Fish Eaters: The Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D

Becoming Virtuous


The Church's teachers often speak of "the seven virtues:" Faith, Hope, Charity, Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance, and Justice. The first three of these are the "theological virtues," known as such because they relate directly to -- and come from -- God Himself. They are infused in us by God, and we receive them only as a gift of grace, such as through supplication and the Sacraments. The last four of these -- the "Cardinal Virtues," "moral virtues," or "human virtues" -- are virtues which can be developed and practiced by man in his natural state, without supernatural aid. In fact, it wasn't the early Christians, but the ancient Greeks who first wrote about the these virtues: Plato (d. ca. 423 B.C.) wrote of them in the fourth part of his "The Republic," which predates their mention in the seventh verse of the eighth Book of Wisdom, a verse that relates how wisdom "teacheth temperance, and prudence, and justice, and fortitude, which are such things as men can have nothing more profitable in life."

St. Ambrose (d. A.D. 397) was the first to refer to them as the "cardinal" virtues (where "cardinal" means "hinge"), a description based on the fact that these four virtues are the virtues on which all other natural virtues "hang." They've been depicted over and over again in Church art, often grouped together with the theological virtues and personified as women, and have come to be symbolized in distinct ways. Prudence is typically shown holding a mirror, book, serpent, or fish -- and is sometimes depicted as having two or three faces of different ages; Fortitude is shown wielding a club or accompanied by a lion, and often standing by or holding a broken column; Temperance is usually shown pouring wine from an urn or holding a bridle and reins; and Justice is shown holding a sword or scales, often while wearing a crown (below, from left to right, are Fortitude, Temperance, Justice, and Prudence). As another example, you can see them wonderfully depicted in these 16th century Flemish tapestries.

On the Moral Thinking: A Basic Primer on Catholic Moral Theology page, you'll find an introduction to the virtues, which you should read first. This section of the website will be purely practical; the focus will be on acquiring them. In order to acquire them, though, we need motivation, so should answer the question "why should we strive for virtue?"

The first and most important answer is that we are to emulate Christ so He might deign to save us. While we cannot work our way into Heaven, and while salvation is a gift of grace, we must do more than simply believe that Christ is the Son of God (see James 2:14-26 and know that even "the devils also believe and tremble"). We must cooperate with that grace by doing the right things. We are to avoid sin, and "put on Christ," as Romans 13:12-14 tells us:

The night is passed, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day: not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy:  But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences.

A second answer to the question of why we should strive for virtue is a practical one: without virtue, we are doomed to endure unjust social orders. It's been known for millennia that democracies, marked by political liberty, invariably devolve. Plato, again in his "The Republic," describes how the rule of the wise gives way to timocracy (the rule of those motivated by honor), which gives way to oligarchy marked by corruption and the desire for wealth. Oligarchy then gives way to democracy in which liberty, egalitarianism, and the satiation of the passions predominate. And finally, democracy gives way to tyranny after men become unwilling to govern themselves. He describes the democratic man as a "lotus-eater" who calls modesty "silliness," temperance "unmanliness," moderation "vulgarity," anarchy "liberty," insolence "breeding," and impudence "courage." He writes that, in democracies,

the father grows accustomed to descend to the level of his sons and to fear them, and the son is on a level with his father, he having no respect or reverence for either of his parents; and this is his freedom, and the metic is equal with the citizen and the citizen with the metic, and the stranger is quite as good as either...

... [T]he master fears and flatters his scholars, and the scholars despise their masters and tutors; young and old are all alike; and the young man is on a level with the old, and is ready to compete with him in word or deed; and old men condescend to the young and are full of pleasantry and gaiety; they are loth to be thought morose and authoritative, and therefore they adopt the manners of the young.

Sound familiar? 1

The Founding Fathers of the United States were well aware of the hazards of democracies (which is why they formed a Republic instead). John Adams wrote to the Massachusetts Militia: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." Now look around and see the modern "lotus-eaters" that surround you. See how those who lack fortitude vote for more "free" things from the government at the expense of those who persevere in work, how those who are unwilling to practice chastity move the burden of raising their young from themselves to the taxpayers (or murder the results of their fornications), how libertines demand that the world twist how it speaks of reality so it fits their ideologies rather than the other way around. Nero fiddled while Rome burned; today, our civilization collapses while CardiB sings about her genitalia. Our course must be reversed. We must become virtuous, and train our children to be the same, in order to save Western civilization.

