It is the prerogative of the Christian to reach for unreachable things. The Christian teacher seeks to guide others toward a life of virtue. That virtue can be taught, or for that matter, that it cannot be taught, presupposes how our efforts relate to it. What is virtue, then, such that we may strive for it?
To the Greeks, virtue was arete, moral excellence—a predisposition to act rightly. No good thought or good action is virtue on its own, but in concert, arete is evident in the cyclical reinforcement of the potential and the actual: A man who knows the good does better, and a man who does good knows better, and so on. Before Christ, this was evident in four forms known as the cardinal virtues. Like the cardinal directions—north, south, east, west—the cardinal virtues are the simplest forms of virtue to which all other more particular virtues, like civility or chastity, can be reduced. They are not the binary opposite of equivalent vices, but rather a moderation between two equally undesirable extremes—the Golden Mean.
The first cardinal virtue, Prudence, judges the right course of action; it moderates between our opposing impulses to consider our choices carelessly (that is, in ignorance) or too carefully (with scrupulosity). The second, Fortitude, is doing what one ought to do; it moderates between our inclination to do nothing (cowardice) or too much (rashness). The third, Temperance, is not doing what one ought not to do; it moderates between our inclination to deny nothing to ourselves (profligacy) or to deny everything to ourselves (austerity). The fourth, Justice, seeks the right relation to our fellow man; it moderates between prejudice for the self (selfishness or vain pride) and prejudice for the other (selflessness or vain humility).
These cardinal virtues are certainly learnable; they do not seek some spiritual infinite, but rather a Golden Mean between two finite and therefore achievable, if vicious, extremes. They are essentially worldly virtues, good insofar as the world can be good, and as we define them solely as ideals within merely human operations, human operation is enough to reach them. Therefore, if any man can instruct another to grow in habitual excellence of any kind, such as mathematics or artful speech, then so too can a teacher afford for his students an ever greater predisposition to act rightly. The question, then, is how.
Teaching the cardinal virtues has no formula, as their only object is the Golden Mean, which by definition has no distinct quantity but whatever is appropriate. Therefore, like learning the use of a word, whose definition emerges as it is applied again and again to countless objects with common traits, the image of these virtues takes shape with exposure to their exercise in the stories of others. The distinction of these virtues grows with the difficulty of their application; a child recognizes temperance and fortitude in the simple parables of fair play evident in storybooks, while the adolescent seeks temperance and fortitude in the impossible plights of classical tragedy. In time, the classical student does not merely recognize virtue in prudent Odysseus or just Orestes, but in real-world quandaries sees a glimpse of Odysseus’ prudence and Orestes’ justice, which will lead him to the Golden Mean.
What, then, of those virtues that touch the infinite? The gift of Easter morning was the promise of eternity; whereas the cardinal virtues govern the finite excellences of mortal men, what sort of virtues belong to immortal men, the consequences of whose virtue and vice now extend beyond their worldly lives? Such virtues must predispose man to a good beyond his own terrestrial means. These, set down in the earliest years of the Church, are the theological virtues—Faith, Hope, and Love—which have since become inseparable from the cardinal virtues in Christian classicism. Whereas the cardinal virtues seek moderation between the evils of deficit and excess, the theological virtues point ever toward an infinite good and away from an infinite evil.
As a virtue, Faith is not mere belief; it is a gift of spiritual assent to the truths of Revelation on the merits of God’s own authority. While our natural faculty of reason may imperfectly comprehend the revealed truths of the Christian event, that we can affirm with perfect confidence its supernatural truth is a product of divine grace. As a virtue, Hope is not mere optimism in the face of an imperfect world; it is a supernatural assurance of one’s salvation and everlasting life. The cardinal virtues alone make no assurance of eternity; it is only with this assurance that the Christian can await the resurrection with confidence. As a virtue, Love is not mere desire for the good of others for their own sake, but a will to cherish God for His own sake, and man for God’s sake.
Faith, hope, and love are not virtues on their own; they are only good with a good object, and they are only divine with a divine object. Faith in a mortal teacher, hope in a worldly leader, or love of any good person or thing can be good insofar as those things direct us closer to God; an excess of such faith, however, leads past God into apostasy; of hope, into futility; of love, into idolatry. Of Faith in God, of Hope in God, and of Love of God, there is no excess. We cannot overreach when reaching for infinity.
How can one dare, much less achieve, an infinite quest? If the theological virtues are infinite predispositions to the good—that is, moral excellences that by definition exceed our own finite natures—how can we possibly learn them, much less teach them to others? Faith, Hope, and Love as theological virtues must be divine operations if they are infinite; therefore, if they should dwell within us in any way, it is not our own finite operation but the grace of a divine and infinite operator that makes it so.
However, lowercase faith, hope, and love—not as infinite virtues with an end that is endless, but as finite human operations with terrestrial objects—are quite available to man as such. Dante saw in the beauty and goodness of Beatrice an imperfect reflection of the divine, and through love of Beatrice grew in love of God. Practicing these things in the merely human degree, within the auspices of the cardinal virtues—prudent faith, courageous hope, temperate love—are acceptable domains in which we can grow, and help others to grow, in those finite excellences that, when imbued with the infinity of God’s grace, might express with greater effect the virtues engendered in us by divine operation.
No man can roll his stone all the way to Paradise, and yet, with the assurance that Christ will save us from our toil, we roll our stones as best we can. As Dante turned to Beatrice, we turn to the moral exemplars of antiquity, and by their example we can learn and teach the Golden Mean of mortal things while growing in our capacity for the things of God.