The series below was originally sent to families of my school in the Summer of 2023.

The Virtues are Moral Muscles

There are some things that are very real, and yet very invisible.

We often see the result of these things, but the thing itself remains unseen.

Wind is a good example. Wind is very real—nobody would argue with that. But it is also very invisible. There are no wind particles that make up “wind.” We can see trees or dust or debris being moved by the wind, but we cannot see wind itself.

Gravity is another good example. As a force, it is not something we can see. But we do see—and experience—its effects.

This is a created universe.

As such, this universe operates according to the will of its creator. And the will of its creator most often plays out through invisible realities—invisible forces that hold the physical world together and ensure that it continues to exist.

Much of the work of science is simply to discover the patterns of these invisible forces that govern our physical universe. When humans grow in their understanding of the invisible physical rules that govern the universe, it often—though not always—leads to more flourishing.

This is as true in the moral realm as it is in the physical realm.

In other words: there are invisible moral forces that—though we cannot see them—are very real.

In the moral realm, the virtues are a great example of these invisible but real forces.

Virtues are not ideals, or characteristics, or theoretical benchmarks.

Virtues are moral muscles.

They may be invisible, but the virtues are very real muscles. And they work just like our physical muscles.

What do you know to be true about our physical muscles?

Our muscles grow stronger through exercise that almost always involves pain. We gain physical strength through suffering; we should expect no less in the moral realm.

Our muscles grow weaker when we fail to use them for a period of time. Muscle atrophy is the norm in the physical realm, and it is no different in the moral realm. When we fail to use our moral “no” muscle, that muscle itself grows weaker over time. Without exercising this muscle, we become less capable of saying “no” when it matters most.

The exercises we use to strengthen a muscle are not always tied to the way we need to use that muscle. The actual motion of a push up is not particularly helpful in most daily activities or sports. But push-ups strengthen your muscles so that you can use them for things that matter more than push-ups. We strengthen our moral muscles using specific exercises (fasting, for example), even when those exercises themselves don’t appear to matter a great deal.

Our bodies work best when our muscles are balanced in strength. If our upper body is significantly stronger than our lower body, or our left side is significantly weaker than our right side, we are not as physically capable as we could be.

Like our physical muscles, the virtues are organized into various muscle groups: the cardinal virtues, the theological virtues, and the academic virtues, to name a few. Over the next several weeks we will explore these muscle groups together.

Along the way, by learning about the invisible muscles that rule our moral selves, we will better understand our children, our community, and ourselves.

The Cardinal Virtues are the hinge upon which all moral actions are built.

The Virtues are moral muscles, and this means that there are some particularly foundational muscle groups that every human—as a moral being—should know something about. If knowing that virtues are moral muscles is half the battle, then being able to name key muscles, what they do, and how to strengthen them is the other half.

The Cardinal Virtues are the four foundational virtues, upon which nearly all other virtues are built. Cardinal comes from the Latin word for hinge. In other words, these four virtues are the hinge on which all other moral actions depend.

The first thing worth noting about the cardinal virtues before naming and defining them is that God—in his wisdom and grace—has endowed all humans with these cardinal virtues, and with the ability to act in a way that strengthens or weakens them over time. There are other virtues that are the result of a special gift of grace (the theological virtues), but the cardinal virtues—and the ability to help them grow stronger or weaker—remains a gift of grace to all humans.

Below are the four cardinal virtues, a short definition of each, and a suggested exercise for strengthening them. Following this list are a few observations about the Cardinal virtues in general that may prove helpful as we all seek to use this language as a community in the years ahead.

Temperance is our moral “no” muscle. Temperance is the strength to say “no” - to hold back, or refrain from acting even when your passions are pulling you towards acting. This muscle allows us to restrain our desires.

The very best exercise to strengthen your moral “no” muscle is fasting. Saying “no” when it matters very little—to meat, or a meal, or sweets—will strengthen your “no” muscle for when saying “no” matters a great deal.

Fortitude (Courage) is our moral “yes” muscle. Fortitude is the other side of our temperance muscle; it is the ability to say “yes”, or to act, even when we don’t want to. This muscle allows us to do the right thing even when it is dangerous, isolating, or difficult.

Our fortitude muscle is strengthened in many ways, but here are two: (1) by doing uncomfortable things, big or small, and (2) by meeting heroes in literature and history. Admiring someone for saying “yes” even when that “yes” came with consequences strengthens our own resolve to do likewise.

Prudence (Wisdom) is the strength to know whether a given situation requires a “yes” or a “no”. We can have a strong Temperance muscle and a developed sense of Fortitude, but neither of those muscles, by themselves, help us know whether we should say “yes” or “no” in a given moment. We already have countless forces pulling us towards yes or no, but it is the Prudence muscle that allows us to determine which is actually right.

The primary way we grow strong in Prudence is through reading and meditating on the Scriptures, and by following the example of those who have spent their own lives doing so.

