1988 - On the Virtues of the Human Heart

by Josef Pieper

This 'brief reader' (only about 50 pages) was written by Josef Pieper in 1988.  His insight into the Core Virtues is amazing, and I greatly look forward to reading his other, more substantial books on the subject.  Like Catherine Morland, I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible, but Pieper can.  There were many passages I had to read more than once, and some that I never really felt that I completely understood.  But whatever is gotten out of this book by the reader is, without a doubt, worthwhile.  I want to share some of his thoughts on the Core Virtues.

"Virtue is the utmost of what a man can be; it is the realization of the human capacity for being." 

Pieper calls prudence the mother of the virtues.  Remember prudence is the knowledge to judge between virtue and vice.  I explain this to my kids with 'Stop and think' and decide on the best course of action, rather than just reacting to the situation.  But the best course of action can be interpreted in different ways.  If a person is suspected of wrongdoing, he could lie to spare himself the consequences.  But, unlike the mutated meaning that the word prudence now has, the virtue of prudence is not self-serving.  The prudent person "does not allow his view on reality to be controlled by the Yes or No of his will."  Pieper explains that today, we have excluded the concept of goodness from prudence, but that was not the original meaning.  Goodness is a part of prudence.  Today, we think of a prudent person as being cautious at best, or self-serving at worst.  Scrooge, for instance, could be considered a prudent businessman, but again, the meaning of the word has changed, and when speaking of the Core Virtues, we refer to the original meaning with the goodness, or virtue, intact.  "Omnis virtus moralis debet esse prudens: All virtue is necessarily prudent." 

But if we think about the example above with the liar, is it really very prudent to act unvirtuously?  He may spare himself the consequences, but if lying becomes a habit, he will eventually get caught in one and trust will have been broken.  However, if he comes forward with the truth (fortitude) and he accepts the consequences of his actions, those who see his example will have greater trust and respect for him. 

Thomas Aquinas (a great Christian philosopher from the Middle Ages whom Pieper greatly admires and quotes often) said, "False prudence and excessive cleverness are derived from and essentially tied to covetousness."  Scrooge, again, being an example of false prudence, we can easily see how that relates to covetousness.  The part on excessive cleverness I had to think about a little, and I'm still not sure I've got it all figured out, but I suppose he means that people who insist on being 'disinclined to speak unless they are sure to say something that will amaze the whole room' (paraphrase from Pride and Prejudice) are basically coveting the 'smartest person' status among their peers.   

"One can be prudent only if one loves and wills the good through and through; indeed, only one who is first prudent can do good.  Since, however, the love for good grows over and over through doing, the foundations of prudence are the more deepened and strengthened the more that it is fruitful."

"Even the highest supernatural prudence can have no other meaning than this: to allow the more deeply experienced truth of the reality of God and of the world to become the measure and standard for one's own desire and action."  I'm not sure what exactly Pieper means by 'supernatural' prudence, but that aside; to me, this connects prudence with the virtue of faith.  Faith is not only believing in God, but trusting Him.  It also calls to mind what Christ said, "Not my will, but Thine be done."  That said, though, I can also see how a statement like this, given to a culture of faithlessness that conveniently decides to leave out "of God and" so that we just have "the more deeply experienced truth of the reality...of the world", and there we go; we have today's meaning of prudence.  But "of the world" was also included, so I wonder what exactly that means.  Living 'in the world but not of the world'?  Perhaps Pieper will have more to say on this in his other books.

"A man is wise when all things taste to him as they really are."

Justice: Fairness; all receive their due, but not all the same.

"The prerequisite for justice is truth....That one man gives to another what belongs to the other is the basis of all just order in the world.  In contrast, all injustice means that what belongs to someone is either withheld or taken from him, not indeed by misfortune, bad harvest, fire, or earthquake, but by man." 

"The just man, the more he realizes that he is the recipient of gifts and that he has an obligation to God and to man, will alone be ready to fulfill what he does not owe.  He will decide to give something to the other that no one can force him to give."  This reminds me of Christ's admonition from the Sermon on the Mount:

"But whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.  And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain."  -Matthew 5:39-41

I'm not sure how well-known this bit of history is, so I thought I'd go ahead and share it.  Back in Christ's day, the Roman Empire had control over all of Judea.  One of the perks of being a Roman soldier in Judea was that you could command a Jewish civilian to carry your pack for a mile.  It didn't matter what they were doing, or where they happened to be going.  They had to carry your pack for one mile.  Many of the Jews were understandably upset at having to do this.  When Jesus said to go with a man the second mile, the Jewish people knew exactly what He was referring to.  But is that just allowing someone to walk all over you?  If we walk the first mile, then we are forced to be subservient slaves.  But if we walk a mile and more, cheerfully, and let it be a gift to our fellow man, not stopping to think about if he deserves it, but acknowledging that we are both children of God, here on earth to learn, grow, and help each other, then we are giving something no one can force us to give.  

It's interesting that this all fits under justice.  We should not force anyone to give away what rightfully belongs to them, but when we see that God has given us our lives and everything in them, and that we are all His children, then we can view our property and even our lives, with a different point-of-view.  This idea connects justice with the virtue of charity, the pure love of Christ.

Fortitude: Courage; the ability to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty or intimidation

"Fortitude presumes vulnerability; without vulnerability there is no possibility of fortitude." 

"To be brave is not the same as to have fear....Fortitude presumes to a certain extent that a man is afraid of evil; its essence does not consist in knowing no fear but rather in not allowing himself to be compelled by fear into evil or to fail to accomplish the good."

"What is essential to the virtue of fortitude is not aggression or self-confidence or wrath but rather steadfastness and patience....To be patient means not to allow the serenity and discernment of one's soul to be taken away."

Pieper also explains that to have fortitude, one must be prepared to sustain injury or even die for the cause.  But he adds a caveat: recklessness is not fortitude.  "Without a 'just cause' there is no fortitude.  The decisive element is not the wound but the cause."  One who is willing to charge ahead without thought to personal safety is simply one who values anything and everything above his own life.  The person who has true fortitude has thought about the risks, determined that the cause is just and worth fighting for, and continues on despite all. 

One of my favorite characters to think about in regards to fortitude is Jane Eyre.  I haven't found anything written about this yet, but it seems easier to me to divide fortitude into two groups (that naturally merge together quite a bit): physical fortitude and emotional fortitude.  Physical fortitude, as in the example of George Washington, is willing to step into the volley of bullets to preserve a just cause, such as freedom.  Emotional fortitude is willing to suffer humiliation, hurt feelings, loss, etc. to stand up for the cause.  (Though I'm not sure there is much point in separating them, because I think to truely have one, a person must have both.)  Jane Eyre exhibits both, and stands up for virtue when that decision will leave her homeless and destitute, but even worse, it leaves her in fear of never being with the man she loves.  None of this, however, allows her to justify straying from a virtuous path.  And in the end, she receives all that she wanted and more in reward. 

Pieper quoted Gregory the Great (pope from 590-604): "Cheerfulness of heart is the seal of selflessness."  This is what I see as the best of emotional fortitude.  Jane Eyre feels sad, but never wallows in self-pity or misery.  She demonstrates her strength by staying strong and continuing on, even when she has lost everything.  She does her best to be industrious and happy.  This connects fortitude to the virtue of hope.  I just love how Pieper's thoughts can lead to all this connecting between the virtues! 

There is much more in this little reader, but those are some of my favorite thoughts.