There is probably more chance that the average Scot could name the seven dwarves from the Snow White fable than the ‘seven cardinal virtues’.
Sadly, ‘virtue’ would appear to have lost its appeal in 21st century Scottish culture. For the Twitter and Facebook generation, it has become a quaint and slightly embarrassing word that denotes the ‘homely goodness’ of a bygone era that’s perceived to be out of place in the contemporary moral landscape.
Despite this ambivalence, and having written extensively about the ‘seven deadly sins’, it is now time to tease out and promote the positive qualities of these wholesome cardinal virtues.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a virtue as: “a habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.”
The word ‘cardinal’ comes from the Latin meaning a hinge or pivot on which other things turn. Thus, in Christian tradition, the cardinal virtues serve as a guide to the moral behaviour of believers.
In common with the seven deadly sins there are two categories of Cardinal Virtues: four human or natural virtues and three theological virtues.
The human virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance are considered to be natural to humans, and have been widely accepted throughout history as ‘admirable human qualities’. Achievable through human effort they are common to both believers and atheists.
The theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, come from Chapter 13 of the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth, written almost 2,000 years ago. Unlike the human virtues, they are rooted in an understanding and acceptance of God. Without this they are an absurdity.
Writing on the ‘Internet Monk’ website, Damaris Zehner encapsulates the true goal of these virtues: “So according to the Catechism, virtue is more of a disposition than an action, although it leads to action; it is what we are as well as what we do. It is the ground from which all the fruits of our lives grow. It is the habit of goodness. Virtue doesn’t just buff us up to make us more attractive; it enables us to act with generosity and integrity to give the best of ourselves to others. Its goal is ‘Christ-likeness’.... a Jesus-shaped life.”
Cultivating the ‘habit of goodness’ should be the first priority of all civilised 21st century Scots.