The theological virtues of faith, hope and charity set the proper
context for the actions that lead to happiness by getting us into
the habit of asking the ultimate questions, being willing to try
and do what will make us ultimately happy, and being willing to
love what is good.
Then the moral virtues, especially prudence, take over to get
us into the habit of applying this context in our day-to-day lives.
Prudence is the habit of thinking well about what is to be done.
It has nothing to do with being a prude but for Aquinas means
actually reflecting on what we are about to do, relating it to
the context set by faith, hope and charity, and making the right
decision. It is what today we might call the consistent practice
of common sense.
Prudence looks ahead, figures out what we should want and not
want, and then figures out the particulars of how to go about
getting it. And how might a medieval view of common sense look?
Pretty much like our own, requiring:
- a good memory of past events
- insight into the individual case
- readiness to learn from the experiences of others
- inventiveness in shrewdly figuring out the best course to
- and soundness of inference from the general to the particular.
Aquinas is nothing if he is not practical.
Justice is the virtue that puts order into our interactions with
others, making sure we render to our fellow humans what is their
due, the goal of which is the equitable flourishing of all.
He says it is a "stable and lasting willingness to do the
right thing for everyone." (2a2ae, 58, 1) This includes justice
to society as a whole (e.g., the common good) and justice to individuals
in society, including justice between people and the justice of
the community to the individual, providing proportionally what
is owned in common and sharing equally the burden of the common
The goal of justice is happiness:
"The whole of political life seems to be ordered with
a view to attaining the happiness of contemplation. For peace,
which is established and preserved by virtue of political activity,
places man in a position to devote himself to contemplation
of the truth."
Aquinas, Commentary of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics,
Courage helps us be bold in the attainment of good and helps
us overcome fear and despair. It is the spiritual bravery we need
to help us act properly in difficult situations, doing what is
right, responding rationally to fear (neither under or overdoing
it) and forging ahead in an enterprising and persevering manner
in the attainment of what we see as our good.
Moderation helps keep our passions from ruling over reason and
moderates our passion for goods, eating, drinking and sex. There
is nothing wrong with partaking in them as we need them for health
and welfare and as appropriate to the situation. The idea is to
avoid excessive behavior so that such acts do not dominate or
distract from what will make us ultimately most happy.
In fact, those acts that do block our path to authentic happiness
Aquinas calls sins.