of life.”
  • Fortitude “includes both kinds of courage–the kind that faces danger as well as the kind that ‘sticks it’ under pain. ‘Guts’ is perhaps the nearest modern English. You will notice, of course, that you cannot practise any of the other virtues very long without bringing this one into play.”
  • “There is a difference between doing some particular just or temperate action and being a just or temperate man.”
    • It is in the practicing of these virtues that the virtues, over time and with work and practice, become embedded in our character. God is more interested in our character than in our actions, but he made us in such a way that the practicing of actions that we shape our characters.
    • It is important to keep in mind that our intent is as important as our actions:

      We might think that, provided you did the right thing, it did not matter how or why you did it–whether you did it willingly or unwillingly, sulkily or cheerfully, through fear of public opinion or for its own sake. But the truth is that right actions done for the wrong reason do not help to build the internal quality or character called a ‘virtue,’ and it is this quality or character that really matters.

    • We might get confused that God wants only strict obedience, and not a certain kind of people.
    • Are virtues only important in this life? Think of the implications our character might have in the future life.

[[ Next: Mere Christianity, Book Three, Chapter 3: “Social Morality” ]]

Parent: Mere Christianity: Leaders’ Notes Series

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