America’s survival hinges on cardinal virtues

Why can’t we all just get along? Since the L.A. riots in 1992, many have breathed out these words in despair and confusion. But take courage! This question actually has an answer. And in the answer, there is a way forward.

Already in 1977, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put his finger on America’s problem and told us the way forward. It was delivered by way of a wide-ranging and devastatingly straightforward commencement address at Harvard University. It was published under the title “A World Torn Apart.” I invite and urge you to locate a copy of this speech and experience it for yourself.

To put it in one word: America has lost her public virtue. Virtue, not material prosperity, is the cause of human thriving. If you are unfamiliar with the term, virtue, don’t be embarrassed. The very concept has been systematically excluded from public discourse for decades. Virtue has been lumped together with “religion” and tossed out of the classroom, the courtroom, and the legislative assembly.

Public virtue was the single most important element of a functioning society — long before Christianity came on the scene. It was Plato, 400 years before Christ, who first named the four personal qualities that were necessary for people to get along. These have come down to us as the cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, courage and justice.

It would take centuries before the Christian church would add the specifically theological virtues: faith, hope and love. One of the strangest ironies of our time is that the non-religious cardinal virtues have been outlawed under the rubric of “freedom from religion,” while the greatest of the theological virtues, “love,” has been politicized and perverted to disqualify every other virtue.

Solzhenitsyn reminded us that human beings are more than material. A well-ordered society must take into account not only the matter, but also the spirit of man. This is why the virtues are an absolutely necessary element of public policy. Without them, human beings are treated like animals. Treat them like animals long enough, and they will surely act that way. Today we are watching his prophecy come true.

As a step toward regaining our humanity, let us start by reflecting on the things that make us human, the virtues.

Prudence (wisdom) is the mother of all virtues. It rightly directs all human action toward a good goal. Prudence is our common sense of right and wrong. By directing human activity toward “good” ends, it requires all people to know the difference between good and evil.

Without the categories of right and wrong, good and evil, there can be no society. Yet it is precisely these categories of good and evil that are denied any place in public policy. They are treated as merely personal value judgments with no basis in objective reality. “That may be good for you,” we are told, “but it is not good for me.”

As long as we are unable to speak with a unified voice on the subject of good and evil, we will not be able to get along. And every attempt to get along while avoiding a sober and reasonable discussion of good and evil only underscores how unwise our culture has become.

Temperance is the virtue of controlling the appetite. It recognizes that human beings have built-in needs that must be met, and that meeting these needs gives the sensation of pleasure. It also recognizes that overindulgence and disordered use of these appetites will always cause great human suffering.

Four of the seven deadly sins are connected to temperance. Gluttony, greed, lust and sloth are overindulgence in food, money, sex and rest respectively. These sins are not only tolerated in a decadent culture, they are celebrated and encouraged.

One need not be a Christian to recognize the objective harm. After all, the seven deadly sins also did not originate in the Bible, but in pre-Christian Greece. By pretending that only Christians condemn overindulgence, modern materialists have used a “divide and conquer” strategy to drive temperance from the public square.

Courage is the virtue that is most in short supply today. It is the virtue that overcomes personal fear in order to do what prudence teaches as right. It is especially necessary today because Americans have become so entangled in their appetites for public approval and economic success that the Twitter mob and the cancel culture can easily silence those who lack this virtue.

Think about how many politicians, teachers, church leaders and businesses have been bullied into silence or even into public apology for saying what they truly believed. Drew Brees is a recent example. Solzhenitsyn put America’s lack of courage up front in his critique. She has not gotten any braver in the four decades since.

Justice is the final virtue in Plato’s list. It is the constant and permanent determination to give everyone his or her rightful due. Prudence — the intellectual ability to discern good and evil — can tell you what is right and just. Justice is the willpower to do the right thing without regard to persons.

When Lady Justice is depicted in art, she is always blindfolded. Whenever she removes the blindfold and withholds a person’s rightful due based on money, status, fame or creed, it is evil.

Social justice warriors are the most unjust actors because they define justice, not by the right and wrong of individual actions, but by membership in some social class. Societies that allow justices to go unpunished cannot last long.

It has been a very long time since our legal system carried out its debates in terms of the cardinal virtues. For decades, the courts have been dominated by legal minutiae and technicalities that have little to do with the common sense questions of good and evil, right and wrong, just and unjust. America has deluded itself into thinking that legal objectivity requires the avoidance of every value judgment. It is precisely this madness that drew Solzhenitsyn’s greatest ire.

Two things are wrong with such thinking. First, it is false and intellectually dishonest to consider the cardinal virtues as religious in nature. It is not the cardinal virtues that are religious, but the specifically Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. The Christian religion gave us these virtues, and they cannot be rightly understood by any who deny that historic faith.

Second, the exclusion of cardinal virtues from public life is itself the establishment of a religion. It is a religion that denies the very core of human beings — the soul that sets them apart from the animals.

Solzhenitsyn was certain — and so am I — that America eventually will come to understand the necessity of the cardinal virtues. No society can deny reality forever. Either it will have the prudence to listen to people who have suffered under a government that rejected the cardinal virtues, or it will learn through its own bitter experience.

The Bolshevik Revolution taught a terrible, 72-year-long lesson to the people of Russia. Through it, they came better to know the truth of human nature and the necessities of the virtues. The question is now put to us. Will we recognize the truth of human nature and return to a culture of prudence, temperance, courage and justice? Or will we need to feel the “cold crowbar of events” in our own land before we see the light?

Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at


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