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New Year and Old Yearnings

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Every New Year, old yearnings to live better are reborn. We face up to the easily foreseeable and undesirable future our bad habits will bring. So we remake rational resolutions to be more virtuous. But virtues aren't much valued nowadays. They are seen as unfashionable relics or irrational religious restrictions. But that unhealthily misunderstands what virtues are and their history.

The cardinal virtues did not come from cardinals. They predate Christianity. Cardinal derives from the Latin root cardo, meaning hinge, principal, or chief. Hence principal priests became cardinals. Similarly certain chief virtues, first enumerated by Plato, were called cardinal when they were included in Christian teaching.

Crucially Thomas Aquinas, who thought reason and faith were complementary, made a distinction between virtues that were natural versus supernatural. He declared the four cardinal virtues -- temperance, prudence, courage and justice -- as natural, and the three theological virtues -- faith, hope and charity -- as supernatural.

Those natural virtues had long been rationally understood to be needed to live well. They encode and encourage what we could call in modern terms adaptive behaviors or useful survival skills. Even for Aquinas they weren't about the afterlife, they were habits needed for a better after-in-life. The very essence of what New Year's resolution makers seek.

Take temperance, which originally meant sound-minded, and indicated the need for moderation in all appetites, not abstinence. Its opposite, indulgence beyond healthy limits, is guaranteed to be punished not supernaturally, but by biological logic of an entirely corporeal karma. Eat too much and you gain weight. Don't exercise and you become unfit. No faith is required, natural laws guarantee the unhealthy consequences.

Reason also dictates we live better by practicing the other cardinal virtues. Prudence is itself the use of reason. Courage is needed to avoid being inert in an uncertain world. And no rational person could prefer to live without justice.

Virtue and virile share the same Latin root, vir, meaning man, and virtus meant manliness. The virtues were skilled actions befitting a valorous man. Honorable skills learned and regularly practiced to be readily deployable when needed. Modern virtues also need to be practiced until they become second nature.

Certain virtues are certainly rational. It is an unskilled use of reason to think otherwise. Or to fail to at least try to act accordingly.

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