Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cardinal Virtue

Tuesday's my long teaching day, so I'm a bit worn, but here's a tidbit that came to mind since I am teaching Ethics and we are currently doing virtue ethics. We've all heard the phrase 'Cardinal Virtue' -- well, I shouldn't say that, since I always find that there are plenty of students who have never heard of it, just as I found today that not a single person in my very diverse class could name any of the three books of the Divine Comedy, not even the Inferno. And because of their lack of familiarity with this common bit of Western culture, I usually ease my students into the topic by showing and discussing Raphael's allegory of the virtues (Justice is in the tondo). In any case, it's a fairly well known label. But most people don't know its origin. St. Ambrose was the first to call them Cardinal Virtues, and he seems to have had something different in mind than most people did later. The Latin word cardo indicates something that allows you to transition easily from one state to another, a turning point; the most common translation in this context is 'hinge', and most etymologies you will find will say that these are called 'cardinal' because the other virtues hinge on them. And this is indeed the way it has standardly been understood. But it's possible that Ambrose was using it in a slightly different way, although he never explains his usage, so we must guess. According to Hauser, Ambrose himself never seems elsewhere to use cardo and its cognates to mean anything as mundane as a hinge; the word had a very expansive meaning in Cicero, Seneca, and the like, and Ambrose elsewhere uses it to talk about the directions of the wind and the foundations of the earth. In some authors (e.g., Seneca) the word is sometimes used to describe death itself -- the ultimate point of transition. It is very plausible that Ambrose has this meaning in mind: the cardinal virtues are the virtues that prepare you for a smooth transition across the ultimate cardinal point, death itself. Ambrose uses the phrase for the first time ever in a funeral oration for his brother Satyrus, in which he talks about how Satyrus was his other self and displayed the four virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. Thus the four virtues are the things that make the transition from earthly life to standing before God smooth and easy. It's possible he also meant to suggest, as later philosophers and theologians understood the phrase, that these were the foundational virtues, the virtues on which all other (moral) virtues turn; no doubt he meant the word to suggest more than one thing. But it's interesting how a striking phrase briefly mentioned in a funeral oration came to play such an important role in how people through history have understood the virtues.

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