“The Four Cardinal Virtues” by Josef Pieper. A Review

While camping with my wife in Oregon I finally finished this classic work. Pieper addresses the four classic, constitutional, crucial or cardinal virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. As he unpacks each virtue the author channels Thomas Aquinas (and some Augustine). And yet he doesn’t simply parrot this Medieval theologian. He takes up what Aquinas gives, works with it, and adds his own thoughtful flavor to the dish.

Though Pieper was a Catholic thinker, and the material assumes some perspectives from that tradition, nevertheless, it is accessible to Protestants as well. There are insights aplenty that will catch readers a bit off guard. Whether he is tackling Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek, social justice, virginity, sensuality, casuistry or severe asceticism, Pieper surfaces in places one could not foresee. And the forthrightness of his observations and assertions is refreshing. Such as when he sees that prudence and magnanimity have deep affiliations, while insidiousness, “guile, craft, and concupicence are the refuge of small-minded and small-souled persons” (20). My copy of this valuable volume is marked, page after page, with highlights and notes. This is a book I will return to repeatedly!

For those who are unfamiliar with the cardinal virtues, this is an excellent manuscript to become familiar with them. In many places it will set you back in your chair and give you pause. In other spots you will find yourself saying, “Yes! Exactly!” In a day and era where so many social values are being flattened and made pallid, this volume is a refreshingly thoughtful set of insights that the reader will benefit from immensely. I highly recommend the book.


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