A third answer to the question is that you will be making the world a better place, doing the right things with effects that may reverberate throughout the world in ways you can't imagine, making the lives of those you love easier and less disordered, and setting a good example for others, including any children you might have -- or have influence over as an uncle, aunt, older sibling, mentor, teacher, etc.

A fourth answer is psychological in nature: practicing the virtues is a large part of living a fulfilling, well-ordered life that is rich in meaning and easier to endure in the long run. In the short run, it may be easier and "more fun" to take the low road and the short-cuts, to sit on the couch and risk nothing, to go ahead and have that third piece of pie. But the prudent man makes decisions that tend not to be of the sort that'll result in chaos and pain. A fortitudinous man doesn't let life's obstacles stand in the way of his goals, thereby keeping him from success, or allow himself or his loved ones to be bullied or mistreated. A temperate man won't likely find himself the father of eight children by five different women, an addict living on the streets, in prison on drug charges, too fat to walk up a flight of stairs, or so addicted to pornography that he can't become attracted to a real woman. A just man won't find himself with enemies who dislike him for good reason, and who want revenge against him. Further, if you're called to marriage, you will become worthy of attracting a virtuous spouse, which can only sweeten the time you spend in the world and be a great help in getting your children to Heaven.

Life is tragic enough; don't make it worse by your own actions.

Becoming Virtuous

A virtue is a good habit, and you acquire good habits by first committing to do so, and then by practicing them. Aristotle, in his "Nicomachean Ethics," puts it clearly:

... [T]he virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

Once you have practiced a behavior enough, it becomes habitual -- an easier, more "reflexive" way of responding to the world, and a part of your very being. But this takes time. C.S. Lewis, in "Mere Christianity," rightly distinguishes between merely doing something virtuous once in a while and actually becoming a "virtuous person":

There is a difference between doing some particular just or temperate action and being a just or temperate man. Someone who is not a good tennis player may now and then make a good shot. What you mean by a good player is the man whose eye and muscles and nerves have been so trained by making innumerable good shots that they can now be relied on. They have a certain tone or quality which is there even when he is not playing, just as a mathematician's mind has a certain habit and outlook which is there even when he is not doing mathematics. In the same way a man who perseveres in doing just actions gets in the end a certain quality of character. Now it is that quality rather than the particular actions which we mean when we talk of "virtue."

You can think of developing virtue as moral strength training: at first, a man might be able to bench press forty pounds, but after a few weeks, he'll be able to press eighty pounds, then later, his body weight, and so on until, one day, he's stunned to realize that he's become, and that others see him as, "a strong man." It will happen, like so many things in life, "gradually, then suddenly" 2: You might take the gradual steps of putting $40 in the bank each month, year after year, and then receive a bank statement that makes you suddenly realize that you now have enough money to put a down payment on a house. Or you might decide to lose weight, going through the drudgery of gradually eliminating various foods from your diet, and then suddenly find yourself delighted that you're able to wear clothes you haven't been able to fit into for years. And so it is with becoming a virtuous person. But those moments that happen "suddenly" can't happen at all without starting the journey. An old Cherokee story to keep in mind as you go along:

An old man told his grandson, "A fight is going on inside you, me, and every man -- a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf is evil: he is lustful, proud, lazy, angry, envious, greedy, gluttonous, and morose. The second wolf is good: he is prudent, just, brave, strong, temperate, humble, merciful, and joyful."

The grandson listened, then asked, "Which wolf will win?"

The grandfather replied, "The one you feed, son. The one you feed."

Now, let's get on with fattening up the good wolf...


1 The reversal of authority from the old to the young is nowhere better epitomized than by phenomena like the fame of Greta Thunberg or the goings-on at our universities. Consider the Yale students screaming in the face of Professor Nicholas Christakis over the topic of Hallowe'en costumes in 2015. Or the happenings at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington in 2017: students invaded the administration building and held hostage the College's President, George Bridge. They wouldn't even "allow" the man to leave the room to urinate. At one point during their takeover, he used his hands while speaking and was admonished by the students, who told him to put his hands down, that his raised hands weren't "appropriate." President Bridge meekly obliged, as he obliged them at every step. Learn about "the Evergreen story" at Benjamin Boyce's Youtube channel:

2 "Gradually, then suddenly" is a line from chapter 13 of Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises":
“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”

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