Justice, Temperance, Prudence and the Virtue of “No”

I have sometimes quipped that children are born lawyers. Their cries of, “That’s not fair!” would be at home in any court in the world. Children reveal our instinct for fairness, the root concept in the virtue of justice. Of course, as every parent knows, that instinct is often distorted, with the desire for fairness being expressed only as “fairness for me.” Justice is a virtue with deep, visceral content. Whenever it is invoked, it should be accompanied with flags of warning. Of all the virtues, it is the least able to stand alone.

The virtue of justice, when taken alone, moves towards vice. The instinct for fairness quietly blends with the sin of envy, the desire that someone should “get what’s coming to them,” ironically named, “just deserts.” When we take pleasure in another’s misfortune, it is not the virtue of justice – it is the sin of envy. It is quite rare in our world that we find justice standing alone, pure and undefiled.

When mixed with envy, justice has the nightmare problem of no limitations. It is never satisfied with fairness – it requires punishment (inevitably justified as “fairness” or “recompense” or “justice”).  The desire for justice, by itself, easily becomes an instrument of great evil. Every modern revolution that has been driven by a cry for justice has resulted in a bloodbath. The natural appetite for justice knows no limit. The quiet virtues of temperance and prudence are the necessary antidotes to such excess. They are also much less easily acquired.

In the shrill culture of modern loyalties, we have excelled in the “noisy” virtues. Political correctness, religious correctness, social justice, economic and political causes, all have their loud and zealous voices. Notably lacking in this zealotry are temperance and prudence. Temperance and prudence require ascetical efforts.

Temperance is best described as self-control. Prudence (doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right measure) is the virtue that is the foundation of wisdom. Though both are natural to us, both require nurture and development. Temperance and prudence are least evident in the young – it takes time and experience for them to take shape. It is the context of a virtuous community that allows such experience to safely bear fruit.

No human being stands alone. Just as we require others around us in order to acquire language, so the virtues are formed and shaped in the context of community. Language is a natural facility. However, if it is not acquired early, it can be difficult to acquire at all (as noted in the case of several “feral” children). We should assume that what is natural about the virtues is similar. Self-control and good judgement (other terms to describe temperance and prudence) involve the ability to say “no” – and not just to others – but to ourselves. We could say that the first sin in the Garden was a failure of both. It is interesting that the Fathers are often quite gentle in their treatment of Adam and Eve. They were “adolescents” some say.

Temperance and prudence are also the hardest to measure and define. What is the proper amount of self-control? What should be avoided or encouraged? Those decisions point to prudence as perhaps the queen of virtues. Knowing what is the right amount, at the right time, and the right manner, is the most difficult thing of all. There are no books that can teach this.

Prudence is a stern rebuke of our youth-oriented culture. Since the 1950’s, we have been an economic culture that directs its markets towards youth. What is described as “fashion” (“cool,” etc.) is almost entirely defined by what sells best among the young. The psychology of such marketing has long been a part of American consumer capitalism, refined today by algorithms of artificial intelligence. We have created an economy that thrives on inexperience, intemperance, and poor judgement. The results speak for themselves.

Traditional societies have always held old age in great honor. It is only in those who are experienced that temperance and prudence can be found. Of course, experience alone does not teach – there is a broader consensus across time that must be acquired and later confirmed in experience. This is one function of tradition. Being human is nothing new – it’s been done over and over through history, in almost every conceivable circumstance. The only thing that has not been done throughout history is to live as though the past has nothing to teach us.

The modern project, from its inception, has held tradition (the past) to be a roadblock to progress. William F. Buckley described the conservative project as “standing athwart history, yelling, ‘Stop,’ at a time when no one is inclined to do so”.… That is a voice of prudence. Of course, the nature of tradition and its role in the formation of virtue differs from mere conservatism. Conservatism is easily little more than the resistance to change. Receiving a tradition is a matter of a living relationship with what has gone before and recognizing its place in the present. Conservatism treats the past as important – tradition treats the past as still present.

In a certain manner, modernity is the abrogation of temperance and prudence; as we embrace what is new, young, progressive, innovative, we fail to say “no.” More than this, we forget how to say “no.” Radical shifts in cultural experience are set in place with questions of consequences coming only later. For example, no single invention has had more impact on current culture than the smart phone. It makes the invention of the printing press pale in comparison. There are many complaints at present about the use of smart phones. In truth, you cannot tell what such a change will produce until years later (long after damage may be done).

Modernity, as a philosophy, has had little regard for what has come before. It imagines that human beings live best when they are allowed to freely choose their actions. Choice is certainly a part of life, but it has been exalted to an absurd degree. We do not choose our language, our DNA, the culture into which we are born, the family in which we grow up. Indeed, almost everything that constitutes who a person is comes from something that is not chosen. Choices are tiny variations on a theme that was already set in place.

How well we live those variations will depend upon character, both our own, and that of others around us. Of course, when the inherited wisdom of the tradition is interrupted in a society, what is handed down is diminished. The Orthodox Christian faith teaches the hope that Tradition is not merely human, but a gift from God. Our reception of what is given can be diminished, but the Source of all virtue can also restore what has been lost. In every generation, there are manifest those who embody what it is to be virtuous. In some cases, we call them saints. In other cases, we call them teachers, friends, helpers. In every case, to know them is to be touched by heaven.

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