Justice is the desire to do the right thing. You can know the right thing to do (Prudence), and have the ability to act or restrain (fortitude and temperance), but that does not automatically mean that you will follow through with the right action. Human beings—perhaps above all else—are driven by our desires. We do what we want.

Enter Justice: the strength to want to do the right thing.

Regularly digesting the Scriptures certainly helps build this Justice muscle, but so does encountering injustice in literature, history, or your own life. Seeing what happens when humans do not desire the right thing—and the wake of destruction it leaves behind—is itself an exercise in strengthening our own sense of Justice.

Some Observations about the Cardinal Virtues

These four muscles are designed to work in harmony. We can know the right thing to do, but not want to do it. Or we can know it is right, that it requires an action (“yes”) in the face of fear, and we can even want to act, but we may lack the courage to do so. Focusing on our core, upper body, and lower body in tandem is—I am told—the best way to grow physically strong and healthy. Likewise, seeking to develop all four of these Cardinal Virtues in tandem leads to a more fully developed moral person.

As we grow in our understanding of virtues, we grow in our ability to diagnose deficiencies in our own lives and the lives of those we love. I am hopeful that embracing this shared understanding of the virtues—among our school’s students, teachers, and parents—will make our conversations about behavior, growth, and development more fruitful and grace-filled in the years to come.

As parents and teachers, it is most often weak temperance muscles that drive us crazy. We do well to prescribe exercises for temperance at home and in the school.

We can get mad at how weak a particular muscle is in our students, or we can help them grow stronger. A bad coach belittles his players for being tired at the end of a match; a good coach sacrifices important practice time to make students run laps.

The Theological Virtues are specific gifts of grace that must also be developed over time.

The Virtues are moral muscles, and there are foundational muscle groups that every human, as a moral being, should know something about.

The Cardinal Virtues are the four foundational virtues, upon which nearly all other virtues are built. These cardinal virtues—and the ability to strengthening or weakening them over time—are a gift of grace given to all humans by God.

The Theological virtues, while still operating as moral muscles, are different.

These special strengths are given by God specifically to his people. It is in his grace that God gives Faith, hope, and charity (love) to those who are in Christ.

That being said, it would be a mistake to think of these virtues as less than virtues.

While faith, hope, and charity are absolutely gifts of grace from God, they are also moral muscles that we can choose—every single day—to neglect or to strengthen.

The more catholic-minded among us will not have a problem with this way of thinking. But if you—perhaps through no individual fault of your own—tend to think of the “early church” as beginning around the 16th century, or if “works” is a five-letter word in your mind, you might be taken aback by thinking about working to strengthen your faith, hope, and charity muscles. Perhaps you (rightly) think of the Gospel as being one of grace, and are (understandably though wrongly) concerned that any emphasis on works will lead to the belief that we somehow earn our salvation.

Neglecting good works in an attempt to “protect” grace is like receiving a new car as a gift, but never taking the time to learn how to maintain that car for fear of thinking that your own work on that car will somehow diminish the “gift” nature of the car itself.

In doing so, you are actually dishonoring both the giver and the gift.

Yes, salvation is the result of nothing short of unmerited grace. But don’t let the beauty of that gift stop you from working out your salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12), or from encountering the good works that God has prepared for you to do (Eph 2:10).

In the wise words of my favorite Baptist philosopher, “Grace is opposed to earning, not effort.“

Strengthening your own faith, hope, and charity is one way to work out your salvation, to be prepared for the good works that God has prepared for you to do, and to honor the one who gave you these gifts in the first place.

The Theological Virtues

There are plenty of good definitions of faith, hope, and charity out there. I find the ones below helpful as we think of these three as virtues.

Faith is the strength by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, because He is truth itself.

Ingesting Scripture, and seeking to embrace what it says whether we agree or not, is both one of the most fruitful and difficult ways to strengthen this muscle.

Hope is the strength by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.

We grow in hope through practices that help us place less emphasis on our lesser hopes (financial security, recognition, achievement, etc.) in order to make room for our greatest hope to more regularly be front of mind. These can be practices like sabbath, fasting from social media, and saying “no” to otherwise beneficial social or business opportunities.

Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux has probably written most clearly about the virtue of charity, and how we can strengthen our charity muscle over time. He describes four degrees of learning to love. These stages are necessary for our development as people and as Christians, but the journey through them is not easy or short.

  • In the first degree of love, we learn to love our self for our own sake.
  • In the second degree of love, we learn to love God for our own sake.
  • In the third degree of love, we learn to love God for God’s sake.
  • In the final degree of love, we learn to love our self for God’s sake.

There is much more to say about these—especially the fourth degree!—but this email is getting long and already has a footnote.

So there we have it: (1) the virtues are moral muscles, (2) all humans are endowed with the Cardinal virtues and the ability to strengthen them over time, and (3) all Christians are given the grace of the theological virtues, along with the ability to strengthen them over time.

Next up is a specific muscle group for our purpose as a learning community: the academic virtues.