In Western culture, there are seven classical virtues, each with corresponding vices: four cardinal virtues (justice, wisdom, courage and temperance) and three theological virtues (faith, hope and love).
The cardinal virtues (named after the Latin word cardes, or “hinge”) have been considered the pivotal characteristics of human flourishing since classical Greece. Plato’s “Republic” provides the first thorough argument for the significance of the four virtues, claiming that justice — both for individuals and societies — proceeds from the harmony of mind, body and spirit, and that harmony is achieved when each of the three parts of the person achieves excellence in its respective functioning. The excellence (“virtue”) of the mind is wisdom, the excellence of the body is temperance, and the excellence of the spirit is courage.
Virtues lead to happiness because they allow one to have deeper, more meaningful relationships with others. However, they also make one more vulnerable to unhappiness for the very same reason. Only the person who has a deep friendship can experience the sorrow of the loss of a friend. Only a person who cares deeply about something can feel the despair of loss.
Consider the classic Frank Capra film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The film covers the life of George Bailey, depicting him as a virtuous person: He is brave (he saves his brother from drowning in a pond), he is prudent (he saves a woman who is issued a wrong prescription by using his own judgment), and he is moderate in his habits (he turns down opportunities for wealth, lives in an old house and is generous to others). But near the end of the film, George considers taking his life because he despairs — he is facing prison because of an apparent misuse of funds at his Building and Loan Company; he thinks that his life amounts to nothing.
George is saved by the interference of an angel, who gives him a vision of what the community of Bedford Falls would have been like if he had never lived. He is also saved by his family and friends, who, in the final scene, come to his aid, assuring him that he is loved and that they will help him out of his financial troubles.
The other principal character in the film is Mr. Potter, a thoroughly bad person. He is greedy, insensitive and ill-tempered. When things do not go according to his plans, he gets angry and plots revenge. But this is the crucial point: He never despairs. Only the good person despairs, because he cares deeply; Mr. Potter cannot despair because he cannot lose anything he really cares about.
Mr. Potter would say that he is happier than George, but part of what happens to people when they acquire character traits is that their conception of happiness changes. Mr. Potter has become incapable of recognizing true happiness. It always seems like something else to him — foolishness, naiveté, lack of ambition, or, in his own words, “sentimental hogwash.”
This peculiar feature of virtues and vices makes them problematic — those who possess the virtues, know that they are virtues. People who have the vices disagree — they tend to think the virtues are vices. The only way to really see who is right and who is wrong in the debate is to see what becomes of people who exhibit the different character traits.
Over the next few months I will dedicate each column to consideration of one of the seven classical virtues, looking at how we might reconsider some features of contemporary society by looking at them through an ancient lens.
Next column: “Wisdom in the Information Age, or How Multitasking Makes Us Stupid.”
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.