Modern science and contemporary patterns of thinking have obscured the fact that for a long time people navigated through life by quite different beliefs. They lived in what I would call a completely different soul-scape. Some of these points of navigation can shine through again if we let them. I believe that the Four Cardinal Virtues were essential experiences at one time and that even uneducated people breathed them in, more or less unknowingly, as part of the cultural atmosphere. Today we breathe in completely different things. At the pinnacle philosophers like Plato strove to identify and regulate life by these virtues: Wisdom, Courage, Justice and Temperance. Have they vanished completely, these lights we used to live by? Do they have a broader significance than merely personal or social functions? It’s hard to imagine how much these things used to matter, whereas today they are simply words, with more or less shifting values.
I’d like to introduce a Platonic allegory here: the Allegory of the Candle. I see a candle being lit at both ends at once. This normally wouldn’t happen but in a world where things really matter we might allow it. The candle burns, wax melts, light and heat are produced. There are four elements: the lights at either end, the body of the candle, and the process of burning. The elements are related through their very being. The body of the candle is the fuel for the flame, the light arises through the action it performs, the burning must be steadily maintained for the candle to perform its function. I’d like to name the parts now: the body of the candle is Justice, the burning is Temperance, the lights at either end are Wisdom and Courage. The lights are both the powers that burn and the source of illumination. The body is the given, it is right in itself, it can’t be contradicted. The process of burning must be regulated, or the candle will not perform its function.
For me, wisdom and courage are like gods. They are powers which burn and illuminate but which only arise through living. In a sense, justice is a given. A just man – a just person – is someone who has created himself in the image of Justice. Life itself is justice, though we rail against it. Every single part of life is just – a fact which is impossibly hard to understand. It is the given, it exists to let us find the image of justice which is hidden, like a picture of a second human being, inside us. The act of living is temperance: it is the single most human part, the part of freedom. The way we live determines how much we make use of the true human being in us. It decides how much the virtues of courage and wisdom will arise. The light and heat of courage and wisdom are needed to live rightly but they are also the products of that living.
The purpose of all this is the idea that life really does matter. The way we live matters. The outcome of our lives matters. This idea has to be resurrected. It has taken a severe battering in our times. In some ways the ideas of the ancients were more refined, more discerning – they upheld life in a way that our present cultural atmosphere does not. Ultimately, I would say that Justice, Wisdom and Courage are real beings – I would sculpt them if I could. Temperance would be in the skill of my hand.
Justice and its Wisdom
I am my shadow – he, the one behind,
confers reality, walks into me
until we step as one – one heart, one mind,
and eyes of light the inner world to see.
And wisdom is a gift too long held back,
which wants to match the pace at which I walk -
it bears the shape of everything I lack -
its words so light they’ll shine before they talk.
Two ends of one candle: the wise the brave,
and life must burn them both, its sense unseen.
Yet my existence is the fuel, to save
me from extremes, where darkness still is queen.
For wisdom might be carried by a fool
and never quite delivered to its goal,
and courage just an ever-bluntened tool,
unless my life becomes their heart and soul.
Life itself is justice, time its measure,
and living is the temperance we seek -
storms of shame and tempers raised for pleasure
will hid the strength of truth behind the weak.
Courage and wisdom pull at either end,
like gods who speak into our sleeping ears -
the wrongs of life they resolutely mend
and wrestle us away from all our fears.
I walk, and all the virtues walk in me
when my own highest self keeps step with mine -
then I become a sky, a starry sea,
unclouded luminosity benign.
What are those points of light but gods within
which track and trace our movements on the earth?
They navigate by us and long to win
dominions first established by our worth.
Best wishes, today,
©landar 2011. All rights reserved
The Four Cardinal Virtues