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The Cardinal Virtues of Our Time

Prudence, courage, temperance, and justice—the four cardinal virtues. Present throughout Christian and classical traditions both, these four virtues have steered Western thought for millennia, capturing, along the way, the imaginations of humanity’s greatest minds.

From classical antiquity onward, the cardinal virtues have informed the philosopher’s theorizations, the clergy’s aims, and the commoner’s life. When practiced in one’s own life, thinkers old and new instruct us that these virtues allow us to live, you guessed it, virtuously. It is a noble thing, to live a prudent, courageous, clement, and just life, aiming all the way through to act, and help others to act, with these virtues as a guiding light.

It is an unfortunate development, then, that the appeal of the cardinal virtues appears to be fading. The data suggest as much: Americans are divided over economic concerns ranging from immigration to job automation, the 2016 election (still), climate change, and the very social fabric upon which our republic rests.

American divisiveness, in each manifestation mentioned above, poses a threat to our polity. In his new book, Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference, Dr. John Inazu attempts to provide a pathway out of our state of unproductive disagreement; and in so doing, to better illustrate how—even as disputatious people—we might truly live together.

I contend that, to live together in such a way, the cardinal virtues must be restored in the American mind in a new form. Dr. Inazu’s book, and pathway toward a better public discourse, may help us in this endeavor.

Our “modest unity,” as Inazu dubs our democratic coexistence with one another, is threatened by a “culture of shut up”: a political climate in which we “disagree over the nature of our disagreements, and over how much disagreement is a good thing.” Far too many of us take as a fact that, as Rousseau said and Inazu notes, “it is impossible to live at peace with those we regard as damned.” It is all too frequent, in politics and religion, for us to regard huge swaths of Americans as damned.

As a participant in the American Enterprise Institute’s Values & Capitalism Summer Program with Dr. Inazu and about two dozen other students—hailing from universities, Christian and non-Christian, public and private, across the United States—I engaged in week-long discussions of these challenges to our ‘modest unity’.

Led by Dr. Inazu and driven by the foreknowledge and experience brought to the program by its participants, our discussions were heavy, pointed, and covered topics ranging from Rawlsian philosophy to transgender students on gender-exclusive college campuses. The topics of our discussion, though, were largely derived from two sections of Dr. Inazu’s book on “constitutional commitments” and “civic practices.” In the aim to attain a modern version of the cardinal virtues in American debate, I will focus my discussion on civic practices—a section more relevant to reviving the virtues in public discourse.

In this section of the book, Dr. Inazu makes note of three “civic aspirations”: tolerance, humility, and patience. As he noted in one of the program’s lectures, Dr. Inazu uses ‘aspirations’ instead of ‘virtues’ because he does not see these three adjectives as applicable to American public debate. However, I see these three aspirations—tolerance, humility, and patience—as being the contemporary collection of cardinal virtues most needed by Americans.

Attempting to realize these aspirations in a majority of Americans, or at least more of us than at present, is a noble aim—an essential one, too. To do so would be “to set out how we might act” in the public forum, in interactions with those family members, friends, neighbors, and colleagues with whom we wholeheartedly disagree, no matter the topic of disagreement.

Through better engaging both our ideological peers and opponents, each of us has within our being the power to inspire others to be more tolerant (thus willing to accept genuine difference), more humble (thus accepting “the limits of what we can prove” and the fact that we may well not be able to comprehend fully others’ beliefs, nor they ours), and more patient (thus better equipped to appreciate those with different beliefs, to take the proper time in the endeavor to reach across our difference and say, candidly, “come, let us reason together”).

Perhaps in doing so, or at least in the attempt, we might reshape the nature of our public discourse, shifting Americans’ efforts from proposing and answering questions like “can a divided America survive?”, to “How might we, different though we are, continue in our efforts to understand one another and our different worldviews?”

With these three virtues as our ballast, balancing our course while waves of venomous disagreement storm all around us, we might sail through the turbulent times we now find ourselves in—perhaps even saving the republic from an eventual sinking—and float onward, thriving in the face of our deep difference.